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Dissent is in the air...

  • 05 Sep 2018

In a The Hindu editorial “The nature of dissent”, Sundar Sarukkai (Professor of Philosophy at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru) makes an interesting case for ‘dissent’ as an ultimate yet innate tool for a human life to further itself. For a student of philosophy like myself, who has only just begun his journey, this article makes a heartfelt read. This entire episode of dissent being in the air had been triggered by the arrest of activists whom the Government considers a threat to law and order, if not society.

Here is what I wanted to add to my understanding.

Why do we ‘dissent’? Why do we even have ‘a difference of opinion’? Who is ‘I’ and what is ‘mine’? Etcetera. But the purpose of this article is not to understand dissent. Rather, the purpose is to see what goes into understanding such a thing as dissent. Therefore, right now, in this article, dissent is value free - it is neither good nor bad.

I also promise to keep it short.

I. ‘I’ and ‘Mine’

I’ve read the article a few times now, and you should too. And once you have read it, you shall go through the various motions, as dictated by your various cognitive biases. My goal is to discuss, if not introduce, these biases to you. Especially the one they call: Confirmation bias. Please go through their definitions once even if you are already acquainted with these terms.

A cognitive bias is a mistake in reasoning, evaluating, remembering, or other cognitive process, often occurring as a result of holding onto one's preferences and beliefs regardless of contrary information. Psychologists study cognitive biases as they relate to memory, reasoning, and decision-making. [chegg.com]

Confirmation bias, the tendency to process information by looking for, or interpreting, information that is consistent with one’s existing beliefs. This biased approach to decision making is largely unintentional and often results in ignoring inconsistent information. Existing beliefs can include one’s expectations in a given situation and predictions about a particular outcome. People are especially likely to process information to support their own beliefs when the issue is highly important or self-relevant. [britannica.com]

Now that we know what the confirmation bias is, let’s go into the article where the author says the following: I’m reproducing this text as is because I’m unable to put it in a better way...

“Philosophers argue that a baby meaningfully attains its sense of the self — its recognition of ‘I’ and the concept of ‘mine’ — when it first begins to say ‘no’. At a primordial level, we become individuals only through this act of stating our disagreement.”

According to this line of thought, dissent is not only universal in human society (yes, I’m a student of Sociology) but also fundamental. This is because when I say that I am ‘I’, I’m also saying that I’m not ‘You’ - a case where I disagree (i.e dissent) with the assessment that ‘I’m somebody else’. Without this disagreement there is no ‘I’, and by extension, no ‘individuality’ - not for me, not for anyone.

The antonym of individuality, i.e community, can also be reduced using the same logic. If a community has to introduce itself in front of another community, it’ll use the same logic of disagreeing to the notion that both communities are similar. Community X is not (and therefore different) from Community Y because X dissents against Y’s belief systems. But I digress here.

The point is that, my understanding of the world, its many concepts, and here, my understanding of that particular term ‘dissent’, depends on a few things like:

  • My birth and its derived connotations: where do I live, what language is native to my tongue, the parenting and schooling that I had, etc. 
  • My life experience uptil this moment;
  • The body of knowledge that I’ve gathered;
  • The relationships that I’m in or I had;
  • The worldview that I entertain;


That is why, when the Government (i.e people working in the government) feel differently from those who are fighting on behalf of the arrestees, it is a conflict between not only mere ideologies but also between the above mentioned dependencies. The confirmation biases of both parties differ.

II. It is not permanent

For starters, nothing is permanent, not even the universe. And, there is no question of our confirmation biases staying permanent for life. In fact, our biases constantly change. They get ‘upgrades or downgrades/they evolve or mutate (depending on what we are doing with our life)’, but what is important is that they are constantly in a state of flux. Some big ideas like whether to vote for this party or that may take time in years to change, while other thoughts like whether to go to that party or not can change ‘in a second’. So, does it mean we are slave to our biases?

The answer is yes. But then, we are slaves to so many other things. As examples, we may observe that we are confined to the limitations offered by a body made of flesh and blood, we are also confined to the only habitable planet within our reach; then we are slaves to our basic human necessities like food and shelter, and we are slaves to the various systems and institutions we have built for ourselves in society, like division of labour and marriages. Adding confirmation bias to this list, is as such, not a deal-breaker.

Instead, and to conclude, we can use our knowledge of the confirmation bias and all the other biases, to build a well-polished viewpoint adjusting mechanism. For example, ever since I’ve come across these biases, I constantly re-navigate the seas of information and knowledge. That presumption I always had about reading the Stoics before Kant is no longer stopping me these days from enjoying Kant (while I keep the Stoics in the backseat), because I deduced that the former presumption was in fact a bias, while doing the latter was freedom (or at least akin to it).

But what is ‘freedom’? - that’ll be the story for another day, for today, only know this - our biases make us who we are, and whether they make us stronger or weaker depends on how we use it. Also, our biases are constantly changing, and I’d like to think that after reading this article these biases may have changed a bit for you. I sincerely hope that this is the case and until then, have a good read…

Regards, Dave

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