By Ananya Gupta, UG22 Note : This is both an Opinions and Newsdesk article On the
I traded my empathy for peace. We all do.
I sometimes look at myself in the mirror and wonder if I did the right thing by putting up that post about gendered entitlement on Facebook. Was my tone too harsh? Was Facebook not the right medium to express myself? Should I just not have talked about the incident and only made my point? There is probably some degree of merit to all these questions, and I would really have appreciated perspective on each of these fronts. Sadly, the only criticism that came my way was in the form of memes and jokes attempted at trivialising what I was trying to say.
I am not going to take up time and space trying to explain why I believe that the incident was gendered. Mostly because, well, I don’t have the energy to engage in another one of those comment threads. What I really want to talk about is the manner in which I was responded to, which I believe stands in striking contrast to the kind of ethos that Ashoka, as a university space, represents. I had never expected everyone to respond positively to the post — in fact I was pleasantly surprised at how late a comment saying “this is not about gender” came up. And a large part of why I posted that statement in the first place, was to create conversation around it, because ever since I have been here, I get this sense from people at Ashoka that this is a place free of gender inequality and the problem really lies somewhere else. I wanted to initiate a debate about what I believe is one of Ashoka’s biggest problems. But fortunately or unfortunately, what I discovered was, if it may be possible, an even bigger problem.
I would not be writing this piece if I believed that this was a personal issue. Sadly, what I notice is that this has largely become our most favoured mode of interaction. As a student body, we have started not merely condoning, but in fact fetishising a manner of responding that merely trivialises others’ problems, without constructive engagement. And I do know that we all need a reason to laugh, and that laughter is infectious, but it often seems that our collective mindset, which is largely beginning to appear as a cultural attitude at Ashoka, is one that mocks at the concerns of others. Somewhere, in our heads, we have convinced ourselves that it is cool to joke about somebody else’s struggle or their adverse experience. And it makes me ask myself a question, which I hope all those who read this piece ask themselves: Are we becoming more and more feelingless? Is this the kind of community we wish to become? And why is it funny if someone cares about gender or caste or religion or the environment? Is it because we do not understand similar experiences?
For the longest time I believed that people genuinely do not get it; they just do not know. But then I looked inside and asked myself why any of this matters to me? Why do I call myself a feminist? Why did I ever put up that post? And the simplicity of the response surprised me. I care not because I’ve taken three courses with Professor Menon. Rather, I care because I know what it is to be afraid. I know what it is to be hurt. I know what it is to be judged. And I know what it is to be dismissed as irrational, as too sensitive, or as a matter of fact, throughout school, as too feminine. And I refuse to believe that there is a single person on this campus, who has not experienced, known and felt these things in some form or the other. Does that give us the knowledge or the right to claim to know or understand the experience of being from a smaller town, an underprivileged class or an oppressed gender? It does not. But it does give each of us the ability to get a sense of their experience, even if that sense is largely deflated. It makes each one of us capable of some form of empathy.
One would expect this realisation to make me feel optimistic. Blame it on the cynicism of someone who identifies at least partly with activism, but it actually really scares me. If each one of us is capable of empathy, where have we lost it? Why have we hidden it? Why are we sharing offensive humour when we could be shedding tears? All these questions are, as I am sure you can tell, rhetorical. Somewhere deep down, however powerfully we suppress it, we all know what is up. We have forgotten how to express and how to feel. We look down upon the ability to emote; we see it as a sign of weakness (another thing that is gendered, but for the sake of the 50 odd men whose blood boils at the mention of “gender”, let’s put that aside for now). But before we try to find some righteousness in our decision to celebrate hyper-rational, stoic, hypermasculine (at this point I slip these words in just to get under some characters’ skins) behaviour, let me, as someone who has for a large part of my 21 years been complicit in this celebration admit, that we do it only because it is convenient. We do it so that we can put ourselves to sleep at night and drown out the guilt of inaction.
When I was a kid, I would be moved to tears everytime I saw my mother unreasonably scream at the domestic help, and her (the help) stare at the ground in silence, forced by the limitations of her class, to suffer unjust humiliation. Over the years, I stopped caring and the tears stopped rolling. I found some explanation to convince myself that my mother was right and that the woman deserved it. I traded my empathy for peace. We all do. And the next time we think that everything is fine at Ashoka and people are just blowing things out of proportion, we should probably remember that.
Arush Pande is a 2nd year UG studying English at Ashoka and contributing frequently to The Edict.