Speaking up as a way of providing cover and more

A couple of weeks ago, when there was outrage in the US about the ‘Muslim ban’ order, I read a piece [1] by an entrepreneur who explained why he was speaking up against the order. He said that when people like him spoke up, it would provide cover for others to speak up as well. That bit about providing cover resonated with me deeply and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Earlier today, I read this Twitter thread (by Anand Giridharadas) about the murder of Srinivas Kuchibhotla in Kansas, and one of the things said was this:

Please understand, Mr. President, that this too gives permission, by dog-whistling to drifters that they might do what the government can’t.

Reading this my thoughts went to the violent incident at Ramjas College where ABVP members used violence against students and journalists. I started thinking about the increase in the frequency of such incidents in colleges and about how the narrative from the ruling party has always been that “we will not tolerate being anti-national” or that “free speech has its limits” and so on.

What is this, if not providing cover for such incidents to happen? Is it a coincidence that the language, the threats, the violence have been ratcheted up after the BJP came to power? I think not. Look at what the BJP national president said recently comparing the Congress, SP, and BSP to a terrorist. Of course, our PM was not far behind with his concern over electricity and cemeteries in an election speech.

This kind of dog-whistling provides cover for people to openly indulge in hate on Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp, and even more dangerously in the “real world” by threats and acts of violence.

So, given that the cover is being given to support hate and divide, it is even more important for people to speak up against such incidents and call out bigotry and bullshit when they see it. And, if you think it doesn’t make a difference, it does. Acts of courage and defiance are inspirational; they can give rise to movements and can act as catalysts.

There are people who are now being courageous and providing cover against the assault on free speech and dissent, and the trend towards toxic nationalism. But, to resist, you need more people to speak up and amplify the voices.

Speak up. It is hard but if you want to preserve a democracy, you have to fight for it.

[1]: I can’t for the life of me remember where I read this.

On speaking truth to power

A few days ago, our Prime Minister, who, in the past has called the media “baazaru”, was chosen to give out the Ramnath Goenka awards for excellence in journalism. This is a PM who refuses to have press conferences, who gives creampuff interviews to friendly journalists, but I’m going off track here.

Raj Kamal Jha, the editor of the Indian Express, in his vote of thanks to the PM, gave a 5-minute speech that was hailed as courageous and exemplary. I had a Twitter exchange with Mitali Saran, someone who regularly speaks truth to power in her column, about this in which she said that the courage that Jha exhibited should be the baseline in journalism.

After Donald Trump won the US presidential election, some of the pieces written by journalists, columnists, writers in the US were great examples of speaking truth to power. Here’s the first paragraph of David Remnick’s piece in the New Yorker:

The election of Donald Trump to the Presidency is nothing less than a tragedy for the American republic, a tragedy for the Constitution, and a triumph for the forces, at home and abroad, of nativism, authoritarianism, misogyny, and racism. Trump’s shocking victory, his ascension to the Presidency, is a sickening event in the history of the United States and liberal democracy. On January 20, 2017, we will bid farewell to the first African-American President—a man of integrity, dignity, and generous spirit—and witness the inauguration of a con who did little to spurn endorsement by forces of xenophobia and white supremacy. It is impossible to react to this moment with anything less than revulsion and profound anxiety.

I can’t recall reading anything as withering by someone in India about anyone so powerful. The US has a great commitment to freedom of speech but it still takes courage to write something along these lines. So, I was thinking about what Mitali said about the courage being a baseline for journalism and wondering why it is not also a baseline for citizens in democracies.

Why should we not expect (us) citizens to speak the truth to power in their own way? Why should it fall only to the activists and the journalists to tell the truth, especially given how easy it is for anyone to publish what they write or create? One reason might be the intimidation tactics used, for example, where a post on Facebook might get you arrested. I get that the fear of intimidation is real and you wonder whether speaking up is worth it, but the problem in such a situation is that it serves to embolden the powerful. And, unless more people refuse to be intimidated and cowed down, how is this situation going to change?

Also, as long as you don’t indulge in hate/racist/misogynist/etc. speech, there should not be be a fear of speaking your mind or the truth to power whatever that power might be. A democracy will be more vibrant when citizens speak truth to power. India’s current laws are not super-friendly to free speech–at least free speech the way it is in the US–but we are a democracy and we do have some freedom of speech.

If you have a “this is not my problem” mindset, I’ll just share what Garry Kasparov, yes that Kasparov, said in a tweet:

Famous last words throughout history. People saying “It’s not my problem!” until it is a bigger one. Small battles now or big ones later.

With Brexit and the US election, the world seems to be moving towards a situation where the discourse is being dominated by the far right. The discourse tends to be one of xenophobia, of faux-nationalism, of racism, and other such things that should’ve been left behind a long time ago. But, these things are making a comeback, and in a tangible way. Just read the timeline of Shaun King to get an idea of the number of racist incidents in the US just days after the US election.

The threats are real. The question is whether you are going to speak up when you can or wait until maybe you won’t be allowed to or when it’s too late.

I think it’s time.

[1]: Ms. Saran seems a bit too formal

Don’t let the Canadian government silence Franke James

It seems the the Canadian Government does not like what Franke James has to say and that they’re prepared to block an art show to ensure that she is silenced. Yes, an art show.

Franke, who is an artist and author of Bothered by My Green Conscience (and creator of other superb visual essays), and who I’ve linked to here numerous times, wrote a blog post today where she mentioned how the Canadian government is trying to stop her right to creative expression and free speech. Here is an excerpt from her blog post:

The Canadian Government, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party, is actively working to shut down my solo European art exhibition, which is set to tour 20 cities in Europe. The government’s interference includes phoning the corporate sponsor, and persuading them to cancel their $75,000 sponsorship.

Canadian officials have also bullied the NGO, Nektarina Non Profit, and warned them repeatedly to cancel the exhibition because they are opposed to “Franke James.”

Franke’s visual essays are powerful stories about the environment and about what we need to do to save the environment and ultimately, ourselves. To attempt to stop an artist from expressing herself is not something that you’d expect a democratic country to do, but that’s exactly what’s being done. Here’s an actual quote:

“Who was the idiot who approved an art show by that woman, Franke James?”

– Memorable words from one of Canada’s top officials on hearing that the Canadian Embassy in Croatia had offered support for Franke’s art show.

So, she needs our support. You can support Franke by tweeting or blogging about this, sharing it on Facebook (or Google+), leaving a comment on her blog post, or even emailing your friends.

NDTV gets schooled on how the Interwebs work

I somehow completely missed this development in the blogging world. I came to know about it just now, only after I read this post from Mridu.

Long story short: Chyetanya Kunte writes a post (scroll down to read) about NDTV’s coverage of the Mumbai 26 November terrorist attacks, specifically about Barkha Dutt’s reportage. Ms. Dutt and NDTV do not like his post very much and their lawyers threaten to sue. Kunte posts an unconditional withdrawal. The blogosphere gets a hold of the story and the story goes “bacterial”*.

Brief theoretical interlude: The 5th law of blogging states that blogging about a particular topic is multiplied n-fold (n > 1000) when there’s even a whiff of controversy.

So, the best thing to do would’ve been to ignore the blogger or for NDTV to post a rebuttal. By doing what NDTV did, they’re going to get a great deal of negative publicity, they’ve come out looking like the bad guys, and they’ve ensured that more people will hear about this story. Not exactly the thing they’re hoping for I’m sure. Remember the 5th law of blogging.

If you want a better summary, Prem Panicker’s When ‘free speech’ bears a price tag is a nice, balanced take on the situation.

* — I’m sick of viruses being given credit for everything.