“Truth is the first casualty of war” proclaims the tag line of the 1996 Denzel Washington war drama “Courage under Fire”. In the noisy, overpopulated and ideologically polarised battlefield called social media this is proven time and again. So in cyber space, bullies are called reformists, terrorists are called “poorest people in the country” and very often, the truth, like Poe’s ‘The purloined letter’, gets hidden in plain sight. The most recent example of this is the net neutrality topic. Net Neutrality, which is really a monopoly and restrictive trade practices issue, was projected (by its opponents) as an attack on free speech, since an attack on free is speech is far likelier to draw a supporting crowd than something as boring as MRTP.
The reason I bring this up is in the last few months left liberals have chosen to use the bully whip called stifling dissent and beaten the right-wing nationalists with it. The first time this took place was when Amir Khan made his singularly careless and ill-considered “intolerance “ remarks and many ordinary citizens responded by uninstalling the e-tailer “snapdeal” app since it was endorsed by Amir. Immediately the lib brigade jumped to the actor’s defence and made the idiotic claim that this protest somehow proved Khan’s claim of intolerance. (I rubbished this claim here ). A few days later, Barkha Dutt released her book, a political hit job, “This Unquiet Land” and immediately the Amazon link for the book was flooded with the so-called Bhakts who all gave low ratings to the book. The ratings plunged and Barkha, like any good journo, threw a tantrum, wrote a threatening tweet to Amazon and generally cried victim. For a second time, I had to do the job of pouring water over her righteous indignation by explaining her a thing or two about free speech. However, the left liberals have recognized this mass boycott /downgrade movement as a threat to their way of life and have gone on to brand it as intolerance and stifling dissent.
Well, it is not. And to understand why it is not intolerance to uninstall an app from your mobile, we must first understand the difference between disapproval and censorship.
For us to understand, we must do something that so-called liberals are incapable of ideologically- think from the little guy’s perspective (yes, for all their claims of equality and social justice, today’s “liberals” are the most hierarchical and elitist bunch around). Imagine you are an ordinary guy called Mayur. You have always lived in a country that exemplifies plurality and tolerance, you yourself have friends from all walks of life and political differences or no political differences, and you are there for each other. Now you see a pampered, overfed movie star sitting on a dais taking pot-shots at your culture, your religion and that makes you angry. You are seething with resentment. “How could he? After all the money, fame, adulation we showered on him?” you ask and resolve to yourself, you will never, ever allow this person to benefit economically from you. This, my good friends, is called disapproval.
Of course, but you are still angry. So you go on social media and allow your frustration an outlet. Social media is the only place available for you, since the left owned media is already gushing about the courageous star and chiding you and your kind for scaring the poor man’s poor wife insider the heavily fortified lavish villa. You write about resolve on your Facebook timeline, you tweet about it, you take a screenshot showing the Snapdeal app uninstalled and post it, just to make a day of it. This, my good friends, is called free speech.
Where the hell did your stifle anyone’s freedom?
If you see the above example, the disapproval as a method of protest, has the following classic signs to help you identify it.
- It is a copybook example of the power of one. It is one man (or woman) sitting in his living room, shaking his head and saying “uh oh, no way. Not on my watch”. I remember reading these lines about Gandhi’s Dandi salt satyagraha “उचललेस तू मीठ मुठभर साम्राज्याचा खचला पाया” (you picked a handful of salt and that shook the foundations of the empire). The first person hitting the “uninstall” tab on his smart phone was essentially displaying the same symbolic heroism.
- This disapproval can become organized (like the app wapsi became) if many people feel the same way as the first person does. But it is rarely institutionalised; that is, it is rarely endorsed by a political or a social party. While returning an app, or downgrading a book on amazon, it is essentially each man on his own.
- For this organized disapproval to make an impact, it has to be endorsed (i.e. felt) by a majority of people. And that right there is a self-monitoring mechanism built-in this form of protest. If this protest is launched by someone with an erroneous or jaundiced view of the situation, it will become nearly impossible for the campaign to gather momentum. There will be enough common people like him/her, shaking their heads in disapproval and chiding him “oh come on man, be rational”.
- The nobility of this protest also lies in the fact that disapproval puts limitations on what the person will do himself. ‘I will not use snapdeal, I will not see Dilwale’. At its best, disapproval is both a powerful form of protest and self-expression. To borrow from Gandhi again, it is impossible for someone to gush over his “Be the change you wish to see” and not see how disapproval is living that maxim.
Now to bring the joker to the Wayne. Let’s bring in censorship shall we?
Censorship in today’s world is available in two forms. One if government telling us what to read/talk/write or more specifically what not to. And I am going to stir a hornet’s nest by saying, among all the forms of censorship this probably the least harmful.
You see whenever government steps in to dictate what not to read or write, a lot of times it is merely legislating a majority opinion (appeasement politics)and while that in itself is abhorrent to a free speech purist like me, it at least strives to satisfy the “the greater good “principle. Also in today’s ear of heightened security perception and constant threat of terrorism, I guess the governments all over the world will give a wider and wider berth to free speech. If the left liberals will allow them to.
Let me say that again, if the left liberals allow them to.
Because the most worrisome form of censorship that is taking place all over the world is what I call “shame censorship” where a small and vocal group of activists with more time than common sense tell a government, a workplace, a religious institution or a bunch of advertisers that they absolutely, under any circumstance, must not allow a particular thought/ person/organisation access to address people. If this access is given to this person/institution SHAME ON YOU.
American talk show host Bill Maher tried to put stupid Ben Affleck straight on the issue of Islamic terror and of course a bunch of students at Berkley got so angry at Bill for speaking the truth that they demanded their university recall the invitation it had sent to Bill to deliver the commencement speech. Angry protests, “Islamaphobia kills” placard waving shrill teenagers held the campus hostage for a few days. The university held firm, so did Bill Maher. He delivered an outstanding speech and then went back to his studio and made fun of the protestors. This was a rare win for the good guys.
Because for every instance the administration stood firm, there are dozens of examples where the administrators simply folded. Tired of facing angry students, colleges all over the world are cancelling invitations to speakers whose world view does not coincide with these radical liberals 100% of the time.
At home a few days ago the lefties at TISS went berserk when the esteemed Rajiv Malhotra tried to deliver the lecture there. All the hooliganism that included molesting a female volunteer and then threatening her with the SC/ST atrocity act was permitted to stop Rajiv from speaking an alternate viewpoint and his followers from hearing them. The lefties could have skipped his session if his views offended them, but they decided what was not good for them was not good for anyone.
Some common traits of this type of “Shame censorship” are self-evident.
- It almost never represents majority opinion. The reason for that is simple. First if the majority feels something is not right, they often prefer the less combative route of simply not using it for themselves (the disapproval method). Also (using an example) college majority of the students are too worried about examinations and projects to spend time in deciding who should be allowed to speak or not. It is those few with time on their hands can appropriate an entire student consensus and make demands.
- If the disapproval is acted in the marketplace (i.e. the buyer in the marketplace taking a decision to not see a movie, not use an app) the shame censorship brigade always targets the manufacturer and demands removal of the commodity in question. The shame censorship does not say “I will not go to Bill Maher’s lecture and advise my friends to not attend either”. It says “I don’t think Bill is right and therefore I demand you shut him down”.
- The most tell-tale sign of shame censorship however is putting restrictions on the personal liberties of others. You do not want a speaker to enter your campus (which is his/her constitutional right), you do not want someone to perform at a concert (thus forcing the livelihood out of his hands). But this tyranny is not restricted to the target alone. When the TISS leftie thugs tried to shut down Rajiv’s talk, they were also attacking the individual freedom of all those who wished to hear him speak.
The shame censorship, in short, demands that your tastes not only be legislated but dissent be punished with banishment from the kingdom. This is intimidation of the worst kind.
Does it mean I am claiming that there is no overlap in these two? That the disapproval brigade does not spill into the censorship territory? Of course not. For all the people peacefully choosing to stay away from SRK’s Dilwale, there were others who were picketing outside theatres. Those people give the cause of protest a bad name and I have zero intention to defend them. However, two things that are often overlooked in this part of the debate are of vital importance:
One, the organised disapproval brigade does not lose the legitimacy of its movement just because a few hotheads venture into censorship. We can condemn those for their method of expression, reiterate our faith in right of self-expression for our opponents and continue with our form of protest. Expecting the peaceful, passive form of protest like disapproval to give up on its fundamental cause due to a few fringe elements is neither realistic nor moral. The people who point to the violent protests and demand that the peaceful ones surrender too are actually kind of happy to see the violent protest.
Second and equally important is that the regressive left cannot deny their culpability in the censorship, even when it comes from left (people picketing outside theatres playing Dilwale for example). Since the left does not really believe in democratic methods of debate and co-opting solutions, they brook absolutely no dissent. And therefore the moment someone says I am not going to use Snapdeal because Amir said hurtful things about my country, the left propaganda machine hurried to dub this thought as intolerant, Barkha Dutt called amazon users asserting their right to rate product as “abusive trolls”. Human psyche, like economics is a study of incentive and dis-incentives. (I have explored this idea at lengths here ). So the moment an ordinary man who was earlier just planning to stay away from Dilwale sees his peaceful friend getting called abusive troll ( or RW thug/Sanghi Goons/ Hitler Army take your pick really), he goes “hey these guys are taking no prisoners. They are condemning all forms of opposition in the same way. So what incentive do I have in only expressing myself on SM? I might as well go to the theatre, shout some slogans, and make a day out of it”. In a political discourse the ability to fine-tune the intensity of opposition is vital for not letting the debate get ugly. Left’s rush of dubbing all their opponents as morally deficient thugs has taken away the incentive of their opponents to be civil. It is my firm belief that the moment regressive left and the left liberal brigade recognizes organised disapproval as a legitimate form of protest, the fence sitters leaning towards censorship will come back in the fold of disapproval.
Last but not the least is the moral question that a few of the balanced friends are bound to have. Is it right for a majority to dictate individuals, what they can and cannot say? The answer to that is a resounding no. That is against the principle of free speech. But let’s not forget that free speech is not consequence free speech nor should it be. If we feel that a backlash against our thoughts is unfair, then we also must not expect any positive impact of our thoughts on people around us. As Stephen R Covey said in his book “7 habits of highly effective people” – When you pick up one end of the stick, you pick up the other.
There is also no escaping this fact- if majority dictating what individuals do is majoritarianism then a group of individuals getting away with saying and doing anything without the fear of backlash is dictatorship, and between majoritarianism and dictatorship, I take the former every day of the week and twice on a Sunday.
And that brings me back to the importance of organized disapproval as a powerful tool for guarding our liberties. In a democracy where a bullying minority group can often bend a government its way, no matter how unpopular or unfair their demands are, organized disapproval might be the last resort for people like you and me. Whenever the “liberals” bully another unfair legislation of their tastes that infringe our freedom, organized disapproval by means of boycott on products and personalities might be the only civil tool of freedom left in our hands. And make no mistake, the left knows it and they are coming after it. Hard. The amount of efforts taken to bring censorship on social media is nothing but a far-sighted plan to break down lines of communication for future, thus making organised disapproval all but impossible.
I say we fight it man. Our ancestors gave their lives for freedom. We would not be their worthy successors if we give it up without a fight.