India has become an outrage nation. From being offended over the auction of a uniform costume from Rustom to PeeCee’s hemline when she met PM Modi — there is no dearth of issues that offends Indians and seemingly trivial matters snowball into sparring debates that kick up dust and make headlines. The Padmaavat controversy refused to die down for months as different communities fumed over different issues related to the controversy, Javed Habib came under attack for using Hindu gods to promote a salon in Kolkata, Lisa Haydon received flak for posting a picture of herself breast-feeding, Zomato was criticised for posting an ad that played on Hindi swear words. While it’s important to raise one’s voice against injustice, most of the outrage is focused on things trivial, flimsy, ludicrous and absurd. We look at why Indians are offended at the drop of a hat. Are we becoming too sensitive, too serious, too moralistic and sanctimonious, with egos too brittle and tempers running high, and losing the ability to laugh at ourselves and brush off the trivial?
A false sense of importance
Public intellectual, Shiv Vishwanathan says, “A lot of emotions we have mark the idea of sensitivity. Indians have taken these emotions to react to trivialities. The violence around these trivialities helps them evade real issues. PeeCee's hemline is more important than environmental issues. It is always relative but it allows a sense of scandal where there is no scandal. It allows a sense of publicity for an issue which otherwise would not even get two lines. It gives a false sense of moral solidarity, a false moral community around issues that are empty. So we end up policing trivialities.”
Shiv believes that India is not an outrage nation. “Outrage at least has a sense of morality. We are actually very empty morally. So trivialities become a part of outrage. While people took offence to PeeCee's dress, I would take offence to Modi's moral press. It irks me that no one picked on Modi but they did on PeeCee. It's almost slapstick but it is taken with a lot of seriousness. We all seem to enjoy it because it protects us from taking real issues seriously and having the stamina to pursue it. We actually don't have the stamina to pursue long-range issues, which can actually bring about reform. Our attention to rape issues hardly lasts a week. So where are we going to pursue big issues? I think it becomes a diversion and gives a sense of pomposity. So where are we going to pursue big issues?”
In this era of global meltdown, where different cultures are coming together and inclusiveness is the mood of the hour, Indians are growing aggressively intolerant of anyone/anything that doesn’t mirror their views, feels model and brand influencer, Bandana Sondhi. She says, “Anything or anybody in the public eye is up for criticism regardless of whether they deserve it or not. They are put under a magnifying glass and the public feels they have the right to object, troll and be outraged, even over something really trivial. It really reflects the double standards we have.”
Actor Harsh Mayar, seen in films like I am Kalam and Hichki, finds it incredulous how futile and irrelevant things become the centre of hot debates on social media. “People with lots of time on hand have inculcated the habit of commenting on anything that comes their way, even issues that bear no relevance to them or the society. Some even go to the extent of creating fake accounts as they have no identity or accountability. Sadly, many such trivial issues overshadow ones that bear significance. People only know how to sensationalise issues and then they forget about it until another issue becomes viral. Unfortunately, this becomes a trend and truly important issues get lost in the overdose of bizarre issues.”
Cover of anonymity
Social media platforms like Twitter are adding to the noise, with the nation getting a voice to speak up from the convenience and comfort of anonymity, or non-direct standpoint. Poet-politician-journalist Pritish Nandy feels such instances of outrage are often created ones and a façade. “These are all paid tweets and they provoke people. Often online outrage is a purely political strategy and it has nothing to do with reality. I think we are the same people who have always been liberal and free-thinking. These political provocations through social media are for political gain — political strategies to anger people, to arouse people and create a sense of threat to one’s face. These are all by-products of inspired political strategies on social media. It has nothing to do with the realities of India. Indian people don’t give a damn.”
Agrees comedian Ehsaan Qureshi, “We are living in times where internet is providing us a platform to be anonymous and say whatever we like. No one gets scrutinised for that. People are just trying to have fun.” He too feels that anonymity is being used for political benefit and many controversies are pre-planned and a part of political strategy. “Many politicians do not want us to question the real issues and create absurd, unimportant controversies to deflect attention,” he adds.
Social media expertise
Author of Post Zombieism: The Social Media Hordes
Social media has today ceased to be the medium providing the voice to the masses. Instead it has now become a platform wherein the vicious biases inflicting the masses are being voiced vociferously. For example, when Priyanka Chopra’s hemline was attacked (while she was meeting the PM), a total non-issue overshadowed the primary purpose of the said meeting between two hugely influential icons of our times. The psychology presenting itself here was to attack a well-known personality by bringing him/her in the firing range of the troll’s cultural and social paradigms. Once trolls create such equalisations, a no holds barred attack follows. Sometimes, the mistake a celebrity makes is to react to such trolling. As soon as this celebrity reaction appears, more and more trolls stand vindicated and begin pouring filth thereby escalating vitriol further.
Why does this happen? This happens because while the laws to deal with such online behaviour are still work in progress, the high psychological benefits achieved from bad mouthing are achieved at almost no cost to the trolls. In fact, this incentivises such trolls to even flirt into becoming an alternate celebrity in their own alternate universe. And this happens also because the social media (especially twitter) allows an interface with the high and mighty of the society, thus giving an impression to the users that any attack on the celebrity may gain them an instant recognition. This is a similar modus operandi to terrorist networks who attempt to create spectacles to gain attention. Yet on social media, the jealousy towards those established in the society is one big reason for such troll behaviour. And the jealousy doesn’t just manifest itself by attacks on popular culture icons alone.
One can witness this behaviour even in an intellectual argument, wherein any contrarian point of view is met with the ferocity of contempt rather than through the mode of constructive argument. Morality, religion and nationalism are the main factors today resulting in this polarisation within our societies which in this fast moving world of social media doesnt allow any respite for attempting a reconciliation either. North Korea-South Korea may shake hands in the real world, but in the virtual world for all our self proclaimed warriors (feeding their own egos) such meeting of minds is impossible. And unfortunately this is not just a conservative trait but is as much demonstrated by the liberal forces. Social media forces us to take positions on issues without giving any facility or opportunity to learn about the issue at hand. This means that positions are taken without real knowledge and the fights become not ‘about the issue’ but about the position itself. And to defend such ultra positions social media trolls depend on other like minded individuals and the number game finally decides the winners and losers. The form (of supporting numbers) rather than the substance (of arguments) become the clinching factor. However this is not a reflection on the Indian user behaviour alone. The whole world is undergoing this transformation where people having found their own voices, began muzzling each other’s.
Mukesh Gupta, Chairman, Tourism Committee, PHD Chamber of Commerce & Industry says, “I agree that gossip-worthy content is increasingly highlighted as headlines-worthy. Wide reach of social media often helps the trivia gain larger audience (not necessarily larger importance) over the serious news, discourse and concerns. But this is an expected hazard of newly found freedom of expression owing to the explosion of social media.” He further adds, “However, the headcount does not showcase the real picture. Roots of Indian culture and its sensibilities are deeper to withhold the onslaught of flippant outbursts. Further, ‘Public hai sab jaanti hai’ still holds true to a large extent. The country largely holds the values of tolerance, compassion and broad-mindedness supreme. Aberrations apart, we would not find the nation swept in the occasional, and sometimes rampart, outbreaks that violate core Indian sensibility. India’s cultural roots are deeper than others in the world. Meaningless public discourse can spoil the time of the nation, but cannot affect the spirit and ethos.”
However, Shiv Vishwanathan believes that internet triggers it, it is not the politicians who do that online. “After creating outrage in field, they show outage online. But they have immaculate table manners online. It allows them to have a schizophrenic personality. For me a lot of it is that. So in real like a public space you do what you like but online you behave very well.”
Psyche behind vitriolic attacks
Much hatred and venom is spewed incessantly, and people seem to derive malicious glee from attacking and maligning others, especially eminent public figures. On a psychological level, those riddled with insecurities are the quickest to lash out, and derive pleasure from demeaning, denigrating others. Psychoanalyst Arunava Banerjee explains, “Respect for another’s position depends on my ability to accept my lack. Human beings, fundamentally, do not understand each other. What matters is that we try to, or have the desire to, understand each other. If I cannot accept that I may lack an understanding of another person’s views, and I try to push through a forced understanding, that would result in aggression. Accepting that we lack, that we are fundamentally incomplete in our understanding of the world, followed by respect for the fact that other people may know something about us in turn, is the first step towards any meaningful dialogue. Outrage and offence are merely the expressions of an inability to accept our incompleteness, thus denying the possibility of any alternate position.”
Ignorance fuels outcry
Ignorance too plays a strong role in fuelling such outrage, as many react aggressively without being cognizant of all the facts, or seeing the full picture and then drawing a well-considered conclusion. Actor Harsh Mayar blames the ignorance of people who react vehemently without going into the depths of the issue. “While it’s essential to put forward your opinion, we Indians blindly follow the crowd — if someone says something, others follow. Just because the media highlights a particular person’s opinion or a comment or a video, it goes viral. Though there are people who raise critical issues, they are very limited in number and overshadowed by many who strive for those few seconds of fame. Now any kind of publicity seems to be considered good, and it results in a rise in followers. And this is a big reason for such cheap stunts.”
Inputs by Angela Paljor and Kavi Bhandari...