The rise of illiberal elites, the obscurity of opinions and the sheer craving for limelight has pressurised every individual to hold an extremist stand and the entire society to inadvertently neglect the concept of moderation. Choice has to be made immediately rather hastily to fit in the sects of classification, pre-determined by few and proposed to all. It might seem like an individual decision from an overt perspective; however, the amalgamating lines of private and public question the subjectivity in practice. When a media culture like this thrives, what comes with it is the losing fibres of once distinguishable but ever subjective, moral and ethical values. Social media provides a platform where people feel free to give power to a thought, their id once proffered, but ego never permitted. It often seems like a harmless tool, but the lack of regulations to what can be empowered now creates a slippery slope. Agencies around the globe are trying to search for the streak of appropriation of thought, bringing upon a culture of attempting speech to be in-offensive, the culture of political correctness, more popularly known as the PC culture or as Salman Rushdie likes to say it, a “culture of offendedness”.
The notion was commissioned as a sign of social civility, to be careful not to offend the sensitivities of anybody, especially communities that are generally considered peripheral or marginalised. However, it has, in return, hampered the freedom of speech and led to further outrage towards the marginalised. One of the reasons for the failure of establishing an artificial boundary of political correctness is the lack of objectivity in what can be offensive. Casteist slurs, Islamophobic stereotypes, or stubborn associations around women are among a few disputed arenas. However, it often translates into having a deliberation regarding such sensitive issues more difficult and sometimes implausible without offending anyone. Terminologies are often unsettled ground as well. Words with freighted history and associations become a bone of contention with the ‘woke’ population. ‘Harijan’ was the word of a condescending outsider, ‘scheduled caste’ is an administrative term, whereas ‘Dalit’ stands for assertive politics and community. Other terms with more prejudiced and derogatory historical baggage include Bhangi, Chamar, Chandala etc. In 2017, the Supreme Court of India declared that calling people ‘dhobi’ or ‘Harijan’ was offensive. Racist terms like “whitelist/blacklist” and “master/slave” are also being probed with a sensitive air. Nevertheless, the line stretches in a manner that it leads to new discoveries every second, making half of our language debatable of its origin. Though steeped in controversy, some believe that the first part of the phrase “Hip hip hooray!” relates to anti-Semitic demonstrations that started in Germany in the 19th century. Germans cheered “hep hep,” a German herding call, as they forced Jews from their homes across Europe. Indeed, ignorance is bliss or, more, a privilege when you want to escape the fact that the comfortable air around you is a product of systematic discrimination and subjugation that others faced, to which the accepted solution is the change of symbols over actions.
In the actual world, the real pressure of being politically correct has landed on artists more than political and social leaders. Writers, comedians, movie makers being continuously involved in a tussle to protect their right of artistic expression in a tumult of social acceptance. With twitter’s over-enthusiasm to ‘cancel’ everything to desperate protesters who emerge as the selected representative of their entities, artists spend more time justifying their artwork than in its making. Literature that historically emerged to overpower the political strands is unjustly expected to abide by the political norms. Even the most innocuous writing might provoke somebody somewhere, which can grow into a mindless collective called the mob. The mob as censor is a convenient clamp-down weapon for democratic governments to silence any uncelebrated opinion in their eyes and cater to their vote banks. Banning books by the government as a claim to hate speech has been a very prominent part of curbing literary tradition. From Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses by the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1988 to Taslima Nasreen’s book called Lajja by the West Bengal government in 2003, the only fascinating development here is that the government only ‘bow’ to public pressure now. A Santhali writer, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, faced a ban on his collection of short stories ‘The Adivasi will not Dance’, in response to his own community members’ protest against one story titled “November is the Month of Migrations” considered to be demeaning to the women of the tribe. Recently, even government involvement is scarcely required in the instance where Bloomsbury India was pressured to withdraw the book titled Delhi Riots 2020: The Untold Story by RSS-sympathetic lawyer Monika Arora, Sonali Chitalkar and Prerna Malhotra due to the popular backlash faced on the invitation of BJP minister, Kapil Mishra, who had allegedly made controversial remarks before northeast Delhi communal riots. In a scenario where books are causing a revolt, one cannot think about the levels of censorship cinema faces, owing to both its wide-reaching audience and influence. Movies, being culturally momentous, are also on the verge of becoming ‘dangerous’ any second when viewed with a political lens. One barely knows when sympathy towards a marginalised group can be misunderstood to become a glorification of their limitation. At opening night screenings of the movie Joker, the police issued warnings about the possibility of mass shootings. The movie was criticised on the grounds that it ‘glamorises’ violent incels. Film critics often attach little comprehensive capabilities to viewers, thus rejecting every portrayal of any complicated issue. More often, viewers reinforce such stereotypes through unnecessary boycott movements. With protests against films like the infamous Padmaavat comes another trend of changing movie titles, achieving the value of popularising the intolerance towards anything and everything. In the case of the horror-comedy Laxmi Bomb, the Hindu Sena argued that associating the name of Goddess Laxmi with the word Bomb is disparaging in nature and hurts the sentiments of the Hindu community, causing the makers to change the name to Laxmi. At present times, there is an increasing amount of limitations for cinema makers. Imagine a movie like Blazing Saddles or Ghostbusters or even Hangover being made today.
The contemporary and blooming field of getting offended is nothing else but comedy. The penetration of western culture is such that a phase of defying conventional ideas of society that came as a revolution there, with large scale arrests of comedians, has a replica here. Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh has instructed the police to take legal action against the comedian Agrima Joshua over allegations of her insulting Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. Comedian Munawar Faruqui and four others were arrested on a complaint by Eklavya Gaur, the convenor of the Hind Rakshak Sangathan, accused of passing “indecent” remarks about Hindu deities during a show. (No context can be provided as the state is still finding the proof.) Comedians often defend offensive comedy as a mode of normalisation of differences while struggling against a lawsuit and a mob attack. Artists thus are constantly pondering over the line that should not be crossed. There’s no consensus of what can be funny, like Tig Notaro, an American stand-up comic, gained laughter, talking about her breast cancer. Jokes about rape or disabilities or religion have always sparked controversy; some suggest adopting a ‘punch up’ approach to challenge the status quo while others recommend reducing the social responsibility on jokes and joke-makers.
Despite the fact that there is an undeniable role of art and literature in formulating and altering a culture, thus inducing a larger implication of adherence to social and moral responsibility, the act has become mechanised with the PC culture, attaching diminished value to generating awareness and turning into a mockery. The tragic history of communal riots and unequal status shows us that a very individualistic, private feeling of offence can easily become a dangerous public expression in India. Awareness over what becomes public should be heeded; however, overdoing censorship or the formalities to a point where the conveyance of an idea is hindered, and a new form of oppression rises is not only imprudent but also abusive.
Therefore, the dilemma exists where either all of us can decide to be completely unconscious and celebrate any thought, disregarding the repercussions, or can be so cautious that almost every thought is discarded.
By Abhilasha Rawat
The featured image is borrowed from vanityfair.com