The death of conversation
Don't know if inevitable, but we ought to fear incivility, extremism and polarised madness online, spilling over into the offline world
Hardly on social media. By which I mean, essentially, that you have no clue what I had for lunch today. Also, like many others, I'm more a passive rather than an active user — on an infinite scroll on the phone, nonetheless. Because how can you not? Social-med can be addictive — less than nicotine; certainly more than Netflix.
What's dramatically changed about it over the past few months is visible in the outcome of what's been happening over the past six-odd years. It appears even Facebook and Instagram (chiefly Insta stories) are becoming the new Twitter. What's with armies lining up behind a single topic of debate, primarily going pro- or against, as if that has a bearing on the price of onions in the kitchen.
The topics could change from abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir, to the citizenship row (CAA-NRC-NPR; whatever be the chronology), with the same lot collectively siding on such widely disparate subjects, in absolutely the same way. Nobody is discussing. Everyone is dissing.
This is quite in line with the egalitarian basis of electoral democracy. Wherein, one man equals one vote. But that has gradually descended into how your ignorance equals my knowledge, and where I can interrupt a Nobel laureate with my doctoral thesis from Whatsapp University. It's all the same!
Who's going to listen? Those who agree, given a 'confirmation bias' and a resultant 'echo chamber'. Many are employed by political masters to be their rabid spokespersons/sniffer dogs on the Internet. I feel happy for them. At least somebody's getting a job.
The rest reveal actual, disguised unemployment figures, given so many have all the time in the world to sit all day in primate position, head down, fingers on the phone, rattling away all day, feeling important with powers given to them to pose as experts on subjects that have never affected their personal life. What would help is a more productive, meaningful job, to start with.
But this gives some a group identity, even if they choose to remain anonymous online. A group can only exist, because of an 'other'. How do you manufacture the other? By reducing individuals and opinions into hashtags and groups — bhakt, librandu, chowkidaar, anti-Hindu, tukde-tukde, Urban Naxal, proud nationalist, anti-national, etc. It's only mildly ironic when someone publicly announces their love for India while professing their deep hate for (fellow) Indians!
So does it matter who's talking anymore? No. They are bluntly abusive, with the brashness and brusqueness reserved for your worst enemies. Where did they learn this form of screech-speech? From television news, which is technically mainstream, but has hardly been around long enough to have developed a legacy of any kind — let alone decorum and discipline you'd expect from a medium humanely raised to merit a public discourse with.
Each night, vicious-looking fellows with verbal diarrhoea, take predictably similar positions on varied issues and unleash upon each other a stream of invective to score points on a debate where nobody understands or hears a word. Either these are great actors or people with anger-management issues who need immediate medical help. Either way, they're supposed to be 'great television' meant to only heighten the anxiety of its audience.
That is how they started out. Do they affect our psyche? They had an immediate effect on Twitter. The crazies/'polarised' in it began to gain the most followers, transforming a social medium into a similarly mini verbal riot of sorts. Was this a safety valve for the frustrated still? Preventing a riot on the streets, if you may? The same way matches in sports replicate war for fans, but seldom go overboard on an actual battlefield?
Did think so, until recently I saw this verbal mayhem cross over into a personal video of a former Delhi police constable in uniform, Rakesh Tyagi, asking for protesters on the street to be shot dead in point-blank range. He was detained later. But came out of lock-up soon, and declared he wasn't sorry for being a 'dabanng'. But more importantly, he mentioned that a million people had watched his video and they were his supporters now. And he was proud of that too.
I've had a short story idea in my head about a bunch of old classmates from school/college who after years meet for a reunion in a resort where they are holed up for days because of an avalanche. By the time they step out, these old friends are already willing to kill each other for their political views!
Recently, I went to my school reunion, to (also, sort of) test my theory/story. No, nobody cared for the daily rubbish being pelted on social-med/TV. But we were there for only a few hours. Otherwise one often hears of friends losing friends, acquaintances turning into enemies and families going at each other on WhatsApp groups.
This makes me believe we got to just shut up and listen. Or in fact, just step away if doing either is still going to alter nothing in our own heads. What's the point of a conversation, if no one is having it anyway? Try something new. Meditation, maybe?
Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14 Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper
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