Acknowledging the unconscious bias

It is important to acknowledge one’s privilege, and reveal unconscious biases, our own, and of our elders from whom we learn

A few years ago, on 10 December (International Human Rights Day), when Aung San Suu Kyi was still an opposition leader and democracy icon, and her reputation hadn’t yet corroded because she hadn’t acquired power, she spoke to a small audience at a hotel facing Inya Lake in Yangon. There, without referring to any notes and speaking with fluent eloquence, she said that freedom of expression was important, but with it came the obligation to listen.

What she meant and what we heard were different things. We thought she was talking about the need for the Myanmar army to listen to the country’s minorities (Karen, Kachin, Shan, and others), many of which had been fighting insurgencies for decades. She probably meant the junta needed to listen to her. She was released from prison, and would soon be a parliamentarian. But the junta wasn’t listening to her core demands.

Politics has become polarized because we are not listening to voices which express different views. Broadcast media in India usually offers a shouting match instead of debates, with each individual speaking more loudly to get heard, or to prevent others from being heard. Twitter is for point-scoring and undermining those with different viewpoints. As the writer Nilanjana Roy pointed out recently in Financial Times, conversations at parties imitate TV studio discussions, with people speaking loudly and in bullet points, as if afraid they will get cut off.

I thought about the need to listen after an encounter following my speech at the recently concluded Mumbai Poetry Festival. During a break, a few young men came to me, as they had found the choice of poets I had named or cited puzzling. My talk was titled “Where The Mind Is Without Fear”, and I had talked about nearly 30 poets from all over the world, and quoted from the works of many of them. These poets had spoken truth to power. Some had gone to jail because of what they had written, or they had written even more powerful poetry while they were in jail.

I had begun by speaking about poets who had inspired me, taught me to write better, when I had started writing poetry in Gujarati (at school) and English (in college). I mentioned Saleem Peeradina, Nissim Ezekiel, Suresh Dalal, Mangesh Padgaonkar, Dilip Chitre and Arun Kolatkar, besides other writers and critics. Peeradina had taught me at Sophia Open Classrooms; and I knew the others personally. At that time, I was familiar mainly with Gujarati and English writing; my exposure to poems in other languages was through translations in those two languages.

There was another reason I had named these poets. While my list wasn’t exhaustive, these poets were committed to civil liberties, and the biggest test of that time was the Emergency. I singled out Padgaonkar’s outstanding poem, Salaam, which satirized the sycophancy during the Emergency.

During the break, one of the young men asked me about my choices. You didn’t mention Dhasal, he said, referring to the Dalit poet and activist Namdeo Dhasal. I said I was speaking of writers I knew personally, or whose work was relevant to what I was talking about. He smiled and said, right, that means only Brahmin writers.

I knew where the conversation would lead, so I thanked him and moved away. I was surprised and disappointed. The young man implied that I had excluded Dhasal because of his identity; as if Dhasal didn’t make it to my little pantheon because he was a Dalit writer. Not so: Padgaonkar had ridiculed what had become of us during the Emergency, and Dhasal had supported the Emergency. Other poets I had mentioned, like Peeradina, Ezekiel and Dalal, had seen my early writing and urged me to write more. Dhasal’s subsequent political choices, such as supporting the Shiv Sena, were perplexing, revealing his complexities, which took him further away from being a champion of free expression for all.

It was my learning moment. Later that night, I was at the home of a Marathi poet, who asked me why I hadn’t read any Dalit poetry during my teens. That is a good question and it defies a simple answer. I got closer to the answer earlier this week, during a conversation with a close friend. It is important to acknowledge one’s privilege, and that means accepting that the choices we make, or which are made for us, reveal unconscious biases, our own, and of our elders from whom we learn. What we say may make sense to us, but that may be read, or interpreted, differently. Dhasal would not make my list because of the Emergency, which was the pivotal moment I was talking about. But to someone concerned primarily about the Dalit identity, I was perpetuating the continued erasure of Dalit writers, keeping them invisible. That I hadn’t intended that was not his concern; that is what he saw.

How does one break the pattern, so that our preconceptions do not get in the way of understanding those who think differently? In Bengaluru at the Lekhana Weekend, the author and journalist Rohini Mohan made a powerful plea for reporters to step out of their comfort zones and listen. We need to move beyond righteous grandstanding and scale the wall to understand the world around us.

In my teens—1974-80—I should have listened to a wider range of poetic voices; my understanding of poetry is far from complete. If the young man upset with my choices had listened to what I said and why, instead of looking for evidence that validated his presumptions, then we would have had a conversation. And we need such real conversations.


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