Writing a regular column is daunting. One of the things that I constantly have to check is that I am not repeating myself. At the same time, in the digital age where all memory has become storage, and all that is stored is quickly forgotten, I also hope that what I write has life beyond the first few clicks, the Sunday morning coffee, the shares and likes that mark the beginning of the end of digital information.
However, as I write the column this new year, I find myself in a strange situation where I am repeating what I have done the last three years at the beginning of each new year, and where I am desperately wishing that things I had last written became dated. Three years ago, while commenting on the Indian digital landscape, I had written about the rage, the fury, and the almost deafening battle cry that had captured the national imagination, when, at the turn of the year, a young woman we named Nirbhaya lost her life to violent sexual abuse on a moving bus in Delhi. #NeverAgain, we tweeted. #AlwaysRemember, we chanted. We called her #OurBraveheart and, in that moment of national outcry and dialogue about gender and sexual abuse in our public spaces, it seemed as if the digital landscape was reflecting a pivotal change in the fabric of the country.
The year after that, as we struggled to find ways in which law can keep us safe, the apex court in India re-criminalised homosexuality, reverting the judgment of the Delhi High Court which had given life and dignity to same sex and queer couples. The legal system proved that it is not only blind but also susceptible to mass populism that denies the rights to consenting adults to live their lives in dignity. That was the year when we hashtagged our solidarity with #NoGoingBack, making it trend so that umpteen number of people came out in support of homosexuality in the country. Support to the queer community came from unexpected quarters, like the generally reticent Bollywood celebrities who supported #Scrap377, and even religious and political representatives who recognise that the continued abuse of queer communities is a violation of our constitutional rights.
While the struggles for gender and sexual equality continue in the country, and tireless activists and civil society advocates persist in their demands of justice and protection, here we are, waking up to yet another year of public shame and private grief, as reports came of the aggressive sexual abuse that women had to endure on the streets of Bangalore. The incident unfolded with all the trappings of victim blaming, slut shaming, and a sentence that should never be allowed — “She was asking for it.” On the digital social web, in the meantime, some sanctimonious men, indignant at the thought of being accused of patriarchal silence and misogynist privilege, decided to take attention away from the victims and decided to steal the spotlight with a hashtag that says #NotAllMen. These tweeters, who have no problem in enjoying the benefits of an abusive sexist social order — they might not actively go out to inflict gendered violence, but they are complicit in enjoying the privileges of that system — had a problem with taking responsibility for that system. They would not be shamed. Not even when an overwhelming number of women wrote back with #YesAllWomen, would they concede their grounds.
As it occurs so often on the Interwebz, the conversation that demanded both a private reflection and a public dialogue, devolved into personal name calling and collective anger deflected from the problem at hand. In the midst of the sensationalism that passes off as discussion in populist media channels, I want to think of something else. If all these voices in our public discourse were to be heard, it would feel like gendered and sexual safety are national preoccupations and bipartisan concerns. The customised expressions of our personalised media abound with anger, shame, critique, and analyses of why our country is increasingly becoming unsafe for certain bodies to walk through it. Social media accounts are producing a spectacle of concern for safety so effectively that it would seem these questions will be resolved immediately.
And yet, even as I look at my biographical history of writing this column, I realised that I have revisited these discussions over and over again. This is a debate that now occurs regularly, each time, giving us the chance to identify a problem, go online and make a lot of noise about it, and then settle down, with a smug smile on our faces of having done our public performance, without ever translating it into action. On the digital web, we seem to have mastered the art of shame without guilt. We continue to hashtag, like, tweet, share, and click our ways, using prepackaged formulae of expression without translating it into personal reflection or collective action. And the digital seems to be enabling this where having an opinion seems to matter more than actual transformation, and spectacles of shame seem to acquit us of the responsibility of action.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore.