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Nandini Parashar writes an eloquent piece on the topic – Are Indians too easily offended?

The internet, invented in 1983, not only connects people with each other but also provides them with a platform to express their views and support for what they believe in. All of this with extremely minimal costs. Seems like a win-win situation, doesn’t it? Not so much.

Along with the freedom to express comes the responsibility to put out safe, healthy and all-inclusive content. At the same time, the audience too should practice tolerance and acceptability of all content that is being broadcasted. However, such responsibilities seem to have taken a back seat in the 21st century, the latter even more so. From comedians being banned to production sets being burnt, there is an aura of ‘offence’ that has spread all over the internet. What better example could there be than the recently cancelled shows of comedian Munawar Faruqui - 12 shows in 2 months!. In fact, even the Jaipur Literature Festival was not spared!. When covering the event, the New York Times called India “A Paradise for those who take offence”. In fact, The Hindu even published an article titled “Republic of the Offended”.

Such allegations are not at all baseless. Google search trends show that the word ‘offensive’ more than doubled in the number of times it was searched online and reached its all-time high in 2021 as compared to the previous 5 years. The same is the case with “offended”.

However, it does not do well to simply state that, yes, Indians are too easily offended. In order to get past our national hobby of getting offended, one should also look into why this is the case.

A straightforward answer would be the safety net of anonymity that a digital platform provides. Social media profiles often serve as windows to our real-life aspirations. They project an image of what we want others to view us as, an idealistic version of our own. One can even support an issue or state their opinion through a simple post or a like, without actually committing to it. Therefore, when a person makes a hateful comment on social media or expresses his/her displeasure of something, it has a two-fold effect. One, it shields the owner of the comment from future consequences, thereby detaching one from a sense of responsibility towards it. Two, it instils a sense of power - to affect a random stranger's life by a mere flick of their finger. These effects reduce empathy and give the people incentive to choose social media platforms as their preferred choice of medium. Therefore, when internet accessibility increased in the country to 45 per cent in 2021, from just about four per cent in 2007 India's offended began expressing their views online more than ever.

With the bandwagon ready to move, all that was left was for people to hop on it.

Recent times have also seen a growing aspiration of quick fame, due to the emerging influencer culture. The connection between such fame and the spreading of hate speech has been beautifully expressed by comedian Aditi Mittal in her interview with NewsLaundry. She says, “Social media has enabled people to coagulate around things that are socially unacceptable — things that are bigoted, racist, sexist and so people know now that if they say something ridiculous, they will get an invitation to Bigg Boss. And for a whole lot of people, that is a valid route to infamy.”

Here, it is important to note that hate speech is both a cause and effect of ‘being offended’. Hateful content leads to an equally hateful reaction.

Another explanation for feeling offended can be with regards to our expectations and values. As The Conversation explains in an article published in March 2020, people are not necessarily offended when confronted with rude language. Rather, it is our expectations, values and beliefs which sow the seeds of offence in us.

“One’s belief in their values may be an important part of his/her identity”, the author explains, “and thus gives one a sense of entitlement to take offence because they believe that those values are salient and should be, among other things, respected. Therefore, people may take offence at a comment on Facebook or Twitter which ridicules or questions something which is of importance or value to them, such as their nationality, political stance or religion.”

A perfect example would be how Indian’s took offence when Sri Lankan players wore masks and even vomited while playing a Test match against India in 2017. Once the match was finally called off in the middle to get the visiting fielders off the ground, Indian cricket fans and BCCI called out the Lankans for over-reacting. The Indians had taken offence as the Sri Lankan team’s actions presented a poor image of their beloved city - an image that they did not wish to be cast on their city. It didn’t matter to Delhiites that just a month prior to the match, Delhi’s AQI levels had hit 999, nor the fact that India’s capital was the most polluted city in the world. What mattered were their identities and egos that had been hurt.

Lastly, another identity that has of late led to multiple clashes between communities are our socio-cultural and religious identities. In her research paper, titled ‘Digital hatred, real violence: Majoritarian radicalisation and social media in India’, Maya Mirchandani has emphasised on an increasingly polarised landscape that cuts across political and religious lines in many democratic societies around the world, even India. According to her, far-right groups in different countries are feeding on people’s sentiments of being “offended” based on their perception of how freely the religious and ethnic minorities can practice their faith and culture. This sense of “offendedness” can often be amplified by the ease of communication on social media. There has been a ‘normalisation of hate in the society’.

Therefore, it is clear that there are many factors fuelling India’s ‘offence taking’ quota. One feels even more dejected when reminded of India’s history as a country built on debates and discussions on each and every aspect of its running. And while we didn’t start the fire, it is on our shoulders that our children grow up in an India more accepting and inclusive of all. And for this, we need to start by reacting to one less social media post at a time.

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