Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Welcome to the Offense Economy

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

One of the most irritating human habits is to inform a person who you have just bumped into about a changed physical attribute.  “You’ve gained weight!,” or “your hair’s gone all white” or “your face looks a bit orange, Speaker Boehner.” Its one of the most unhelpful things one can say to another person. Thank you for noticing that I’ve grown all fat! All the clothes that don’t fit and the large amounts of food I’ve been consuming didn’t tip me off. Oh, my hair’s grown white, you say? I seemed to have missed that! No, it didn’t cause my mid-life crisis at all. That’s not the reason I bought a sports car and started dating my daughter’s classmate. I’m just doing research on being a douchebag for an article I’m writing.

That unhelpful insight was provided by the Indian twittersphere this week. All of a sudden, everyone seemed to have discovered that we’re turning into an intolerant country. Which was strange, because it wasn’t as if on Friday we were a beacon of freedom and tolerance and then, on Monday, we were suddenly transported into the dark ages. We have been travelling down this road for many years. The fake assassins from the Mumbai underworld did not kill free speech, we did. 

Here is how this offense economy works: Take a passage in a book or a scene in a movie or a crude interpretation of a painting. Pick a slow news day, hire a mob, make some noise and voila, a star is born! As if on cue, every other actor in the farce will be ready with their lines. The news channels will play the tapes of the protest on loop, interspersed with condemnation of the object of offense by politicians of all hues. The BJP members will blame the government and call for its resignation. The government ministers will pick straws and the unfortunate loser who draws the shortest will be sent to make a statement condemning the creator of the object of offense and caution against ‘offending people’s sentiments.’ Javed Akthar and Mahesh Bhatt will defend the creator of the object of offense, first on the phone and then in the studio. The Congress party will issue their own condemnation, and one of its patronizing spokesperson will go on each prime time news show and will alternate between sneering at the anchor and inaccurately quoting Shakespeare to condemn the object of offense and its creator while maintaining the logical fallacy that their party supports artistic freedom. The news anchors will be too busy grandstanding to actually cross question their ‘guests.’

After a week of un-helpful & inconclusive discussions, the cycle of outrage will head to all the weekend shows. The same celebrities & politicians will be called to sit among non-celebrities and the same arguments will be made once again. Then someone in the audience will say something emotional & patriotic (e.g. "be an Indian first") which will be useless, bullshit-y and will garner lots of applause. The anchor will then close the show on a sombre and surprisingly happy note. Afterwards, everyone will go back home, until they are called on to do the same thing all over again.

Our government also made us proud this week by registering an official complaint against a Jay Leno joke. The reply they got from the US state department was the diplomatic version of ‘stop being such a whiny little asshole.’ Our national self-image is so weak that we get offended by everything! We’re like the old patriarch in an Indian joint family who insists that everybody else listen to him. And everybody does, not out of any real respect, but just to humour the old man. We never put our weight behind anything positive. When countries torture & kill their citizens, we dismiss it as an ‘internal matter,’ but when it comes to scoring brownie points with a domestic constituency, we’re ready to even interfere in their court proceedings. If our foreign policy were a sitcom character, it would be the neurotic nerd who is in need of constant validation from his friends.

The offense economy is a dangerous game of poker in which each iteration of fame seeking offense-tards will try to outdo the ones that came before. We see your M.F. Husain and raise you a Salman Rushdie.

What we need is for someone to call their bluff.

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