Ugh, sometimes India makes me really angry. Two absolutely ridiculous charges of offending sensibility just succeeded in forcing films to alter themselves, because no one (and I’m not saying filmmakers, I am saying the courts and media and public) is willing to stand up and say “This is ridiculous”.
Non-Usual Disclaimer: I am not Indian, I am not a legal expert, or a religious or political one. This is just how it looks to me, you can feel free to disagree.
I was looking at yet another ridiculous story of a film being held up because it “offends religious sensibility” and it suddenly hit me why this felt so familiar. It’s the same as trolls online. And just like trolls, the problem isn’t the trolls themselves but with the structure that allows them to flourish, and the bystanders who encourage them through doing nothing.
I’ll start by giving my own definition of a troll. To me, a troll is someone who kills reasoned debate, who wants his opinion respected and all others silenced. In more practical terms, they are someone who reach the limits of acceptable behavior by using abusive language online. That is so unacceptable in most forums that, to me, it tells me they no longer care about rules or people or anything besides spewing their own hatred into the world. That’s my personal basic rule for what will get a comment not posted and a commenter banned, if you use abusive language towards me (most often) or another commentator (rarely). That’s an online specific definition, in other situations there are other reasons that someone might be breaking rules to such an extreme degree that it is clearly they no longer care for anyone or anything but themselves. That’s what really makes someone a troll (to me) when they break those rules and thereby break the very essence of the social contract, terrifying others into obeying whatever they say.
(These people, for instance, I would consider trolls. Breaking the social contract because they have no care for others and enjoy feeling superior and causing distress)
Let me give my own experience with troll(s). There seem to be three kinds. The first are related to a particular issue. They will pop up if I say anything critical of the current Indian government, for instance. You (the reader) never even see 98% of these trolls, because their language is so abusive I won’t let it be published, and since they are first time commentators I have to approve anything before it can be published. The remaining 2% are the occasional disjointed nonsensical comments that I don’t respond to but still publish because they aren’t actively abusive. I only identify them as “trolls” because, on the backend, I can see that they are using the same arguments as their cohorts with the bad language. These are essentially spam-trolls. Like spam, it is about quantity and repetativeness, scattershot approach clearly created by a computer program or else multiple dedicated paid drones, not personal.
The second kind of troll cares deeply about something specific that I have said. Not a larger issue, one thing I said right here. These trolls are very very rare for me. I am not a really famous person, so most people who read me, read me because they like me. There is no point in reading me if you don’t like me, it’s not like I am setting the cultural conversation or something. Which isn’t to say everyone here agrees with me all the time or anything, but there is a difference between disagreeing and trolling.
What defines this kind of troll, for me, is when I feel like they are turning me into a non-person. There is no interest in engaging with me and explaining their view to me and vice versa, the only goal is to tear me down, to dismiss me and destroy me into nothingness. I publish these comments, because I want it to be a discussion, and if I publish them and then reply setting a tone of respect, often I can turn it into that. Even if the original commentator never replies, often someone else will pick up their argument and carry it forward in a respectful manner and we can make this a reasoned debate instead of just hatred. But at a certain point, I have to stop responding to those conversations, because I can feel that the only way to respond is to turn the other side into a similar non-person, to ridicule their opinions and beliefs. And once you do that, the debate is over and the war has started, and war never brings out anything good.
(One of the most memorable issues that brought this up…Jagga Jasoos! Why??? Why would someone care to the point of lengthy obscenity strewn comments that I did not like this movie? I guess everyone has an issue that they just refuse to see another side to)
And then there’s the third kind. Which, thankfully, I only have one of. The people who truly hate me personally. For a while there I thought I could turn him into the second kind, I engaged with him and discussed with him and slowly we were able to have legitimate conversations. But the hatred was always there on the edge and eventually it had to break through. I didn’t give him anything to feed it, but ultimately another commentator did, and he leaped on that fuel for his fire and exploded. I blocked him, but he is still lying in wait for me on quora (I’ll get more into that in a bit).
But, why are there so many trolls online? And so few on this particular website? After thinking about my own experience, I’ve decided it’s both structural and social. Here, in this environment I have created, there is no tolerance for hatred. If you push, you will not find anyone to push back. No one here enjoys the battle and warfare of dehumanizing your enemy. That’s the social part, the social environment I have created that does not make for fertile ground for hatred to grow.
And it’s also structural. WordPress isn’t perfect, but it has excellent spamblocking which can be turned into troll blocking. The first time you comment, I have to approve your comment. WordPress automatically searches for certain phrases and words that indicate spam, including spam-trolls. And I have the ability to put in my own phrases or words that will automatically cause blocking. I can even turn off comments altogether post by post. This is why I stay with WordPress, and trust them. They have built a system that puts security and comfort of the writer above freedom of speech for the commentator.
(Like a powerful warrior, WordPress is there to protect me)
Now let us compare this with Quora. In theory Quora is supposed to be a place to ask questions and gain knowledge. It’s like an exam paper, you ask the question, you read the answer, and then you “grade” it in your comments. There is no anticipation of larger discussion, just a binary of good-bad or right-wrong.
It’s the comments that bother me. Quora, and its users, clearly see the exam paper system as what they want. To ask the question and then get an answer, usually multiple answers. To put it another way, it’s the same as doing research in a library. You have your research question, and then you track down three sources and read them all and decide which you like most. This is a reasonable pattern for the internet to follow, and can lead to some very useful information shared. Especially since long-form answers are standard on quora, allowing for more information to be shared and also for enough text to be written to allow the reader to determine the true reliability of the author based on their wording and supporting arguments and so on.
But the problem is, these answers are now being “graded” by people who have no right to grade them. As a writer on the site, you are providing massive amounts of content and the only feedback you ever get is insults. As a reader, you either ignore the comments and just read the answers, or else are going there for the excitement of the comments, of spewing hatred at thought. But the writers and the casual readers are not commenting, are not expected to comment. There is no social structure that says this is unacceptable. And there is also no site structure for it. I have discovered that there is seemingly no way to get a comment removed or a commenter. But questions can be merged, edits suggested, etc. It is those who provide the content, the actual questions and answers, that are put on notice, that have to prove themselves. But the comments, those spitting at the actual content provided, they have limitless powers and no consequences. Which tells me that Quora, as a site, is catering to this taste. No matter the lipservice to spreading knowledge or fair dealing, their real purpose is mob rule.
(Unfortunately, mob rule is more often about tearing down anything that makes you feel inferior instead of lifting up what inspires you)
Now, let’s look at film censorship. In America, the other major international film producing center, the film industry polices itself. Because they saw the way the wind was blowing back in the 1920s and quickly leaped in to police themselves before anyone else could. The scales are, mostly, tipped in favor of the content creators. There is still censorship of a sort, the ratings system encourages films to include or exclude content in order to get a lower rating, but it’s all voluntary. The audience can choose to ignore the ratings if they want, and films don’t have to submit for ratings if they don’t want to. And occasionally there will be boycotts of films called for, or very very occasionally there might be picket lines. But the boycotts just mean some people don’t buy tickets who wouldn’t have wanted to buy tickets anyway and the movie still does fine. And the picket lines means there are a lot of news crews out there to watch them and talk to them because this is such a shockingly rare occurrence, and the theater probably comes out ahead because of the publicity.
The structure is not set up for censorship, for trolling of movies. If you try to build protest for a film, anger and a legal case, you will reach block after block. No lawyer would bother with the case because all the legal precedent is against it, no police officer would take the complaint for a similar reason, and you would have a hard time reaching someone at the studio to register the complaint, even knowing the name of the person to complain about, films are so layered in producers and co-producers and distributors that there is no one person to take responsibility.
And there is no social structure for it either. You would have to look long and hard before you found someone in America who is capable of caring enough about a movie to be willing to risk the embarrassment of being that first person on the picket line. And you would have to look long before you found a studio person or film director or anyone who is capable of believing that some random normal person has the ability to harm them or their film.
The best American society can muster up is some angry online screeds followed by angry comments followed by link-sharing and so on and so on, a tempest in an online teapot that goes nowhere. And so our movie-trolls die on the vine. You can kick and scream all you want about the female Ghostbusters movie, but it has no effect on anything in the real world, people just laugh at you and any attempt to file a lawsuit would backfire and instead find you slammed with penalties for being ridiculous.
I’m not saying American society is impervious to real life trolls, not at all. Republican politicians, for instance, are very very good at spreading vile poison and find the social structures (Fox News, internet sharing sites, libel laws) shockingly helpful. It’s just that, in the film world, trolling has no ground to grow from.
In India, apparently, all you have to do is file an “FIR” (First Incident Report) stating that you find a film offensive, and the film cannot be released. Anyone can do this for any reason. Most recently BB Agarwal of the Sanatan Foundation (a group that has a barely set up website) filed a case against Salman’s film Loveratri for offending religious sentiment because it makes a farce of the festival of Navratri. The Gujurat court accepted his case and sent a notice to Salman’s company. Salman rolled over and changed the name to “Loveyatri”, but the case remains, BB Agarwal says “The promos hurt the sentiments of the Hindus because it depicts that Garba is all about love when in fact the nine nights of Garba is all about devotion to Goddess Durga”.
Now, what jumps out at me about cases like this, is that they do not in fact reflect Indian society. I think we can safely assume that there are many romances that take place during Navratri in real life, and also many small children who eat too much and throw up, and many grown people who are more focused on showing off their new clothes than on the glory to the goddess, and people who have a little too much to drink and get into fights, and people who couldn’t care less about Goddess Durga but just really like Garba dancing. And I think we can also assume that, in the real world, everyone knows this is what happens and doesn’t care that much one way or the other. It’s a festival, people are having fun, if you want to be religious about it you can and if you don’t, you can enjoy the dancing or the food or the clothes or whatever else you want.
(Apparently Navratri only became about glory of the Goddess in the past 16 years, because back in 2002 Aap Mujhe Aache Lagne Lage came out and no one cared)
The other case filed recently, the makers of Manmarziyaan were forced to remove scenes in which the turbaned and explicitly Sikh hero Abhishek smokes a cigarette. Because it was hurtful to Sikh sentiments. Now, what would be your guess as to how many Sikh’s smoke? Smoke in public on the streets while wearing turbans? I am guessing many many many many of them. Probably some who even belong to the groups that filed the protest.
What I am saying is that these cases are transparently false. And yet there is no structure to deal with them, and no social condemnation. The courts consistently listen to the arguments and support them. The structure that is supposed to deal with them, the censor board, is brushed aside and superseded by a hodge-podge of authorities, the courts or the police or the state government, or the Mob enforcing law by parading in front of theaters. The structure is weighted to allow these trolls to be heard, to amplify their voices and reward them with attention. There is no way for the filmmakers to hit back, they are always in the position of defense rather than attack.
And this is what made me think, all the way back at the beginning, about how frustrating it is to be trapped by a troll online. They even seem to be similar types. The scattershot ones, the ones who will file a case on spec any time there is anything that seems vaguely religious. They don’t care so much about this particular film or issue, they just want to get their message out there.
And then there are the ones who really hate a particular movie. The scarier ones. The ones who tried to block Fire, and Jodha-Akbar, and the other truly dangerous films (dangerous because they encourage you to open your minds) from hitting theaters.
And finally, the ones who hate a particular person and will follow them film to film. Karan Johar can barely move without getting hatred dumped down on him. The 3 Khans suffer similarly. There is always a reason of course, but then you can always find a reason. It is just that some people are followed so closely that any possible reason is always noticed instead of ignored. And others (like Akshay Kumar for instance) for some reason just don’t attract that attention.
(poor Karan. Hostage for Wake Up Sid, My Name is Khan, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, and apparently has now decided to stick his head right in the noose by making Takht)
And all of them are given carte blanche to do whatever they wish to any film they wish. There is no social condemnation, no one is making fun of them or ignoring them, everyone is treating it seriously and giving them the attention they crave. And there is no structural condemnation, no way to issue a complaint for harassment, to force these groups to stop filing frivolous suits.
So, after thinking through all of this, I think I have landed on why these stories bother me so much. It’s not because I am angry at the ones filing the suits, trolls are going to troll, it’s what they do. It’s not because I am angry at the religious extremism of Indian society because I don’t actually believe these cases accurately reflect all of Indian society, certainly not all of the religious communities they profess to represent. It’s not even that I am angry on behalf of the filmmakers who worked to create something only to see it thoughtlessly being torn down. But that is getting close to the heart of the matter. It’s easy to want to be angry AT the filmmakers, as Anurag Kashyap is at his producers who bowed to pressure and issued a new cut with smoking scenes cut. To put the responsibility on them of standing up and defending their products, as did the makers of Mohalla Assi which is finally releasing after a full 2 years trapped in litigation.
Trolling is just another form of bullying. And bullies succeed by playing to the audience, by making those watching want to blame the victim and align themselves with the stronger side. Not with the bully necessarily, we are certainly better than them, more open-minded, more noble. But not with the victim either. We are stronger than that, would fight harder than that, it’s their fault really for being so weak and foolish. The fault of the little boy who goes to school in a bow tie, the fault of the 12 year old girl who lets them see her cry in the bathroom, the fault of the woman who is molested in the office. No, we pity them, but we are also a little disgusted by them, and so we stand by and watch and do nothing.
That’s why these stories bother me. Because I can feel the explanations rising in myself. That the filmmaker was foolish, that they didn’t handle it well, that they should have been wiser and should have been stronger. The urge to laugh at them, to laugh at the problem, to think of it as other people’s problems.
But it’s not other people’s problems, it is everyone’s problem. It is built into the structure of the system which presumes an accusation offending sentiments as guilty until proven innocent. And it is built into a society which laughs at this stories, or else nods along with “yes yes, of course we must be respectful” and never quite stands up and protests “this is wrong, this is bullying, this is something we will not tolerate because we are better than this”. It’s the cowardice of it, its the bystanders, that’s what bothers me.