A few weeks ago, the TV host Padma Lakshmi used her hand to mix ingredients for puliyodharai and people had Reactions to this. I don’t know what those Reactions were exactly, because I didn’t care to look, but I knew they were happening. You see, every time Padma Lakshmi does something of note, “of note” being relative of course, I find out because someone out there finds it a teachable moment in which to share my critique of her 2016 memoir, and tag me on the same. The memoir reveals its author to be openly casteist and highly problematic in ways that disprove her progressive reputation in the West.
It doesn’t bother me to see these tags, but it does make me wonder why my piece seems to be one of very few, if not the only, one that discusses those issues. I must admit I sometimes also wonder if more people have read my review than her book – I say this not to be snarky, but because every time someone shares it, others express shock. Lakshmi’s bigotry is not common knowledge.
People who’ve made smaller infractions, or whose views have traceably evolved, are discredited for far less. But, also, others who’ve made significant infractions remain celebrated.
I have a theory about all this: in order for a cancellation to snowball, the first detractor must aggressively drum up a wave. They must gear their criticism to galvanise mass condemnation. As I never had an interest in getting Lakshmi cancelled, and do not believe in that highly punitive approach at all, I did not invest my energy or time into this. So no wave. On social media, most people get pulled into waves, and do not long observe ripples – or pacificity.
I see this theory substantiated in a few ways. Firstly, there’s excessive traction for pithy and sometimes reductive hot takes. Nuance is inconvenient, especially when one has already made up one’s mind (or has decided to have their mind made up for them). People like to agree or disagree in broadly painted strokes. Secondly, there are those who build clout through takedowns: misconstruing statements to trigger engagement, picking a target then working backwards on an attack, swift and damning disavowals when even the slightest difference of perspective is present. Thirdly, there’s a particular kind of chameleonic social media user who waits to see what the consensus is, and then aligns with it – even if that means contradicting what they aligned with a few weeks prior. The necessary mix of objectivity, subjectivity, reflexivity, curiosity and good faith that enable learnings and solutions is missing.
Unless we choose social media absence, we participate in all this in some way or the other: alternating as stone-casters, targets, pawns and cohorts. Perhaps also choosing to be observers, energy-rationers and listeners will help dissolve the toxicity of the spaces we participate in.
It cannot be overemphasised that social media is an argumentative and unforgiving milieu. Optical gains and on-the-ground productivity often vastly diverge. If it’s true, as I feel, that mass social media activity does not happen organically, then, collective brushing-under-the-carpet is also not arbitrary either. There’s more to ponder…
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 11th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.