Paromita Vohra Column: Thin skin deep
"I don't want to debate. I want to talk about my pain."
This line is from an email written by a student at Yale, where student activists had been campaigning for Halloween costumes to be more politically sensitive and correct, instead of causally racist and sexist in the name of fun.
A professor responded with suggestions for debate about the meanings of costume, power, play and transgression, asking if there were other ways offensiveness could be debated and addressed. One may or may not agree with the professor’s action or suggestion, but it would be hard to imagine the response it elicited.
Some readers may have seen the video of a student screaming uncontrollably at the professor, saying he should resign for failing to create a safe space for students. In subsequent reports, students have (remove have) complained they were infantilised, traumatised, sleepless and close to breakdown. This is part of an increasingly common language of triggers and upset that we see in response to difficult realities.
These students were disturbed because they felt that the message they preached is inherently good (and essentially one would agree). But, they also felt emotionally undone by the possibility of thinking about the same thing, another way, and not necessarily in opposition. Difference made them feel disempowered.
Indians today might feel this sounds familiar. Everyone’s feelings are quickly hurt and offended and it is these emotions that must be addressed, rather than disagreements debated. Right wing supporters don’t like it if their positions are questioned, immediately screaming elitism, while being of perfectly elite identities themselves People like Mr Anupam Kher, instead of reasoned debate on why they don't consider India intolerant, dissolve into “intolerant tu” level of discussion. The self-proclaimed tolerant, are wounded that their patriotism is questioned. We are so busy discussing everyone’s pain, we dare not discuss ideas for fear of intensifying pain. When everyone is shouting so loudly can we even hear ourselves think new thoughts?
Why is everyone so keen to be offended and in pain? Victimhood confers importance and moral certitude - leaving no room for doubt or self-doubt. When we are victims, the system becomes depersonalised as uniformly oppressive. Once we take a fixed politically correct position, we no longer need to keep assessing the meaning of our actions and how they contribute to shaping that system.
The reactions to Mr Khan’s comments are ridiculous and depressing for their stupidity as much as their violence. Listening to his quite sensible and open-minded interview makes you sad at how keen we are to take the Pavlovian scraps of out-of-context quotes the media throws out, and start losing it or taking it seriously. The interviewer’s desire for definitive proclamations was notable: “So Aamir, do you endorse the award returnees?” Can one not respect a choice without being forced to adopt it? You know, like “retweets are not endorsements”?
Anyway Mr Kher is pained, Mr Khan is pained and Mr Thackeray has held out the long arm of the thappad. None of these influential Mr.s need now stop to consider how they might have contributed to this culture of decontextualised emotion and outrage; a culture which has flattered the middle class into entitlement through its all-is-wellian blandishments and sentimental ideas of social change and personal growth and discouraged genuine debate (not good for some markets, baby). A culture which forgoes debate, ideas and adult engagement for sentimentalised generalities and manipulative tears.
No one need ponder how this culture has brought us to a political juncture. Let’s just play another enervating round of Victims and Villains.
Ah well, you know what they say. No pain, no gain.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com