When silence is not golden…

If you hear someone say something bigoted, speak up!

brunch Updated: Jun 30, 2018 20:36 IST
Seema Goswami
Seema Goswami
Hindustan Times
socialinjustice,communal poison,casual communalism
No matter how embarrassing it may be for you and others in the group, blatant bigotry should not go unchallenged(Photo Imaging: Parth Garg)

Sitting down to dinner at a Chinese restaurant with another couple (social acquaintances rather than old friends) a month or so ago, I was looking forward to the Peking duck with all the trimmings. But even as the mains were served, the conversation took an unexpected turn.

Swimming in the maelstrom of emotions that her throwaway remark had aroused, I failed to find the words to indicate my horror and disgust at her casual communalism

My female dinner companion and I were discussing our favourite walks in Delhi. After we had finished rhapsodising about Lodi Gardens, I happened to mention how beautiful the sunsets on Marine Drive were. The lady, who had just returned from a visit to Mumbai, interrupted me to say, “Oh, I didn’t like that area at all. Too many ‘Ms’, with their burqas and all. I don’t know where they’ve come from, so many of them!”

I was, quite literally, struck dumb, my feelings a weird jumble of acute embarrassment (for her as much as for me), shock that anyone could say such bigoted stuff without any shame whatsoever, consternation that she thought that I would be receptive to such communal poison, sadness that we had come to such a pass that nobody thought twice of saying such things in public, and anger that I had failed to see this woman for what she was in all the years I had known her.

Swimming in the maelstrom of emotions that her throwaway remark had aroused, I failed to find the words to indicate my horror and disgust at her casual communalism. By the time I had recovered my ability to speak, the conversation had moved on. But for the rest of the dinner, I sat in silence, mulling over the many ways I could – and should – have responded to her. But to my eternal shame, instead of harking back to the topic (the ‘M’s of her story), I stayed mute until it was time to say goodbye.

On the ride back home, my husband asked if I was feeling well. It was not like me to stay so quiet through the evening. I explained to him what had happened to make me so dumbstruck. And how much I now hated myself for not saying anything when confronted with such open bigotry

Of course, we both decided that we would never see that particular couple again. But the incident got me thinking. What is the best way of dealing with people who have no compunction about openly expressing their bigotry in polite conversation?

Well, first off, silence is not an option. No matter how embarrassing it may be for you and others in the group, blatant bigotry should not go unchallenged.

We may not be directly responsible for the bigotry that is taking over our civil society, but we are certainly complicit in its spread because of our decision to disengage

At my dinner, for instance, I should have pushed back. What do you mean by ‘Ms’? Do you mean ‘Muslims’? What’s wrong with saying ‘Muslim’ in that case? What is the problem if the women are in burqas? Why does that make you feel so threatened? As for where they have come from, they have been living in Mumbai for generations, unlike you, who’s just visiting!

Would it have made for an uncomfortable evening? Of course. Would it have resulted in the end of a beautiful (I’m kidding) relationship? Without a doubt. But I wouldn’t be friends with such people for all the money in the world anyway, so that was a moot point.

I know that this is easier said than done. Most of us have been brought up to be polite when in company, to make diplomatic noises when someone says something unpleasant, to try and smooth over tricky bits of conversation rather than speak home truths. Our instinct, then, is to gloss over bigoted comments, dismissing them out of hand or pretending that we never heard them in the first place. We make peace with our craven failure to engage by telling ourselves that we would never change these people’s minds in any case. So, why bother arguing with them; much better not to talk to them at all.

I can see the attraction of that approach. Not only does it make for an easier life, you can also virtue-signal to the rest of the world that you have no time for bigots and communalists.

But when we retire to the comfort zone of our own echo chambers, leaving our bigoted brethren to spew what communal poison they wish in their own sphere of influence, we contribute to making the world a much worse place with our silence. We may not be directly responsible for the bigotry that is taking over our civil society, but we are certainly complicit in its spread because of our decision to disengage.

So, I for one, have made a pledge. If I hear anyone say anything bigoted and communal – whether in real life or in the online space – I am going to step forward and say something. I am going to push back. I am going to make it clear that such views are unacceptable in a civilised society, and that those who hold them are beyond the pale. I am going to try my best to shame these people.

Silence is no longer an option. Not for me, at least. And, I do hope,it won’t be your choice either.

Journalist and author Seema Goswami has been a columnist with HT Brunch since 2004. Her new book Race Course Road is currently topping the charts.Spectator appears every fortnight

From HT Brunch, July 1, 2018

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First Published: Jun 30, 2018 20:35 IST