There is a particularly troublesome side-effect I have seen develop over the years as the internet has become an ever more powerful and effective tool in galvanizing and giving voice to the voiceless (in addition to amplifying the voice of those who already had a platform). I, and a few of the original bloggers and readers of SM, have had the chance to experience how the signal-to-noise ratio on our threads have worsened with time. There is much more reaction and much less reflection. I agree, my statement is laced with some nostalgia and my perception surely skewed with the passage of time. You will doubtless find examples of contrary evidence, but I feel it is true nonetheless. I also sense a generational rift growing wider. It is so much easier for people to be outraged nowadays, as compared to just a few years ago. And why not? We have so many tools at our disposal by which to express this outrage. And none require any thinking whatsoever. When op-ed columns were the only means to highlight an unreported issue, you had to carefully craft your message and had time to reflect on your claims and conclusions. By contrast, our websites/blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts all allow us to be outraged and share our outrage with others in an instant. Groupthink is also encouraged, since many of these platforms come with ready-made friend networks. If my 10 friends are outraged by something then I should be too or I will be the outlier and ostracized. I will be tagged misguided. Or worse. De-friended.
But what bothers me so much more than the frequency of our outrage is WHAT we get outraged about and what we conveniently ignore because it is too difficult to tackle or takes more energy than a mouse click. What bothers me is this new breed of lazy internet armchair activists.
Back in February of 2006 , I wrote a long post in defense of the Danish cartoon of the prophet with a bomb in his turban. I believe in free speech and oppose all censorship, as long as it does not actively incite violence against a group. Poking fun at a religion is all good. Yelling fire in a crowded movie theater is not. What happened on the radio in Rwanda before the genocide there was an obscene violation of free speech. Cartoonists, radio shock jocks, satirists, Borat, Glenn Beck, and others all have a right to say whatever they want just as we have the right to be upset about it and write their producer, station owner, etc. But when we do take that step we better understand exactly what it is that we find objectionable and why. We should be able to clearly and concisely articulate it and balance it with our other priorities and concerns. I am not saying don’t get mad about your local asshole shock jock. I did so here (same EXACT topic as Stein’s, but decidely different context and intent). I am just saying that every time you get outraged, you lose just a bit more of your effectiveness unless you are totally on top of your game. Look at what has happened to Jesse Jackson. One time civil rights leader, now a punchline. Look at what has happened to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). One time defender of animals now simply known as a promoter of gorgeous naked women. Look at what happened to the Tea Party. From grass roots revolution against the excess of government a year ago…to angry old xenophobic white people afraid of change. The lesson is that you pick and choose your battles wisely and understand and communicate your outrage in a cogent, unassailable and proportionate manner.
In the Hindu American community there is a pervasive and misguided belief that we Hindus are disproportionately the victims of our religion being made fun of. This is utter bullshit, despite what you have believed ever since Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom imprinted this into your psyche. In the U.S., Christianity is more regularly made fun of, ridiculed, blasphemed, satirized, and generally shat upon then Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism combined. I’ll bet you it isn’t even close. So why is it that a 100 people will be outraged and start letter writing campaigns and insult their fellow desis as “weak Gandhis” every time Hanuman is poked fun of or Shiva appears on a dog? For those 100 there will be 1 person that speaks up or writes a letter when a turban-wearing Sikh gas station owner is savagely beaten or when the media collectively decides that only brown-skinned people can be labeled terrorist. Divyendu Sinha was savagely beaten and killed THIS WEEK. Where is a link to this story on your Facebook pages and Twitter feeds? Where are your letters to the local politicians and police? Maybe you will find time to write them when you are done being outraged at an unskilled satirist. But that’s so much more work, isn’t it? Being outraged at Stein is quick and easy. Minimal effort for maximum desi activist cred to pull out at your next potluck.
South Asian Americans are undeniably growing in political power and influence. Nikki Haley’s recent victory in South Carolina is evidence of that. South Asians have an overwhelmingly disproportionate representation in the medical, hotel, and high tech industries. America is slowly turning Hindu. Our President practices yoga and uses its teachings for spiritual guidance in times of crisis. Aziz Ansari hosted the MTV music awards. After all that, many of you want to finally stand up and be an armchair activist when a two-bit humorist calls India poor or our God blue? Desi, please. Sit down until you are ready to do real work. You are embarrassing me.
Despite the fact that we have made much progress, there is so much we still need to come together on. We as Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Christians, etc. We as first generation and second generation. We as “upper class” and “working class.” Given our still small number we have to be smarter, more articulate and more factual than others in our outrage. We need to turn the outrage into political and policy action for the maximum good. We need to run for office. We need to write funny and biting satire about ourselves and our monkey Gods and get it published in Time (we can surely do better than Stein). Nationalism and jingoism should have no seat at our table.
Finally, let me say one thing about my fellow bloggers on SM. Anna’s post was more nuanced than some commenters gave her credit for and that is a shame. On the internet the tendency is to throw out the nuance and then polarize the debate. As much as Taz and I totally disagree on the Stein column, I have respect for her. Not just because she is my friend but because she actually walks the walk (undoubtedly more so than me). She is consistent and measured in what she gets upset over and she puts her boots on the ground to do something about it every time. I think she and some of the other voices out there (like SAALT’s more measured protest) are off the mark in their reaction to the Stein article, but then again, if that is the case they’ve earned that right.