December 17 was a busy day for a Bollywood Twitter handle. For hours the handle lampooned one of Indian cinema’s biggest living legends. It started with a request to tweet against the Citizen (Amendment) Act. The request soon turned into poking, then verbal stalking and finally ended in a phoney tweet. The idea was to humiliate a public figure into submission. When that failed, a submission was invented by means that was clever, but only by half – an old tweet of the star was tweeted as if it was new.
In times as polarised as these, it’s not uncommon to see people losing their sanity in a debate. Certainly not on social media where you get rewarded for acting insane – or so some people think. One ironic result of such behaviour is that people often display the very behaviour they claim to be fighting – intolerance, indecency, self-righteousness, public oral lynching. Celebrities are bigger targets of this public lynching because their large following allows more people to watch the public spectacle in pettiness and reward it with ‘likes’, ‘shares’ and ‘retweets’. All that’s missing is for somebody to stand up and ask the famous Gladiator question: “Are you not entertained?”
Free speech not forced speech
The December 17 incident wasn’t the most despicable behaviour on social media. There are worse examples. That stalking on Twitter stood out for where it came from – a Bollywood director whose recent movies have nuanced treatment of characters and topics. How do people whose work celebrates freedom of thought and expression end up denying that freedom to others? How do they become champions of forced speech? Why does winning a battle on social media become so important that people risk losing the war of ideals?
Sure, silence is not always golden. But sometimes it is. It could be somebody’s choice over shallowness. It could be about taking time to reflect, waiting to choose the right words or deciding to keep an opinion in private. Each of these are individual rights we need to respect as much as we need to protect the right to speak. Nancy Gibbs, former editor of Time, had said at the peak of the #Metoo movement, “Respect for restraint is a harder right to defend in this age of constant contact and brittle trust. If you tug at the right to not speak, you harm the right to speak too.” We can admire those who speak out without judging those who do not.
Celebrities deserve less
Celebrities make millions by hawking all sorts of products, some with unproven and even dubious claims – like fairness cream. If they can use their status for personal gain why can’t they use it to fight for social good? They surely can and they do. Like we don’t always agree with the choice of products they endorse, we can disagree with the cause they support, or don’t. Michael Jordan was asked to endorse a black politician at the peak of his popularity. He didn’t. Taylor Swift and Scarlett Johansson have been trolled for saying – or not saying – things expected of them.
In India, apart from the Big B, the Khans have been called out for their silence on some issues. Priyanka Chopra was trolled last week for supporting black rights in the US but being silent on human rights violations in India in the past. Bigger stars have often been termed spineless in comparison to a few smaller celebrities who are more vocal in supporting causes. That ignores the reality that ‘smaller’ stars aren’t subjected to the kind of scrutiny and misinterpretation that bigger stars are. Besides, understanding issues, picking a side and having the courage to be vocal is an evolutionary process that can take time. Yet people demand consistent behaviour from celebrities and rush to call them villains on social media and attack them in a pack with cultish zeal.
A strange mix of private and public
One reason for such behaviour is the strange blend of private and public life social media offers. It’s like holding a loaded gun that’s seducing us to pull the trigger every time our emotions run high. In the endless scroll of our smartphone screen we see people lacing views similar to ours with venom and ‘earning’ hundreds of ‘likes’. If self-control isn’t exercised in time, your fingers on their own volition will start picking the worst words to express your thoughts. This unique situation of being private at the time of inflicting abuse and getting public acclaim for your choice of abuses can be arousing, even addictive. It’s like getting away with murder again and again – reputational murder that is. We start playing psychic underworld don that social media allows us to. If there’s ever a tinge of guilt, there’s the air cover of ideology or cause to justify your conduct.
There’s one self-correcting element to our primal behaviour on social media. It records our words for posterity. It doesn’t allow us to erase and run away from our worst behaviour. By acting as a giant global mirror of our worst (and best) conduct it gives us a chance to reflect and lift ourselves up. To fight with force of argument, and only with that. To make a distinction between criticism and insult. As a song of the star subjected to Twitter bullying on Dec 17 reminds us: ‘Aadmi jo kehta hai, aadmi jo sunta hai, zindagi bhar woh sadayen peecha karti hain’. (Whatever you say, whatever you hear will stay with you all your life). On social media, even afterlife.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.