Written by Shuchita Goel and Shivpriya Gurtoo.
In light of the protests that happened during the Abish Mathew performance, the PLPDG held their maiden internal discussion, bringing in four viewpoints that exist among the student body. The four students who participated in the discussion were Akshat Agarwal (II Year), Aarushi Mahajan (III Year), Bhargavi Vadeyar (IV Year) and Rishika Sahgal (V Year). The discussion was moderated by Keerthana Medarametla (V Year).
The first speaker, Rishika Sahgal, talked about the form that the protest took was a legitimate way of furthering the feminist cause. Although, she acknowledged that the form the protest took might have been discomforting as people felt that the manner overshadowed the cause it was trying to espouse, she nevertheless held that the protest, in order to make an impact, had to be disruptive.
She further stressed upon the point that the protest was spontaneous and not heckling. She clarified that a heckler’s veto required the support of an established state machinery, which the protestors did not possess. According to her, Abish Mathew had the right to ‘free’ speech but not ‘reaction-free’ speech. She also drew attention to how protests were rare on campus and the treatment meted out to the ones protesting for their actions was not fair. She urged everyone to nurture spaces for protest on the campus and ensure that protests keep taking place.
The second speaker, Aarushi Mahajan, started with the basic premise that society is intrinsically patriarchal and the use of humor to belittle a minority only serves to internalise the violence and sexism faced by women.She then proceeded to dissect the jokes that Mathew had cracked and explained how each one was problematic. She maintained that political correctness should not be restricted to academic discourse but should be an all pervasive phenomena. She said that protesters should be allowed to further their cause without fear of physical or verbal intimidation. In the end she sought to discourage sexist humor and talked about forms of engagement with the student community.
The third speaker, Bhargavi Vadeyar, made it clear that the protesters ideology was radical in a way that hers wasn’t. The jokes might not have necessarily been sexist but only highlighted social opinion as offence is an extremely subjective concept. One of her contentions was that one should make free speech more powerful than a derogatory message being given out by any art form. She further said that if the protesters felt that their freedom of speech extended to heckling Abish Mathew and then how could it exclude the right of the opposition to exercise the same right against them.
She explained that the power dynamics that existed at the event were not in favour of Abish Mathew as had been contented by the protesters. Rather, their heckling intimidated him enough to ensure his untimely exit from the stage. She further talked about the central tenet of feminism that seeks to ensure equality between men and women and their encroachment of his right to free speech took away from their own cause. on the subject of the minority being targeted, she tried to explain that the reverse ideology worked as well. Though she agreed no one should dictate the manner of protest, she also felt that there were ways in which a protest could be held which wouldn’t antagonize the opposition.
The final speaker, Akshat Agarwal, aptly began by quoting Jim Norton, “Liberals have succeeded in becoming what they hated”. He then proceeded to question why the protesters had selectively taken offence at sexist jokes cracked by a comedian whose bread and butter is to create humor by offending. He brought to light the misconception that has been created on social media by exaggerating the binary opposition of ‘a two hundred strong mob against the five of us’. He reminded the protesters that they weren’t the only ones espousing the feminist cause as most of the members of the audience, fairly recently, were out on campus holding placards, protesting against the laser incident. He said nobody had a right to label another person a misogynist or a feminist.
He spoke out vehemently against the coercive nature of their protest and pointed out that Mathew, being a comedian, had a lower threshold of curtailing his freedom of expression than a politician who is relatively more responsible to the people. He advocated that responsible comedy should be promoted but never enforced. He finally lamented that none of the interviews that have appeared on online portals mention the fact that after discussion with the protesters, Mathew agreed to remove one of the sexist jokes from his act.
These speeches were followed by a round of rebuttals amongst the speakers and questions and comments from the audience. This talk, in our opinion, has promoted engagement on campus, something that was sorely lacking.