The better tomorrow?

The young and the ugly

Over a decade ago, when I was still working in a factory in Chennai making automotive parts, a team of Japanese hibakusha—atomic bomb survivors—came to Chennai. I do not remember now if they had come to India to mark an occasion of some kind. More likely that they were a team of anti-nuclear activists who were going around the world trying to tell anyone who would listen to them—teenagers, school children, people in a shopping mall—that nuclear weapons were not the solution but the problem. My memories of the general details are somewhat hazy. But I remember thinking at the time that their strategy was sound.

There was no point telling adults with their ossified world view that nuclear weapons had to be abolished. They would never listen as long as they had certain inviolate justifications deeply ingrained in their minds. So why not start with the kids? Why not fill those blank slates with some good common sense and hope they remember when they grow up and perhaps reach a position of power or authority. What if one of those Chennai kids became someone powerful like the president of the Congress Party, a yoga guru or the Lok Pal? Maybe this seed of an idea of a nuclear-free world might take root.

One of the stops on the hibakusha road show was a primary school somewhere in Chennai. And there was an interesting report on this trip in the weekend supplement of the Indian Express or the Hindu. (I don’t remember if there were many 7-letter words or not.)

After a presentation on the bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they asked the kids if the world needed any nuclear weapons. The kids enthusiastically denounced the idea. Then they asked the kids if we should use them in any circumstance? Of course not, the kids said, not this horrible thing. Not in any situation.

What about Pakistan? asked one of the hibakusha.

“Oh, Pakistan is a special case,” said the primary school children. We can use nuclear weapons on them.

For many years I used to retell that story to friends and family. Usually during Indo-Pak cricket matches or some other situation when the flag-waving jingoism seemed particularly meaningless. How funny, I used to say, that we indoctrinate our young so early.

But in time I have begun to realise that the incident is neither rare, limited to little children nor even particularly funny.

Over the past few years, as I have spent increasing amounts of time on internet forums, social networks and as a journalist whose work is primarily read on the web. A large part of my work involves poking fun at people and institutions. Upset readers and inflamed comments come with the territory. There is almost no topic in India that you can make fun of without leaving someone in some remote emotional or geographical corner of the country enraged.

Go ahead. Try.

So much so that every day we find new reasons to push the scope of humour deeper and deeper into a dull, xenophobic corner that thrives on stereotypes.

(Except maybe Pakistan. Pakistan is open season every season.)

This does not worry me in general. After all, the history of human civilisation is usually one of a reviled few trying to somehow control or redirect the madness of the many.

But what does upset me is the relentless, deep hatred that I see in the educated, cosmopolitan young. Take any contemporary issue that has excited young people recently.

The recent Lok Pal bill comes to mind. At one point it was impossible to criticise the bill in a column or even a social network update without receiving a barrage of—there is no other way to put it—hate. If you disagree with Mr Hazare then this clearly means that you are a stooge of the Congress who is being paid by the Italian empress of the nation.

It was inconceivable for many people that you could be anti-corruption and anti-Lok Pal.

Image: Irfan Intekhab

But look at their profile pictures. Look at their professions. Read their blogs. See what else they talk about. These are young people. Some of them are still in college. Presumably they are literate enough to read and intelligent enough to think.

Yet they are incapable of disagreeing gracefully. They are incapable of reconciling with the fact that another person can have a different set of priorities. You are either with these people. Or you are against them.

Take the example of MF Husain. When the painter passed away recently Rediff carried a series of articles and retrospectives on him.

The comments sections on Rediff’s articles are notorious for the sheer hatred and polarity that resides there. These are not people that disagree with each other. They hate each other.

After Mr Husain’s death the comments section did not disappoint. To one commenter’s request for his remains to be brought back to India, another’s response was: “Those who claim there was nothing in his painting should consider getting nude paintings of their m0the1r and displaying it in public.” (The typo on ‘mother’ presumably to avoid Rediff’s spam detector.)

One of the constants of human existence is the belief that each generation will somehow make things better than the previous one. It seems a central notion to our species that the youth and children of today will take the decisions, make the compromises and ask the questions that their parents and grandparents could not because of their technological, political, cultural or social myopia and illiberalism.

This is why we are fascinated by the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge, the Spanish Inquisition or the Mongol hordes. Because we know that such a thing is impossible today. Because we know that we have evolved from that brutality. Because every successive generation is less brutal and more humane the one before it.

Yet look at the hate on our social networks, websites or under our newspaper columns. Look at the recent data which shows that the female foeticide increases with education or income. Look at the massive involvement of our younger politicians in scams and corruption.

Does this give us any security that the next 60 years will be any better than the last 60?

Let me cite one personal incident that has left me extremely sceptical.

Three or four years ago a good friend visited me in Mumbai. Not only does he have an excellent education but he is also extremely well-travelled and, at that time before economic chaos, spent more than half the year zipping around in private jets. A worldly wise chap if there ever was one.

As usual one topic led to another and we began to speak about the global problem of terror, and the increasing marginalisation of Muslims all over the world and in India. It was a pretty heated discussion which my friend brought to an abrupt close by saying: “Those guys are a problem. Muslims cause problems wherever they go. We are better off if someone would kill all of them.”

Our tomorrow looks awfully, terribly entwined in our yesterday.

13 Replies to “The better tomorrow?”

  1. enlightened

    While I agree with you that some Indians online push it too far with their hateful comments, I also believe that just because they hold views that are not consistent with political correctness doesn’t mean they’re wrong.

    I feel you have contradicted yourself in the article, when you mentioned about the resistance you got from pro-lokpal supporters you were on the wrong side of the bandwagon, in the same way someone who believes muslims are a scourge to humanity also has his views so what if they aren’t consistent with someone’s sensibilities.

    Personally I do believe educating muslims in India is the best way to counter home grown terror, but we also need to make sure muslims remain under the watchful eye of the society so that we contain terror. If it requires POTA then so be it.

  2. divakarssathya

    My attitude to relating to the young is, “Its not you. Its me. ”

    The dense hypocrisy of the old – N D Tiwari as a barely discussed emblem – begets hatred in the young.

    Why is that so difficult to figure?

  3. onlineobelix

    You’ve hit the nail on the head Sidin. I recall this TV commercial where the youth of the day are shown to be intolerant as part of a style statement. It is almost as though we believe that it is ‘cool’ to be coarse. How much of this is caused by intrusive education and an equally intrusive television news is anybody’s guess. But, I personally tell the youth who listen to me to avoid both and start thinking for themselves… for the human mind is the most powerful teacher of all.

  4. rk

    For a change, a thoughtful article from Sidin 😉 [Hope you are not full of rage, ready to throw a mouthful at me]

    True, India is witnessing a strange rage, which is often mis-directed. It is almost as if, people are frustrated with everything around them – rising cost of living, increased pollution, increased competition, too much media, too less governance, too many scams etc. All these resulting in outburst of anger in social networks. There is a proverb in Kannada which translates to “Poor man’s anger is limited to his jaws”, but today we have social network where we can “express” ourselves.

  5. naren

    Sidin,

    For a humour columnist, you take hateful online comments too seriously.

    I’d any day prefer hateful online comments to hateful action in the real world (read violence). It provides a space for people to vent (just like you did here!)

  6. sagarys

    So, the assumption that material-education eliminates extremism, doesn’t quite hold. But, it certainly reduces it; but at unfortunate times, it makes debates polarized and binary.

    Also, it will be very naive to blame individuals for their beliefs. It is how they have grown up, which has encapsulated them in the invisible bubbles of their perceptions and beliefs. (One of the reasons why I hate G+ circles). Quality education and unbiased-media are just a few of the tools, to give them access to the bigger bubble.

  7. z3phyr

    Thought provoking. But i think the intense hatred on social networks (youtube, orkut etc.) don’t necessarily hold that much water.
    Most of the banter (yes because for the people who contribute there, it is more or less a banter, me thinks) though stemming from their opinions and beliefs, is at some level a kind of entertainment source. The primeval instinct of humans to have fun by trashing and deriding others. Of course the anonymity helps.

  8. pratapkp73

    Hypocrisy in your post !!
    Criticizing the Lokpal Bill doesn’t make one a Congress thesp. But passing a gibe over inaction against terrorism for fear of vote banks makes one an anti-secular-rightwing-demon , doesn’t it ??

  9. hrcynic

    Sidin
    I don’t think things have changed in successive generations in terms moving away from brutality
    It still happens how else could one explain genocides and ethnic cleansing? The balkan conflicts and African conflicts all of them point to the fact that as a specie we haven’t progressed much. That stereotypes will remain and prejudices will seep through and stay with each generation.

  10. PragyaSingh

    Nice piece. It’s psychology 101: people will lash out in anger when they are most afraid.

    I don’t agree that urban, educated Indians should be, somehow, expected to behave better than — ‘others’ — whoever they are, those not in college, maybe. We all know what education is being imparted, only too well… And we’ve known too long to pretend education has a necessarily civilising influence!

    Also, it isn’t new data that shows more girl children are killed before birth in wealthier, urban areas. This has been known and documented since the 80s. Ditto for “bride burning”. It’s just increasing over time, as wealth increases. Both “trends” are relatively new to Rural areas, in fact….(excluding some wealthy, ruling-class communities in the North, of course).

    I don’t have this first hand, unfortunately, but a researcher I knew said not long ago that Defence Colony in Delhi, a better-off neighbourhood, reported an extremely high proportion of dowry deaths in the 80s and 90s — when this crime really started to peak.

    Again, one of the highest number of caste-related violent deaths are also in — surprisingly — the wealthy state of Maharashtra. The NCRB data will confirm this if it interests you.

    So attitudes towards women, violence, crime, castes, religion and their relative aggression, or their fear of being contradicted and proved wrong, (their insecurity) is not, in my view, dictated by greater wealth/education alone. The exception to this is probably abusive language, which was earlier associated (wrongly?) with the poorer working classes, but now has filtered up — India’s great leveler, maybe?

    How people relate Offline, which is with aggression and ego, is usually how they end up engaging Online — they just get a little more anonymity, which cowards love…

    Writers such as yourself make people aware of new, kinder ways to engage and relate to each other — but then you may be accused of being an old fogey well before your time, I should warn. Even Bollywood finds it difficult to be interesting without cuss words — and they’ve been making movies for what, 100 years?

    Sorry I got carried away — read your piece while working on something similar, so…

    Cheers.

  11. varunkumarm

    Hello Sidin,

    I share and feel your emotion. I’m surprised that people didn’t understand the intent of this post and questioned why it would be wrong to have a opinion against political correctness!! Accusing a entire religion is definitely not the same as agreeing with someones sensibilities. The anger, frustration and apathy people show continues to baffle me.

    Derek Sivers posted this nice little video about online interactions and how people fail realize that there are real people on the other side of the internet. Here it is

  12. hephail

    India is way more racist than most of us realise.
    I am so glad you do.

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