Friday, May 1, 2009

The First Learning - Content Overrides Source

I've always wondered what goes through people's minds when they write something and have it ripped to shreds in public reviews and private discussions, not to mention reader reviews on the Internet.

Well, we learn something every day. I have my first insight, thanks to an anonymous reader on my first post. Here's the comment:

Congratulations on your words of false wisdom. Savour them. These hollow sputterings are just that. Proof that the internet has somehow provided a vehicle for greasy bags of oil to parade around as pundits. Hot shitty air.

Instant reaction - shock. Not so much at the opinion, but at the tone. I hadn't thought a simple piece about the incident that got me to start this blog would inspire such strong emotion.

Delayed reaction - contempt. Someone who wants to trash what I post, but hides behind the “Anonymous” tag, deserves no attention.

Only thing is, they DO deserve attention – lots of attention, thought and self-examination. When I read the comment again, and took in the portion of my post that was quoted by the reader before his/her comment, I realized that the vitriol carries a pertinent point. Here’s the quoted text:

The apprehension that I felt after digesting Eric’s question remains within me. I can feel it as I type out each sentence. I have found that the best way to deal with a fear is to know it, dissect it, face it, beat it – until you know that who you are and what you are is sufficient to walk amidst society with your head held high.

It so easily comes across as preachy, full-of-it, know-it-all lecturing. Unintentional, but there nonetheless – almost like someone that has conquered all fear and challenge standing on a mountain top and shouting out to the rest of the world – “Here’s how it is done, people. Watch and learn.”

Have I mastered all my fears and inadequacies? Hardly – they have manifested themselves in my life on numerous occasions, and continue to do so, oftentimes with permanently damaging consequences. Relationships with those that I know as friends have been strained, and equations with those that I hope are friends have become ambiguous.

Yet, in failing time and time again to confront fears and face them down, I HAVE learned that without doing so, they leave their mark – sometimes permanently. The realization has not turned me into a fear-conquering colossus, but (IMHO) is not any less valid for that.

Perhaps these qualifying sentences should have been in my original post, and I thank “Anonymous” for making me rethink my words. Lesson learned.

If the comment wasn’t really about the quoted lines, and simply used them as the platform from which an attack could be launched – well, hard as it may be to see yourself described as a “greasy bag of oil”, I guess people are entitled to their opinions, and to express them on a public forum.

After all, when you are a nobody writing for a small audience (at best), indifference cuts deeper than scorn ever can, and a comment's pertinent content must override its negative source.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Brother Wolf

Brother Wolf, whose voice
travels through the winter dark
and touches my soul

The Indian General Election (or how the Indian voter earns his right to cynicism)

Once every five years or so (give or take the odd dissolved assembly or imploding coalition), something happens in India that makes it, for a few weeks, the toast of the democratic world. Thinkers, philosophers, world leaders and wheeler-dealers everywhere agree – the national election in India is, to champions of the democratic process everywhere, the ultimate expression and demonstration of their ideals and beliefs. It is a ringing endorsement of their conviction that all people are created equal, and have equal voice in shaping the future of their society.

As a conscious and active citizen, I believe that a correction is in order.

Those of us Indians that actually participate in this electoral process don’t do it in order to uphold the highest democratic ideals of the civilized world. No, no, nothing that grand. We are a simple and basic people, we Indians. Our motivation to vote, our drive to be a part of this glorified cattle round-up, stems from one thing:

It is our license to be and stay cynical without guilt or regret.

How so? Well, while the world sees a general election in India as a plural society exercising its franchise in a vibrant demonstration of the equality of humankind, we voting Indians see something else completely. Here’s how it looks to us:

Once every five years or so, Indians are required to ask themselves a simple question – do I care enough about how my country is governed to actually inconvenience myself over it? Historically, around 55% of the country’s citizens decide that they do care enough, and inconvenience themselves to prove it.

We do so first by ensuring that we acquire a Voter ID card. The only thing needed to get this card, technically, is for us to be resident citizens of India. By the time we have moved enough red-tape, corrected enough misspellings and greased enough palms to get the card, we are considering emigration.

Then we wait for the next election, paying close attention to which politician is aghast that actors smoke in public, and which one is promising to abolish short skirts all over the country, all the while wondering why either a matinee idol’s personal poisons or a glamour queen’s public attire makes any difference to us or our lives. We then find out that the two have joined forces and are presenting a united manifesto that will allow smoking, and tolerate short skirts, but won’t let you smoke while wearing a short skirt.

We give up on both, and decide to put our faith in the candidate representing the “3rd Front” who says he stands for a viable alternative. This candidate then makes it clear that tobacco and bare thighs are all OK, just as long as the owner of either will stop speaking English in public. Needless to say, our faith does not last too long.

We finally decide that our vote must go to a principled independent – an educated, middle-class person building a party comprised of like-minded people with similar backgrounds. Yes, we decide – it is time for a change. But this independent party has underestimated the virulence of the toxic environment they must operate in, and has soon splintered into 10 different independent parties that all stand for the same things, but cannot stand each other.

We give up differentiating between parties in our constituency, and decide to vote based on national level political alliances. But two days before the polling, we find out that seat-sharing arrangements between the allies have resulted in their being represented in our constituency by a former film star with white shoes, black teeth, red eyes and a heroin addiction. Why? – apparently, he comes with a strong vote bank in the interior of the state, but couldn’t be arsed about representing the district himself as he prefers to operate out of the “city”.

We can forgive almost anything, but draw the line at the white shoes.

We decide that we will cast a null vote – deliberately vote for multiple candidates so that our vote is discarded in the count. We get to the polling centre early on the big day. We find out which building our ID card lets us vote in, and shift queues thrice before finally joining the correct one. We get to the booth, and find that votes are no longer cast on ballot paper – they are cast using the electronic voting machine, and the machine does not allow us to cast a null vote. We must pick one candidate.

We pick the smoke approving, thigh appreciating, anti-English candidate. It’s been a long day, we could do with a cigarette and some eye candy, and in any case, there are no words in the English language that can satisfactorily articulate the thoughts in our head.

We spend the next week observing the purple dot on our nail shift ever closer to our fingertip as we wait for the results. We find out that the anti-English candidate won, but has changed his stance on the matter after receiving a cultural delegation from the UK. However, he is no longer a part of the “3rd Front”, as they did not recognize his efforts with a cabinet position, and has re-sworn his loyalty to the political dynasty he used to serve. The alliance we backed to govern at the Centre has mysteriously reformed and reshaped itself after getting routed in the polls, and announces its intention to “accept and contemplate the people’s verdict with humility”.

We wonder how our original intention to vote for a fresh new voice untainted by the lust for power mutated into a vote for a man with a one-item agenda, with said item being promptly dropped in favour of the existing agenda of the party he has joined and used to be a member of earlier. We laugh, thank God that we are not naive believers, congratulate ourselves on having done what was required in order to be able express our contempt at the whole process, and wait to be able to do it the next time.

And that is why we do it, dear reader – to be able to safely express our scorn at the whole democratic dance. To be able to say that we did what we were asked to do, and look how it turned out. To know that we have done what we could to make the process work – that it does not work the way it is meant to is merely proof that we were right to doubt it in the first place.

The bottom line is this – we are all cynics, every single man and woman that votes in India. There’s not one of us that believes that we are a part of some glorious democratic landmark. We know all too well the morass that is the Indian political landscape. We also know that without partaking of it, we cannot mock it.

And if we could not mock it, we could not endure it. So we vote, and snicker when we hear the day being described as a democratic landmark, and wrap ourselves again in cloaks of cynicism.

Cloaks that we remove for a day once every five years, so that we can earn the right to continue wearing them.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Walking the Line. Online.

“Did you hear about the dude who got fired because of his “tweet” on Twitter?”

That’s an innocent enough question for someone to ask you. It takes on an entirely more menacing undertone when it is printed right below your “What’s on your mind?” line in Facebook.

Not that the person asking me the question was my employer, you understand – it was a good friend of mine, no doubt watching out for my professional well being. The thing is, the thought of that line getting me into trouble hadn’t even crossed my mind. In fact, it would be fair to say that work, clients, employers, colleagues or any other connection to my job was the furthest thing from my mind when I put up what I did. So when Eric said what he did, I wasn’t overly worried, but it did get me thinking about some of the strange norms of the society that we are a part of, and especially the extent to which our behaviour in the virtual world is almost more important than how we conduct ourselves in the flesh.

Firstly, the small matter of the content of my post. Here’s what was on my mind as reflected by Facebook:

“Stoners should make public policy. Sober folk should implement them.”

I am amazed that while so many remarked on the content of the post, nobody smacked me across the head (you can virtually, you know – things called “superpokes” on Facebook allow you to smack, kick, punch, gouge and claw your “friends”) for the quite atrocious grammatical discontinuity in those two sentences. I’m a stickler for things like that – if you MUST say something, try to say it right. I was pretty tired when putting up that line, and my grammar slipped.

But perhaps it is too much to expect others to pay as much attention to the form when the content tends towards the controversial. And there is my second issue with this all.

Just what about those two lines could rub someone the wrong way? I’m not slandering anyone with false accusations, nor am I misquoting someone as having said it. I’m just stating a light-hearted opinion – one that I feel is shared by many. Ever see stoners get aggressive and in-your-face? Not likely – pot smokers are so contented and so lazy that they would rather spend 10 minutes fighting over who rolls the next joint than lift their own hands and do the job in 5. They will happily brush off the most personal abuse and insults worded to rouse fury in most, if it means that they can go back to getting high peacefully.

Imagine a world ruled by laws made by such peaceful people – I can’t be sure, but I’d bet that if the many fruitless meetings between leaders of warring nations and societies had begun with 3 bong hits each, we’d be living on a much more peaceful planet.

And yet, people do get rubbed the wrong way all the time. I looked up some instances of folks getting into trouble over Twitter tweets (I don’t even know what those are) and Facebook posts. The large majority of those that lost their jobs happened to have said something derogatory about a colleague or a client. Fair enough – open honesty of the negative kind is almost involuntarily reciprocal, and if you hate your boss or client and state it publicly so that he/she gets to know, you can’t be surprised if said boss or client retaliates with extreme prejudice.

But other instances puzzled me. Here’s one - a man offended some of his company’s corporate partners because he spoke disparagingly about a certain city, and wrote that he’d die if he had to live there. Some work partners took offense, and had to apologize to them.

If people get offended and need an apology from someone at work who happens to hate their city and says so, there are definitely going to be folks that could get pissed off because I spoke positively about a section of society that indulges in the use of a substance that is illegal in most of its forms almost everywhere in the world.

Eric was right to give me a (not so) subtle heads-up. The question is – why? Facebook asked me what was on my mind, and I told it. People call other people "friends" and connect with them online, and then blow the whistle on them when something is vented in an unguarded online moment? There’s not one person I know that hasn’t disliked their boss at some point, even if only in passing. People find it hard to be openly confrontational at times, and they vent in another forum. We all know this. Why the surprise, leave alone shock?

If I’ve learned one thing as a working professional, it is that even colleagues who have wildly divergent views on life and how to live it can work together productively. To me, this is professionalism. You don’t have to like someone to work with them.

So people say or do things we don’t approve of. So what? As long as someone isn’t doing something criminal, why does it have to be a problem? When did we lose our collective sense of humour? There is something painfully sad in having to sanitize our thoughts before writing them down in a place where “friends” can share them.

If someone who reported to me called me an ass on his blog, and I happened to find it and read it, I’d find it funny. I would try to find out what the problem is, but not before laughing at the situation first. And now, I find myself wondering if something is wrong with me because apparently, my instinctive reaction does not seem to be the majority view.

It is a challenge that simply can’t be resisted. So here I am, with my first ever blog.

I believe that I can express myself honestly, sincerely, openly, without dousing my random musings in antiseptic solution, and that I can do so without bringing offense to any reasonable people that I work with and live among. Many of my views and opinions are unconventional, a few downright weird.

The apprehension that I felt after digesting Eric’s question remains within me. I can feel it as I type out each sentence. I have found that the best way to deal with a fear is to know it, dissect it, face it, beat it – until you know that who you are and what you are is sufficient to walk amidst society with your head held high.

Time to walk the line. Online.