In my opinion...

On the Blindside

In my opinion...

There’s a war out there, a war of words, where everyone feels they have to voicean opinion about an opinion. Innocuous statements being misconstrued is commonplace now. Seems like if there’s 

one right that we all love to exercise,it is the right to take offence, writes SHREEKUMAR VARMA.

There was a time people resettling or moving to Kerala did it on the sly. You’d arrive at night and quietly get your own people to unload your furniture and arrange it in the house. For there was always a zealous group of loaders waiting to get their hands on your things, whether you wanted their help or not. And they’d have to be paid, whether they actually loaded or not. They belonged to associations, and acted as if it was their right to load other people’s things for them. And if they weren’t allowed this right, they had the right to take offence and retaliate.

Sadly, despite your quietest moves, they still found you out!

Some of their ilk still lurk around.

Today, it’s the same when you want to voice an opinion. Not just in Kerala, but in the whole country. Not just in this country, but throughout the world. Perhaps the social media is to blame. Like in most cases. Everyone feels they have to voice an opinion about your opinion. It’s no more a question of counting the number of likes you secured for a Facebook post. You have to contend with hate, sarcasm and blistering personal prejudice along with the approval. You have to face that unbearable tightness of being when a casual passerby peers into your personal jottings and feels he’ll burst if he doesn’t unburden himself of a pompous, witty or wounded comment. You find yourself suddenly raised from an ordinary social media junkie to the purveyor of “that” opinion, the guy who posted “that”. 

The Isms are strong and always ready to go.

The Airtel ad which had the husband’s boss cooking his meal and waiting for him to return home let loose a storm of protest. The cloak of patriarchy is back, they chorused in horrified contentment. It reminded me of a British Council seminar years ago. I’d just read out my take on Raja Rao’s Kanthapura. Most of the other delegates were women. In fact, let me see, I was the only male. One of the things I mentioned in my paper was about the “stridency” of today’s feminists. “Strident? Strident! Strident!??!!” I went pale as an army of offended women fell upon me with claws-out cacophony. My wife watched helplessly in the audience. The uproar lasted until another woman, stronger and louder, drowned out their voices, saying, “So what?

That’s his opinion, why should he take it back?”

This necessity to take offence is upon us like an angry red rash, an epidemic that will spread if not contained.

What’s new is the availability of a forum when we want to express ourselves. A forum that will allow us to share our ideas and whims, to get responses, to see where we stand and to, admittedly, give us our moment of fame. There are hundreds of thoughts and responses running around in our heads all the time. In the old days, we simply let them be. Or spilled them out on the pages of a diary. Or confided in those who were close to us. Today when we find ready options like Facebook, Twitter and message boards before us, we express them without thought, just as our forefathers would spit out their paan juice into readily available spittoons or on walls. And just as the red stain stayed on those walls, once we’ve expressed ourselves it’s there, often inerasably, for the world to see. Whether we like it or not.

Which leads to the next step: the offended response. 

Waiting to be heard

There’s a pithy description in Malayalam. It pinpoints the circumstance of an offended person as “a coconut falling on the head of a dog waiting to howl”. It’s like a coterie of otherwise unemployed persons watching for an unfortunate comment from an unsuspecting offender. Take the instance of singer Jesudas speaking out against women in jeans. At the most, it reflects the type of person he is. Or the state of mind he was in when he made the comment. Or it was a contextual comment to be read with other things. Whatever it was, it was his opinion, like everyone else has their opinion. There’s no reason to condemn the singer’s entire career or appear to be kind by saying, “He’s a great singer, but talks shit.” Which is the sort of thing you now hear. As if people with poised fingers are dying to click hate.

If everyone has an opinion but cannot voice it, what is freedom and democracy for?

 Like the wise man says: Your freedom ends where my nose begins. So, if someone says something that doesn’t actually hurt you, then what’s all the hullabaloo about?

 The reply (for instance): He’s a celebrated singer. People with such clout should make responsible statements. So, if you are influential (even unknowingly), then you’re supposed to mask your feelings and march with the majority or the delicately correct political opinion?

Because someone will be offended?

Because there are groups of finely gradated philosophical, political or ethnic distinctions, and they’ll all be waiting to see whose opinion can be pounced upon?

So, if you have a brand to sell, you tell your agency to fashion the blandest advertisement that no one could possibly take offence to?

If you are offended by so-and-so’s opinion, you do have a saner remedy. Put out your own opinion. Not grapple the poor so-and-so to the ground and trample all over him. If you are offended, hang out your own version for the “offender” to see, but don’t weaken him and yourself by turning personal and aiming for the gut. It’s when reason fails you that you flail out.

Look around you. Lurking beyond the shadows is a bitter voice. It will slither out the moment you make your opinion public. Twitter, Facebook, opinion polls, TV get-togethers. It’s all there, red carpeted for you to voice your opinion. But it’s like a spider’s trap. Do it, and the barrage will be upon you. Like that dog with the waiting howl. And since there are different groups on the prowl, you can never be completely right or wrong. Technology has made it possible for our nasty side to be nudged into view. Technology that encourages you to let it all hang out and then pounces on you for doing so!

Which is why most people stick to harmless comments and posts: Today I got up feeling good with the world. Today my bowel movements were pretty average. Today is hot and therefore it must rain. Today I love chocolate. Or they post pictures of half-eaten meals. Or repost stock statements of goodwill with standard cheerful pictures or mildly shocking declarations that will evaporate as soon as they’re seen. Things that can’t go wrong, you see. Because opinions are dangerous.

Finally, individuality will count for nothing. There’ll just be the politically correct, middle-path, smiley statement. And you’ll have to hold on to that, come what may, believe it or not.

When Sankaracharya found Hinduism being subdued beneath other popular religions like Jainism and Buddhism, he didn’t hire a gladiator to chop off the heads of rivals. He travelled through the land, using argument, debate and philosophical acumen till Hinduism regained its lost glory. And that was the measure of his success. That he could do so without sword or fire. He believed everyone was entitled to his own opinion, and he’d have his say too if they gave him a chance. When you get the better of people through debate, where’s the question of offending anyone?

(It was rather different in the case of the Kauravas who were laughed at by Draupadi, took offence and sowed the seeds of the Mahabharata war. Because offence can also burgeon in silence, then rise up and destroy.)Let’s now turn the coin to look at the other side.

On Facebook, there’s a slightly different take on taking offence. Some people feel the closer they are to you, the more critical, candid and crude they can be. And if you react with a grimace, they say Ha-Ha-Ha, and fiddle with your feelings even further. So, here we’re on the other side, as offence-takers. In my case, I grin and bear it till I feel I don’t need to any more. Then I un-friend the person. I think that’s the best of three choices: the other two being to tolerate him forever or take an eye for an eye, repaying crude with crass. When you un-friend such people, it’s only the cyber equivalent of switching channels, where you gracefully glide away from a brash channel by pressing the Next button. (Okay, maybe slightly more drastic than that.) I’ve had experiences where the unfriended friend was escorted back and we bonded better than before!

It’s a small world

It’s a delicate path to tread, and it’s probably happening because the world has become smaller and distances get destroyed through daily interaction between you, your family and friends. Strangers are welcomed into your close-knit group till they too feel they have a right over your life. A merry little interactive group. Until things start getting out of hand.

So we find there are two sides to taking offence. Our side and their side.

I remember some decades ago when this paper published a Sunday short story and all hell broke loose. Vandals poured in and did every damage they could. The funny thing about it was that the story was an English translation of a story that had already been carried in a magazine in another state without much ado. No one had bothered about its nuances (if there were any), and it was quietly read and appreciated. The same story, when translated, caused reverberations.

What is it about these people? Is it the politics or some inherent stridency?

Today, Feminism, Secularism, Ecology, Animal Welfare, Human Rights are all subjects of explosive delicacy. Holding inherent merit in themselves, they are mutated into esoteric concepts that will burn you wherever you touch them. They become hurlable weapons in the hands of battle-scarred activists. Whatever you do or say flouts some provision in their tattered rule book. They are like bullies perched on the fence, preventing you from climbing over, taunting you for every difference between you and them.

There are three types of offence-takers: the individual, the group and the compulsive victim. In the first, the individual may be sensitive, touchy or genuinely hurt. There’s a lot to be said for getting off your high horse and investigating the damage you may have caused, to check if it’s a real grievance. In the second case, the issue may be valid but the priority is an ulterior dividend, generally political. An offended protest is orchestrated and ruthlessly pursued. This can turn deadly with the vagaries of mob psychology and the possibility of violence hanging in the air, persuasion ending in shove and push. In the third case, the “victim” is like a dog on the street barking randomly at the odd passer-by. It’s the pleasure of barking that rules here.

Three years ago, when I was in north Kerala, my cousin who was then HOD in a women’s college said the staff and the local police were concerned about students being lured away by radical elements, forsaking home and college. That was the first time I heard the term “Love Jihad”. It was then a law and order problem in the academic world, a problem that needed to be delicately handled. Today, the term has resurfaced. A general sense of hurt and offence has been created with politics edging out the socio-legal and human aspect. Politics has that Midas-like ability to turn sensitive issues into mould.

Everyone takes offence. It’s the way it’s expressed that matters.

The Internet makes for impulsive expression and instant regret. Politics has armies waiting like wary watchdogs ready to pounce on the opposite view. People in positions of power (whether politicians, policemen, teachers, judges or actors) often remain in states of self-deluded divinity, defensive and aggressive to protect their power. You and I are pedestrians who get caught in the crossfire.

So I’ll now quietly leave you with these thoughts. Who knows who’s waiting out there to take offence.

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