I think the issues that the events of 22/03/2015 presented are fairly nuanced and discussions till now seem to create a false binary, where you’re either with the protestors or with Abish/sexist crowd. I think there’s cause for concern with siding wholeheartedly with either of them, and certainly with this form of oversimplification of a complex issue, which invariably pigeonholes people into categories with several disjointed characteristics that are assumed to be in consonance with one another.
I believe this gross oversimplification of form and content is facile to say the least. Form impacts content and vice versa. What you seek to achieve and how you achieve it are invariably intertwined and to argue that form is irrelevant compromises on what one seeks to achieve. I’m glad that one of the protestors chose to quote Bhagat Singh on Facebook, for the freedom struggle quite rightly displays this form-content paradox. While Gandhi and Bhagat Singh shared the common ideal of an independent India, the notions of what constitutes independence were greatly shaped by the form of protest employed. Bhagat Singh’s inclination to rely on violent means made him realise that independence must address the nature of class warfare, which is why he termed his outfit as a socialist one (and was a well read Marxist). Gandhi’s pacifist approach is what enabled him to co-opt the Dalit movement within it (as ”Harijans”) without addressing the systemic internal inequalities that plagued India (and hence the discord with Ambedkar).The means through which different people sought independence impacted the movement differently, impacted the vision of independence differently, and elicited different reactions from different people. To argue that they were the same and only differ in form is incredibly simplistic.
Even if one were to disagree with this, one cannot possibly argue against the burden to strive towards what is ideal. What’s truly problematic with is simplistic distinction of form and content is the obfuscation of any burden that the change agent has with respect to engendering change in a manner that’s both ethical and effective. The form and content differentiation seeks to shield people from any form of scrutiny, and while the aim is to shut down undue scrutiny from a sexist perspective, it conflates within itself the due scrutiny from other feminists who seek to engender change in a manner that’s different (and arguably, better). This invariably creates a higher moral plane of infallibility and an attitude that is holier than thou. This is scary, and while I’d prefer feminist arrogance to chauvinistic arrogance any day of the week, the fact that those are options I must choose from is quite troubling. Nowhere am I arguing that the protestors have no right to be offended, or no right to protest and express their dissent. The discussion on content is almost squarely in their favour (I say “almost” intentionally, but that’s a different debate, for a different post), but that ought not to be used as a defense to perpetuate impulsive, and frankly, tactless means to try and change status quo, for multiple reasons.
Firstly, it throws off the fence sitters on the other side, while the conservatives regress even further. Of course these conservatives and fence sitters have the moral burden to, well, not be that stupid, but reconciling a moral high ground is practically useless when in the real world, these mentalities are just being galvanised. In principle, the moral high ground is preserved, sure, but realistically, the ground on engendering substantive change is lost. Which is why it may not be unethical, but certainly counterproductive. The whole “principle matters, screw practicalities” notion only works in the confines of a parliamentary debate; outside of it, accounting for practicality is quite certainly prudent, and arguably, more ethical. Secondly, even a sexist individual has the liberty to spew drivel. What I mean by this is that a formal entitlement does exist, and it should be met by a counter narrative that calls it out for the drivel that it is, and not shutting it down, for even that is an imposition; moreover, the former route of competing narratives is what leads to a catharsis and actual change. When Rishika (one of the protestors) met Abish, she cited one sexist joke, and said that she left then. She, therefore, became unaware of the other offensive material he may have had which remains un-outed as offensive. Abish, by cutting his set short, did not make other sexist jokes that he may have had in his set, which now go unscrutinised and remain impervious to criticism and subsequent change. One needs to realise the difference between what is censor and what is censure. The former allows regressive ideas to remain underground and insulated from criticism, while the latter allows for an actual assessment of ideas, allowing for the competition of narratives in the marketplace of ideas, and leads to a catharsis.
In the context of Abish’s show, I think the reaction was well intentioned, but impulsive and excessive. We aren’t talking about a big shot celebrity who’s out of reach. All the acts that showed up for the fest were constantly meeting with and talking to the students. Our student magazine interviewed them (barring Abish, cause of all the brouhaha). People took pictures, spoke to them, and there was an atmosphere of interaction. This attitude was best exemplified by the most underreported fact: that both, the protestors, and Abish wanted a dialogue and actually had a very civil and productive one. Rishika and Abish talked about the nature of the jokes, why they were offensive, and Abish understood that and agreed to remove it from his set. This could have happened regardless of the protest. Even if it didn’t happen immediately after the show, all of these comedians are very personally accessible via facebook and email (I say this from experience). The fact is, they weren’t driven to protest in that fashion at all. Which is why form does matter, because disregarding it validates means that are quite evidently unnecessary, counterproductive, and consequently, less ethical (“unethical” would be too harsh). To say that the examination of form just sidelines the content is also absolutely ludicrous, for one can quite simply separate the two and scrutinise them. How? I think Abish made sexist jokes that he ought not to. I also think the protestors could have conveyed their point way more responsibly and effectively.
So there. Separated. Wasn’t really that hard, was it?
I also believe that the audience had a burden to react better. I think the booing and heckling were unnecessary. Attacking their attire and physically pushing them was reprehensible. I absolutely do not think that was correct. Just another example of how one can and ought to dissect issues and evaluate them more closely; an example of how everyone screwed up that day (admittedly to differing extents). That being said, the supposed draconian nature of the crowd painted by several newspapers is honestly appalling. The crowd was not entirely male (I’m talking to you, scroll.in), in fact, it was quite balanced. The protestors were themselves fairly hostile (at one point backstage when I told Rishika that she can and should go speak to Abish, I distinctly remember one of the other protestors saying “haan, Rishika ko jaane do, hum chale gaye to bas…”). The characterisation of the crowd is marred with undue hyperbole, and it’s sad that the protestors are proudly sharing those links sans any clarification. I’m willing to amend this if I’m unaware of certain facts (fill me in, please?) but I honestly am yet to see that degree of hostility (notice that I’m not saying that there wasn’t any hostility, it’s just about the degree and extent of it that is being alleged), and even if there has been any, it’s been from a few, in which case conflating the rest with those despicable few is unfair.
Furthermore, one needs to understand the difference between someone who is sexist and someone who happens to say something sexist. Allow me to explain before your blood boils… Abish isn’t sexist. He is someone who made a sexist remark out of ignorance but with the willingness to admit the mistake and change. To conflate him with a hardcore, through-and-through sexist, who speaks out of ignorance laced with a moral superiority, a sense of entitlement, and no willingness to change would be unfair and one must realise the nature of the people they seek to change and use the means available to them accordingly. I wouldn’t “commend” Abish for what he did in terms of having a dialogue, because that is what he ought to have done. I would, however, expect the protestors to acknowledge the same while giving comments to newspapers, or at least preface the links they post with that fact.
I am honestly awestruck that the most uplifting fact of that night, the actual dialogue and the change it achieved (Abish admitting fault and removing the joke from his set), is being talked about the least.
I believe that the othering happening on campus is happening from both sides. While naturally, the people defending values of feminism are at a higher moral ground than those who choose to respond to this by proudly displaying sexist jokes as protest on Facebook, I believe that even the protestors are creating a “you’re either with us or against us” image, which the media is really playing on (the fact that the least biased reporting is coming from that rag, firstpost, is abysmal). This is problematic for they are hijacking the feminist cause exclusively (demonstrated by articles that pretty much call anybody who didn’t protest a sexist by default; one article likens us to ML Sharma; flattering). A quick read of articles on the Mumbai Mirror, Scroll, Sify, and Kafila creates the impression that our campus now has two camps: the feminist protestors and the sexist and hostile Abish-supporters.
I’m in neither camp. The jokes were sexist. The protest was ill conceived and excessive. The proud proclamations of being sexist as a response to the protest are terrible. The hostile reactions were reprehensible. The mischaracterised and incomplete facts in newspapers are problematic. The consequent painting of everyone with the same brush and pigeonholing is unfair.
I therefore support none of the supposed “camps.”
(I can’t believe I seriously used a hashtag)