The Curious Case of Political Labelling: Decentring Yourself in Contemporary India
By Athira Mohan
There cannot be an iota of doubt that social media pages have the potential to be the breeding ground for toxic differences. In fact, spaces like Twitter and Facebook are veritable double-edged swords, conceived for efficient and constructive socialization, but having fanned more than one disturbance, riot or even genocide, as in the case of the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar.
Does this mean differences in opinion did not exist before the era of social media? Definitely not! Does this translate to a phenomenon occurring in the Indian cyber space alone? The answer is no. Most importantly, cyberspace itself is not restricted by national boundaries, and the popular terms of difference that were hurled at people who voice a different opinion came from different parts of the world. For example, ‘Feminazi’ is a term that was first used by Rush Limbaugh, a host of the Rush Limbaugh show, who in turn credited his friend Thomas Hazlett for having coined the term (Hesse, 2021). Hazlett, who was an Economics professor, had apparently used the term to refer to his female colleagues who were not ‘open’ to suggestions or opinions. The term is an obvious portmanteau of a feminist and nazi, to hint at the supposed radical nature of some of its proponents. Though the etymological roots had tried to hint the more radical forms of feminism, now the term is being used to refer to anyone who raises their voices for feminist rights, particularly on the social media platforms. There are many reasons for this; the primary one being that social media platforms offer a convenient shield of anonymity, which allows its users to indulge in name-calling. Moreover, even for people who reveal their identity in these spaces, a sense of disturbance with changing world order has to be revealed carefully. A similar portmanteau word was recently coined in the space of Malayali social media circle, where a targeted cyberbullying happened against popular feminist activists, dubbing them as ‘feminichi’ (Aravamudan, 2018). The portmanteau, wordplay here is possibly between the words ‘feminist’ and ‘chechi’, the word for elder sister, or even between feminist and ‘ammachi’, the word meaning mother, or simply an old woman. However, it could also have a more malicious etymological origin, one that associates the words feminist and ‘thevidichi’, a slur for a profane woman. The latter possibility stands strong, also owing to the global parallels that could be drawn around the term.
Similar name-calling also exists in the political parlance, or perhaps extremely so in the parlance of politics. In other words, what action is not without political ramifications? Choosing to associate words like ‘bitch’ and ‘slut’ to shame women is grounded in politics. A term used to abuse media or journalists who report unpalatable truths or news that go against popular beliefs is ‘presstitute’, an obvious portmanteau of the words ‘press’ and ‘prostitute’. Though the term has no Indian origin, it gained traction through the tweets of Indian minister, General Vijay Kumar Singh’s tweets where he called out some media houses for allegedly going against the nation’s collective interests.
Similarly, hurling or intending to abuse someone in ableist terms is also a common occurrence where someone gets termed as a ‘libtard’ or ‘sickular’, for upholding liberal and secular values. While abusing someone for holding liberal values sounds unfair, the narratives have to be distorted or reconstructed to fit popular conspiracy theories. In fact, in a country that was founded upon the principles of liberal and secular values, using the same concepts as premises for insults can be quite ironic. Another term that has recently become popular in India is ‘urban naxal’, a term which was initially used to describe the dissenters of Bhima Koregaon group, and later was employed to refer to anyone who chose to criticize the central government. Many leaders of opposition, including Arvind Kejriwal, have been labelled as “urban naxal”.
From the aforementioned examples, we can derive a singular conclusion. The usage of words as insults is primarily centred on power. The language becomes violent and powerful, as it is used by the powerful against the less powerful. Moreover, the language is used by a section of people who are uncomfortable with signs of societal change and are nonchalant in further oppressing an already disadvantaged category through their language. The language is ableist, sexist and reeks of classism and privilege.
On the other hand, name calling cannot be singled out as a phenomenon that restricts itself to any singular faction. In India, terms such as andh-bhakt and sanghi are often hurled at people who express right-wing sentiments, whereas commie is a term internationally used to refer to left wingers. Though such terms are less vitriolic, they do try to label dissenters and group them into a club. In fact, name-calling comes from a mindset that is seldom appreciative of dissent and differences of opinion. Let us for a moment, dissociate ourselves from these medleys of labels, and look into our individual social media handles.
Most of us tend to follow and be friends with people who share similar political and social outlook, both online and offline. However, in offline spaces, one has to confront and interact with people of different social and political backgrounds, which often helps us build a sense of tolerance and even appreciation for difference. On the contrary, in the virtual space, differences are often met with intolerance, and are seldom led into constructive discussions. A major reason for this intolerance is the creation of echo chambers. When a person reads or believes in a certain set of information, and gets exposed to material of similar nature recurrently, these naturally get reinforced as facts. It should be remembered that in this age of post-truth, the lines between truth and falsehood are not just blurred, but at times even non-existent. Taking into consideration a human predilection to side with a faction that aligns to their cultural or social beliefs, these echo chambers can sometimes make you believe that you are the most supreme civilization on the face of earth, or you belong to an unfairly ostracised group.
The multiple possibilities of narrating an event are forgotten for a one-sided version that is convenient to one’s beliefs. In fact, these echo chambers are the predominant reason behind the instigated violent movements that had sprung from social media spaces. As a consequence of living in echo chambers, we tend to forge epistemic bubbles of our own. While we get habituated to hearing similar opinions from all corners, a dissimilar opinion could trigger either a violent response or muting all such people from your social media space, by either unfriending or blocking them. Thus, we deliberately avoid differences of opinion from reaching us, by building epistemic bubbles for ourselves. The area of contention of social media as opposed to regular media lies here. When you read a newspaper, you cannot choose to deliberately stop news articles of a particular nature from reaching you. While this could have some benefits, epistemic bubbles could make you better targets for manipulation and fake news peddling. Let us inspect certain consequences of this that eventually results in name-calling. Having lived in an echo chamber for quite a while, one tends to believe in their reinforced ideological constructs, and connects it with more fundamental beliefs like silencing dissenters and even resorting to physical violence. Democracy is believed to be one of the most supreme ideals that has sprung in the modern age, replacing the horrors of monarchy for the rights of the common man. However, modern history tells a different story.
Mark Twain had famously said that if voting had made any difference, they would not have let the people vote in the first place. Like any other system, democracy has its limitations, but it particularly paints a sorry sight because of certain issues at the core. The political milieu in India works with two or three major political parties at national and regional levels, who adopt similar policies and commit similar errors, but are largely representative of different ideologies. These ideologies are at most times not more than a ruse to collect votes, however sometimes they might extend to malignant policies. Nevertheless, their adherents work in predictable ways. Most political parties have cadres of keyboard warriors, who work determinedly to tarnish others’ reputation and save their own. It is quite amusing and even alarming to witness common people being blinded by the narratives peddled by their echo chambers. They wonderfully feign silence when they should and borrow Mark Antony’s rhetoric when they ought to. In other words, even the most caustic policies and governing mishaps from their favourite political party affords forgiveness, but a minor lapse from others deserves nothing less than a lashing. As a society, we have failed miserably since we have forgotten to ask for minimum accountability from the elected government. One must not forget Mark Twain’s words: “Loyalty to the country always. Loyalty to the government, when it deserves it.”
Patriotism is being misread as a servile bondage to the ruling party, but it should actually be seen as a concern for the welfare of the country folk. If in contemporary India, laws are being formulated against the welfare of farmers or minority citizens, we should know where to stand, and should have our conscience dictate it to us. What is ideology without empathy, if not to gather dust in books? This particular atmosphere is detrimental to a healthy conversation and exchange of ideas. Everyone is eager to slander the other and prove their point that the other is ideologically brainwashed. While a debate centred on facts and healthy ideas require brainstorming, labelling, and compartmentalising is convenient, and saves effort. While the left and the right engage in this mudslinging, there is a faction that decides to stand aloof from the extremes, possibly as to evade the blind devotion to a particular faction. However, a centrist position is not always the right choice, as it could be a tool to evade criticism and backlash from several areas. In effect, many people-pleasers continue to take up the position of centrists or choose to dub ‘politics’ as bad and troublesome. While we make blanket statements like “nothing can make a difference”, or “all politicians are the same”, we should also remind ourselves to check our privilege. Choosing to be uninterested in what is happening to your fellow beings definitely stems from a lot of privilege and is nothing to be proud about.
In fact, this stems from a gross misconception of a majority regarding the concept of politics, and what it means to be political. While taking a political position is many times understood as being a blind adherent of a peculiar political party, being political is all about being conscious about the world and how it is affecting you. However, it also involves being aware of the inequalities around you and choosing to speak up when you should. In short, politics is in the power distribution, and if you believe that you can afford to be uninterested in it, you are simply contributing to an already inequitable system.
The first step to decenter yourself is to stop according importance to any labels anyone might attach to you, and speak up for what you consider fair. Remember that in any event, there is an oppressor and the oppressed, and one must choose to speak up for the latter. Elie Wiesel famously said, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Considering Wiesel’s words is significant to check our privilege and stop labelling it as “centrism”.
Photo: Deccan Chronicle
Aravamudan, G. (2018, March 28). “Owning the word ‘feminichi’: How women are reclaiming patriarchy’s insults”. The News Minute. Retrieved May 31, 2022, from https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/owning-word-feminichi-how-women-are-reclaiming-patriarchy-s-insults-78634
Hesse, M. (2021, February 19). “Rush Limbaugh had a lot to say about feminism. Women learned how to not care”. The Washington Post. Retrieved May 31, 2022, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/rush-limbaugh-feminism-feminazis/2021/02/19/3a00f852-7202-11eb-85fa-e0ccb3660358_story.html
Athira Mohan holds a PhD in Children’s literature from Pondicherry University. Her interests include Children’s literature, postcolonialism, and food studies.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.