In recent weeks, I have been struck time and again by the deteriorating quality of discourse on social media. No, there is nothing new about an article that laments the quality of tweets or WhatsApp messages, but what really makes me anxious is how acceptable it has become to engage publicly in a way that rewards volume, vehemence and vitriol. The result is, I am learning more about the people who engage than about those they mean to criticise.<!– /11440465/Dna_Article_Middle_300x250_BTF –>Ad hominem criticisms have never been considered good public behaviour; at least, this was so until recently. That is, you can criticise a person’s ideology, politics, deeds, speech or policies, but it is not acceptable to criticise their appearance, their personal choices and tastes and their personal qualities. So you can say, “I disagree with this government’s position on GST,” but you cannot say, “The minister’s breath stinks.” This was a line that was understood, in both traditional and modern societies, and to attack a person instead of critically engaging with their politics and ideas was not seen kindly.This line has been blurred by two changes in our politics. The first, a good change, is that we emphasise accountability more and more. This means that we expect a high degree of probity and integrity from those in public life. We pay attention to what they say and do, not just their official utterances. We investigate every sign of wrong-doing. We hold people accountable. We call them on their lapses. Inevitably, the personal and the public run into each other. It is hard, for instance, to call someone on corruption without a reference to their lifestyle choices. However, it is not hard to call them on incompetence without calling them incompetent. You could just criticise the policy, the decision or its impact. That is enough, or it should be.The second change is that those in public life themselves indulge in intemperate speech. Prominent public figures mock each other in intensely personal tones that simply take the natural rudeness of Indian families into the public sphere. Remember the uncle or aunt who took a look at your adolescent child and said, “So fat now, and what about all those pimples?” We are them, and as politicians or celebrities of any sort, continue to consider really personal attacks as reasonable political discourse. People’s origins, work, relationships, appearance and accents are all fair game. This is particularly true for women in public life — the most prominent women politicians of this country, regardless of what I think of their politics, deserve a Bharat Ratna for surviving and thriving despite a constant barrage of ad hominem attacks that would be considered insulting, addressed to any ordinary person.I am not talking about cyber-bullying or trolling here. I am talking about a culture of ad hominem speech that says these individuals—any individuals—are acceptable targets for personal attacks—be they journalists, authors, actors or politicians—and therefore: (1) everything about them is open to attack; (2) everything they say must be wrong; and (3) my own speech and behaviour are always intrinsically beyond reproach. This confounds me. The same standards apply to us and the same sensitivities apply to those we criticise, surely?The peculiar combination of exuberant confidence, existential insecurity and complete credulity despite a constant barrage of information that characterises us in this moment complicates this culture.We know we are the best at everything—‘us’ personally and ‘us’ as a collective. We are completely sure of our correctness and of our perfection. We know everything and have studied everything; they have studied nothing. We would never say anything wrong; he/she/they would. We would never make the wrong judgment call; he/she/they would. As a corollary, our every choice and judgment must be correct, perfectly rational and appropriate; unlike theirs. We would meet every standard of morality, legality, cleverness and wisdom, unlike them. (Except of course, we don’t.)Our insufferable sense of superiority is accompanied by acute anxiety that makes us react to everything. Someone on some TV show in a place we haven’t heard of before, thinks to use an Indian carpet or word or mythological reference, and we know that our civilization is under attack. We are confident also of conspiracies to undermine us. We have as much faith in their efficacy as we do in our infallibility. What sense does this make? We forget that metals are forged through contact with intense heat. We forget that we have endured, together and divided, for millennia. We forget that change is the only constant anyway. (After all, they are no one to criticise; that monopoly rests with us.)As conservative as we are, we jump on to every passing bandwagon with little regard to the centuries of learning and reflection that are available to us. Take the referendum. A very old idea and practice which was replaced by representative democracy as polities grew larger and more complex. We tried. We practised. We learnt. We changed. We evolved. But none of that tempers the longing expressed over the last three days for a return to direct democracy. Looking up an encyclopaedia to learn about the history of direct democracy would constitute an unwarranted interruption of our enthusiasms.So we are credulous. Gone is the scepticism about politics and the utterances of politicians that was de rigueur in my childhood and youth. You were never meant to believe everything that people said. We forgot that rule of democratic politics. The utterances of politicians were only an indicator of what they thought they should be saying and offered standards or guidelines we could use to hold them accountable down the line. We now believe everything, and more detrimental to democracy, assume that a person who sounds confident and sincere is correct. We have ‘Fact Check’ but it doesn’t matter much because as Nicholas Barrett brilliantly put it the other day, we live in a “post-factual democracy.”This peculiar combination makes us dreadful citizens of any democracy. We are so sure of what we know that we never learn. Our ignorance makes us fearful of everything. To assuage our anxieties, we repose uncritical faith in those who confidently set themselves apart as our leaders.And smug in our self-confidence but without the skill or interest to learn anything constructive, we can only make ad hominem attacks. Our credulity deprives us of the ability to say, “Here, I agree with,” and “On that, I disagree with.” Life is either-or and people are unquestionably worthy of adoration or endlessly deserving of censure. Jawaharlal Nehru has gone from the first to the second status in my life-time. Those who are good can do no wrong. Those who are bad are witless, spineless, characterless, useless and incapable of getting anything right.The three fingers that point back at me make me very uncomfortable; they tell me some horrible home-truths about myself. First, I do not know everything. Secondly, I do not always say or do the right thing, and I am not sure I always make the right decision or choice. Third, I may think I have perfect information but that may not be true and things may change. Today’s right choice may look different tomorrow. Fourth, I try to be a decent human being but it is very likely I do not succeed. I am a work in progress, I console myself (but everyone deserves the benefit of that excuse, don’t they?). I am suitably chastened, for a while.Should we never criticise those who seek to make decisions on our behalf or whose iconic status makes them influential? Of course, we should be critical—but in the sense of being analytical which (unfortunately) involves a commitment to learning and thinking rather than criticising, just calling out negatives. Our criticism should throw light on what matters to all of us and not on our own failings as citizenry. Some simple filters would help—public relevance, truth, considering whether an argument closes out or opens up dialogue. The Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) works as an exceptionally useful filter. Show people the graciousness and generosity you would like to experience.It would also help to exercise discretion on when to engage. Democracy does not mean everyone has to speak all the time; marking your attendance in every single conversation or debate is not required. We can choose to speak on some things where we have knowledge, experience or interest or listen quietly to others and thereby, learn. We need to abandon the need to ‘win’ an argument, online and in real life, because when one person wins, everyone actually loses. As the MTV ad once said, “Itne paise mein itnaich milega.” If we as citizens cannot improve the quality of our engagement with the public sphere, we cannot improve our democracy.But I could be wrong about all of this.Swarna Rajagopalan is a political scientist by training and the founder of Prajnya.