By Shubhodeep Pal Dec. 21, 2016
Even a few years ago, family members with opposing political views didn’t find it hard to get along. Don’t park the blame with right-wingers – liberals are just as responsible.
There is a palpable sense of foreboding each time the families meet these days. My mother bites her lip, furrows her brow, and utters a silent prayer to the God-who-keeps-peace-between-relatives.
In the past two or three years, this God has been called upon to preside over drawing-room conversations and dinner-table banter. Succumbing to maternal instruction – and none too keen to relive awkward confrontations between people I love – I throw in a joke or two, a cricket statistic, a jibe at the weather, a (carefully feigned) sudden remembrance of an old anecdote. Sometimes, just as the conversation veers dangerously toward politics, the women interject: “Oh, don’t bore us with your politics. Look at the little one, she’s been trying to say something for the last five minutes! By the way, have the tickets been booked for the wedding?”
It wasn’t always this way. I remember at least twenty years of relative peace at home. Family members at the opposite ends of the political spectrum didn’t find it that hard to get along. Despite the occasional argument, civility and decency were mostly maintained. The Vajpayee-led NDA government evoked barely a sliver of the passions that we witness today. Even the UPA’s double stint, up until the Anna agitations, barely saw any arguments that segued from the political to the personal.
But the wind of change started blowing around the 2014 general elections. Just as Donald Trump’s electoral success is now credited to fake news on social media, Narendra Modi too flexed his social media muscle to terrific effect. Instead of accommodating the opposition (one would assume this is a basic tenet of a functioning democracy) Modi supporters adopted a with-us-or-against-us attitude. They issued brash threats to opponents; critical media voices online, such as that of Ravish Kumar, were forced into retreat. Every day, the discourse harshens. And now the storm outside has smashed into our homes as well, narrowing the borders between family and the body politic.
Previously, politics was mere theatre: A spectacle to be observed, discussed, dissed, and laughed at, all from a safe distance. The closest you’d get was during election time, when you’d quietly go drop off your ballot. Now, the arena has expanded, personal relations appear to matter little, and everyone is fair game.
In his seminal book, The Idea of India (1999), Sunil Khilnani wrote: “…In a fundamental sense, India does not merely ‘have’ politics but is actually constituted by politics. Once a society structured by stable hierarchies, where politics had a marginal – if spectacular – function, India is today the most intensely political society in the world.”
I convince myself that not every outrageous post online should receive the attention it seeks.
I often wonder whether even Khilnani’s keen mind could have imagined the extent to which politics would eventually consume the people of India – and our families. With everyone keen to share an opinion on Facebook these days, it isn’t hard to fathom where sympathies lie.
You learn there is an uncle who hates “liberals” and “intellectuals” and renounces all of them as Congress stooges; a cousin who doesn’t shy away from comparing Barkha Dutt to a pig, or using the term “presstitutes”. Elsewhere, there’s someone in the family who refuses to acknowledge the presence of a Brahminical order in our country.
A revulsion takes hold of me. The mind boggles at whether these people I’ve grown up loving belong to the same tribe of trolls who have undermined decent political debate in the country. I feel mildly abused. I’m never mentioned directly in any comment or post – but the endless jibes at “so-called liberals and intellectuals” sting. I despair; I find myself unable to react or respond without being angry or uncivil. So I click on the unfollow button.
There is a strange silence now. It troubles me as a person of liberal views to confine myself to an echo-chamber of views I agree with. What can I, as a liberal, do to fight back?
I find, first, that there is an unwillingness to step into the muck. Whenever a family member posts something I find offensive or racist or misogynistic, it’s easier to look the other way, to unfollow, to ignore. I’ve unfollowed a number of relatives on Facebook – what I don’t see can’t hurt me or make me uncomfortable. I convince myself that not every outrageous post online should receive the attention it seeks.
When I do turn my attention (in the form of a comment) to a post by someone in the family, news travels swiftly. Inevitably, as the youngest in the family, it’s easier for me to cause outrage by “disrespecting elders” or “arguing unnecessarily” when I “could have just let it go”.
Sometimes, though, the follies of youth don’t collect all the blame. In a strange paradox, nationalist relatives recently attacked an uncle who had expressed the simple opinion that demonetisation hurts the poorest – and of these, Dalits and Muslims are the worst off. One would think that those strongly reared on the milk of traditionalism would believe in their basic tenet – the respect of elders. Instead, the first comment I found was: “Phuphaji, planning to contest elections??? Surprised and shocked. Seems your account has been hacked.” Another young person offered his entire genealogy in defence of his argument that “a learned man like you nanaji are saying things which for the first instant was really hard to believe, sorry to say it sounds like what Owaisi had said.”
How are we to respond when every argument is inevitably met with ad hominem and strawman attacks? Inevitably, the path of least resistance becomes the easiest. Disappointingly, this has caused a retreat of liberal thought online, at least in my extended circle. Worse, those who don’t retreat adopt a certain tendency of feeling self-satisfied in their coteries – as if the job’s done just by having a liberal outlook.
The result is, often, illiberal. Recall the last time you saw a racist/supremacist tweet or Facebook post. The instinctive reaction (I am guilty of this, and so are many I know) is to poke fun, or to call the person an arsehole. Another instinct is to dismiss the argument or opinion, flimsy as it might be, on grounds of poor grammar or poor English.
When the other party refuses to listen, or engage without offering intentional slights, the easiest way to respond is to develop our own brand of slights. Ironically, this feeds into a conservative trap that was laid out long ago: That liberals are elitists who can only show off their English-medium education, and look down upon those who aren’t as fluent as they are. By deliberately creating a class narrative – and sneaking the real issues to the background – the Hindu right finds it easy to propagate its anti-intellectual stance. As a result, I find both sides are forever stuck in a cycle of unending, tangential slights at each other, neither interested in debate nor compromise.
Recently, I persuaded myself to try and politely argue with those I disagree with. On a Facebook post, I wrote a carefully worded 833-word critique of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling asking cinema halls to compulsorily play the national anthem before every show. To my delight, and slight dismay, I received an oblique response that was civil and polite in its disagreement with me. I suspect this private message was sent without irony: “Facebook is neither the place nor the platform to get engaged in an intellectual discussion. I always thought you understood that”.
As you can see, my experiment with truth has proved unfruitful. My appetite for engagement is fading after being told off, for having the gall to publicly question an elder relative. I’m all out of ideas now. Send help.