Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Intolerance, a new social order?

What you read, see, and eat (and even think) is under gaze of self-styled moral custodians of social and cultural behaviour.

If freedom of expression is what democratic societies aspire for, then the use of ink to smear faces and the might of pen to spew hate can only reflect violent behaviour. Though uncalled for, such incidents have become more of a norm than exception in recent times. Triggered by ideological underpinnings, intolerance is threatening to emerge as a new social order. Make one mistake or crack a joke on the social media, and a merciless gang is likely to ruin your life.

What you read, what you see, and what you eat is under gaze from self-styled moral custodians of social and cultural behaviour. Why is it that the ‘otherness’ of the others has become so disturbing that the disruptive forces have gone on an overdrive to shame them into submission? How is it that there has been sudden spurt in public shaming as a new social vocation, that is not only sweeping the social media but its coercive nature is increasing in speed and influence? 

From authors to anchors, from academicians to activists, discontent is brewing among public figures to stay off social media, especially Twitter, to avoid invective.  Since social media offers anonymity, there has been general escalation in such hostilities. Researchers have found that anonymity not only shields ‘abusers’ but helps people aligned to a particular ideology to commit acts of violence that they would never dream of committing individually.

The act of shaming others, as this is understood, has been used in the past to correct peoples’ behaviour albeit in a transparent manner without being anonymous. Never before it has been used the way it is currently being practiced; it has indeed gone global in recent years. Public shaming has become a potent tool, called ad hominem attack, wherein unknown attackers take on the criticiser because they are unable to defend a criticism against their ideology.

Is it that the internet has given power to those who otherwise would be powerless or has this tool of social networking gone into those hands whose sinister aim is to manufacture consent? Need it be said that most of us are vulnerable to shaming, chronically ashamed of how we look, or how we feel, or what they said, or what they did. For Jon Ronson, the author of ‘So, You Have Been Publicly Shamed’, shaming has only been working because the shamee is playing a part in being ashamed.

Following on many high-profile recipients of public shaming in recent years, Jon has drawn some interesting observations that reflect upon our current predicament with what is normal and what is not. 

Are we not defining the boundaries of normality by tearing apart those who are out of it? It would seem so as we are unknowingly creating a world where the smartest way to survive is to be bland. One will hesitate to accept such a world where making the others look stupid abounds.

The trouble is that not what all ‘others’ say or feel is stupid all the times. Take the case of Ravish Kumar, host of a daily chat show on a private television channel who has been at the receiving end of hate mongers on the social media sites for his differing opinion on recent political developments. While the average male does receive his share of virulent remarks, the choicest threats are often reserved for women. There are many people, both men and women, around who are being forcibly shamed into submission.

The question that begs an answer is: has the social media created a new opportunity for locating other persons’ flaws (even if there is none) or has it been a psychic trait that is now fully blown? Since people often wear emotions on their sleeves, public shaming can have deleterious effect on many of them. James Gilligen, who served on many UN high-powered committees on the causes of violence, concludes that shaming can lead to deadening of feelings which can provoke serious act of violence in many cases.

Curiously, it is easy to declare other people insane than to admit one’s own insanity. For good or bad reasons, there are cases where people have not only lost their jobs for virulent campaign on the social media but many had to hide themselves from public gaze for several months. Internet is a tricky beast and social media a moving target. What it does though is make an iota of lie into a mound of truth. Since no one checks on the authenticity of what gets posted, the same goes viral in seconds.

In a culture where we feel constantly under surveillance, people are becoming afraid of being themselves. This is undoubtedly a disturbing trend. While hosts of de-shaming services are now available that ensure that much of the malicious content doesn’t appear in internet searches, the challenge is to address this deeper psychological malice from both sociological and political perspectives. 

Unless act of public shaming is nipped, humiliation can have far-reaching impact on individuals as well as the society.

So, You've Been Publicly Shamed
by Jon Ronson
Picador, UK
Extent: 278 pages, Price: Rs 599

These reflections were first published in Deccan Herald on October, 29, 2015.

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