Throwing labels at people is intellectual laziness, says the writer.
I was recently called a SICKULAR CONGI ITALIAN MAFIA KHANGRESSI by someone on an Internet forum dedicated to discussing music. No, those are not rap lyrics. Those five labels were thrown at me generously, like marks in a CBSE exam, over a discussion about eroticism in Bhajan music. I had pointed out that the mystical union between the bhajan singer and the Almighty is often symbolised by erotic poetry. Apparently, this offended someone who believed religion should stay away from base matters such as sex, except to lay down rules on how marriages should be conducted.
What was interesting to me was that there was little or no attempt to persuade me as an individual by engaging in a counterargument. Hinduism has always been about interpretative flexibility, so surely my desire to read devotion, surrender and oneness with the Cosmos can come without the need to connect it to the act of procreation.
And then, to that argument, I would have responded with why many mythologies going all the way back to the epic of Gilgamesh have always used the very human miracle of procreation as a metaphor for bigger things they could not explain. So the interpretation of erotic symbolism in music is nothing new or contemporary.
But that’s not how things unfolded. We did not explore the landscape of music through the exchange of alternative ideas. We did not willingly suspend our disbelief at an offensive viewpoint to, at least briefly, ask ourselves why the other person thought that way by stepping in his shoes.
What we did was lazily throw some pre-fabricated labels at each other.
Well, technically he did, and I took the moral high ground of only mentally calling him a RIGHTWING FASCIST HINDUTVATARD without typing it into that comment box, but I realised that there was something fundamentally wrong in this exchange. What’s worse, it wasn’t restricted to obscure music fora on the web.
Well, it isn’t even restricted to India. Let us take, for instance, White guilt. The idea is that you could divide the Caucasian population of the United States into two. There are those who believe that white people should feel deepest shame for what their ancestors did to slaves and other conquered peoples and that they must do everything in their power to set right these past wrongs. Then there are those that believe that they cannot be held responsible for what their ancestors did. In the U.S., people on both sides of this ideological fence tend to call each other LEFT LIBERAL TERRORIST LOVING CHOMSKYTARDS and RACIST REDNECK SLAVERY APOLOGIST HILLBILLIES on the Internet.
But the fact is that these labels misinform. A white kid who does not want to wallow in white guilt is not automatically a racist just like someone who wants to reserve opportunities for minorities is not a card-carrying member of the Al-Qaeda.
Throwing labels at people is intellectual laziness. It’s like saying ‘I don’t want to put in an effort to counter your individual viewpoint so I am going to borrow a stereotype that I think broadly and fuzzily describes your ilk and by doing so, I win this argument.’
There is a more insidious problem with labels. They almost always describe extremities because they are required to be binary in nature. So the moment the debate is reduced to an argument on whether Krishna is a debauched, adultering warmonger or sacred divinity personified, we have also lost the plot because extreme viewpoints are extreme precisely because they cannot co-exist in a debate.
Who wants to hear two people who could step into an ideological opponent’s shoes and view the world through their eyes and social context and have a nuanced debate on TV? TRP ratings tell us that no one wants that.
We live in an intellectual climate where we view the neighbourhood tailor Ismail as the descendant of the chap who razed the Somnath temple and the local temple priest as a charlatan purveyor of superstition and pseudoscience.
If only we had a climate where we recognised that most people outside of those screaming on TV debates and typing labels in capital letters on the Internet are actually people with non-extremist views, we’d not bother about subaltern or “alternative” views like Wendy Doniger’s.