When everyone from Main Anna Hoon to Ban Ki-Moon was spluttering at Kapil Sibal’s proposal to censor social media and he was stuttering back, free speech was the only issue. Because it was a ploy to digitally defang the anti-corruption movement ahead of its second marathon fast. But a simple question was lost in the flamestorm — can’t we be decent in our communications? The internet has become as mainstream as any physical place where people congregate but it doesn’t require mainstream manners. Rather, it is the site of the encounter killing of decency.
The internet was an electronic frontier, a new space where real identities were irrelevant because it was divorced from real life. Now, social media and e-commerce have made it an integral part of everyday reality and their users identify themselves clearly. If the electronic world is like the real world, shouldn’t we follow traditional etiquette online, use real identities and take responsibility for our actions? Should we anonymously use language and imagery that would invite expulsion from a gathering, if not retaliatory physical violence, in the real world? In that context, does a call for decency still sound like a curb on free speech?
Besides, the internet has become a confusing mashup. Those who are named and those who dare not speak their own name are on the same page. We slip fluidly between the world of identity and consequence and that of anonymity and good, unclean fun. And the lunatic, the lover, the poet, the rationalist, the hate-monger and the poetaster are also on the same page. It’s fusion gone mad, like mashed potatoes with beef jerky, caviare, fried grasshoppers and bhindi in it.
I oppose censorship but favour decency, like to keep caviare and bhindi apart and prefer to know who I’m dining with. Or, if they’re entertainingly indecent guys in disguise, I want to know that, too. Anything is cool, so long as the context is clear.
Of its own accord, the internet has started to split into the civil and the uncivil. There’s Facebook, where users are named and outrageous behaviour is rare. And there’s the weird but politically influential anonymous discussion board 4chan.org, where Kafka and Homer get about the same space as porn. If they like you out there, they call you a fag. A fag is not a cigarette. That’s cool, too, so long as I know what to expect.
What I’m suggesting is not censorship but explicit recognition of this netsplit. Perhaps through signposting by the search engines we use to explore the internet, so that we know what kind of neighbourhood we’re going to before we get there. Marking the civil and the rest apart would reduce the validity of outcries for censorship.
But what of satire, a powerful magnet of censorship demands? The landmark internet satire case dates from a decade ago, when an MIT student launched Bonsaikitten.com, which offered to grow pet kittens rectangular or rhomboidal in rectilinear glass jars. Obviously, it was a satire on consumerism frenzied by limitless choice. But man, I wanted to stick that student in a jar and see what shape he emerged in. In the realm of satire, the jury is permanently out on what’s fun and what’s just not on.
Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine
The views expressed by the author are personal