Sunday, February 6, 2011

Off-Topic: Populism: The Bane of Academic Writing

A Court which yields to the popular will thereby licenses itself to practice despotism, for there can be no assurance that it will not, on another occasion, indulge its own will. Courts can fulfil their responsibility in a democratic society only to the extent that they succeed in shaping their judgments by rational standards, and rational standards are both impersonal and communicable.”

So goes a paragraph from Page 328 of Fali Nariman’s “Before Memory Fades” where he quotes Justice Krishna Iyer’s judgment in Mohinder Singh Gill v. Election Commission, who in turn was quoting Alan Barth from his book Prophets with Honour (1975).

As I read this para, I just couldn’t help thinking that this thought is so true of almost every endeavour in public life, which includes academic writing.

Academic writing, for me, is not within the realm of the strictly personal. It is, by its very nature, a public activity, not just because it is directed to an audience, but also because it relates to the very audience.

At the outset, let me state that when I refer to academic writing, I do not restrict myself to journals/publications. So long as the topic of discussion is public policy, this rule applies to all fora, mainstream and alternative.

Academic writing is a notch above journalism in the sense that where the topic of writing requires the audience to elevate its thought, (as condescending as this may sound) academic writing must help the audience go beyond the obvious and the superficial, instead of dumbing down the subject. If advanced mathematics requires a better equipped student, why shouldn’t the same apply to readers of academic writing?

Not for a moment am I suggesting that that one must not observe simplicity in articulation, even if the subject of articulation is an esoteric thought. I am simply saying that let not the diktats of an “audience” dictate the logic of a proposition.

I think we must never lose sight of the fact that academic writing first and foremost demands honesty which in turn demands spine or let’s call it “vertebracy”.  This includes the spine to probe an idea, even if the audience or readership finds the idea boring or politically incorrect.

Slowly but surely, this golden rule of academic writing appears to be taking a back seat in the Indian IP discourse since other considerations such as molly-coddling the audience have begun to take precedence. This is bad news, without doubt. Why?

Voices or faces which have the undivided attention of stakeholders from within and outside the country have a responsibility towards the subject and the stakeholders. This responsibility requires us to conduct ourselves with utmost honesty sans a smidgen of exhibitionism. The moment the proponent puts himself before and above the cause, I think objectivity and reason are the first casualties.

In the process, opportunities which could be put to fantastic use to engage people in a meaningful discussion and thereby goading them into action, are squandered because we are scared of losing them or disenchanting them. 

Anyone who has the best interests of the people at heart must not worry about people’s short-term perceptions of her or his ideas. Ultimately, if one is right or at least honest, people are bound to come around and give some thought to what is being said.

Anyways, I’ll end my rant here hoping that sooner than later the Indian IP debate or discussion turns the corner for the better.  

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