Doxa, doxa, doxa everywhere

Published: May 07, 2019, 07:15 IST | C Y Gopinath

Our thinking and beliefs are being bankrupted by 'common knowledge' and facts no one feels the need to question

Doxa, doxa, doxa everywhere
The choice is stark -- if you don't thoughtfully choose what to believe you'll just end up believing whatever you choose. Representational Pic/Getty Images

C Y GopinathI learned a new word today: doxa. It's not even a new word; it goes back nearly 350 years before Christ, when a Greek called Plato decided it was a useful word for describing much of the bullshit that people around him unquestioningly believed to be true. For example, it was believed that a gang of gods lived, had all kinds of strange sex and played mind games on top of Mount Olympus. Doxa.

Plato defined doxa as common sense or popular opinion. Things that are taken for granted as true and therefore, don't require further proof or argument. So a few days ago, when my friend Jayant Kripalani put out a bunch of interesting posts on Facebook, each one of them the spoken codswallop of some reigning BJP luminary, I perked up. We are clearly ruled by a gallery of unscientific, well, idiots. That too is Greek. It means "an uneducated, ignorant, inexperienced and common person".

The idiots have spoken -- "Homosexuality is a genetic flaw that is being celebrated," said Subramaniam Swamy, BJP MP.

"We realize that the Maharabharata says Karna was not born from his mother's womb. This means that genetic science was present at the time," said Narendra Modi, Prime Minister.

"We worship Lord Ganesha. There must have been some plastic surgeon at that time who got an elephant's head on the body of a human being and began the practice of plastic surgery," said Modi.

"[Charles] Darwin's theory is scientifically wrong. Nobody, including our ancestors, in written or oral, said they ever saw an ape turning into a human being," said Satyapal Singh, education minister.

"Cow dung and urine can cure cancer," said Shankarbhai Vegad, BJP leader.

"Indian rishis, using their yoga vidya, would attain Divya Dhrishti. There is no doubt that the invention of television goes back to this," said Modi.

"Climate has not changed. We have changed. Our habits have changed. We have got spoiled." Our PM again.

How many of these are truly doxa -- that is, unquestioningly believed by quite a large number of Indians? Well, astrology and numerology are taken deadly seriously, for sure. A Sunil becomes a Suneil, a Gita become a Geitaa.

Mythology is treated as history, and science fiction mistaken for science. Without evidence either archaeological or geographical about whether the events of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata actually took place, they are accepted as true accounts of real people. An army of monkey-headed humans headed by a monkey-god who could fly and carry an entire mountain -- really?

The BJP education minister would discover, if he bothered to read the Theory of Evolution, that Darwin did not say apes turned into humans one fine night.

Supraprimates appeared 124 to 101 million years ago. Humans appeared only 2.5 million years ago. The education minister provides proof, however, that humans can evolve into jackasses.

Plato worried that sophists -- smooth-talking wordsmiths, rabble rousers and politicians -- could use doxa to manipulate the masses. He described doxa as "belief, unrelated to reason, that resided in the unreasoning lower parts of the soul". It was whatever you decided was true, with no pressure to provide evidence or thoughtful argument.

It is a profound embarrassment that such uncritical thinking, the kind acquired by listening to customers at a tea stall, should come from the country's most powerful man. Mr Modi is happy to exploit the accepted mythology that somewhere in the universe there is a god with an elephant head and misuse it as proof that Indians invented plastic surgery.

We were not told how we should worship the plastic surgeon who could create a whole god in his laboratory. Clearly someone who can create a god must be greater than god. But that's how doxa works. It goes without saying because it comes without saying. Proof and clear thinking are not required. Example -- Cows are divine.

Muslims are dangerous and want to oppress Hindus.

Climate is not changing.

Brahmins are superior.

Women need to be obedient and submissive.

The antidote to doxa is critical thinking, and it is definitely not something you should expect the education minister to introduce into schools anytime soon. I found five questions that can do a decent job of dismantling doxa -- What's happening? We're being told every Muslim, including children, are dangerous. Why is it important? If it becomes doxa, it can lead to violence and death. What am I not being told? Numbers for Hindu violence against Muslims. Who benefits if this is believed? The ruling party can increase its appeal among nationalistic Hindu audiences. How does he know this? Can he provide numbers in support of the statement? Who is saying this? Is this an original observation or is it second hand?

The choice is stark -- if you don't thoughtfully choose what to believe you'll just end up believing whatever you choose.

Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at cygopi@gmail.com Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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