There’s always another someone saying another something, and like cats chasing a laser pointer our attention jumps from one flare-up to the next. Last week, the Dalai Lama made sexist and racist statements better suited to a muted family Whatsapp group than to a dignitary of his position. This week, director Sandeep Vanga, whose Arjun Reddy and Kabir Singh would have brought toxic masculinity back in style if it had ever gone away to begin with, claimed that slapping is a gesture of love. The designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee tried to sell his own products through a psychological trick called negging – undermining the subject’s confidence so as to move in for the kill (in his case, claiming women wearing gaudy apparel or makeup were secretly in deep pain). All these statements rightly deserve condemnation. But what happens when we get stuck inside the vortex of umbrage, retaliation and no change?
Watching women reveal their traumas from past intimate relationships on Twitter, in order to discredit the violent rhetoric in Vanga’s movies, horrified that they’d felt driven to share these experiences to counter the glorification of abuse, I encountered a necessary yellow-light-says-pause in my own outrage cycle. Those who refused to see the links between pop culture and lived culture were unlikely to have a change of heart. They’d surrendered both intelligence and goodness when they picked “It’s just a movie, yaar” as the hill to die on. At what personal cost were the survivors relieving their stories?
The author Toni Morrison is often quoted from a 1975 speech: “It’s important, therefore, to know who the real enemy is, and to know the function, the very serious function of racism, which is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again your reason for being.” She went on to talk about how decades of research, art and science can go into proving a single prejudice wrong. All that energy is directed towards reaction, rather than innovation.
Every one of us falls into this trap unwittingly. Some even lay the trap unwittingly, wiring themselves into contrarian or essentialist positions, and then we’re in an endless volley of call (or it is call-out?) and response. The only people who win at this are full-time trolls. Most of us are not, but all of us who consume and produce real-time opinion get sucked into illusory distraction. It can make us feel like we are deeply engaged and constantly productive, but what is the accumulative good of the same?
A meaningful recalibration may require slowness and some silence, eschewing the quick rejoinder for a more involved project of engagement, processing and creativity. The truth is that when we are bombarded with information, we are overcome by a lemming effect. We look where we are directed to look, and then expend our energy as a unit. In the backdrop, everything remains perfectly intact while we agitate, swayed into overestimating our personal importance. But there is a place for that too. It’s in the work that we get distracted away from. What is that work – that intensive, time-consuming, tedious but important work that isn’t being done?
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 11th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.