carlsagan

(Published in the Business Standard, March 31, 2014)

One of my favourite Carl Sagan moments came during a radio show years ago, where the scientist addressed the questions put to him by a creationist. He answered the first question on evolution; his interlocutor did not acknowledge his answer, moving on to the next question on fossils. “You rather remind me of Pontius Pilate,” said Sagan, his voice pleasant. “You ask, ‘what is Truth’, but don’t wait to hear the answer.”

When Cosmos returned to television screens after 34 years, with Neil DeGrasse Tyson stepping in to fill Sagan’s shoes, it brought past and present together in my mind. Occupying the present was Richard King’s very timely On Offence: The Politics of Indignation, one of those books everybody should read just before a particularly vituperative election takes place: it is soothing and thought-provoking.

But when people of my generation think of Cosmos, we also think of Doordarshan. Its programming could be good, almost in inverse proportion to the adulatory newspeak that ran like a conquering virus through its bloodstream. There was a brilliant set of short story adaptations from world and Indian languages, some unmatched soap operas (Buniyaad, Hum Log), and shows like Cosmos, which was great science programming. In the new version, the camera work is much more sophisticated, and there have been many more discoveries since Sagan’s day. But the thrill that Sagan captured – the sense of being reintroduced to a universe far more interesting and rich than we suspected – remains the same.

But soon after the return of Cosmos, that old demand – voiced by Sagan’s interlocutor and by creationists in the United States every time evolutionary theory is discussed – came back: they wanted equal time to debate their theories of how the universe was formed.

In Alice Munro’s short story “Comfort”, that apparently innocuous demand has inescapable consequences.

“The students were taking a new tack these days.

It’s not that we necessarily want the religious view, sir. It’s just that we wonder why you don’t give it equal time.”

When the students make this demand to the school authorities, they present it in the guise of reason: “There was no mention of hellfire in the petition. None whatsoever of Satan or the Antichrist.” But a teacher loses his job, and over time his respect for science and reason becomes an intolerance every bit as dogmatic as the views of his opponents. There is little comfort in Ms Munro’s story, which was published in a 2001 collection. By that year, the battles between creationists and evolutionists over who owns the history of science had gone into several exhausting rounds, and it still continues.

Richard King’s analysis of a world of people all too willing to be offended is hard-edged. Incivility prevails in the current political scene, he writes; the rabble is only too ready to be roused, and an invisible army of “zealots, vandals, bigots and bigmouths” get their kicks by abusing others. (This is a description of Europe and the US, though the parallels with India are obvious.) The paradox is that “to insist on respect and sensitivity is not to build a kinder society, but one in which frustrations multiply and fester”.

But this is Mr King’s core argument; the reasons for not censoring a work in the face of threats, bullying or actual violence, are not ideological but practical. We have had versions of these arguments in India over history, rather than science, and they parallel the trajectory of the arguments between creationists and evolutionists in the US, down to the attempts to stall the publication of books or to insist on equal time. The problem in India has been that the fear of giving offence outweighs all, so that publishers – including Penguin and Aleph, in the recent Wendy Doniger case – and other cultural institutions have seldom actively backed the right of thought to be free, ideas to be provocative, authors to write without internally editing themselves.

Defensive responses achieve little. Mr King states his view, that the demand for more tolerance must replace the current demand not to have one’s feelings offended. “Tolerance is the precondition for disagreement,” he writes. “It does not guarantee equality, but it does clear a space in which the idea of equality can be argued over, and we encroach upon that space at our peril.”

All through his life, Sagan walked a fine line between responding to and engaging with those who disagreed with him, but also refusing to hand over his intellectual space to them. They were not to write his books for him, nor could they dictate the script of Cosmos, though they were free to create their own TV shows.

But Sagan’s understanding of his opponents was not shallow; it was deeply empathetic. In that radio interview, he continues with patience, but with firmness, to defend his ideas – he does not end the argument on a note of dismissal. Elsewhere, he had written about refuting someone’s beliefs in unidentified flying objects, and he writes with compassion: “I was dismissing not just some errant doctrine, but a precious facet of his inner life.” Both science and pseudo-science arouse a soaring sense of wonder; both history and pseudo-history awaken people to a sense of passionate caring about the past.

Then Sagan concludes: “And yet there’s so much in real science that’s equally exciting, more mysterious, a greater intellectual challenge – as well as being a lot closer to the truth.” Once he had identified his scientific truths, Sagan had no trouble defending that space, even if it meant telling those who were offended by the idea of evolution that their feelings of offence were not his problem. Almost four decades later, the same debates repeat themselves, but so does Sagan’s answer: you may do someone the respect of listening to them, but you do not owe it to them to change, silence or edit yourself or to give them your mike.