A lesson for liberals: Challenge, don’t cancel; question, don’t ban

Music & Noise
Last Updated 08 May 2022, 00:25 IST

The Ukraine crisis has brought the focus back on the political rhetoric “You are either with us or against us.” A statement that George W Bush twisted dangerously, but successfully, to justify his so-called ‘war on terrorism’. The impact of such high-profile demands from leaders are felt not just at the governmental level but also in the world of arts and sports. Individuals are expected to act in a manner that is synchronous with these declarations. Today, institutions housed in the so-called ‘free world’ have cancelled events featuring Russian artists and banned sportspersons from Russia. They have been especially harsh on individuals who have not expressed solidarity with the Ukrainians or condemned Putin’s invasion. Irrespective of one’s own perspective on the fissures in the NATO-Russian and US-Russian relationships, Putin’s action just cannot be justified. But does that mean that artists and sportspersons who do not express unequivocal condemnation must be denied their socio-cultural space?

To begin with, barring some supremely powerful artists, everyone else lives under the umbrella of patronage. They have always depended on support from their governments and business corporations. Toeing the line set by the establishment is thus an ingrained mindset. Hence, very rarely do they upset the apple cart. For that to happen, there must be a sizable groundswell, and they need to be socio-economically secure. Those artists who speak up despite not having this cushioning usually come from marginalised communities, where they have had no choice but to push back hard.

There is also the real and present danger lurking around the corner. There will be no one to protect these individuals if Putin decides to target them. We will only hear post-facto utterances expressing sorrow and displays of toothless anger. Private western institutions that are taking such strong decisions are also possibly doing so under political pressure. They want to secure their place within their political environment and come out on the right side! All in all, everyone is a puppet, but the worst-hit are artists and sportspersons.

Questions have been raised, correctly, about the silence with regard to Palestine, Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan. Many have gone on making art or jumping over the hurdles, impervious to the lives that are being uprooted and the violent deaths that have become an everyday reality in these places. No ‘white’ institution has called for their boycott. The argument that these are ‘grey’ cases is untenable. Beyond the obviousness of global discrimination directed at the Islamic world, we also have to investigate picky morality, which operates at the individual and collective levels.

Two cases in recent years that relate to Indians come to my mind. With the emergence of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, we found a number of Indian artists who live in the US speaking up, sharing posts on social media and creating works of art that addressed the issue frontally. Most of them, if not all, came from caste privilege. Yet even today, it is only a handful among this large group that even makes an effort to understand caste and their own complicity in it. Even as social and cultural discrimination continues unabated and Dalits continue to be killed, these people stay conspicuously afar from any engagement with this issue. This turns their artistic support of ‘Black Lives Matter’ an un-self-reflective fake act.

The nature of the State also plays a role. The Indian State has never been bold enough to denounce casteism in the manner that Babasaheb Ambedkar had demanded. This allows for willful blindness, excuses, justifications of the caste system to continue. Something that the diaspora has perpetuated with quiet ease. But does this mean that the liberal world should cancel artists who just play along? Rather, what we need is for them to be challenged by others who come from a different point of view and social ethos. It is in this exchange that society can move forward, not by demanding adherence, especially when we know it is insincere.

In India, we are also witnessing everyday violence against Muslims, but a majority of artists remain mum, either living in their own ‘la-la land’ or being too fearful to stand up. Apart from the ones who remain silent, there are those who actively support targeted attacks on minorities. Here, too, the State enables and reminds us of that very slogan, “You are with us or against us.” Consequently, artists and sportspersons remain bystanders or cheerleaders.

There is a false belief in the liberal world that artists and sportspersons are better or need to be better than the rest of the population. Ideally, there can be no room for propagation of any kind of violence, but no society truly follows such a value. Some kind of violence is always sought to be justified. It is only in our support or rejection of its cause and result that we differentiate ourselves. And our own understanding of any situation, domestic or international, is coloured by the nationalism we have been indoctrinated to believe in. Hence, the ethical behaviour that we demand is not dispassionate; it is manipulated. Unless we divorce ourselves from this construction, there can never be a ‘right’ choice.

When it is obvious then that all of us are sailing in the same boat and unwilling to truly change, banning artists or sportspersons is hypocrisy, and unacceptable. They must be critically questioned, not cancelled. But such actions are taken in the hope that it will influence others, especially ‘everyday people’, to rethink their political inclination, even force them to behave in a manner that ‘we’ find acceptable. Unfortunately, this does not make the world a better place.

(T M Krishna the mind questions, the music moves, the mountains beckon @tmkrishna)

(Published 07 May 2022, 19:05 IST)

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