'Democracy in crisis, we need to listen to those we dislike'
New Delhi : Former Planning Commission member Arun Maira contends that "physical violence" in the real world and "verbal violence" on social media against people whom "we do not approve of" are increasing today. With such trends on the rise, the very idea of democracy finds itself in a crisis.
"We need to listen more deeply to people who are not like us," said the much-respected management consultant, talking of his latest book, "Listening for Well-Being", and sharing his perspective on a wide range of issues that he deals with.
"Violence by people against those they dislike, for whatever reason, is increasing. It has become dangerous to post a personal view on any matter on social media. Responses are abusive. There is no respect for another's dignity. People are also repeatedly threatened with physical violence."
He said that gangs of trolls go after their victims viciously. "Social media has become a very violent space. Like the streets of a run-down city at night... not a safe space to roam around in."
At the same time, streets in the physical world are becoming less safe too. "Any car or truck on the road can suddenly become a weapon of mass destruction in a 'civilised' country: in London, Berlin, Nice, or Barcelona," Maira told IANS in an interview.
He said that with the rise of right-wing parties that are racist and anti-immigrant, there is great concern in the Western democratic world -- in the US, the UK and Europe -- that democracy is in a crisis.
In the US, for example, supporters of Donald Trump, Maira said, believe only what Trump says and watch only the news channels that share a similar ideology. On the other side are large numbers of US citizens who don't believe what Trump says but they too have their own preferred news sources.
"They should listen to each other, and understand each other's concerns. Only then can the country be inclusive. And also truly democratic -- which means that everyone has an equal stake and an equal voice," he noted.
In "Listening for Well-Being" (Rupa/Rs 500/182 Pages), Maira shows his readers ways to use the power of listening. He analyses the causes for the decline in listening and proposes solutions to increase its depth in private and public discourse.
Drawing from his extensive experience as a leading strategist, he emphasises that by listening deeply, especially to people who are not like us, we can create a more inclusive, just, harmonious and sustainable world for everyone.
But it would be wrong to say that the decline in listening is only restricted to the Western world.
"We have the same issues in India too. We are a country with many diverse people. We are proud of our diversity. However, for our country to be truly democratic, all people must feel they are equal citizens.
"The need for citizens to listen to each other is much greater in India than in any other country because we are the most diverse country, and we want to be democratic. So, we must learn to listen more deeply to 'people who are not like us' in our country because of their history, their culture, their religion, or their race," he maintained.
Maira also said that India is a country with a very long and rich history. And within the present boundaries of India are diverse people, with different cultures, different religions, and of different races.
"So, we cannot put too sharp a definition on who is an 'Indian' -- the language they must speak, the religion they must follow, or the customs they must adopt. Because, then we will exclude many who do not have the same profiles, and say they are not Indians. Thus we can falsely, and dangerously, divide the country into 'real Indians' and those who are supposedly non-Indians. Indeed, such forces are rising in India," he added.
Maira, 74, hoped that all his readers will appreciate that listening is essential to improve the world for everyone. He also maintained that it is not a complete solution to any of the world's complex problems but by listening to other points of view, we can prevent conflict and also devise better solutions.
Born in Lahore, Maira received his M.Sc. and B.Sc. in Physics from Delhi University's St Stephen's College. He has also authored two bestselling books previously, "Aeroplane While Flying: Reforming Institutions" and "Upstart in Government: Journeys of Change and Learning".
(Saket Suman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)