Ashis Nandy, Media and the Work of Acceleration: Anirban Gupta Nigam
Guest post by ANIRBAN GUPTA NIGAM
The hornet’s nest stirred by Ashis Nandy’s comments at the Jaipur Literature Festival might – hopefully – be dying down, but certain questions raised by the occurrences on the 26th probably require a little reflection on everyone’s part.
In the corporate and social media blitz, a lot of the details have been forgotten, excised and overlooked. Till yesterday it was not clear what his entire speech consisted of. The most quoted line from his talk at the festival is: “it is a fact that most of the corrupt come from the OBC, the Scheduled Castes and now increasingly the STs and as long as it is the case, the Indian republic will survive.” None of those attacking Nandy for being casteist or spewing hate-speech have in fact even attempted to explain the latter part of the quote: “as long as it is the case, the Indian republic will survive.” How is that a casteist statement? More importantly, media reproductions of his statement have excised a crucial disclaimer he himself gives at the beginning: “It will be an undignified, even vulgar statement, but it is a fact that most of the corrupt come from the OBC, the Scheduled Castes and now increasingly the STs and as long as it is the case, the Indian republic will survive.”
It ought to be clear to anyone who can understand the language that no matter how weirdly stated, Nandy’s words are in fact pro SC, ST and OBC groups. Regardless of how one frames the speech, it has to be admitted that his choice of words was poor and his presentation made without the kind of substantiation that should have accompanied it in our hyper-sensitive times. But how did we get to the point where, catastrophically, a brilliant mind like Nandy might be on the verge of being charged with a non-bailable offense? There are – apart from his own carelessness in speech – two intertwined answers to this.
First is the simple fact of journalistic idiocy. If we follow the trajectory of events it becomes evident that the first media channel to go to town about his remarks was IBN-7, whose Managing Editor Ashutosh was on the panel with Nandy. IBN-7 presented the panel as one where a valiant, righteous Ashutosh defended the offended sections against Nandy’s remarks. And what did Ashutosh say – there and on TV later? He said that Nandy was wrong because he was making corruption a caste issue whereas actually, “corruption has no caste.” This kind of idiotic rebuttal is symptomatic of the simplistic rubbish that has come to characterise the journalism prevalent in most of the country today. Nonsensical statements like this grasp for some vague universalist logic – the same as saying ‘terrorists have no religion.’ In this case not only does it completely misunderstand Nandy’s point, but more importantly it obfuscates the issue. By saying something about how caste might relate to corruption Nandy was, however miserably, trying to politically understand the issue. He was trying to say that corruption by rich, elite upper castes is not labelled as such and it is only when the Other is the criminal that we apprehend corruption as corruption. Most shockingly of all, upon reading an interview in Firstpost it becomes clear that Nandy’s views on the matter were well-known to Ashutosh for whose book on Anna the scholar wrote a foreword. This is not to say that the comments made in the JLF are not problematic; but the immediate campaign to produce Ashutosh as the hero of the day sparked off a massive row where hordes of illiterate journalists pounced on one, edited fragment of the statement and accused Nandy of casteism.
Today the video of the session has finally become public and it only adds to the general picture of journalistic mediocrity.
Upon seeing the video it becomes clear that Ashutosh essentially chastises Nandy for not saying what Nandy has just finished saying! If you listen closely in fact, you can hear the psychologist protest in precisely these terms in the background; and finally when he gets a chance to clarify in the closing comments to the session, Nandy points out that Ashutosh has indeed merely repeated verbatim Nandy’s own words as a critique of Nandy’s position.
Still, perhaps one can excuse that. Hyperbole or not, journalists do this to everyone and if you open your mouth without extreme caution you can, in these slippery times, be caught in an unfortunate situation. What was more disturbing about the events that unfolded had to do with social media. Of course things go viral; and often things which go viral are those that we are in favour of – protests against the Delhi gang-rape for instance. But the general condition of virality can assume worrying dimensions as it did yesterday.
When a friend first told me that Nandy allegedly said something casteist, we both reacted with disbelief. This disbelief stemmed – and it is crucial to note this – from a familiarity with the man and his works. Not only have me and others around me grown up reading Nandy, many of us have also had the pleasurable experience of sitting at his lectures, hearing his interventions at seminars and being in quasi-social gatherings in his presence. There are those, especially those in the Left, who strongly disagree with his critique of modernity and the Enlightenment; and there are those who find his writings on women to be borderline patriarchal. His reaction to Mohan Bhagwat was symptomatic of a blind spot in his work, and even his earlier (and much more sophisticated) work on sati has been the subject of engaged, serious critique by scholars like Ania Loomba. However, very few people who have known Nandy personally or intellectually would think that he could, in any possible situation, be casteist; not the man who says that “the oppressed have no obligation to follow the rules of the game.”
Yet, so many who have known him – at a distance or closely – had no trouble whatsoever in condemning his words within hours through endless posts, likes, shares, and comments on social media yesterday. At a time when it was clear that belligerent responses from Mayawati and other Dalit leaders, as well as leaders of almost all other political parties, was creating an atmosphere where speech was going to be stifled and its speaker possibly jailed, even those who know him thought he could have said something blatantly casteist. The point here is not an idle, theoretical one but a deeply personal one. Of late, in a climate of clampdowns and hurt sentiments across different parts of society, it has become increasingly common to fling accusations at any and every one regardless of their track record. One hopes that in such situations those who know the persons in question will hold off on judgment; that they will refuse to believe the charges till there is no option left; that they will definitely not resort to news reports as the basis for condemning something as ‘hate speech’ and calling for someone’s arrest.
The rush to judgement has many causes, but one of the primary ones is social media. I say this not as a conservative critic of a medium we really are no longer in control of, but as someone who is a little concerned by the pressure exerted by online communities to proclaim that you are the first and – in our case – the most radical. Everything is sacrificed at the altar of acceleration as we want to be the first to report the news, to comment on it, and to take positions which subsequently become extremely difficult to withdraw from. Sometimes, good old fashioned media critique seems like the most incisive response. Combined with a media-on-speed, social networks spur opinions without temporal lag, everything just keeps coming, tickers keep updating and condemnations never end. Although I say this in the context of Nandy, this is an issue which has been distracting me for a longer period of time. On innumerable occasions the media-network combine has worked in sync to shut down avenues for discussion by producing opinions on a conveyor belt. Sometimes, as I said above, all this goes in our favour. On other occasions – as with the recent Indo-Pak tension or debates on Maoism and the like – everything seems to be go haywire.
Recently on Huffington Post I saw this minor call to action. Like slow food, slow news might be urgently required. But slow news will solve nothing as long as social networks continue to accelerate. Slow blogging is one answer to the predicament, but in today’s age, with cross-platform synchronisation, blogging is no longer slow. Any controversy surrounding the ‘speculative realists’ or ‘object oriented ontologists’ in the blogosphere is a prime example of how speed takes over thought; how even philosophy must shift gears to keep up. As dromology becomes a condition of being, it might be time to think about forms of ‘deactivation,’ of non-speech and withdrawl as a way to not react to events. If we refuse the sound-byte we might also refuse the event itself.