Last week, a friend on an international WhatsApp group of journalists that I am part of posted a video on the group showing a woman on a New York metro kicking and beating up another woman simply for bumping into her on the crowded subway.
That got an angry debate started on the group with accusations of racism – and reverse racism - as one of my friends was hopping mad that every unthinking and simply unrefined action by a White individual was passed off as racism when it could simply be just a case of bad behaviour.
Of course, some others in the group, which has people from all continents, including Africa, Latin America, Asia and Australia, disagreed and a furious debate prevailed that led to many of them exiting the group. As I watched my friends quarrel and say nasty things to each other on the group in dismay, I had a sense of dèja vu. For I agreed with one of them when he said social media today brings out the worst in human beings and rather magnifies and compounds every small issue that might not be noticed if people did not have ready access to smart phones and platforms like Facebook and Twitter to project the worst side of things and events around them.
The debate and arguments on my international group were no different or less bitter than the ones I have faced and dealt with on many home grown groups in the past years. However, this particular debate coincided with BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra posting a picture of a three-year-old grandchild of a Kashmiri civilian killed in a cross fire between militants and security forces in Kashmir. It underlined everything that my British friend had said about social media bringing out the worst in people and magnifying issues in a manner that caused a lot of discord in society that would not exist without these platforms.
As the reaction to Patra's despicable attempt to mock the Kashmiris with a tweet that drew attention to photographers who had recently won a Pulitzer prize for images coming out of the state after last year's pre-Coronavirus lockdown went ballistic, I realised how badly and boorishly some party spokespersons now behave.
Time was when we had erudite spokespersons like V N Gadgil of the Congress who would quote history books to emphasise their points or even more recently those like Praful Patel of the NCP, articulate in at least four languages (English, Hindi, Marathi and Gujatati) who would use their articulation skills toeffectively emphasise their points lucidly and clearly without having to resort to rudeness, abuse or accusations against those who questioned their bad behaviourand motives. (Gadgil and Patel, though, were never rude or badly behaved at any time in memory, being perfect gentlemen even under pressure and cross questioning).
With that, I refer to Patra trying to browbeat a famous television anchor at a channel I would describe less North Korean and more trying to maintain the decorum that was the norm before social media eclipsed and exposed all the fault lines in human nature. It got so bad that Patra accused this anchor of a lack of patriotism simply for asking some relevant questions and even browbeat him when he decided to challenge those accusations. Not just that he also refused to apologise for his bad behaviour and thought he himself was being very patriotic in endorsing the alleged wrongdoings of the security forces. I am sure Patra knew of the kudos he would receive from his party bosses who might have missed the show which could be fully expected to go viral on social media a few hours later.
Sometime back, I was part of two back-to-back shows in a single night along with the spokesperson of a party that is not known to be rabid and the man too is ordinarily a gentleman and quite refined and well behaved. Suddenly, on one of the shows he got into a slanging match with one of the other guests and the anchor and the debate got quite heated.
As we left together – we were driven to our respective homes in the same car – I couldn't help expressing my shock and surprise at the revelation of the fiery side to his character - though he had been still polite and less boorish than some other politicians I could name.
He apologised for his bad behaviour and said, “But you know what, Ma'am? My party leaders expect it. If I don’t react fierily and don't challenge the opponents word for word in the same tones that they use against us, they think we are not doing our jobs effectively. So, I have to break out of character and focus on a point when I can render them speechless even if I am not saying anything new or substantial.”
I had been with this man on other shows in the past and when I pointed out that he was never rude before then, he said, “Yes. But then there was only television. Now there are all sorts of platforms where this debate will be posted and if I am not seen defending my party loudly enough, I could lose all sorts of things, not just this job.”
While the phenomenon of social media bringing out the worst in people is international, I guess, domestically, I believe, social media has not just brought out the bad side of people, it is also changing our national character.
That is why Congress leader Rahul Gandhi gets regularly pilloried for refusing to be anything but polite and refined in his repartees (which is seen as a weakness) and Narendra Modi gets described as a strong man when all he is, is loud and not just boorish but downright uncultured and abusive. In fact, we must blame him and his party for setting off this litany of abuse, accusation and falsehoods in India on various social media platforms with most other political parties and their spokespersons following suit.
I know we cannot turn away the tide of social media responses, just as at one time it was not possible to turn away motorcars (from horse carriages or mobile phones from the ancient dependence on landlines and their limiting utility. But what we can indeed do is not air the views of boors like Patra, not forward his despicable posts, even if it gives us the satisfaction of calling him names on his timelines.
Indeed, smartphones and social media are changing a lot in this world but refined, cultured discourse is a timeless as well as time-tested art practised by gentlemen. We can decide not to afford the boors the oxygen of more exposure to their had upbringing and loathsome discourse. Only then will the Patras of this world learn to guard their tongues and keep their despicable behaviour in check and learn to be gentlemen like Gadgil and Patel.