My friend, Raju, is incensed. He calls me out of the blue and says, “I am thinking of exiting too.”
I know exactly what he is talking about. Our high-school Whatsapp group has become a battlefield. In the last day, six people have abruptly exited the group.
Some left after a few principled words (which were immediately construed as sanctimonious holier-than-thou natter by the people at whom the words were aimed). “Those of you who have been defending this government ought to ask yourself if you will take such a strong position if one of your own died in the hospital without bed, oxygen or care.”
Others left with a virtual throw of the arms in the air. “Folks, I am tired of this infighting. Will return when things get saner in our group. Thank you all and have a great life.”
Raju’s phone call is really a plea. He doesn’t want to leave the group but he wants the fighting to stop.
“Can you mute those two jokers?” he asks. “After all, you are the admin.”
I know the two people he is talking about. They have hijacked the conversation so that everything is about forwarding articles that support their position.
I attempt a mild plea. “The rest of us can change the discourse. Why can’t you change the topic? Talk about Danish Sait or the latest Kannada movie? Why are you keeping quiet and letting them have at it?
“What’s the use? The two of them just rant and rant. There is no air-time for anything else.”
The trouble with what seems like a never-ending ever-complicated pandemic is that people get testy and want to place blame somewhere. These days, there is enough blame to go around. We want to blame someone for the vulnerability that we all feel.
The illusion of control that we all had about our lives has now been irrevocably shattered. Today, we live and breathe because a tiny virus decides not to invade our body.
Bangalore like much of the country, is teetering under wave after wave of this mutating virus. Battle lines have been drawn and they are as obvious as the Lakshmana Rekha that our politicians like to talk about. There are the pro-BJP folks and the anti-BJP folks.
With any large Whatsapp group– which is where we all live these days– there are participants who belong to both camps. And they cannot stand each other even if they once played gully cricket together. The result? A potent brew of sarcasm, vicious name-calling and principled outrage. The stakes, meanwhile are dug deeper and deeper into the ground. And unlike a battlefield, there are no clear winners. Each side thinks they are right. “Obviously,” they say with a roll of the eyes and a sneer.
It didn’t used to be this way. Bangalore was a different kind of city. It seemed to encourage a certain gentility in its citizens. Maybe it is the weather, maybe it is the parks and trees all around. Whatever the reason, I haven’t felt the extreme kind of reaction that happens frequently in say, neighbouring Chennai, during the 15 years that I have lived in Bangalore. Even road rage is muted and borders on civil.
So what do you do? How do you deal with the cacophony of Whatsapp groups? How do you deal with people who once used to be your friends, but have now morphed into folks you can barely stand? How do you keep the vitriol out of the conversation? Do you make a principled and abrupt exit or not? Do you engage or mute the whole conversation?
It isn’t only in Bangalore though. Whatsapp is geography agnostic. Most of the school and college groups that we all belong to have participants from a number of metros all over India and abroad. On the one hand, it is exhilarating to be in this giant courtyard-adda. On the other, it is exhausting to just keep up with the barrage of messages. One of my friend exited all her Whatsapp groups two months ago. It is something I think about every day.
A way forward was afforded by Deepa Krishnan, who lives in Mumbai. In a long post on– what else– Facebook, she talked about how she used to be one of those abrupt exiters, but eventually made her way back into the groups she exited to figure out how to tolerate the folks whose opinions she was against. “It’s not easy, the process of learning to tolerate someone who is the opposite of you, and whose very presence is constantly pushing your buttons,” she said. “I really struggled a lot. I still struggle, but it is getting easier. What made it possible was my realisation that the group was a community in which I lived (albeit virtually). Communities are made up of all kinds of people, just like the real world around me. I deal with a lot of diverse people in the real world, without getting into fights. Then surely I could do the same in the virtual world?”
To clamp down on voices that are the opposite of your own is a slippery slope. If one of the pillars of democracy is free speech, it ought to be part of how we practice it. After 20 minutes of good-natured ribbing, I eventually talked Raju off the cliff he had climbed on. We both agreed that there were two ways to deal with Whatsapp triggers– to speak louder and take over the conversation. Or to stay silent and ignore the fighters.
Sanity has to come back sometime. To the world and to the virtual world.
Shoba Narayan is Bangalore-based award-winning author. She is also a freelance contributor who writes about art, food, fashion and travel for a number of publications