Battling the demons – Abuse on Social Media

This was written for Myind Makers and was published in August 2015.

Ramayana, rich with its tales tells us the story of the Vanara Lords, Vali and Sugriva. Vali is believed to have a boon that lets him suck half the opponent’s energy whenever he duels. This makes him unconquerable and even conceited. When he banishes his twin brother Sugriva and even imprisons his wife, there was not much the latter could do. All the attempts to face Vali left Sugriva powerless given Vali’s boon. Sugriva then met Hanuman who was wiser not to waste his energies in facing Vali. Instead his power came of immense use in a much bigger battle in the Ramayana, making him an indispensable friend in need.

Symbolically, the story made me wonder about an individual’s loss of temper when provoked, thus reducing his or her own sense of balance, becoming vulnerable. Provocateur baiting is an age old war strategy used on people known to lose temper easily and it seemed to work. We see it working on Social media too. On Twitter where many express their political and ideological inclinations, provocateur baiting happens on a daily basis, trapping the unsuspecting individuals into knee jerk reactions. The same reactions fuel these baiters into driving their point home as the confused ‘Sugrivas’ see their own strength being used against them.

Social media has achieved a great level of equalizing and normalizing online opinions. Opinion making thus is no longer the turf of a select privileged lot. They can no longer pretend to echo the common sentiments which they anyways never do. The elitism that had been trumped in the first half of this decade has now resorted to this age old and time tested strategy of provocateur content. This brings to us, the flip side of the social platforms where the strength of individuals unknowingly works for the ones they oppose. I’m not saying that I am against these social platforms (albeit unknowingly) becoming tools for obscure public personalities to ‘redeem’ themselves and claim some fame (There is no point in debating the moral aspects of baiting and crying foul).

I see a deeper issue in provoking extreme reactions. I have seen more than a few cases where heated discussions have dented the professional productivity of an individual. Call me paranoid, but one cannot ignore the cascading effects of a negative online footprint which can work against the provoked individual in ways more than one. Resisting provocation thus becomes an important step towards achieving a saner discussion online. I am reminded of this Indic poetical feat called Avadhaana (popular in Sanskrit, Telugu and Kannada) where an Avadhaani is quizzed by 8 scholars testing various aspects of his or her poetical authority. One of them is Aprastuta Prasanga where he or she is interrupted with totally irrelevant questions. The rule is that the Avadhaani should not lose his wit and even answer the questions with an element of humour thus proving his wit.

As netizens, we do not face this constraint and it is totally within our power to decide whether a provocative content warrants a response or not. Before that, one can as well contemplate whether it is worth taking the content to heart and get affected enough to give an angry response. It is easier said than done and I admit I have lost my temper too. But conscious improvement is what we call as Sadhana and it is important not to give up on one’s own self when we are pursuing a Sadhana. Fact and wit driven dissent and debate add a lot of value to a discourse but not hate filled content, provocative or reactionary. For those who find themselves easily affected by such content I would like to quote a well-known Telugu poem composed by a 13th Century poet Bhadranna Bhupala

Tana kopame tana shatruvu
Tana shantame tanaku raksha daya chuttamb
Tana santoshame s
Tana du
hkhame narakamandru tathyamu sumati !

One’s anger is one’s enemy,
Balancing temper is one’s protection. Compassion is one’s relative.
Heaven is nothing but one’s own happiness
and hell is one’s own misery, so true it is

Again, admit that it is easier said than done. To put it in simple words, it could make a good start to avoid contact with those who provoke you or disturb your peace of mind. If you want to take on the proverbial provocateur Valis of today, it is necessary to ensure that they do not leverage on your strength, and in this context, your networks. Un-following some of the everlasting outrage handles on either side of political and cultural lines has helped me a lot in firstly guarding my own peace and secondly, limiting their reach to whatever possible minute level. It is also a noteworthy aspect that the number of followers/likes/retweets of an abusive/provocative profile or content (whether you accept it or not) serves as an endorsement of the content and the person. This makes me think that un-following a provocative person is also a moral obligation as you do your bit to stop the negativity from spreading.

Coming back to our analogy, it needed a Rama to successfully deal with the Vali of Ramayana. Rama could do it not only because he first secured himself from the consequences of a self-defeating step like facing Vali in a duel, but also because his arrow contained the power to pierce Vali’s impenetrable skin. Truth fuelled by a balanced tone of the narrator always has a long life. Not everyone is a Rama, though I don’t deny the possibility of acquiring the potential to become one. But till then, one can instead choose to be a Hanuman who preserved his strength for a bigger battle than consume himself by taking on Vali. This burns down to another topic of what is the greater battle or greater purpose. That is for each of us to ponder over.

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