September 07, 2007

The outrage-mongers

Partly prompted by Abi, I wrote this essay a few weeks ago. It has appeared in the Hindustan Times yesterday, September 6.


There's a new way out there that news spreads, at least as it reaches me. Not TV, not Google News, not newspapers or radio or magazines. No, at least with some kinds of incidents, this particular method is faster and more direct than any of those.

It's the "you scumbag, where's your outrage?" gravy train, and it moves at a swift clip indeed.

Consider: on July 11 2006, the other set of blasts in this country happened in Srinagar. Being out and about on errands most of that morning, I entirely missed this news. Until the phone rang about noon. It was a man who had been calling regularly in those weeks. He claimed to be in Delhi, had somehow found my number, and would call to berate me and my writing in the worst possible language. As he did that afternoon. When I answered, he said to me: "D'you see what they did in Srinagar? You and your masters in Pakistan must be happy! You traitor! Why haven't you condemned it yet?"

And that's how I found out that something awful had happened in Srinagar. And late that night, the same gentle man called to abuse me about the blasts in Mumbai's suburban trains.

Consider: on October 29 2005, bombs went off all over Delhi. When my brother called about them, we were on our way to visit the Red Fort. I changed plans and visited hospitals instead, where I found blood, chaos and tragedy. Late that night, despondent at home, I dialed up for email. One long message waiting for me, and here, verbatim, are some excerpts:
    Dear Mr. DSouza

    In view of these terrible blasts in New Delhi ... thnaks to the pseudo-secularist attitude of the politicans and the constant minority appeasement by people like yourself. ... you owe your allegiance to the god-damn Church rather than Indian constitution. People like Sonia Gandhi and others should be burnt alive for trying to destabilize India, I am confident that you bloody semites ... are in this together. ... The day is not far that ... India would be rid of all you inferior people ... You bloody bastards who have no sense of humanity and patriotism.
As I read this, it struck me: had I not set out for the Red Fort, it would have been this friendly message that brought me the bomb news. After all, it had been sent within 15 minutes of the first blasts. Yes, 15.

Apparently there are people who hear about an atrocity and their first thought is not "can I donate blood?", or "is there anyone I know who's been hurt?", things like that. No, instead they think: "let's call people we don't like, abuse them and ask why they haven't condemned the atrocity."

Takes all kinds, as always. Not just anonymous phone- and email-jockeys either.

On the evening of Thursday August 9, some thugs attacked Taslima Nasreen in Hyderabad. NDTV's Barkha Dutt had an article about it up on this newspaper's website in just over 24 hours (The secular silence, timestamped "23:48 IST 10/8/2007"), and it appeared on the edit page on Saturday the 11th. In it, Dutt wants to know where the outrage is over the assault on Taslima. From the "liberal establishment", she says, "there’s no real evidence of anger or disgust."

Considering the incident happened on Thursday evening and her essay was on air on Friday evening, it's worth wondering: what did Dutt expect? That liberals, whoever they are, would be out showing disgust even before she finished writing? (Maybe before the incident even happened?) That they should not be allowed the time even to distil their thoughts and formulate a cogent response? That this inexplicable demand for "anger and disgust" must not be made, as emptily, of non-liberals, whoever they are?

Why would Barkha Dutt assume that the "liberal establishment" does not feel "anger or disgust" over an assault like this? Other things aside, she feels it and expresses it herself, power to her. Isn't she part of the "liberal establishment"? Isn't her own anger "evidence" that contradicts her claim of "secular silence"?

Yet it's hardly that I want to offer a list of suitably outraged reactions to the attack on Taslima. Such a defence is meaningless to me, not least because it falls into the trap laid by the outrage-mongers. However long that list is, it will never be long enough, nor outraged enough, for them. Besides, when the next crime comes along, as it inevitably will, it's immediately as if the list never was. Back to square one: why haven't you condemned this one yet? It's been three entire minutes since it happened!

This game interests me not.

But are we in a time of competitive outrage? Do crimes happen only so that we can demonstrate our particular righteous horror? So that we can demand to know why others aren't as horrified, and instantly condemn them as hypocrites?

Yet think of it. Walking down the street, you and I, utter strangers, see a robbery, or a murder, or the looting of a shop happen. What would you assume about me? That I must be unaffected by these crimes, even callous to them? Or at any rate, that my reaction to them must depend on my particular ideological slant, which, if different from yours, must mean that I feel zero outrage?

In fact, I bet you're reading these questions in a kind of wonder. Who would stop to think in these terms? Would you even notice me on the street? Wouldn't you rush to help, or call the police, or something?

Or wait, would you instead turn and denounce me because I haven't showed any outrage (yet)?

"That other guy doesn't think like me. Therefore any given ghastly crime must make him happy": why have we reduced our shared humanity to this small-minded, twisted state?

Once, there was a simple assumption all of us grew up making, most likely unconsciously. This one: when something horrible happens, my fellow human being is appalled by it. Just as I myself am. Doesn't matter which side of which ideological debate she haunts, she's appalled. Period.

Why haven't you, yes you, made that assumption yet?


Jai_Choorakkot said...

Agree but do wish you could have avoided clubbing Barkha Dutt with those anonymous berators.

I know and accept from way back your basic premise that the condemnation is implicitly assumed and the demand for outrage displays is silly.

Yet I couldnt help noticing that Abi's original post devoted exactly ONE word (appalling) to the incident and the rest of his lengthy diatribe was directed at Ms.Dutt.

Odd as it may be, the idea that one can measure which of the multiple facets of an incident, one is more keyed to, by the content of his/ her reaction is not totally without merit.

In this case I think Abi was stung by the accusation and reacted to it more volubly than the incident. But no lack of outrage is implied.

Just highlighted this process of:
- what stood out to me as odd
- how I am resolving it
in the hope that it may help others on all sides of this issue to hopefully move along similar lines rather than draw battle formations.


Rahul Siddharthan said...

Dilip -- one criticism: you have acknowledged Abi here but you could also have done so in your printed article. I know the mainstream media in India hate even to cite one another by name, let alone citing bloggers. But that's not good.

Jai - you missed the point of both articles. Abi's was not about the Taslima outrage, it was about Barkha Dutt's faux "where's-the-outrage" outrage. And Dilip is perfectly correct in clubbing that sort of thing with his anonymous letter writers. Barkha may have a marginally better command of the English language, but that is all that can be said in favour of her article.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Rahul, you're right. I should have acknowledged Abi. Don't know what I was thinking.

Jai_Choorakkot said...


Thanks I think I did have the point. Perhaps I saw it a little wider angle.

The reference to Barkha's article was sandwiched btwn the anonymous abuse and very emotional stuff like:

- maybe before the event happened?
- its been 3 entire minutes!

that suggest to me that Dilip was pretty worked up writing this one.

I am aware that 'friendly fire' is likely to hurt more. Maybe its that.

But did maybe parts of this piece look the same to Barkha, as Barkha's piece did to Dilip, and was that the intention? was one thing I wondered about.

Maybe he could have communicated his basic point (on which I am in complete agreement) a little better without these, is what I felt on reading this piece.


Gurmeet said...

You are wrong about Barkha here.Liberals, which perversely means leftists generally do display selective outrage. I personally know several who rejoiced after 9/11.

Sorry about your father.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Gurmeet: you personally know "several who rejoiced after 9/11". Therefore "liberals display selective outrage"?

I personally know several apparent "conservatives" who were thrilled with the massacres in Gujarat in 2002. Why have I not come to the conclusion that "conservatives display selective outrage"? Should I instead assume about my conservative friends that they are thrilled with wholesale murder too?

People who celebrate mass murder are hardly "liberal" or "conservative" -- they are just perverse sickos, and should be treated that way. Yet it is substantially more perverse to assume their sickness applies to everyone else around.

Anon 1051: you can expect all you want. As I said, "This game interests me not." The use of "ex" tells me all I need to know.