I’ve been biting my tongue a lot recently. Most of this restraint has come while watching meltdowns and breakthroughs happening on social media – messy, convoluted, loaded, divisive, and always more complicated than what can be gauged by an observer who arrives mid-scene. The nature of opinion-sharing today often has us respond to an escalation, without necessarily having information of what led there. We are expected to behave as though our opinions are always fully formed, and then be intractable about them.
I learned a lot from dialoguing out of view. There were private commiserations on profoundly obliterative and appropriative actions, in which those who had earned their opinions were erased. Once, I tweeted then deleted a stray thought, not wanting to add to the noise and aware of needing to evaluate my own stake. Another time, I offered my solidarity and asserted that I did so because we often don’t, publically. (We do perform solidarities, constantly, but that’s not the same thing; I noted with amusement certain strategic joinings of hands – not reconciliations, but mergers in a highly brand-building sense). Several times, I typed a feeling out and pressed backspace on the whole thing. Even right now, I’m not entirely sure if I’ll wind up hitting that key on all this too.
This circumspection came because within the lacuna between what is seen (the curated web façades, evident structural issues and socio-political positions, the flashpoint that invites or incites response, and one’s own inferences and biases) and what is unknown (backstories, dynamics, pressures, intentions – and again, one’s own inferences and biases) there is far too much risk of skidding. This is true even for the apparently non-participating observer.
In those out-of-view conversations, a variety of silences co-existed: pained silence, thoughtful silence, judicious silence, telling silence. Questions of allegiance, obligation and divergence arose repeatedly. Both the silences and the questions came out of personal histories, not political differences.
What is called infighting assumes proximity, of sentiment or background, when this could just be optical proximity, as meaningless as alphabetized order. We disdain this as selfishness, unsupportiveness. But how can we know whether there were grounds on which loyalty could be built, and that it was not broken somehow, behind the scenes? The truth will sometimes be embarrassing and oblique, because it involves human beings. One’s beliefs will be shown to stem from situations that seem pathetically personal. They will contain envies and pettiness, alongside betrayals and traumas. How can one divulge all this, and stand in judgement? It cannot happen without a mess.
We need to work towards what I will call “an ethics of dirty laundry”. Dirty laundry is the messy, human, hopelessly subjective element in many public escalations. It is also, as we learned from the #MeToo movement, important. Forming cohesive practical strategies that can incorporate, with integrity, experiences and instincts will help the loose fragments we call communities and movements. Can this be done respectfully, without pandering to voyeurism? Or must we return once more to our whisper networks, and with them the uneasy knowledge that they’ll never be wide enough to keep more people from waltzing into traps both fresh and old?
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 6th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.