Opinion is free. But is it trustworthy?

That those in the media are toast is now part of popular opinion. But the fact that an opinion is widely held is no evidence that it is not utterly absurd

Charles Assisi

[By Paco Silva under Creative Commons]

For all practical purposes I was the oddball at the table the other evening at a plush city hotel. To start with, I was the only Indian citizen. Everybody else was a foreign citizen of Indian origin. 

Everyone was sipping on single malt and looked superbly fit. I looked sloppy in my ill-fitting jeans with a potbelly struggling to peek out. Then there was the fact that everybody else had earned their degree from an Ivy League college in the US. Following which all of them had put in at least a decade at a hedge fund or large private equity firm of global consequence in either New York City or Silicon Valley. To my native eyes, all of them looked well-read, well-travelled, well-versed and well-off.

I’m not entirely sure if I was of any consequence to them. Because when asked what is it I do and when I said I expend most of my time writing to earn a living—in the silent pauses that followed—I could hear them hold on to pregnant thoughts. But they were the polite kinds who bit their tongue. 

The more forthright ones have told me in the past what they really think of the likes of me. That in their scheme of things, I am among those who got disrupted by businesses people like them have funded. Anybody in the world now with a story or an opinion can voice it in places like Facebook and Twitter among other social media platforms. And that I have no reason to exist. I ought to reinvent myself. I don’t argue anymore, but have learnt to meet these silences with silence.

But this much I must say. My silences are arrogant too. Because their “coming back to India” spiels now sound like clichéd and regurgitated tripe to veterans like me. I’ve heard that one often. 

The story is a familiar one. Been there, done that (either on Wall Street or Silicon Valley), backpacked through Europe, and in a moment of epiphany decided it is now time to “give back” to society. What better place to start from than the ones our parents originated from after having left it decades ago in search for a better tomorrow for themselves and their children? 

To be fair to them though, their parents earned their success the hard way. And to be fair to everyone at the table, they had worked their backsides off to get into premier organisations and positions. There is nothing I can say that can take away from that this was an incredibly intelligent bunch of people I was with.

That said, the irony was difficult to miss as well. How can you possibly sit at one of the fanciest hotels in India, sip the most expensive single malts all night, nibble exquisite finger food, talk of doing something for the deprived, and not as much as cast an eye at the waiter serving the table? 

I didn’t stay until everyone wound up for the night. But I suspect whatever was run up by way of expenses on food and beverages may perhaps have fed two waiters and their families for at least a month. What may have been playing on their minds? Would they have thought of this as an orgy of obscene consumption? 

The thought lingered for a few days until I finally felt compelled to call Haresh Chawla, who is a partner at private equity firm True North and an active angel investor. I have known him from his earlier avatar as group CEO at Network18, a media firm he helped create, and a place I used to work in the past. There were a few reasons I called him. 

The first was that he graduated in management and engineering. But unlike those at that table, his degrees were from institutions in India. The second was that before turning into an investor, he was moulded as an entrepreneur who had first-hand experience in building an enterprise in India. The third is that he is now an active investor. 

What is his investing philosophy? What was I missing in the conversation? Why was my voice both unheard and dissed at the table? Why are the two decades I spent documenting first-hand how India operates not of any consequence to the others who have parachuted from elsewhere? Are their experiences superior to mine?

After having heard me out, Chawla reminded me of some thoughts he had articulated earlier last year and over which we have had multiple conversations. He had then suggested that it is naive to think of India as one country. Instead, he argued it is an aggregation of three countries—each of which has its own complexities and dynamics. He called these India One, India Two and India Three.

India One comprises anywhere between 150 million and 180 million people and on average, its citizens earn Rs 30,000 a month. Now, you have to look at those numbers in perspective because this is an average. 

I am a citizen of Indian One. But I earn a lot more than Rs 30,000 a month. It allows me the luxury to afford domestic help at home and a driver to ferry me around. But the conflict I was staring at, Chawla suggested, was because when looked at from the eyes of those who were with me on the table, I appeared to them as part of the so-called great Indian “middle-class”. 

I have only one driver and a domestic help. They have multiple helps and multiple drivers and multiple cars to cater to their every need. In the country called India One that they live in, the poor to them are those whose incomes are closer to the average of Rs 30,000. 

Now that is a rather ridiculous way of looking at the entity that is India because there is no taking away from that 30%, or 400-odd million Indians, earn on average Rs 7,000 a month. This is India Two—that part of the population where the waiters tending to the table come from. They offer all the services that India One needs. But for some reason, those who live in India One cannot see the people who live in the country that is India Two. 

Just to get a sense of what those numbers mean, imagine this: If we were to add all the people in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal, they would be about 400 million. But we aren’t done with the math yet. India has 1.3 billion people. 

India One and Two account for only 580 million people. What about the 700 million others? Why are they invisible?

India One and India Two account for only 580 million people. What about the 700 million others? Where are they? Who are they? Why is it that their stories don’t get told? Why are they completely invisible and don’t even make it as waiters who tend to the tables of India One? 

Why do the superbly intelligent people who want to do good and live in India One not see those who live in the countries that are India Two and India Three? Is it for a lack of conscience? 

It was inevitable then that my mind go back to a well-documented phenomenon called wilful blindness. It formed the theme of a much-acclaimed book and a talk by Margaret Heffernan.

Maria Popova, the curator of a lovely blog called Brain Pickings, summarised the idea beautifully: 

“The concept of Wilful Blindness, Heffernan explains, comes from the law and originates from legislature passed in the 19th century—it’s the somewhat counterintuitive idea that you’re responsible if you could have known, and should have known, something that instead you strove not to see. What’s most uneasy-making about the concept is the implication that it doesn’t matter whether the avoidance of truth is conscious. This basic mechanism of keeping ourselves in the dark, Heffernan argues, plays out in just about every aspect of life, but there are things we can do—as individuals, organisations, and nations—to lift our blinders before we walk into perilous situations that later produce the inevitable exclamation: How could I have been so blind?”

This is a school of thought Chawla subscribes to as well. That is why, as a thumb rule, he said, he consciously tries to stay away from those who are like him. Instead, he tries to seek out those who may hold views different from his and have their ears to the ground. 

“I like people like you in the media business,” he said, “because you talk to multiple sets of people and have your ears to the ground.” 

I didn’t quite get what he meant then and we hung up. In any case, it was getting late and the both of us thought we’d get into angst-ridden territory.

The next morning, when my eyes peered again at voices on social media platforms, it sounded much the same again like it was at the table. Every voice suggested people in politics and media ought to be worried. Because they are no longer the arbitrators of power. 

In the past, they wielded it because there was information asymmetry. But because that asymmetry has since been demolished, I ought to rethink my future. And so, by the only metric we know how to measure the worth of a man—money—I am staring at a bankrupt future. Unless I reinvent myself.

Even as I was thinking around the import of all that, news trickled in that the British philosopher Onora O’Neill has been conferred the prestigious Berggruen Prize. It is awarded annually to a thinker whose ideas have shaped self-understanding and advancement in a rapidly changing world. 

It was as good a time as any to revisit a talk by O’Neill on what we don’t understand about trust.

This is a theme she has spent a good part of her 76-year-long life thinking and writing about. Allow me to quote some excerpts from her lovely 10-minute talk.

“Why do people think trust has declined? … But, of course, I can look at the opinion polls, and the opinion polls are supposedly the source of a belief that trust has declined. When you look at opinion polls across time, there’s not much evidence for that. That’s to say, the people who were mistrusted 20 years ago, principally journalists and politicians, are still mistrusted…

“But is that good evidence? What opinion polls record is, of course, opinions. What else can they record? So, they’re looking at the generic attitudes that people report when you ask them certain questions.”

Searching for trust is futile. Instead, we ought to search for the trustworthy

She goes on then to suggest that searching for trust is futile. Instead, we ought to search for the trustworthy. Because while somebody may have the right intent, it is entirely possible that individual may be incompetent to perform the task on hand. 

By way of example, while you may trust a schoolteacher with your child, it would be rather stupid to trust her with tending to a garden. She may be incompetent to deal with the task in much the same way that a gardener may be unable to teach a child. 

Therefore, she argues, “… I think that judgement requires us to look at three things. Are they competent? Are they honest? Are they reliable? And if we find that a person is competent in the relevant matters, and reliable and honest, we’ll have a pretty good reason to trust them, because they’ll be trustworthy… Trust is the response. Trustworthiness is what we have to judge. And, of course, it’s difficult.”

I expended much time thinking about the import of what she said and exchanged some more notes with Chawla. As things are, this is where I stand.

• While everybody has an opinion and access to a platform, are their voices trustworthy? I’ve expended more than two decades in this business talking to people, honing my craft and trying to keep pace with technology as it evolves. So yes, everybody can voice their opinion. But ceteris paribus, I think my voice, much like that of others who are credible in the business, will continue to resonate. I also know that in keeping with the natural order of the universe, at some point in time, I will have to concede ground to those who are younger, smarter and hungrier than me. But I will not have to concede ground to uninformed voices and opinions. To that extent, my daily bread is protected.

• Pardon my language here. But spending as much time in the business has honed my bullshit detector as well. That is why I did not articulate my opinion in exasperation. Instead, it chose to distance itself from the voices at the table and seek perspective.

Chawla tells me I did that because I live at an intersection that seeks to listen to multiple voices as opposed to listen in to what resides in an echo chamber. If I were to go by the opinions of those at the table and if I were tuned in only to popular trends on social media, I may have imagined I am out of sync with what is the consensus opinion. 

But after having listened to multiple voices and seeking out the trustworthy, I am now convinced of what Bertrand Russell once said: “The fact that an opinion is widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd.”

So, for whatever it is worth, folks like me aren’t going to fade into obscurity. Unless we do something stupid to erode trust built over the years. 

On the contrary, we will continue to shape the narrative. Because trust is worked upon and earned every day. And it grows, like compound interest. It is something money cannot buy, but is earned by the sweat of the brow, not through trading opportunities, arbitrages hedging on futures, commodities, currencies or passing ridiculous opinions on social media that sound good in echo chambers. 

(This article was first published in Livemint.)

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About the author

Charles Assisi
Charles Assisi

Co-founder and Director

Founding Fuel

Charles Assisi is an award-winning journalist with two decades of experience to back him. He is co-founder and director at Founding Fuel, and co-author of the book The Aadhaar Effect. He is a columnist for Hindustan Times, one of India's most influential English newspaper. He is vocal in his views on journalism and what shape it ought to take in India. He speaks on the theme at various forums and is often invited by various organizations to teach their teams how to write.

In his last assignment, he wore two hats: That of Managing Editor at Forbes India and Editor at ForbesLife India. As part of the leadership team, his mandate was to create a distinctive business title in a market many thought was saturated. When Forbes India was finally launched after much brainstorming and thinking through, it broke through the ranks and got to be recognized as the most influential business magazine in the country. He did much the same thing with ForbesLife India where he broke from convention and launched the title to critical acclaim.

Before that, he was National Technology Editor and National Business Editor at the Times of India, during the great newspaper wars of 2005. He was part of the team that ensured Times of India maintained top dog status in Mumbai on the face of assaults by DNA and Hindustan Times.

His first big gig came in his late twenties when German media house Vogel Burda marked its India debut with CHIP a wildly popular technology magazine. He was appointed Editor and given a free run to create what he wanted. During this stint, he worked and interacted with all of Vogel Burda's various newsrooms across Europe and Asia.

Charles holds a Masters in Economics from Mumbai Universtity and an MBA in Finance. Along the way he earned the Madhu Valluri Award for Excellence in Journalism and the Polestar Award for Excellence in Business Journalism.

In his spare time, he reads voraciously across the board, but is biased towards psychology and the social sciences. He dabbles in various things that catch his fancy at various points. But as fancies go, many evaporate as often as they fall on him.

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