Monday, 3 February 2014

Othering Our Fellows

Two seemingly unrelated articles appeared in the last couple of days. One was "An Open Letter from Dylan Farrow". Dylan was a stepdaughter of Woody Allen's, and she has gone public for the first time as an adult to describe her childhood trauma at being sexually abused by her erstwhile stepfather. The other was an article by Sameera, an Indian Muslim girl ("Outsiders in Our Own Country"), chronicling some of the daily snubs, putdowns and rejections that Muslim youth seem to face in India.

Surprisingly, the similarities between the two articles lie in the comments section.

Dylan Farrow begins and ends her article with the question, "What's your favourite Woody Allen movie?" Obviously, since the body of the article deals with her abuse at his hands, her device of asking this question twice serves to frame the change in opinion that the reader is expected to undergo as a result of her revelations. However, in the comments section, several men (they were all men) responded by saying things like, "Since you asked, my favourite Woody Allen movies are ..."

Now, these people could innocently claim that they were merely responding to a question that was posed by the author. But that wasn't really what Dylan was trying to get across, was it? By pointedly ignoring the main thrust of the article, these men were showing how little they cared about what had happened to her. What they were exhibiting, with a snarky attempt at humour, was their total lack of empathy for a fellow human being.

There were a few comments after Sameera's article too. They pointed out factual inaccuracies in the article (such as the fact that Eid is a public holiday in India, and that Muslims in fact have more public holidays than Hindus do), reframed some perceived snubs (such as saying that the reluctance of landlords to allow Muslim renters was not because of religion but because of dietary preferences (vegetarianism)) and shared their own experiences (i.e., the slights they had themselves received on account of caste or language, thereby playing down her charge of religious discrimination).

I saw pretty much the same phenomenon at work in both these sets of comments. Both the articles were about personal hurt, and in addition, Sameera's article was also a cry for reassurance. Yet neither article received empathy from a section of their readers or any comment from them that validated the author's feelings.

Sameera (and the friends whose experiences she related) are asking for reassurance that they are not universally viewed as being different, and that there are people out there who will not question their Indianness or their love for their country.

If someone had to respond, a nice way to do so would be to say something like this, 

I understand, beta [Hindi for "son" but a term acquiring particular affection when addressed to a girl], it can be very traumatic when people don't treat you as a human being but as a person belonging to a certain group, and then apply their own prejudices and stereotypes about that group to you. But that says more about them than about you. I believe the majority of people are not like that, but we don't tend to notice because such behaviour is nothing remarkable or extraordinary. We only notice the few who behave in a way that hurts and offends us. I want to let you know that you and your friends seem to be fine young people who are, and will continue to be, good and productive citizens of this country. Don't let the words and actions of a few bigoted people affect you too much. Best wishes, so-and-so.

I could feel the hurt in the article and wanted to respond as above (perhaps I still will), but clearly not everyone was touched. Some were more interested in refuting specific points than in offering comfort to some very obviously decent college kids who were talking about their bad experiences. Mind you, the young people in this article are not the stereotypical Muslims who are viewed with suspicion in many societies (men with long beards, women in burqas, students of madrassas, etc.) They are young, educated, English-speaking kids, very much in the mainstream. But by continuing to see the author and her friends not as kids like their own but as Muslims, and by responding to them as Hindus, these readers 'othered' some of their own fellows.

After all, the article did not say, "We are Muslims, and Hindus are treating us badly". It said, "We are Indians, yet people insist on seeing us as Muslims". To read the entire article and still respond as a Hindu responding to a Muslim is to be remarkably tone-deaf. If this article were a comprehension test, these commenters would score a zero.

These reader comments are straws in the wind. To me, they represent a society that lacks the ability to empathise, that is quick to 'other' people on the basis of differences that they themselves do not emphasise. If the Dylan Farrow comments reveal a streak of misogyny and an anti-feminist backlash among a section of men, the Sameera comments reveal an India that is increasingly polarised along religious lines. Neither bodes well for the future.

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