Fear the Digital Indian!

An uber-aggressive strain of Indian expression has emerged; We can find it in our roads and in our social media…

In mid-2015, for nearly 15 days straight, I watched Arnab Goswami’s show every night. It was circumstantial. Someone else wanted to watch it and I just happened to be there. Then, it has its own way of sucking you in. Of course, I had seen it several times in the past too. But, as a 30 year old Indian, some of the things you never bothered about before suddenly seem important — like politics, freedom, economics and the general appeal of state-of-the-nation. And I made the mistake of watching the show for a couple of weeks. And I don’t even watch news on TV.

In any case, it fucked my mind.

Of course, below is one such splendid sample.

“You are a liar”, thunders Mr. Swamy. A statement he would echo a hundred times throughout the show.

Here was reality TV disguised (barely) under the garb of a news debate. Arnab, larger than life and perhaps inflated with a sense of immense righteousness, plays the same role as the guy who instigates drunk soccer fans into a pub-brawl. The participants, bravely defying logic and shame, would brawl verbally. After about a couple of hours with sore throats and the satisfaction of screaming on national TV, they leave.

Before it got funny, the show made me angry.

I slept angry and I had nightmares. It was affecting me personally. The reason was that the show touched topics that were significant and then proceeded to make a mockery of it.

I stopped watching it and immediately felt better. I was calmer and more empathetic — back to my usual self. I decided than that I would cut this bile from my life.

Our social media is also getting Arnabified.

Arnabification (n): The process by which rational expression of thought is corroded by demagoguery using debating principles adopted directly from the wholesale fish market at Howrah

A deep polarization has emerged and everyone’s suddenly got that elusive #one-truth or #one-counter-truth they believe in.

This has been happening ever since the power of social media was unleashed in the last Indian elections. It doesn’t help that the political parties have woken up to this trend. Now, it is yet another tool to brute-force or manipulate their way through.

Personally, it was difficult to avoid getting sucked into these issues when you are living in this country. I felt frustrated and angry with what I saw on social media. It wasn’t eye-opening or did much to expand my understanding of the issue. Elaborate, neutral journalistic pieces that bring these issues into light with real details — those that may have been buried under the passion and jingoism — are scant.

I could not believe that words on a screen would rile me up so much.

About a couple of months back, I decided to prune my feed until it was clean of certain topics or people. It isn’t so hard. In India it is usually the Left vs. Right debate played out with the subtlety of a pig walking through a mirror shop. I also figured out who are the kind of people I would actively follow and respond to and what kind of content did they put up. Movie reviews — In. People writing experiences — In. Fanatic religious obsession — Out. Political view point — Out. And so it went.

It is surprising how your perspective of the world changes by just customizing your feed in any social media platform.

Are Indians this hot-blooded by nature? We are highly emotional, yes. We are prone to moments of extreme prejudice and mob mentality, yes. Maybe the heat gets to us. Or, perhaps it’s those little irritants that make our daily life hard? The poor infrastructure and slow-killing poison of traffic could make any of us mad, surely? Maybe, it’s the spicy food? Or, is it just Genetics? There are a lot of things to blame.

Our bellicosity plays out in its most brutal, ugliest form in two places: 1. Roads and 2. Social media

And there are similarities between them. Both places muffle out the neutrals - the calm ones who want to be empathetic. It’s the domain of the extreme, the loud and the angry. Indian roads are brutal, selfish places where everyone believes that their way is the right way. Our social media platforms are no different.

Ironically, the only time we come together on social media is in common hostility towards an external enemy — typically a westerner who has offended us. At times it may be subtle or overt racism. Some times its ignorance. And many times, its a casual statement of fact that our ultra-sensitive, inferiority-complex ridden psyche has deemed offensive.

The digital world recognizes (and fears) the now infamous ‘Indian Troll’. Maria Sharapova got trolled way more for asking who Sachin Tendulkar was than for her drug-use confession. Overnight, her arch-enemy become all of India. Mark Andresseen’s misguided, tantrum-comment resulted in digital India’s nuclear outrage being directed at him until submission.

Some of these may even be justified, but the assumption that with the power of numbers we can now be social media bullies and stamp out certain ideas is scary.

Now that summer is here, I am only more afraid.

Were we this aggressive, abusive and non-empathetic 15 years back? I am not so sure. Growing up, the India that I had been led to believe and experienced was calm, friendly and helpful. Sure, we may get into arguments and fights, but fundamentally we were friendly people. We helped out. We did not push our opinions on others. We were willing to listen. Humility of opinion was the norm.

Over the course of last month, I met with at least a couple of dozen friends from different buckets of my life. I had time and a few accidental meetings that just happened. Friends from school; From undergraduate days; IIMB; Past places of work; and even some people I had known for less than a week. It’s fair to say that they represented a diverse set of thought process (although still limited to a certain economic elitism unfortunately) and hence were representative.

In these settings, the topics ranged from start-ups to politics to corruption to adoption. They were enlightening and interesting. I realized how much I’d been missing these types of conversations because I had not actively sought them out and was too lazy to make my own social appointments.

But what was more eye opening was how these topics were discussed. There was a quiet aggression but it was balanced with raw objectivity quite often. There was no dictatorial stamping of opinions. Even when someone did take a side, the burden fell on them to embellish their opinion with data. Counter-points were listened to. It did get heated at times but it was always in control.

The best part of it all was the most often than not, the same people made alternative points on both sides of the issue. They were straddling the middle comfortably. This is where all the neutrals where — roaming the real world.

It got me thinking. If this was the kind of conversation that happens in real life, then perhaps our roads and social media are aberrations?

Or is it that we get this way only under the influence of certain situations. I don’t know.

I am perhaps being naive, but I want to believe that social media (or our roads) are skewed representations of us. Indians in real life are much more likely to have a neutral, objective and civilized conversation and opinions. It is tempered with a lot of intellectual humility.

So, the next time you want to debate a topic with someone, call them for a drink somewhere and have a face to face conversation. It is likely to be more rewarding and also maybe help drop the one-sided nature of your opinions.

Or maybe I am completely wrong and it ends up in physical blows. In which case, please put out a periscope feed.