Clap if you care about cancer
Both Facebook and the Shiv Sena are masters of passive-aggressive coercion through subtle public shaming and arm-twisting
In January 1993, during those terrible days when Mumbai was on fire, when the blood of inflamed, hate-filled Hindus and Muslims filled the streets, nothing much happened in the elite enclave of Lokhandwala complex. The world was burning but on the marshlands where our houses stood, all was well.
That changed one day. I remember it as the day when I saw how a neutral, peace-loving citizen could be subtly shamed and arm-twisted in public to demonstrate agreement with something against his will.
Those who survived that awful January might remember how few policemen were on the job while the city burned. But where we lived, a pious little faux NGO, whose energy went mainly in publicising its socialite founder and claiming to help the downtrodden, decided to give away awards to Lokhandwala's stalwart policemen. The NGO thought all shops should be closed in homage to policemen during the awards function, but the shopkeepers felt differently. Push came to shove, there were blows and the police came in, led by a sub-inspector Khan (not his real name). Someone, purportedly a Shiv Sena leader, was bruised.
Two days later, news spread about a Shiv Sena morcha from Four Bungalows to Lokhandwala's, to 'request' Inspector Khan to apologise. Ominously, the morcha was to end outside a popular kebab restaurant run by a Muslim family at the colony's first crossroads.
There was tremendous excitement. The trendy in their jean Bermudas convened to hear the speeches, licking ice-cream cones from Yankee Doodle, and went to see the beginning of the tamasha. It was my first direct experience of rabble-rousing at work.
The speeches grew louder and more strident. Finally the Shiv Sena shaka pramukh, clearly the main man, spoke. A reasonable voice, peppered with jokes and poison, steadily rising in tempo and volume as he began posing rhetorical questions about the intentions of "a certain community". People nodded, as though he was making important points that needed making.
He ended the speech by raising his hands and shouting, "Jai Shri Ram!" A handful of voices returned the salute. "What?" said the shakha pramukh, surprised. "Can't say Jai Shri Ram?" He repeated the salute; a few more voices joined in.
"I'm getting worried," he said, and somehow it sounded like a threat. "Who are you people who find it difficult to say three simple words. Jai Shri Ram!!" This time nearly half the crowd strongly returned his salute.
"Much better," he said. "But maybe we should ask who these other people are whose mouths did not open. Are they one of us, or..." He left the implication hanging. The pramukh had set a trap and we were all in it. It's called coercion through public shaming. I didn't say Jai Shri Ram, but I was quivering with fear. I was freshly reminded of this manipulative process again four days ago, when I was forwarded a Facebook post about someone fighting the crippling pain of osteoarthritis. "I struggle with pain, mobility issues and fatigue every day. The most frustrating part is people look at me and say 'It can't be that bad; you look fine', despite the fact that my body is experiencing excruciating pain all over. I apologise if I miss events that I would love to attend. One day you'll understand my daily struggles."
The post ended with familiar words: "I know few actually even take the time to read what their friends have written. If you are my friend, please, in honour of your family member or a friend who is struggling daily with pain, copy and paste this to your page. If you're my true friend, write "done" in the comments and I'll know if you made it to the end of this message."
Facebook is the world's shaka pramukh, the enabler of posts that shame people into meaningless expressions of compassion and concern through copy-and-paste. At one time, friendship used to mean being present in body and spirit for friends in need.
Odious chain posts like this spawned a Facebook page called 'I F***ing Hate Copy and Paste Pleas". And in a post on such faux activism, blogger Sandip Roy labels this as "passive-aggressive emotional blackmail".
"A status update [is now] a litmus test of friendship, a word . . . stretched thin by Facebook anyway . . . A copied-and-pasted message does nothing to bolster the strength of a cancer survivor. Honestly, it's a waste of empathy."
I thought of those people who finally muttered Jai Shri Ram at the Shiv Sena morcha, and wondered: how many of them went home thinking "So what was so wrong about saying it anyway? I'm a Hindu, after all. Why can't I say Jai Shri Ram if they can say Allah hu Akbar?"
Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org Send your feedback to email@example.com
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