WTFJH: Links

#1. In a four-day span starting October 7, 69 children have died in BRD Hospital, Gorakhpur — the scene of the headline-making tragedy of last month. Adityanath’s political hubris is what immediately springs to mind but frankly, that is not where the focus should be. The hospital was a disaster zone a month ago. Sometimes things fall through the cracks; disasters happen. The question is, does no one learn? Surely, when you are confronted with tragedy on such a scale, your priority would be to work flat out to ensure against an encore? If it was caused by a systemic breakdown (bills not cleared in time, oxygen supplies therefore interrupted), that is easily fixed by streamlining processes and by prioritizing. If encephalitis is rampant and the existing staff are unable to check it, surely a sensitive, empathetic government would bring in experts from AIIMS and elsewhere to review existing procedures, train the doctors in a proper response? Surely that is what governance is all about — attending to the details?

#2. There is no shortage of WTF stories these days, but even by current standards, this one is a dilly. I’ll just tell it straight, with a clip:

A day after the SC appointed an amicus curiae to consider a fresh probe into Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, Hindu Mahasabha lashed out at BJP and RSS for “going all-out to destroy Mahasabha’s legacy of assassinating Gandhi by unnecessarily raising the 4th bullet theory”.

#3. This image of a message sent to a girl nauseated me when I first saw it on social media. The good bit is, the police did take action. Warning, though: the clip is extremely graphic and very disturbing.

Last week, I was among other things speaking at a college in Chennai. The day-long conference was on the theme of media, the internet, social media and the various problems that have been proliferating of late: fake news, paid stories, the propagation of lies and hate, etc. I was part of a four-speaker panel, and the theme given to us was “media and social responsibility”.

I had some thoughts on that, but I realized that throughout the day, speaker after speaker had trashed the media. I wanted to make the point that there is more than one way of looking at it, so I abandoned what I had intended to say and instead, spoke to the question of society’s responsibilities.

To make my point, I asked for a show of hands in response to three questions. #1. How many of you are members of What’sApp groups? (There were roughly 300 students in the hall; 99% of the hands went up. I told the students to keep their hands raised and to look around). #2. How many of you have on your groups encountered fake news, lies, misogynistic abuse, sexual innuendoes and other forms of unacceptable behavior? (Again, the students looked around — barring a couple of dozen hands, all others remained up). #3. How many of you have ever called out such behavior or, in extreme cases, walked out of such groups? (Hands dropped down; the students and I looked around and counted. THREE hands remained up; three people out of over 300 said they stood up and spoke out against unacceptable speech).

I used that demo to make a basic point: Not so long ago, society self-policed itself. It is not that some people didn’t have extreme views; it is that the open expression of such views was socially unacceptable. You voluntarily toned down when you were in company; if you didn’t, you paid a price — people looked down on you, you tended to get marginalized; the more extreme among us got ostracized.

Today, hate and other forms of unacceptable speech have become socially acceptable — not because of the internet alone, though it is one of the causal factors, but because those who lead our politics, our society, those we see as opinion-makers and thought-leaders, have mainstreamed it. Therefore, it is ok for us, runs the argument, for us to “say it like it is”, in Trump’s formulation — even if “saying it like it is” means calling all Mexicans rapists, or all Muslims terrorists, or lying, or talking of “grabbing her by the pussy”.

My point, leading from all that, was that there was no point in waiting for someone else to clean up the system — waiting for the media, waiting for official regulatory bodies, waiting for a mommy, a daddy, a nanny to do our work for us. If this is a problem for us, the solution in large part is also us. I also made the related point that if the job of the media is to speak truth to power, then the job of society, for whom the media exists, is to speak truth to media, to hold us responsible for our actions and inactions.

The heartening part of it all was this: literally dozens of kids came up during the tea break that followed the talk, wanting to discuss this in more detail, asking questions. And: while the panel was still on, five kids posted to Twitter that they had quit various What’sApp groups that they deemed hate-filled. That one moment made the whole thing worthwhile, for me.

PS: Will add more links and notes to this late in the second half. Be well.

Update at 4: Apologies, something came up, I won’t be back on here today. Next update most likely tomorrow second half.


7 thoughts on “WTFJH: Links

  1. Pingback: On parsing stories | Smoke Signals

  2. Lovely to hear about your talk in Chennai. When you come next, please do provide some notice so I can try and attend your talk.

  3. Watched you speaking at the event. Wondering how you could stand the Ketkars and the Gurumurthys. (Yeah, SG admonished them by saying, if you don’t want to hear me, you can leave, but don’t talk amongst yourselves, I can’t stand that etc)
    But on a parallel note, a genuine journalism question then – we are all influenced by our own ideals, ideologies and beliefs, which would certainly reflect in our thoughts, words and positions in public. However, what happens when a journalist is genuinely in awe of some leader? Ok, maybe not awe, but completely believes that a certain politician is trustworthy or ideal or principled or is doing the right thing? ‘Speak truth to power’ is admirable – but what really happens when there is a genuine statesman or leader and the media still wants to nitpick? I am not seeing it happen in the real world soon enough, but hypothetically, what happens if and when we find such a leader? Is the media then required to furiously dig deep to find a flaw? If a Gandhi could arise today, would we then actually be so cynical as to dismiss him out of our world and our politics? Or, say a genuine Buddha kind of person. In the times of Godi media and paid journalism, then what is the fate of that genuine, honest leader who strives to make it to the top? I know journalism has to be sceptical of all things, to be suspicious, but what if it genuinely harms what might possibly be an earnest attempt at reform or honesty or probity? How does journalism and journalists handle such a phenomenon?

    • I don’t have to stand Gurumurthy — he is easily avoided. Prafulla Ketkar in his public role as editor of Organiser is hardcore, but in person, when chatting one on one, he is actually a very pragmatic, highly aware, intelligent person, more than willing to acknowledge other points of view. I, in fact, learn a lot of the inner workings from my interactions with him — he is quite open as long as he is sure he won’t be quoted publicly and hung out to dry.

      I don’t know if there is a tried and tested answer to your question. The media, like any other profession, learns and evolves. And makes mistakes as it goes along, then learns from those. For instance, it was no secret back then that JFK had affairs, but the media deemed it of no importance to his role as President. And then it learned from that. Neither was it a secret that Regan was batshit as far as economics was concerned, and not kosher in his dealings with Iran etc. But the media ignored that because it was deemed that to harp on such “relatively minor” issues when the nation was facing the threat of the Cold War etc would be hurtful to the national cause. Again, the media learned from that. More recently it created, in the interests of being “fair and balanced”, a false equivalence between Hillary Clinton’s not quite kosher, but in actual fact harmless, use of an unsecured email system and Donald Trump’s serial lies, fakery, misogyny and all the rest of it — on the theory that it was only fair if reporting some Trump insanity to balance it out with some Clinton negative. And the election has taught the media how very wrong that was. (Notice that for all the desperate attempts to put Clinton and her emails back in the limelight, the mainstream media is refusing to be diverted).

      A Gandhi, then, could get away with his casual racism on occasion, his misogyny, his inappropriate sexual experimentation and all the rest of it. Today, it might well be the focus of narrative. Neither is entirely right — but I am afraid the ideal state, where media narratives are constructed with thought and care and on the basis of issues versus irrelevances, is far in the future assuming we ever get there.

      I’d also add, while on this, that there is a danger in talking of “the media” as a homogenous entity, when we actually mean a small section of the English media. I am aware of work done by journalists in Tamil and Malayalam, and oftentimes the issues they focus on, the rigor of their reporting, is far ahead of standards in the English media. So there’s that, too.

      • Thanks for the detailed reply, Prem. I was partially uneasy because of the question that the girl asked about “leaving” whatsapp groups and your answer was well-suited and appropriate. But I still felt a twinge thinking about it – that in a way she too was right, that change should be brought about from within the system rather than boycott alone (however nauseating staying ‘in’ would mean). As a followup to that thought, I wondered if people who are actually lauding the current leaders might really believe what they are preaching. If so, then are we justified in calling them godi media, etc. etc. Nah, like you said, there is no incentive for them to learn if they break the rules and get away with it repeatedly.

        Frankly, the occasion was quite disappointing. No one could really espouse a standpoint or really get into a frank and serious debate given the time constraints. I wish you had a little more time to follow up on your original thought and/or the impromptu alternate that you came up with.

        You are right about regional media and especially print media. Some of our greatest Kannada litterateurs were actually connected with the print media, and journalism, is something that people know little about. (Another oddity is, most of the best Kannada writers were usually associated with English or with the English department in teaching.. decidedly odd. Ananthamurthy, Kailasam, AN Murthy Rao,”Champa” Chandrashekar Patil, BM Shri, Lankesh, Gokak, Gopalakrishna Adiga, TiNamSri, and lots more… Even Gauri was not as comfortable with Kannada as she was with English, but she had the right idea in pursuing vernacular journalism). {Oh, yeah, yeah, vernacular means slave apparently.. yeah.. sorry}. On another post of yours I had commented about this unity in diversity and it strikes me that if we hold the idea of our nation as a collective then there is so much to be in unity with. But if we nitpick and try to find divisions, then we find them aplenty – even down to colloquial and dialect variations from village to village, let alone a disparate subcontinental conglomeration of so many languages, cultures and histories. This strikes me as our greatest strength and weakness as well. Regionalism has ruined our country, no doubt, but also meant some kind of unique tendency towards the greater idea of nation. If regional journalism could sway one way, what is wrong with English journalism then? Maybe this space would not suffice for a reply and some day you can write a longer post on this. The regional media and the English media.

        (I am afraid I still cannot judge Gandhi on his foibles. Sorry. I feel he was a creature of his times and nonetheless a great man despite all the things we can point out today. Neither would I be a blind believer in his Mahatma-giri, but I would still consider him a great man. The same with Nehru, who is still, in my opinion, the greatest political leader we ever had, even thought we possibly did not deserve him very much. You may despise him for a lot of things, but he stands above all the rest, in my eyes, at least. And believe me, I am a staunch anti-congress person from birth and heritage. Merely for the literature alone I would thank my lucky stars I was born in a country which produced such a thinker – yeah, Sarvepalli too, and most others of that generation, including Ambedkar. Merely their erudition is enough to give me pause in my criticism of them on any issue).

        • To the point about “change from within the system”, there are times when it works, ecosystems where you can bring about change. And others where you cannot. A group dedicated to spreading BS is not something you can change from within — the best you can do is indicate by your leaving that not everyone buys, or tolerates, it. In my response to that girl, I did point out that the first thing you do is stand up and question BS; you walk if the problem persists, because there is nothing to be gained by your remaining, and everything to lose.

          It also goes to the point about a silent majority. I genuinely believe that the bulk of the people are rational, that they will listen, and debate, and discuss, and reject what is outright false. The problem is not that this majority is silent, it is that this majority is not a “group”. If it were, it would be the largest, numerically — and then the power of numbers would kick in. Anyway.

          With ref Gandhi, it is a much more nuanced topic than there is space for here. But essentially, it speaks to the problem of judging a man of one era by the mores of another. Judged by today’s standards, almost every single US president, for instance, would be a failure in many ways, and most would be deemed unfit for office (never mind the obvious examples, consider the media manipulation of FDR). Judged by those same standards, most of the greatest leaders of the freedom struggle would equally be judged less than ideal. I neither adore nor despise Gandhi, I am willing to accept the good he did, also the quality of his intellect (as I would with a Radhakrishnan, or a Kamaraj, besides the more obvious examples, and to refrain from judging beyond that. I merely brought him up to illustrate a point about the media, is all.

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