Over the last few months, as I ventured into the world of Twitter and set up my blog, I have been struck by the strange dissonance between social discourse – the way we recognise it in the real world – and the kind of personal abuse that passes for it in the virtual world. No matter what you blog or tweet about – it could be something as harmless as the latest Rajinikanth movie or as controversial as Kashmir – there will a bunch of people lying in wait to pounce on you with both venom and vigour.
It seems you only have to express an opinion for the vitriol to come pouring out, all of it expressed in curiously personal terms. The debate is invariably pitched at the level of name-calling and four-letter words so trying to keep it in the realm of ideas seems a near-impossible task. Speaking for myself, I have been called everything from a ‘stupid bitch’ to ‘total psycho’ – and that’s some of the more polite stuff that can be featured in a family magazine without veering into pornographic territory.
And if you think that it’s just my boorishness that elicits this kind of response, well then, think again. A quick search through social media sites will disabuse you of this notion. Whether it is Kashmir, the Ayodhya dispute, the Maoist insurgency, the kind of comment that washes across the Internet is chilling in its intolerance, downright scary in its threat of incipient violence, and deeply troubling in how it targets people at a very personal level.‘Sickular’ (sic) journalists are asked who their mothers slept with to conceive them. (Hint: it could not possibly have been a nice Hindu man.) Those with a contrarion point of view are routinely slagged off as ‘anti-national’ and threatened with dire consequences if they dare to express their views again. And then, there’s the truly special species of Hindutva types who see no contradiction in lecturing you loftily on the essential tolerance of Hinduism and abusing your parentage in the next breath. (I guess they don’t hand out irony supplements at the shakha.)
It’s really as if the Internet has been taken over by the kind of loonies who used to spend all their time writing angry, misspelt letters to the editor in a more old-fashioned age – the kind of letters that sub-editors routinely tore up and chucked into the waste bin. But now this constituency has found a platform from which it can proclaim its badly-thought-out conspiracy theories for the world to hear. And its members are revelling in finally having a space where they can abuse whoever they want, whenever they want.
So, as the majority of Internet users – decent, thoughtful people who are looking to connect with others of their ilk, have a meaningful conversation, exchange ideas, argue about their beliefs or even learn about the beliefs that others espouse – watch in horror, this lunatic fringe of venomous, abusive idiots is taking over the virtual world, one illiterate, intemperate comment at a time.
It is the equivalent of a bunch of noisy hecklers disrupting a serious meeting or a seminar with loud abuse and shouting of idiotic slogans. You can bet that they will get the most attention – perhaps even a few newspaper headlines – though the meeting they disrupted probably merited more coverage. But it is a function of our essentially superficial age that whoever makes the most noise, whoever is the most abusive, ends up attracting the most attention.
I’ve often wondered just how to deal with these ‘haters’ of the virtual world. Some of my more recalcitrant friends tend to respond to the abuse in kind but I’m afraid that is simply not my style. Others believe in blocking anyone who descends to the level of personal abuse, but I’ve always thought that this gives them entirely too much importance.
On some occasions I have been provoked enough by such remarks to respond with a ‘what on earth are you thinking?’ kind of reply. But this just brings on more abuse so is somewhat self-defeating. There are times when I have responded with humour in the hope that it will defuse the situation. But, no, it only makes it worse. So, on the whole, I settle for brushing off the abuse – like so much water off a duck’s back – and moving on.
But now, I am beginning to ask myself if disengagement is really the right policy. By ceding this space to the lunatic fringe, am I, in fact, abandoning my own responsibility to promote civilised debate on the Internet? After all, if people like you and me let the loonies take over the asylum, then what hope is there that order will ever be restored?
So, what is the best way of taking control back from the lunatics? I’m not sure that I have the answer to that as yet, but I am open to any suggestions that you might have.
But until then, I’m going to adopt a more pro-active approach. As a first step, anyone who transgresses the boundaries of civilised discourse – as we know it in real life – will be off my timeline.
Because the way I look at it, it’s time to stand up for the values of a civilised society. It’s time to treat the abusive commentators of cyberspace as the social pariahs that they are. And it’s time to take back the Internet from the loonies.
Follow Seema on Twitter at twitter.com/seemagoswami