By Abhilasha Singh:
The function of art in a post-modernist world, my HoD who taught me European Literature and Art always said, is to provide shock value. To see how much you can shock a person before they turn immune to the object causing the shock, since no one thing can induce a prolonged state of shock or shock more than once. Whether this is a good or a bad thing is a moral judgment one cannot entirely make, but one can’t help but notice the trends emerging in the present day many-steps-away-from-the-post-modernist-movement Indian society, that aim to do no more than shock. Move over Andy Warhol and his urinal, because the latest way apart from outrageous comments on rape and ‘Indian Sanskriti’ by politicians, to shock an ever ready to be shocked (to the extent of almost anticipating it) Indian public, is cruelty towards animals.
Many people came down hard, and rightfully so, on the boys who took a video of themselves kicking a dog off of the building in Chennai. But they probably did not think twice before sharing the video with someone else in the name of spreading information. While that may be the primary intent, it would be foolish to deny that it also had something to do with every individual’s craving to appropriate such incidents to satisfy their own need of a regular dose of shock and its foster child, outrage.
As observed over multiple events these last few months, the drill goes something like this: first, find an incident that will never cease to be shocking because of the various forms its core theme can take, or if lucky find an entirely new genre of incidents with potential shock value. Once identified, find yourself stunned for a brief moment (it can last a few days based on the nature of discussion individual Facebook feeds are indulging in) before recovering and beginning to discuss with feigned horror, the nitty-gritty of the incident because the actual horror associated with the graveness of the situation has gotten over. Once the incident has been discussed to an individual’s fill based on their taste, they will either move on to being satisfied and go about their daily lives until another horrific incident comes along and momentarily leaves them shell-shocked. Or one can move on to discussing something frivolous now that they have completed their quota of ‘intelligent discussion’ for the day.
I have seen the same thing happen to reports of rape as well. Once the initial cloud of empathy-induced sadness has worn off, nothing is left but to dissect the incident by discussing particulars of what the victim was wearing, where she was standing when it happened, and all those specifics that any socially sensitive individual recognises as the root of rape culture because, often, these discussions in their tone imply moral judgment, while splashing about in a pool of gory shock value provided by the details of the incident.
Will they deny that the incident was horrific? Of course not. But there is something specific about horrific incidents that for at least a moment unites Indians from every walk of life in this collective need to address this horror publicly so as to see this horror mount up to the level at which this discussion shocks them (at least partially as much as it did the first time). Maybe this is done to be able to re-live the experience of what it meant to have adrenaline course through their veins, and rejoice this time in the additional thrill of having the ‘right’ opinions.
Because we as a society thrive off shock and controversy, we readily click on ‘clickbait’ headlines that read along the lines of ‘SHOCKING! ABC seen exiting XYZ’s apartment at 3 AM!’ or ‘LOOK! XYZ had a wardrobe malfunction!’ and then swear at the news agency for covering ‘pointless’ stories in the face of other pressing national concerns. I would suggest that the shame of having fallen for the need to be shocked forces the individual to want to redeem themselves by transferring the onus of stupidity on to the news agency with its clickbaity article. Nevertheless, we all know why clickbait headlines work, and as much as we might hate to admit it, this tendency proves that they are here to stay no matter the nature of pretense the reader puts up.
It is also this very need to be constantly shocked, and more often than not having this need catered to by the various people making strategic decisions, that a death toll that reads ‘1’ doesn’t warrant the same kind of empathy that a death toll reading ‘600’ does. Maybe next time, a death toll of ‘600’ will do the same thing that a death toll of ‘1’ did this time. It is this very fact that underlies every complaint or observation of the fact that we are losing our ability to be empathetic, but it will always go unnoticed because everybody does it, but will vehemently deny it.
Featured image source: Ed Ivanushkin/Flickr (modified).