The Guwahati gang molestation shocked the Nation with the usual monthly fury. How can men behave like animals? Women are not safe anymore and such talk abounded. Lot of moral outrage. In other news, there was a group of people criticizing the NCW team for posing for a picture where they are smiling and look carefree. In still other news, there was a bunch of people passing around an image compiled from Sagarika’s tweets on the subject pointing out to how her views changed. I had my usual trolls lampooning me over whatever views of mine offended them. Life went on.
In my view, our online life is a good example and predictor of our offline life. Our minds are the same, our personalities are the same, and our default responses to situations are the same. It is only the medium that has changed, and the actions. One may not be able to molest a woman online, but they sure can jeer, make sexual innuendos, or otherwise bully her. Last week someone wanted me raped for something I said. A couple of months back, someone had said that to Meena Kandasamy and triggered a women’s rights signature campaign. Generally, I find that if anyone threatens rape, then people kind of throw disapproval at that person till he changes his words or they get bored. The objection is to the threat of rape, not to the use of threats to try and silence someone.
I am small fry. Some of the most hated/ridiculed men on Twitter are Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi, Subramanian Swamy, Arnab Goswami and Kapil Sibal for men. Some of the most hated/ridiculed women on Twitter are Sonia Gandhi, Barkha Dutt, Arundhati Roy, Teesta Setalvad and Sagarika Ghose. It is worth keeping an eye on tweets about these people to see the kind of abuse they get. Abuse for men is related with judgments of their competence or crimes as per whatever the abuser imagines. On the other hand, abuse women get routinely slips into the sexual. “Spreads her legs for XYZ” “Should be raped” “prostitute” etc. The other thing I notice is that the abuse is rarely over anything these people did to individuals speaking, but by being themselves. They are also highly popular figures with large followings appreciating what they do.
In my view, the idea that someone did something offensive giving the right to anyone to attack them is very IT Rulesish. I am not speaking of criticism, but of deliberate character assassinations that go beyond objections to the actions or stands of a person to vilify the person him/herself. So, calling Modi a mass murderer makes perfect sense to people, because they think he is guilty of sanctioning the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat. Whether he actually killed anyone or not. Incidentally, the same people will not call Rajiv Gandhi a mass murder, if sanction is the reason. This is not to excuse crimes by anyone including Modi, but pointing out the permission we give ourselves to attack another at will.
Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never kill me.
This above line is a lie. Physical violence happens with blows and weapons, but mental violence happens with words, attitudes and destroying reputations. Destroyed reputations are the reasons for a lot of real damage ranging from depression and destroyed self-esteem to honor killings and suicides. The hatred I see online would likely not see this as a minus at all, but call it a confirmation of guilt. Because the intent is to cause damage to that person to whatever extent they can.
I have taken a strong stand against domestic violence and alcoholism and often tweet real life incidents from my own life as well as others I come across, because I think these things need spoken about. I have often got replies like “her husband doesn’t beat her enough” or “publicizing domestic problems to gain sympathy” etc. While the first seems openly offensive, the second is criticism aimed at devaluing my right to speak about my life however I want. It also makes the suggestion that a domestic violence victim getting sympathy is somehow inappropriate. I am extraordinarily resilient when it comes to trouble, but attitudes like this in society are a very common part of suicides from harassment, where the victim gets victimized for being a victim or drawing attention to herself.
The same society then looks at a body dangling from a ceiling and says sorrowfully, “Why didn’t he say anything?”
What do we do when he did say something? Call it inappropriate and his personal problem. We are a society intolerant of mistakes, weaknesses and imperfections. These usually invite attacks, because we fear our own vulnerability. We don’t accept ourselves, so it makes react with intolerance to others. We band together with those with “faults” like ours and be a mob denying that the trait is a fault at all. We mob together to attack our traits that we deny. We wipe out anything that will force us to look good and hard at ourselves unless denied.
Now let us look at a third thing. The popcorn gallery. Countless incidents have demonstrated that the crowd that gathers watching a wrong happen either support the abuser, or stay quiet. What happens online? If you see someone call Sonia Gandhi a whore on Twitter? The chances are high that the tweet will get a lot of RTs and those who disagree will simply ignore the people. If one person attacks another unfairly on Twitter, the chances are high that most people following both will pretend not to see anything. At most, they will tell them not to fight. The chances that an abuser online will be stopped by a crowd are the same as those in real life. Slim to none.
I have a simple policy of refusing to participate in discussions attacking people. I also never block people. I don’t need to. refusals work well. Most people no longer tag me while insulting someone. It is not impossible to refuse to allow attacks to happen in the space you influence. It is about intent. I do it in real life too. It is not enough.
This, in my view mental violence destroying the space to live at all in the country, because disagreement becomes a question of who can overpower the other. This is happening in real life too. People with power can invade the rights of others and the popcorn gallery is used to it. The surprise is if the less powerful resist. If instead of getting molested, the girl had fought back and escaped, the video would be a characterless girl on the streets of Guwahati who brazenly attacked people and ran away. For a wrong against her to be objected to, she first has to suffer “enough”. The wrong being done in itself wouldn’t matter. Because we are a mindset of throwing crumbs of support if a plight seems horrible enough. We are not about values and ethics and individual rights regardless of caste, creed and gender.
The mass molestation in Guwahati got a lot of attention, but not the fact that the girl was an Adivasi girl. My hunch is because she got more publicity than Adivasi girls get normally. Media probably didn’t want to jinx that. The reason may not be true, but it is true that the girl is an adivasi and most news haven’t bothered to report that. Also, good in another view, I think, because a girl outside a pub gets more defenders than the adivasi girl stripped in some village. Like there are people who think only prostitutes go to pubs, there are others who find the rights of innocent pub going girls more touching than those of adivasis. The good old PLU preference is very strong when it comes to doling out approval for rights of people.
All in all, it is high time we accept that we are living in a world we create. We are the victim, we are the molesters, we are the popcorn gallery.