The Arrogance Of Our Rulers

Why is our government unnerved by the Net?

WrittenBy:Jerry Pinto
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Long ago, there was a great King we are told. He was such a great king that he thought he could order the tide to flow back. So he stood on the shore and he said to the tide, “Go back”. The tide didn’t laugh at him. It took no notice. It simply flowed on. The king got very wet and he tried to save face by making some kind of stupid proclamation, that they should not kneel to human clay, if you go by Thackeray’s words, William Makepeace Thackeray’s that is.

Canute’s story is read as a lesson in the arrogance of kings. It might well be used today for governments and to make it simple, I shall paraphrase it here: don’t make laws that make you look stupid. When the government responds to the ordinary slights and slanders of democracy with the desire to clamp down on freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of the internet, what you see is their stupidity. What is said on social media for instance is only what people are thinking. A smart government would be monitoring this all the time, watching what its chatterati are saying. Because that’s who’s on social media – people like us, people with spare time, people who have internet connections and problems with servants and school admissions. That’s also the people who don’t vote. Yes, I know you, dear reader of Newslaundry, you vote. Your demographic doesn’t. Live with it.

Now the powers that be know this too. Why then do they bother with the occasional young man saying something rude about a neta? Why then do they worry about social media at all? I believe it is to distract the same chatterati from the issues that really matter. The failure of governance. The collapse of the rupee. The disaster that is our disaster management. The signal failure of education. The loss of faith in the system. The corruption that stands for the system now. As long as we debate social media, the government can get to not do all the things it does not want to do. Or it can paper over its faults, pray that a good monsoon will put the voter in a good mood, pray that the BJP’s discomfiture with their own wonderboy will mean that they shoot themselves in the foot.

Because the whole kerfuffle about the internet is close to ridiculous. The tide will not be reversed. Those who have tasted the joys of the internet cannot be returned to some pre-lapsarian state where it could all be sorted out, man to man, Brahmin to Brahmin, Kayastha to Kayastha, dwija to dwija, Oxbridge to Ivy League, in a bar in Delhi. Now it’s a brash bad brawling media and no one knows which way it’s going to shake out. No one. Not the Internet gurus, not the futurologists, not even the poets.

Because the internet is anarchic in nature. I read somewhere that it now had the nature of Nature, that even if a huge chunk of it was taken down, it would still manage, it would repair itself, it would reroute its pulses, just as a brain learns to do, just as a heart can if given enough time and enough incentive. And the Net wants to live. It is about living in the extreme. It is about having the ability to turn yourself into a star in your own daytime soap. It is about stirring up likes and earning comments from envious friends when you show a plate of your mum’s idlis. It’s where you announce the death of a dad or a dog.

And this means the old guard fears the Net. That’s me too in there. I came of age in an age where the newsroom was the disseminator of information and the nursery school of opinion. We worked towards objectivity and towards getting the truth. We learned our skills and we earned our chops and we tried to look at chief ministers and judges and other people in power and give voice to the voiceless. We did all this yes, and we were very sure that we could determine what you were thinking. This was what gave us a high. Pradeep Guha, once a marketing whizkid with The Times of India, often called it the psychic income that journalists earned and which was never factored into their pay-packets. We got to broadcast our opinions; you got to listen to them. The world was a good place.

The blogs began to change all that. Then came facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and Youtube and Instagram and Pinterest and suddenly the old hierarchy was breaking down. Editors and managers and politicians all looked on in horror. Who could you trust? How could you trust? These guys have no gatekeepers? They don’t even run spellcheck, never mind fact checks. Have you seen the punctuation on that one?

This is not an argument for total freedom. It is an argument for sanity. You are responsible for what you post. If you make religious slurs, if you spew hate speech, if you endanger the life and liberty of someone else, you should know that you are breaking the law. Ignorantia juris neminem excusat, as the old saying goes. Ignorance of the law is never an excuse.

But when the police turn up at the door of a young girl because she posts that a city should not shut down when a political leader dies, when cartoonists are arrested because they laugh at the state and cause others to laugh, that’s when you know what’s going on.

Someone is scared. Very scared.

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