Symbols and Persons

Recently, I read a small book about Arnab Goswami, written by Vir Sanghvi. Till then, Arnab Goswami was merely a symbol for me- symbol of a certain kind of T.V. Journalism which I intensely dislike. The book helped me to see the person behind the symbol, but more importantly, it provided insights about the contextual forces which had created this symbol. 

Mr. Sanghvi looks at not just the personal background of Arnab Goswami but also at the ethos of T.V. journalism (specifically English news channels) prior to the Goswami era. It appears that several processes were at play which created a fertile ground for someone like Arnab Goswami to emerge. Some significant features of this context were –  pretence of neutrality, compulsive consensus, synthetic amiability, focus on a selective viewership, Delhi centricity, clannish elitism etc. In this scenario, it was to be expected that a strong counter point would emerge who is direct, blunt, populist, confrontational and very very loud. Mr. Goswami fitted the bill, but it is important to remember that what we see in him, is not just him. It is also a reaction to the processes which belong to the collective context. 

In our preoccupation with individual personalities, we often overlook how the person becomes a symbol who in a sense is not just his/her own person but a carrier of the wishes, hopes, frustrations, stresses, repressions etc. of the collective to which he/she belongs. This is not to deny the significance of personal attributes, differences, choice making or the Agency of the individual. Surely they play a part, but once the person concerned has swallowed the symbol placed upon him/her by the collective, there is very little choice left for the person. The person becomes a captive of the symbol and the entire collective puts its might behind ensuring that the person concerned sticks to the script which has been laid out for him/her.

This process is starkly visible in case of public figures but can be easily witnessed in day to day life as well. R.D. Laing in his path breaking research on mental illness found that “pathology does not belong to the individual alone but to the entire family”. In my own work with individuals and collectives (groups, families, organisations) I have often discovered that what is attributed to a person, generally belongs to the entire collective. At the very least, the collective ensures that the person remains fixed in the allotted symbol.

While this is a fairly normal process, some times the symbols become so powerful and exercise such a stronghold over everyone concerned, that both the person and collective are unable to break free, even in face of heavy cost to themselves. Let me take a few examples.

One of the widely prevalent symbols among leaders in the Indian context is that of the “distant father”. While there are other symbols as well (macho go-getter, brilliant visionary etc.) the distant father has a special appeal in the Indian psyche. Several CEO’s take it for granted that in order to be effective and also to maintain their authority, they have to act the distant father, lest they appear partial, vulnerable, unfair or be taken for granted. Invariably, the rest of the organisation, plays the complementary role of the “good obedient children”, putting their best foot forward, while dealing with the “father”

A direct consequence of this process is that the “distant father” remains blissfully unaware about the “messy” side of the organisation. I recall, once a CEO was sharing with me his sense of shock on learning that one of his bright stars had left the organisation because of “interpersonal problems” with his immediate boss. When I asked him as to how did he remain unaware of something happening right under his nose, his response was” but how was I to know? These things are never voiced in my presence- they behaved so normally in my presence that it was impossible for me to know that trouble was brewing”. When I suggested to him that it may be a good idea for him to spend some relaxed and informal time with his people, he was shocked because he felt that it could seriously impair his image as a fair and impartial authority figure.

The captivity of the symbol becomes so strong that it becomes impossible for the people concerned to operate in any other way. As a result, the entire collective remains caught in its unexamined fears about intimacy and how it can contaminate the sanctity of authority relationships.

Another symbol that I have frequently encountered is that of the “villain” . In many systems, I frequently hear people saying ” But for so and so, everything would be perfect and hunky dory– ” The belief is that all problems are arising out of a single source. Sometimes this source can be a group or collective and not just an individual. For example, one often comes across the symbol of “politician” as the villain. The central argument being that since politicians are supposed to be all powerful, all ills can be attributed to them. All religious tensions, communal/inter caste hostilities/corruption/ indiscipline etc. are sought to be placed at their doorsteps. I sometimes come across people who genuinely believe that but for these handful of crooked politicians, there will be bliss and prosperity for all concerned and different communities/religious groups will be living in perfect harmony.

Needless to say, in order to make the politician into a villain, the rest of us are required to play  the complementary role of “helpless accomplice” – we have no choice but to bribe/ seek favours/ bend the rules etc. etc. On the other hand, the politician has no other choice except to play the role of the all powerful demigod who is not constrained by “normal rules of conduct”. The beauty of symbols is that they lock the  parties concerned in a relationship which neither can escape.

Both the symbols described above, ensure maintenance of status quo. There are also symbols of disruption like Arnab Goswami. In this scenario the individual becomes the medium through which the repressed shadow of the system finds expression through a “counter point”.  For example, one may find a highly aggressive and violent person in an otherwise pacifist family. The person concerned holds the aggression and violence on behalf of the entire family.

The ‘counter point” disrupts the status quo but is sustained by the hope which the collective places on it.  The hope is that the ‘counter point’ will release the collective from its present entrapment and begin a new era.  While this may lead to sporadic outbursts and releases,  the apparent  shifts in the systems are generally of only an oscillatory kind ( pendulum moving from one point to another) with no real movement.

In case of Arnab Goswami, the hope was that the TV debates will become more substantive and real.  However, we can see that the “synthetic amiability” has been replaced by “in your face aggression”. But has it led to meaningful debate as was presumably the intent? It is intense and passionate alright but where is the listening to the other? Where is the space for calm discourse and dispassionate rationality? All that Mr. Goswami has succeeded in doing is that he has replaced “compulsive consensus” with a “shouting match”,where the louder you scream the better. Expectedly, this new “ethos” of shouting matches has become the norm for many other anchors/channels.

One of my learnings from my work is that in order to meaningfully engage with collectives(groups, families, organisations, society at large) one needs to go beyond the person and understand the “symbol” which the person has become. What plays out through the individual does not belong to the individual alone. In a sense, it is part of the collective psyche which is finding expression through the individual. In absence of this appreciation all that we are left with are blame games and scapegoating.



There is a Donald Trump in all of us

This post is not about Donald Trump the person, but about Donald Trump the symbol. Human beings are complex and multi-faceted, but symbols are stereotypical, monochromatic and uni-dimensional. When an individual becomes a symbol, this monolithic picture becomes so overpowering that even the individual concerned becomes its captive. His/her own multiplicity gets lost in this all embracing picture. In such a situation, it is reasonable to assume that the individual is carrying this picture “on behalf of” the collective. In other words, it is the collective’s difficulty in engaging with a certain part of its own psyche which is carried by the person who gets symbolised.

Let us first look at the nature of this symbol in case of Donald Trump and then examine why it is becoming problematic in the present day world. For many people, Donald Trump has come to symbolise all that is antithetical to our notions of civilised decent behaviour. He is seen as a crude, domineering, intolerant, opinionated, self-centred creature with insatiable appetites and one who  generates considerable repulsion and disgust in us. However, there must be something attractive about his raw energy and indomitable spirit which has propelled so many people to place him in arguably the most powerful position in the world. In fact,It has often been suggested that it is his “bull in the china shop” image which has made the electorate prefer him over the more sober, suave, articulate and reasonable Clinton, who would merely preserve the status-quo. In many ways, one can see the presidential election as a contest between our primal and civilised selves.

There is a part in each of us which neither listens to the voice of reason, nor easily submits to social and moral conventions. It carries the seeds of both our heroic potential and our destructive villainy. Through the process of socialisation we learn to tame and control this part, but rarely do we learn how to integrate it with the rest of us and how to actualise its heroic potential. In my book, Child Man, I had speculated that the prevalent conditions of human existence are such that this part of ourselves is being simultaneously awakened and suppressed. The end result is that we encounter only its negative side and hence push it  into our psycho-social underbelly.

Through Donald Trump, our primal and primitive side seems to have moved out of the dungeons and occupied the centre stage. Sadly, what we are seeing is only the negative and ugly side of this primal self. I believe this is so because we have never graced our primal self and only scoffed at it in the name of being mature and civilised. Take for example, our notion of being a “global citizen”. It is primarily based on the notion of a liberal, inclusive, broad minded, secular individual who is primarily governed by what Ayn Rand would call “enlightened self interest”. Any thing which does not fit into this is dismissed as narrow, communal, parochial, reactionary and host of such invectives.

The question which needs to be asked is, what are we doing with those parts of ourselves which do not fit into this pretty but sanitised picture? Where does the anxiety of living in a world with increasingly fluid boundaries go? What happens to our need to feel protected in a safe haven? What happens to our need to belong to a community of familiar people who are not just faceless/nameless entities? It is sometimes assumed that these needs belong only to the relatively backward and lower/middle strata of the society. It is further assumed that people like Donald Trump are able to manipulate the “masses” by pandering to these sentiments. Perhaps the reality is more complex than that. Perhaps the elite are able to take care of their “clannish” needs as also anxieties  in a more subtle manner and are hence able to maintain the facade of being open and liberal. It is for this reason that people like Clinton come through as pretty but fake, which in turn leaves the space open for likes of Donald Trump to take the counter location of being ugly but real.

Perhaps both  Clinton and Trump are products of this split between “pretty but fake” and “ugly but real”. It is not that Trump is any more real and authentic than Clinton, but it is the certainty of Clinton’s falsity that enables Trump to claim authenticity for himself. Similarly it is the certainty of Trump’s ugliness which entitles Clinton to claim the tag of being nice and pretty.

If this split is to be healed, we will need to revisit some of our notions around being backward and progressive. So long as we hold certain aspects of being human (e.g. need for community) with disdain, we will continue to awaken and simultaneously suppress Donald Trump within us both individually and collectively. Sometimes he will break free from the chains which shackle  him and ruthlessly destroy everything which comes in his way and leave us wondering as to how could we have let this happen.

The healing of this split will also entail rediscovering the virtues of  the “householder” whose reach is bounded, whose vision is limited, whose concerns are petty and who is content in his small world pursuing his small wishes, desires and dreams. The more we look down upon the ordinary and the mundane, the more we will be engulfed by the megalomania of the grandiose . Not knowing what to do with the energy which has got unleashed within us, we will then look for an external symbol like Donald Trump to act on our behalf.