After “We have failed to create an ecosystem”, the oft repeated peeve of social media right is “we have failed to build a narrative”. In the last 3 years I have attended a few meetings of like-minded individuals and most such get-togethers cannot progress for more than five minutes before someone says (usually with a skyward roll of eyes or a frustrated hands-thrown-in-air gesture or both) “bloody RW is always in reaction mode. When are we going to build our own narrative?”
In a recent event I attended, a journalist with a becoming haughtiness said “You (RW) have created superstars out of nobodies like (insert a student leader’s name here), when are you fools going to stop chasing the baits thrown at you and build your own narrative?” Ok, I might have spruced up the language a tad for dramatic effect, but the gist of the conversation was as above, namely, every time a left leaning or status quo-ist journalist, academician or intellectual makes a statement on social media that is designed to provoke the ‘right wing’, the ‘right wing’ happily obliges them by reacting.
Not only do I recognize the degree of truth in the above complaint, very recently I have been at the receiving end of considerable social media flak for politely pointing out to my fellow travellers that sometimes not reacting is the best way to be. However, like all theories in today’s highly polarized discourse, this too has been applied as an absolute by many, mainly by right leaning to centrist journalists with exposure to mainstream media and academicians/intellectuals that the fledgling right ecosystem has been able to produce. So I thought it would be refreshing to give an aspiring writer’s perspective on this reaction business.
To start with, one needs to understand the nature of social media as a confrontational medium and how provocateurs on both sides of the aisle have mastered the art of making instigative statements that are bound to invoke strong reactions. The left especially is adept at first deliberately provoking outrage and then claiming victimhood. So when a communist student leader, a self-proclaimed Indologist from USA or a mainstream journalist makes a provocative tweet, it is merely the opening move in a series of calculated escalations. So ignoring the first statement merely brings out more provocative statement.
The danger of such provocateurs getting mainstreamed, without being challenged, cannot be ignored either. Unlike the ‘right’, that has largely consigned its loonies to the fringe, the left worldwide has happily embraced extremists. The veneration a homophobic mass murderer like Che has received is an example. So the tweeple student leader of today will be the lit-fest speaker of tomorrow and the mainstream political leader of the day after. Mind you, engaging with them today is not going to stop this from happening. However, ignoring them today would allow them to develop their rhythm without interruptions and add followers from the neutral or fence-sitting category who would, in absence of contrary argument, take their narrative as the only one, especially as the decades old ecosystem of academicians, entertainers and intellectuals is endorsing it.
If ignoring hate-mongers would have consigned them to oblivion, then the left leaning ecosystem of the 60s and 70s would have never reached the position of primacy in our discourse that they reached today, as during the last quarter of 20th century these people were virtually unopposed.
One reason why more mainstream journalists don’t understand this reaction business is that there is a very important difference between career journalists or columnists who cut their teeth in the environment of conventional media, and many social media writers of today who started off in completely different fields but came to politics because they felt the way of life as they saw it, was under attack. So for a lot of us (I too belong to the latter category), reacting to a contrary opinion was how we started off. My first article carried by OpIndia was in reaction to a Sunday Times column by Aakar Patel. My first article to cross 10,000 shares was a rebuttal of journalist Ravish Kumar’s open letter to union minister M J Akbar. Over a period of time, I have learnt to resist the impulse of going after every contrary opinion expressed out there, but the fact remains that it was the act of reacting that taught me how to construct an argument. I am sure a lot of writers who grew up in social media age would share my experience.
In my experience, there is a tendency to have an ‘all in or all out’ view when it comes to building the so-called narrative. While it is true that every movement requires original thinkers, philosophers and policy wonks for it to remain relevant over a period of time, from time to time it also needs people who act as hammers in search of nails. Sure, those people should never become the leading lights of the movement (example Breitbart and Trump administration) but the hammers form a protective layer around the thinkers of their side so that they can continue their work without having to deal with the obnoxious trolls from the other side. I am going to get into a lot of trouble for saying this but there is a certain amount of nobility in keeping aside your personal distaste for engaging with offensive people for the sake of the cause you serve.
So if it is a case of ‘all in or all out’, are there improvements that the right can do to its reactions? In my opinion, moderating the vehemence of reactions against people largely on your own side but in disagreement on a particular issue is one low hanging fruit. There is also a tendency of commenting upon non-political or politically neutral communication because you don’t agree with the politics of the person. This is largely counter-productive and allows the other side to build the ‘vicious intimidating troll machine of the right’ narrative. In my opinion that should be avoided too.
I would be remiss if I don’t mention to my friends that your advice of ‘not reacting’ does sound alike the adage of ‘do as I say not as I do’ because most of you have been around longer than us and there is precious little narrative we see built around us. So isn’t there a small possibility that we are not a whole lot of different in strategy and have only difference of opinion as to what topics are worth reacting to?
There is one more reason why this ‘build your own narrative’ doesn’t sound like a very practical advice to me. It is the same reason why I don’t agree with filmmakers when they say ‘if you think a film is lying about history, make your own film showing the correct one’. Both these statements assume a level playing field where both sides are on an equal footing. That is far from the truth.
The communication channels are dominated by one side, the distribution is cartelized in the hands of one side and the centres of academic and intellectual discourse are ruled with an iron-fist by one side. In war parlance, this is the enemy occupying elevated position. Building own narrative is not going to work for those below as long as the elevated position would allow the enemy to destroy them. In that context, going after the enemy’s guns might sound like a suicidal pursuit but ultimately if there is one tactic that even has a chance of win, it lies in destroying the guns occupying the elevated position.
There is an old saying that there are two times your enemies will attack you – one is when they are ready, and the other when you are not. If you consider yourself as a soldier defending a lonely outpost in this civilizational battle, you have to acknowledge that we don’t choose our battles, our battles choose us and sometimes not engaging an enemy is the same as surrendering the post.
We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.
You know who said this? Winston Churchill. Mr Churchill knew a thing or two about defending a tiny island under attack from a highly motivated and powerful enemy. Please note, nowhere in his rousing speech does Mr. Churchill say ‘we shall fight them at a time and place of our own choosing’.
I rest my case! Jai Hind!