Tag Archives: cancel culture

The Venus Flytrap: #MeToo Messiness

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Let me be the first to admit that I don’t really have a good understanding of the latest Twitter-based scandal involving a man accused of sexual harassment, audio recordings in which an advocate purportedly tries to conceal evidence, and one of the more social media-visible participants of the #MeToo movement in India. I came to hear of it through a dramatic pronouncement by a heterosexual male friend, whose “all of metoo is false” text message I responded to with a slew of eyeroll emojis. It is simply not possible to discredit an entire, complex, global, multi-pronged movement because of a potentially false allegation. But people are certainly trying to, which is a kind of telescoping of the larger context. The context is cultural, not individual.

Similar to my disinterest in the intricacies and daily-shifting loyalties in this case, others who are unable to keep up with the tide and who don’t have grounding in social justice ethics or praxis are liable to slip between the cracks ideologically. We do not live in times in which we think for ourselves, and a great deal of the vocabulary and framing now available to us is new to common parlance, and requires a certain degree of privilege to understand and employ. The demand that we quickly form opinions, without deep engagement, means that some people default into the easiest stance – which in this case is that the entire anti-sexual harassment movement is a mess.

We would do well to acknowledge that it is messy, though. A few days after sending me that message, the same friend seemed to have a mini-crisis. It began with him saying he’d been lusting over someone but was afraid of flirting due to “cancel culture”, then a segue into whether mental health issues should be accepted as blanket absolutions, and finally an admission of feeling conflicted about having to mediate harassment-related issues in a workplace. All these issues had collapsed on themselves, and led to a confusion which was most expediently cut through with dismissal.

This is a very common phenomenon. It’s critical to address why many men and women do not feel like the language or actions of this vital movement speak to them or for them. The reasons will be manifold. Personal apathy is only the tip of the iceberg.

We are being dishonest if we claim that we had this level of empowerment even four or five years ago, or if we claim that we truly know what we are doing now. Performative activism that doesn’t contain practical elements, long-term vision or self-reflexivity is challenging for even die-hard feminists to navigate through and counter. It is even harder for those who find certain concepts (which we may smugly think of as “just decent behaviour”) to be new. Rather than shame, how can we build learning resources, hold meaningful space, and improve access to both – while also discussing restitution and justice? Can we not fixate on famous cases, and focus on improving the culture at large? I have more questions than solutions because that’s where we still are – and because the answers should also be manifold, diverse and anything but individual.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 28th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Doting On, Then Dethroning

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The social media world (which is a world, but not the world) recently officiated the dethroning of a celebrity who had made social justice a part of her branding. UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and actor Priyanka Chopra was unceremoniously “cancelled” when comments she made after being called a hypocrite by an audience member at an event went viral. Chopra had expressed pro-military views, which she did not recant or explain. She was no doubt caught off-guard when asked to comment on global politics at a beauty conference, but her response was weak for someone who had been associated with activist causes for almost a decade.

But Chopra’s recent comments were consistent with her prior choices and actions. Consider her track record – promoting fairness creams, making anti-black statements both on film and to the press, slut-shaming women in a commercial for a dating app she invested in, posing on a magazine cover with an anti-refugee message on her clothing, and so on. The real question is: how can anyone be disappointed?

There are so many songs with lyrics that are variations of the idea that people will build you up just to tear you down for a reason. The backlash came largely from the same people who had pedestalised Chopra.

Could it be that the nature of the hivemind – which is ultimately conformist because a notion loses its edginess the moment it gains traction – continuously demands sacrificial lambs? It just so happened to be Chopra’s turn. If you noticed, a fresh pedestal rose simultaneously, extolling Ayesha Malik (who had called Chopra out). If Malik chooses to remain visible and outspoken, she will eventually be dethroned herself. There’s no such thing as an #unproblematicfave.

As I watched the angry posts against Chopra roll in, I found myself fighting the urge to join in more. I’d already said my two-paisa, wondering how her dubious choices had been acceptable up to that point. I’d never been a fan, although I’d really liked when she spoke about finding love as an ambitious woman. I didn’t have anything to add. So why did my fingertips itch? Holding back, I understood that all of us online that day were being provoked into expression, fueling one another. It’s a scenario that repeats itself, sometimes several times a week. Chopra fumbled when asked for her opinion in an unexpected context; meanwhile, we the online citizenry have made it our second nature to form and share opinions even when none are asked for.

The Greek god Cronus ate his children because he feared being overthrown by them. What happens here seems to be a kind of reversal, in which the devout devour their gods. They replace them with new ones, then repeat the ritual.

To install someone on a pedestal is to give our power away. When they are knocked down, its our own power they lose. Imagine what we could do if we fostered things that matter, things we didn’t feel like breaking because somewhere deep down, we are afraid of what we are capable of achieving ourselves. It’s not only the power we misattribute, but the disappointment when it appears to be misused too.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 22nd 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Vortex of Umbrage

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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.