Dealing with the invasion of the idiots

About 30 years ago, while travelling on a train from Delhi to Chennai I was able to observe a very Indian phenomenon: all the six people sitting around me knew everything about everything. The total journey time was 36 hours of which 18 were spent sleeping. But the remaining 18 hours were available for incessant discussion on all subjects under the sun.

TCA Srinivasa Raghavan
TCA Srinivasa Raghavan

The train left Delhi at 10.30pm and everyone went to sleep soon. The talking started in real earnest with the morning coffee the next day which the vendor brought around 7am. ­Amazingly, everyone knew what exactly was wrong with it except the one thing that was actually wrong with it — and I am not making this up — that it wasn’t coffee at all. It was tea. Or maybe tea and coffee that got mixed up in delivery. The vendor had mis-sold it because most probably he also thought it was coffee. But in north India, where the train was still running that morning, coffee is rarely sold as a wake-up beverage. It’s tea that wakes up north India.

I am reminded of this because I used to be on several WhatsApp groups, but have exited most of them because in every group everyone knew everything: what was wrong with politics, economics, law, governance, schools, colleges, hospitals, you name it, and there was no knowledge deficit. And no, they weren’t journalists who had some expertise and knowledge in any of those areas.

It was for this reason that I quit Facebook 11 years ago and Twitter three years ago. Both were full of nonsense and wanting to be heard. The point about this need is very well captured in the old saying. “Those who care about you can hear you even when you are quiet.” Or, as Umberto Eco, the great Italian novelist, said, “Social media gives legions of idiots the right to speak when they once only spoke at a bar after a glass of wine, without harming the community… but now they have the same right to speak as a Nobel Prize winner. It’s the invasion of the idiots”.

Social media gives legions of idiots the right to speak when they once only spoke at a bar after a glass of wine, without harming the community… but now they have the same right to speak as a Nobel Prize winner. It’s the invasion of the idiots.
— Italian novelist Umberto Eco

I wouldn’t go that far but the fact remains that an increasing number of people voice opinions without knowing the facts. The tea in the coffee (or coffee in the tea) incident I mentioned above is an extreme case in point. And now, fake news and artificial intelligence have made it worse. The extraordinary thing is that even highly educated people who are otherwise quite sensible, don’t pause to question the ‘facts’ on social media, let alone the motives. The old journalistic trick (which is also practised by all married couples when they are fighting) is to quote out of context. That method has now been taken to new heights. Not only can you quote out of context, you can change the context altogether. Social media is full of this sort of misinformation and mischief. The victim has to grin and bear it.

My two sons are masters of the art of switching contexts. Fortunately, neither is a complete idiot. One of them, like his mother, was very good at writing exams and the other, like me, was no good at them but excelled in perverse logic. Once my wife told the fellow who had got excellent marks that there was more to life than just good marks, like obedience, for example. The fellow who always got bad marks stored this bit of motherly wisdom. When asked why he had so many zeros on his answer sheets, he said he was very obedient. Two facts but both out of context and infuriatingly perverse logic. Needless to say, he has chosen journalism as a career and is doing well with his unique skill set.

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