If Kapil Sibal is Such an Idiot, How Come You’re not the Prime Minister?

Kapil Sibal
Image by World Economic Forum via Flickr

It is so common to hear people going on and on and on about how somebody famous and/or powerful is a complete idiot for doing something. They don’t understand how someone can be so totally bone-headed.

If you find yourself ever thinking like this (and I think this happens to all of us once in a while), stop and consider this question:

If that guy is such an idiot, and you can clearly see his faults, how come you are poor and unknown and that person is rich and famous?

In other words, the people who are in charge did not get there by being idiots, so if they are doing something that seems idiotic to you, which is more likely: that they are being idiots, or that you don’t have all the data, you are not seeing all the angles that they can see, and hence you are making mistaken assumptions based on an incomplete understanding of the situation?

Take, for example, the case of Kapil Sibal asking Google, Facebook, and co. to actively screen and filter all content before it is uploaded on their sites. Yes, on the face of it, it does seem rather an idiotic thing to say. However, my dear reader, I am willing to bet that Kapil Sibal is much smarter than you and me combined. He is a lawyer, he was the Solicitor-General of India, he had cleared the IAS exam (which is ridiculously difficult), and he has beaten Kyuki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi in an election. So the best you and I can say is that we don’t really understand why Kapil Sibal is making such statements. There could be any number of reasons that you’ll never know. Maybe this is a move designed to win over rural voters. Maybe this is just a public stunt to soften up Google, Facebook for a backroom deal later on at terms very favorable to the Congress party. Maybe this is a way to make sure that Google, Facebook are very co-operative and pliable when police (or other government bodies) approach them with requests for private data. Maybe he is the unlucky one who got picked by Sonia to make ridiculous statements to divert media attention away from the FDI issue. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.

Specifically, if you don’t understand Kapil Sibal’s motivations, you can’t really call him stupid.

Update 1: Do I agree with Kapil Sibal? Of course not. Pre-screen is neither possible, nor desirable. But I’m willing to bet that Kapil Sibal already knew both those things. My point is, saying we should oppose this is not the same as saying Kapil Sibal is an idiot

Update 2: Some people are interpreting my argument as “If you are not rich or famous, you shouldn’t air your opinion.” I’m definitely not saying that. All I am saying is that if your opinion is predicated on the fact that someone rich/famous is an idiot, then you really haven’t understood the situation, and should probably spend some more time thinking about the situation.  Feel free to express your opinion, and disagree. Feel free to even call that person an idiot. But if you actually think that person is an idiot, you are deluded.

Update 3: This article is not really about Kapil Sibal. The issue is broader. There are lots of people who keep saying/thinking that CEOs/VPs of large companies are idiots, or top actors/actresses are idiots, and talentless. SibalGate was a lucky coincidence which gave me a very current example to hang my argument on, but my argument is more general.

For example, consider all those who think Rakhi Sawant is a talentless idiot. Really?! Her job is to be in the news, be controversial, and keep getting paid to appear on TV and in movies. And she is doing her job far better than most of us are doing our own jobs. How then is she a talentless idiot? She is very smart, and does have lots of talent (in PR and marketing) – just not the talent you were looking for (acting). (By the way, I stole this argument from Scott Adams.)

What I’m talking about can more generally be stated as: “If everyone else is such an idiot, how come you’re not rich?”. This is a also known as the “Fallacy of Chesterton’s Fence.”.

This argument was long ago presented by G.K. Chesterton as follows:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.

So next time you think the world is being run by idiots, stop and think a little more…

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21 thoughts on “If Kapil Sibal is Such an Idiot, How Come You’re not the Prime Minister?”

  1. Three points

    1. Like the update – makes perfect sense. In this specific instance Sibal may be a Chanakya but he still needs to be opposed.
    2. I would of course not go so far as to stop myself from thinking that the world is run by idiots, there is some merit in the Peter Principle which says that “in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence”. Possible that Sibal (just taking the example since you started it), was brilliant in reaching where he did but is out of his depth now…
    3. Problem with trying to think of “why any public figure could have said / done something patently idiotic is that it (1) demands wide understanding of issues and hence use of the brain which can be tiresome and (2) leads to formulation of conspiracy theories. Much easier to call him an idiot – that explains it all and one can proceed to the next bit of chewing gum. After all most people expressing outrage are just indulging in a bit of slacktivism aren’t they?

    1. @Makarand,
      Re #2: Yes, agreed that it is possible that once in a while, by Peter Principle, someone lands up in a position where they’re powerful and stupid (in that context). But, by and large, I would guess that would be a minority. I think “being pulled in n different directions by vested interests that we know nothing about” is more likely an explanation the higher up in the hierarchy we go.

      Re #3: Completely agreed. Slactivism rules social media.

  2. 1.being rich not the aim of life…for everybody..
    2.good lawyer and exam cracker does not ensure that he is an agent of good governance
    3.winning elections if seen we have example of GUNDAS winning elections/ generic corrupt people…etc
    4.i dont deserve to be prime minister neither its in my capabilities…but if he is wrong he is acting idiotic…
    5.reasons why he is doing so..is bcoz anna hazare movement functions in a big way through fb etc…(speculations)

    1. @Yash, the “why aren’t you rich” is just a phrase to drive home the point – which is that rich/famous people are, in most cases, because they have shown exceptional ability at something (beyond the capabilities of common people, and even above average folks like you and me), and hence the default assumption should be that they are very smart. And thus, if you see them doing something that seems idiotic, the first thought should be, ‘What is he seeing that I am not?’

      Same with ‘why aren’t you the prime minister’ remark. Wasn’t meant to be taken literally.

      I agree that winning elections is not necessarily correlated with good governance (but it does take exceptional intelligence – and even the gundas who are winning, I’ll bet, are very smart gundas, and not generic ones). So I can completely agree with people who say that this is a terrible idea, and will never work, or will have disastrous consequences for the nation. Just don’t assume that Sibal does not know this, or understand this. It is possible that he is optimizing for something else entirely. That’s all.

  3. Rarely does one find Navin on the wrong foot 🙂 I’m afraid none of the people who are chanting #SibalIsAnIdiot actually mean it. By definition our politicians are the smartest lot. The cacophony of such chants is to embarrass and shame them.

    1. @Abhay, I’m totally OK with people who are chanting #SibalIsAnIdiot without meaning it.

      But, I think many people chanting it actually mean it. I had composed most of this blog post before #SibalGate broke, in a completely neutral context. At that time it was targeted towards people who keep saying/thinking that CEOs/VPs of large companies are idiots, or top actors/actresses are idiots, and talentless. SibalGate was a lucky coincidence which gave me a very current example to hang my argument on, but my argument is more general.

      For example, consider all those who think Rakhi Sawant is a talentless idiot. Really?! Her job is to be in the news, be controversial, and keep getting paid to appear on TV and in movies. And she is doing her job far better than most of us are doing our own jobs. How then is she a talentless idiot? She is very smart, and does have lots of talent (in PR and marketing) – just not the talent you were looking for (acting). (By the way, I stole this argument from Scott Adams.)

      I do agree that there should be a cacophony of chants against Sibal… But, I’m afraid, the ‘everyone is an idiot’ problem goes deeper than this.

  4. If a plane crashes on account of a pilot’s error, you can’t blame the Boeing Corporation. Nor can you tell to Boeing, to compromise on their strategy to produce planes that are less likely to crash. In fact, it is to be taken as a challenge by the Pilot Association/Training schools to train pilots that can handle already existing planes in the safest possible way. Errors are prone to happen. Also, Boeing isn’t an “idiot” to produce planes that have been in function since the past “n” years or so. These social networking sites, surely must have taken into account, these laws before publishing content on the internet.

    People have been using Twitter, Facebook or even Google even before controversies like these were born. Probably, these tools have taken it’s toll, where people have disseminated information/news to such a point that, it has agitated the government for such inevitable actions. I believe, public figures should have learned one thing when in public, is “Unjust systems always induce opponents”. Gujarat consumes the maximum alcohol in our nation, why? Because there is a government that abides that law. If it were like any other state, in India, this probably wouldn’t have been the case.

    What Kapil is doing, is not an act of idiocy but rather, could be avoidable. In fact, if Kapil is truly an educated lawyer, he should understand that people are going to do what they have done. There are going to be people who would want to break the fence. The important thing is, he should concentrate on the people who don’t break the fence and try and multiply that same culture into others.

  5. Let me answer your question: Its because the system isn’t broken. It’s fixed. And we are trying to change that. While you are idiot-apologizing.

  6. Agree with your views. But, I feel amazed that they didn’t raise their voice when pages like “I hate Gandhi” , “F**k India” were active on facebook.
    Suddenly, they realized that people were targeting politicians so probably they came up with this decision.

  7. after reading this blog i had to change my opinion and now i must say

    someone who thinks what rakhi sawant does is smart, must be an idiot

    and center point of your whole ridiculous blog is “we can’t see what rich n famous Sibbal can see” LOLLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOL just go and see how this “IDIOT” and all those ministers holding prestigious degrees failed to see that sending ANNA HAZARE to prison won’t go down well with indian public , whereas we all poor mortals , living low life could easily see its consequences ”
    So just shut the fuck up

    “Maybe this is a move designed to win over rural voters” – LOLOLOL
    This line shows that you are really an idiot a big one too , rural ppl who don;t even have access to internet will give votes to congress because they are asking FB and twitter to censor their content

    This is the most laughable, ridiculous, disgusting and to an extent even appalling blog i have ever read

    My message to you is – JUST SHUT THE FUCK UP
    My message to your rich and famous Sibbal is – GET A LIFE OR AT LEAST GET OUT OF OURS

  8. Oh, I totally agree with you. I always refrain from commenting on such incidents. At times, its just ‘ignorance is bliss’ moment and/or otherwise, I am not capable of saying anything.

    People tweeting/updating about “changing country” is pretty much like construction worker working from home. (Though not exactly wordy, but this argument is borrowed from someone’s twitter feed).

    Of course, I do think that, no matter what you have done in past and the capability you have demonstrated/achieved , there is circumstancial dimension that makes you take such decision? (which might be actually very smart, but they look idiotic outside, after all the the perceiving party is not as capable as you are).

  9. Navin, you’re lucky that nobody has called you a Congress-wala yet.

    Last time when I received a mail asking to ‘give a miss call to end corruption’, I replied to all, that this can be a clever trick by marketing companies to build valid numbers’ database. One of the recipients called immediately to ask me how much money I received from Congress party to write this mail!!

    Then, the Pawar-slap happened. People went on celebrating and orgasming on social media. I asked people ‘what good did this slap do?’ Nobody bothered to think. Instead, I was labelled as an NCP-wala and was offered a slap for myself, too.

    What I see here is, people do not want to think. They want quick entertainment and gossip. Something like Baba Ramdev’s salwaar-kameez stunt, or Anna Hazare’s ‘fast-unto-death’ that dilutes and misleads, or Om Puri-Kiran Bedi publicly abusing MP’s, or Raj Thakarey’s ‘son-of-the-soil’ stunts.

    Abusing someone is the easiest way of ‘feeling’ democracy. People will continue to call ministers idiots. And whoever doesn’t call them idiots, will also be called idiot. We better accept that we’re living in a truly idiotic society. You either be an idiot and call others idiot; or you not be an idiot and ignore the idiots!

  10. I dont agree at all with your article. There are plenty of idiots in high posts and Kapil Sibal being a prime example. What gives him the right to screen messages on facebook . Also what gives him the right to create a common entrance exam for all the students. IIT have a standard which has to be maintained by recruiting high quality individuals who toil for 2 years with firm grasp on advanced concepts. The challenge of IITs produces such intensely brilliant minds.

    Now for your question whether Kapil Sibal is an idiot or not, what enjoyment do you get from defending him. The people who actually make change in world and make this world a better place to live in are 99% unknown. Because people who work from the heart , work quietly without caring whether the world knows of them or not. Instead people like Sibal want to be popular in public. Hence they feel the need to create some drama at a national level be it screening Fb posts or creating joint exam entrance.

    Remember, for every quack doctor who wants to mint money by giving fake medicine to the ill , there is a doctor working in anonymity to deliver free healthcare to the affected.

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