Democratic Condescension

Recently, I came across an interesting term WEIRD- it is an acronym for western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic. The term was used by the psychologist Joseph Heinrich and his associates. Their contention was that it is this small group of statistical outliers that provide us with both the producers and subjects of our contemporary psychological knowledge, which we then go on to happily generalise to the rest of humankind.

Heinrich’s proposition made intuitive sense to me but more importantly, I was struck by the incongruence inherent in the notion of WEIRD- on one hand, it suggests a kind of elitist exclusivity ( western, rich, educated) and on the other an egalitarian inclusivity of democracy. What would be the notion of democracy that such a group will have? A possible answer is suggested by the way election results are analysed by most political commentators, who presumably belong to the WEIRD group.

Elections come and go and each one brings its own set of surprises, but one thing which remains fairly consistent is the reaction of political commentators. If the results are aligned to their preference, then the electorate is commended for its wisdom, and if they are not, then the voter is regarded as a naive recipient of misinformation, false promises or other manipulations. One some times gets the impression that the voter is like a student who is being tested and the commentator is the teacher who is evaluating the performance of the student. If the student has given the right answer then he/she receives a pat on the back for having acted wisely, but if the student gives the wrong answer then the teacher admonishes him/her for having got misled and/or being guided by baser instincts.

For example, if the commentator is a Congress supporter then a congress victory will be interpreted as the intrinsic commitment of the electorate to secular,liberal, pluralistic values; but a congress critic will attribute it to the grip of the feudalistic mai-baap syndrome prevalent in the collectivity. Similarly a BJP supporter will interpret a BJP victory as the voter’s commitment to nationalism and development, but a BJP critic will reprimand the voters for having fallen prey to jingoism and divisive communal polarisation.

Thus the content of what the voter is praised or reprimanded for, will vary depending upon the analyst’s preferences, but the process is identical. Virtually all analysts will either praise the voters for their sagacity and wisdom or subtly reprimand them for allowing themselves to be misled. Needless to say, the praises are more direct and upfront, and the reprimands more subtle and indirect and sometimes even cloaked in the garb of understanding (e.g. people are so frustrated,uninformed and neglected that they become easy targets for false propaganda) Simply put, the WEIRD (in this case, the political analyst) puts him/herself on a platform from where he/she passes judgements on the commoner. The WEIRD is democratic but in a condescending sort of way.

This democratic condescension is visible in virtually all spheres of life. Whenever our personal preferences are at variance with the popular, majority trend, we are likely to feel disdainful towards the majority. In fact, the term populist has a definite derogatory association- as though popular appeal necessarily implies pandering to the baser instincts. This disdain for the majority is often expressed through statements like “you know how people are ..” or ” how can people be /do like this.. “If one were to do a simple experiment of collating all the statements one hears about “human nature” or “people in general”, chances are that the derogatory statements will beat the complimentary ones by a huge distance.

I do not have any substantive evidence to support my hypothesis, but I believe that WEIRDs are particularly susceptible to this condescension towards the majority. I say this, because I think WEIRDs are hyper conscious of their separateness and individualised identity. Consequently, it becomes extremely difficult for them to see themselves as a part of the collective. In contrast, the non-WEIRDs find it easier to see themselves as “one of the many” in a community. Not surprisingly, it is relatively easier to mobilise non-WEIRDS into a collective/political force than WEIRDS. The WEIRDS can voice the concerns of a community and even act on its behalf, but it is not easy for them to become a part of the community.

Given the historical split between the elite and the commoner in India, the issue becomes even more complex. However, the recent events suggest that even in the so called “developed” world, there is a huge disconnect between the WEIRD and the majority. I suspect that while the issue has a socio-economic dimension, it also has a psychological dimension. In case of WEIRDs, the “self-image” of the individual is so heavily governed by a certain idea of being progressive and liberal, that it does not allow any space for aspects which do not fit into it. For example, it is very difficult for a WEIRD to acknowledge any religious/racial paranoia,  gender stereotypes or interpersonal dependencies in him/herself. In contrast, the non-WEIRD has no such problem. He/she is often willing to be quite blasé about them, much to the discomfiture of the WEIRD. In fact, the more flak that he/she receives around these issues that more defiant he/she becomes.

In this scenario, it is easy for the WEIRD to take up the role of some sort of moral guardian of a progressive/liberal perspective and look at the majority as vulnerable children who must be protected from the potential regressive influences of vested interests. This only leads to further alienation of the WEIRDs from the majority. If this vicious circle is to be broken, then the WEIRDs will necessary have to step out of their present frozen notions, acknowledge their own vulnerabilities and anxieties and most importantly learn to grace their part hood and ordinariness.