Note: This post has been in the works for a while now. For some reason or the other, I never got around to organizing some of my observations over the years, but here it is.
Every once in a while, the Indian internet scene comes alive with accusations, counter-accusations and justifications of abuse and trolling. While trolling can be considered subjective and a (valid?) tactic for disrupting a message, abuse and personal attacks have different implications. An incident erupted recently, when twitter users who owe allegiance to the BJP-RSS-Hindutva groups took offence at one of Mr.B.Raman’s articles (see his blogpost about the incident). Not surprisingly, this post was discussed, debated with the usual condemnations, arguments, outrage and possibly, hashtags. However, 4 arguments are relevant.
1. The ‘freedom of expression’ argument:
I believe everyone has a right to their opinion and must have the space to express it. I also believe that freedom of expression has to be used responsibly. The question to ask would be “Is there malicious intent?”, but this is a gray area, it is subjective and this freedom deserves to be protected from those who wish to suppress it and also from ourselves. When this freedom is perceived to be (and is) abused, as was in the case of @ramanthink, we come to the:
2. The ‘If you don't like it, ignore/block/move on’ argument:
It is a fair point and works in most cases, but for more clarity, it is important to break down how the abuse is delivered (using my handle as the ‘abused’ and weak imagined insults):
- @person1 to @person2 you know what, the comic project is an !@#AS#@(
This conversation takes place without me knowing about it. It is public, all of @person1 and @person2’s friends can see this and can choose to ignore or ask @person1 and @person2 to take this off their timelines. The abuse is there, but I probably will have no knowledge of it.
This happens ALL the time (I see it in my timeline) but can be ignored easily.
- @person1 to @person2 you know @thecomicproject is an !@#AS#@(
Now I know I am being abused. I am in the middle of it and as the abuse gets nastier, how I react will depend on my own ability to withstand an abusive reference. In the physical world, this is akin to 2 people abusing me loudly and everyone within an earshot can see this happening.
- @person1 to @thecomicproject you are an !@#AS#@(
This is abuse directed at me – @person1 is “telling me” who I am, in public but maybe to a smaller group of people.
- @person1: you are an !@#AS#@( @thecomicproject
This is a broadcast. @person1 wants all his friends to know that he or she said this.
There could be variations to get this message across, but the point is that this abuse is personal and some of us are able to react to it – by ignoring, with humour, logic or even abuse – but the ability to withstand or handle this abuse is not the same. It is not very different from the physical world where my ability to respond to a physical attack in public depends on my size, weight, martial arts training and the stomach for a fight. But I was out on the street shopping, not looking for a fight. Why then is a fight being foisted on me? And what am I to do if I can’t fight back? I can go to the cops, but there’s no equivalent in the online world. Which brings me to:
3. The “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen” argument:
While the domain is public, the kitchen is mine and while conversations behind my back can be ignored, no one has the right to invade my personal space. Not even under the cover of ‘freedom of expression’. Which then begs the question, is the abuse so widespread as to merit so much attention? And this leads me to:
4. The “This is a fringe group” argument:
Today, no conversation is possible without being interrupted because someone thought they are being victimized, only their brand of patriotism, their religion, their opinion must stand and the rest are traitors or Hindu-haters or pseudo-<you pick the term>. This group is large enough and noisy enough to be considered more than a fringe. Politically speaking, the Indian internet scene has been BJP-RSS-Hindutva domain from the time I have been observing it (2004-2005). Lest someone beat their chests for numbers, let me clarify that these are observations but as I heard someone say, if elections were held on the internet, BJP would win it hands down. It is, of course, unfair to generalize that all BJP-RSS-Hindutva supporters are abusive (there are some Congress supporters too), but it is not unreasonable to conclude that most of the abuse originates from BJP-RSS-Hindutva supporters.
Some of this abuse and noise is admittedly a result of real frustration at the state of affairs, but a lot of it is a result of hatred, malice and intolerance cultivated over a period of time. While I do not yet believe that the abuse is organized or part of a plan, the emerging pattern points to a thought that if there is enough noise and abuse, reasonable people will be driven away from the scene or at least, be wary of expressing their opinions as openly.
In conclusion, while ignoring is still the best option available, the simple message is -
To the hordes: Get out of my kitchen.
To reasonable people: Do not cede ground. Do not let the abuse and the disruptions end meaningful conversations.
To the BJP-RSS-Hindutva thought leaders: I hope you show more awareness of the impact of your words. Eloquence and obfuscation may give you plausible deniability but you only have to look at the people standing behind you to realise that you are not fooling anyone. These are your hordes. Rein them in before someone gets hurt. The “Jinnah is secular” and “I regret the demolition” arguments were used up a long time ago.