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Learning from Lewinsky: Confronting the culture of bullying and shaming, creating a culture of support

If you haven’t read Reema Moudgill’s piece titled Monica Lewinsky Takes On The Cult Of Shame, you’ve missed out on an important conversation about the culture of shaming and the legitimization of the violation of privacy by our blind acceptance of digital behavior. In a flatter world created by technology, it’s obvious to me that we have not simply recreated the ogling men on the corner of the streets, the vicious auntys whose gossip can ruin reputations and the medieval lynchings of ‘witches’. In fact, we have amplified it. We have turned everyone into the voyeuristic creep, the bitchy aunt and the maligning man. Yes, it’s become normal, this online bullying and shaming, the blind consumption of content used to bully and shame in the name of gossip. And, let’s face it, you and I are party to it too.

Monica Lewinsky’s TED Talk is indeed admirable for bringing to the fore issues we will not talk about. Even as we cheer about the win for freedom of speech by the striking down of the 66A, we will not talk about how humiliation, shaming and acts of sexual offense on the Internet are causing deep psychological damage. In India, where talking about a whole bunch of things (especially stuff that matters) is not the done thing, young people are not getting enough guidance on how to deal with bullying and intimidation on the Internet. Cyber bullying is real and we need to wake up to it.

Lewinsky’s talk pushed me to think about how we can create opportunities and spaces for youth to discuss how they feel, what they observe, to bring issues to the table, to learn through shared experiences. If the online world can be abusive, it can host moderated support forums too. But my hunch is that the change needs to start at home, in schools, in the park, among friends. As my children grow and become more independent, I’m constantly under pressure to rethink they way I deal with them. My focus is shifting from managing and controlling their routines, to playing the part of a guide and adviser. How can I co-opt my kids to evolve and follow an ethical code for using the Internet, for instance? How can I set up a system in which they have someone reliable and mature to talk to, even if its not us the parents? How can I eliminate the sense of taboo around topics like sexual abuse, abuse of power, bullying and aggression that are deeply encoded in our psyche?

Of watching theater and ruminating about ethics and snobbery! May 12, 2012

I am eternally fascinated by the performing arts, but unlike dance and music, theater daunts and entices me at the same time purely because I have little talent for the stage (theatrics in real life is another matter altogether!). Tonight, I watched ‘Chinese Coffee’ at the Epicentre in Gurgaon. Danish Hussain has big shoes to fill when he attempts to direct and act a part played by Al Pacino way back in 1992 on Broadway. Ira Lewis’ script, which takes us through an evening of two failed writers in a heated discussion about their art, their life and their friendship, is a difficult one to perform simply because it required only two actors to sustain an intense performance that slips in and out sarcasm, humor, mimicry and anger with suprising speed. A two-hour long performance by Danish and Vrajesh Hirjee, the latter especially talented and energetic, was well appreciated tonight.

A few things about the play, which revolved around one friend’s reaction to the other’s latest manuscript, struck me particularly. The adaptation we saw today is set in Delhi. At one point, there is a discussion about how this large metropolis does not actually energize us, but sucks the life out of us because by living in it and breathing its polluted air, we are unable to perceive any reality other than this. Or at least that’s how I interpreted the dialogue! I have observed people born and brought up in large cities are genuinely naïve about any other sort of life; worse, they often look down on small town people. I experienced that a bit when I came to Delhi to study architecture for the first time and I was shocked that many of my Delhi-ite classmates were so satisfied with their rather limited worldview!

The other more serious issue and also the one that took the play to its climax is that of the thin line between fact and fiction. What happens when you use real life people as inspiration for fictitious characters and you weave a bit too much of their real life (as confided to you as a friend) in the book? One friend accuses the other, in the play, of ‘stealing his life’! Some years ago, I began on my first and only attempt to write fiction. It was a novella about a group of friends in a big city. Inadvertently, I used a close friend as part inspiration for one of the characters. She, who also is the only one to read this tentative piece of work, saw through this and commented on it, not critically, but as a matter of fact. I was unable to continue the story and haven’t returned to it since, petrified by the thought that I might offend her or borrow more private aspects of her real life for my story! A nightmare in the works it was…..

On a lighter note, the play made several digs at popular fiction, which it clearly classified as trash. I see that kind of attitude among those I follow on twitter, among the literary and artistic type and I can’t stomach Chetan Bhagat either (I don’t knopw why he is always the target, poor guy!). However, I cannot for the life of me decide whether I must mourn the taste of the majority of this country’s reading public (who for some inexplicable reason thrives on self-improvement books, chic flicks and dude flicks!) or accept this as a reality I have no right to be snobbish about!

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