Wednesday, 30 November 2016

On internet conversations, echo chambers and the complexity of human life


There’s been a lot of talk going on about how 2016 has been a terrible year for the human race, in general. Between the disgusting, monstrous atrocities being committed in Syria and the hateful rhetoric being spread and consumed by people worldwide, I guess we’ve got the basics of a truly rotten year covered. Everyone is scared and annoyed and frustrated. Everyone feels powerless against a world that keeps on screwing them over. So when I open my social media accounts and see people projecting this desperation in forms as wide ranging as thought-provoking videos, to deftly worded 140 character opinion pieces, to even long, angry rants, I’m not surprised. I understand the need for sharing our experiences, for telling other people that we exist and we matter, and for having the decisions we make be valued by the society that we live in. I understand it and I support it. At the same time, however, I think that although the internet has made communication easier and faster and more inclusive, it hasn’t necessarily made it more efficient.

Let me explain.  

We like to put people in little boxes so that it’s easier for us to comprehend their actions and engender a response which stems from our own preconceived biases. It’s the easy thing to do. You think Modi’s demonetization scheme is a sham? You’re anti-national. You voted for Trump? You’re a racist. You think UK made the right choice to leave the EU? You’re clearly an idiot. I know these are not trivial issues. What they are, however, are extremely polarizing. You either belong to one group or the other and you have to pick a side. What gets lost in all the conversations – and I use that word grudgingly – on the internet is the nuance that is associated with each of these issues. I look at my social media (my own private echo chamber) and I see people validating my beliefs but I also see people rejecting, and outright insulting the people outside of my echo chamber. Notice how I say people and not beliefs. Because, although there are articles that criticize the belief itself without being condescending, there is an abundance of content which equates having said belief with lack of intellect, morality, humanness, etc. And so, I’m lead to believe that everyone outside of my echo chamber is a caricature. In my mind, they’ve already been dehumanized to an extent that I don’t find them capable of cogent thought. And here lies the problem. Because now, I refuse to associate any merit to their arguments. I can’t agree partly with them because that would mean I’m somewhat like them and my echo chamber has already convinced me that they are not “good” people. I can’t say, “That makes sense,” to anything that they put forward because I consciously or subconsciously believe that they are idiots. So instead of having an intelligent conversation that leads to an exchange of ideas, we’re stuck with two groups equally disillusioned by their own moral high grounds, spitting out argument after argument, completely oblivious to the perspective of the other side. This is counter-productive since not only is there no positive outcome of such shouting matches, as arguments turn to insults, we are also closing the door on any future conversations.

I’m not saying that we justify everything even if it doesn’t fit with our definition of ethics or morality. I’m saying that we change the present narrative from “I’m right and you’re a complete idiot” to “I believe that I’m right but I’m willing to listen to you and even if we don’t end up agreeing a hundred percent we’ll at least leave this conversation with a more nuanced worldview than before”. I’m saying that we try to understand where the other “group” is coming from. You don’t have to agree with them. But you have to acknowledge that differences exist and that there is a divide that we need to bridge over together. It’s probably utopian to think of a world where both sides would acknowledge this divide and have a respectful conversation about it or reach the elusive ‘middle ground’. But one can try. I know the very thought of having a conversation with “those” people can sound revolting but we need these conversations to happen. We need to get out of our echo chambers and engage. In the end, we need to realize that we’re all people: beautiful, complex beings with the capability of intricate, intelligent thought, with lives that cannot be reduced to a label.

So talk. Because honestly speaking, the only thing that I’ve learned from 2016 is that we’ve forgotten how to do that.

  

Friday, 7 October 2016

One hundred million eyes


My childhood was wax crayons and mint chocolates
And cool summer evenings spiced with lemonade
Bedrooms littered with infinite toys
And a promise
Of endless tomorrows.
All because I happened to drop into a perfect family
in a sheltered town of a peaceful country.
I did not know not everyone is that lucky.

I did not know my parents could be ripped apart
From my life in a heartbeat.
I did not know I could return one day
To a house abandoned, its walls pockmarked
With shrapnel.
I did not know the torment of waiting for word
Telling me I could still curl up in my dad’s arms.
I did not know warm bodies turn cold
And the way to stop oozing blood is tying
A tourniquet.
I did not know brick walls could crumble
(I only ever saw dominos toppling)
I did not know the tenor of an adult’s cry 
Or the sound a bomb makes as it
Drops.
I did not know that oceans could be braved
On stormy nights in rubber boats that reek of woe
I did not know clear skies could be foreboding  
Or that a thousand feet up, airplanes lug
death .

I did not know fifty million children endure my nightmares.
One hundred million eyes subdued by shadows of a past that burns
and a future that suffocates.
One hundred million eyes, watching and waiting and wishing.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Color.

forest, meadow, leaves


I first noticed my inability to see color on the 21st of June: five months after losing my job, two after losing my flat. I was walking down an abandoned trail in the Nature Reserve, counting to myself when I suddenly remembered that it was autumn. Autumns were supposed to be crisp. Autumns were supposed to be yellow. I found myself puzzled by this strange discovery. I picked up a dried leaf and tried to remember how it was supposed to look. Brown morphing to orange morphing to yellow. It was a futile exercise. I let the leaf slip through my fingers and heard the soft crackle as I trampled it without further thought.
Five hundred five. Five hundred six. Five hundred seven.
The best thing about not having a job is you have a lot of time; to think, to walk. The best thing about not having a home is you can keep walking. I stopped thinking and started walking after being pushed out of my cramped half-bedroom flat.
“Your kind is not welcome here.” The landlady had said viciously. Usually, I would have put up a fight. That day, I just nodded and walked. I haven’t stopped walking. Every day I start from zero. I count as I walk, stopping only at restaurants asking if I could work in exchange for food. Sometimes they let me eat. Sometimes I count till thirty thousand and then some until I fall asleep.
Most people who see me, see a rather peculiar twenty-something year old man with disheveled hair and a strange far-away look. Or so I have been told. They sometimes ask questions.
“What do you do?”
“I walk.”
“No, I meant… are you working or studying?”
“I’m walking.”
“You must be one of those artsy people. You look that way. Lost in your thoughts. Tell me what do you think about so and so happening at such and such place?”
“I don’t think.”
A forced laugh now. This is about the time they realize they’re talking to someone a bit loose in his head.
“Oh come on. You have to think about something.”
“I count.”
“All the time?”
“All the time.”
“Why?”
“I lost my job.”
“Why?”
“Because I used to think.”
“How so?” They lean in now, hands folded on the table. Curious.
I smile and leave.
That is the routine. You see, once you have stopped thinking life is so much easier. There is no anxiety gripping your chest. There is no fear of the shadows lurking in the dark. There is no worry of tomorrow or the next hour or the next second. There is no good, bad, different, strange, mysterious, new…And apparently, there is no color either.
In my old life, I used think. I used to write. Sometimes, I would sing but my friends would immediately tell me to shut up. So when a major controversy broke out in the news about Very Important People doing Very Despicable Things to a Very Insignificant, Much Oppressed Fraction of the country, I thought. I spoke. I wrote. I marched the streets. I shouted. I whispered.
Slowly my friends distanced themselves.
“Oh sorry, That Really Important Thing came up.”
“Would love to go with you but I need to show That One Cousin around town.”
“Pizza would be great but I’m on The Diet.”
I could see what was happening. Because I could still think. And when I wasn’t writing The Opinion Piece or The Highly Passionate Argument, I would catch myself thinking about People Who Didn’t Care. The Passive Observers. The Shoulder-Shruggers. And so it happened that one day the HR lady called me to her office, a pleasant smile on her face, a lethal document in her hand.
“I’m sorry but The Company has hit a rough patch. We would have to let you go.”
“But I’m more qualified than Janice from Accounting.”
But Janice doesn’t criticize the society. Janice doesn’t care.  I’m sorry, but it has to be done.”
Your kind is a tumor in this society. Your kind is ungrateful. Your kind is unwanted. Leave.
And so I started walking. And stopped thinking.
Six hundred and fifty two. Six hundred and fifty three. Six hundred and fifty four.
I’m used to not seeing color now. I’m sitting on the edge of a pavement outside a hair salon. A young boy walks up to me.
“Your hair is long, like a girl.” He says. I look at him and then go back to looking at the gray road with the gray cars.
“My mom’s getting her hair cut. It’s so boring inside.” He plops down beside me. “What are you doing?”
“Counting.”
“What? The number of cars?”
“No just numbers.”
“Why?”
“Because I don’t think.”
He chuckles. “What does it feel like? To not think?”
I pause. “…Empty.”
“You paused! That means you thought. I made you think!”
I smile at him.
“Why don’t you think?”
“Thinking is useless. Thinking gets you nowhere. Or worse, in a lot of trouble.”
“I get into a lot of trouble at school—Hey look! It’s starting to rain!” He holds out his hand to catch the rain drops. “My mom says, the first few drops of rain, they bring good luck.”
“I don’t believe in luck.”
He’s standing up now. “Of course, my favorite part is when the storm hits. I love it!”
The rain picks up and soon it’s a merciless downpour. The little boy has his face turned skyward. He is laughing.
All night the sound had
come back again,
and again falls
this quite, persistent rain.
Robert Creeley. A small voice in my head whispers. And suddenly, just like that there are more of the voices. Verses upon verses of forgotten poetry. There is a storm outside. But it can’t even begin to compare to the blizzard of thoughts in my brain.
The door of the saloon opens and a woman walks out shouting. Within moments, she has the young boy by his collar.
“What were you thinking? You’ll catch a cold! You’re grounded for two days!”
Epiphanies are strange. I look at the mother and son. He’s grinning at me as she tries to dry his hair with a handkerchief. From the gleam in his eyes, this wasn’t the first or the last storm he would dance in. He tries to pull away and the handkerchief traces a graceful arc as it falls.
It is Red.
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