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Climate activist Greta Thunberg and artist Subodh Gupta have been divisive subjects lately.  (Getty Images)
Climate activist Greta Thunberg and artist Subodh Gupta have been divisive subjects lately. (Getty Images)

Opinion: The perils of ‘this or that’ culture

  • 'This or that’ culture dictates that you believe in this one major thing and its prescribed subset of minor things. It demands that you stop engaging in dialogue with anybody who believes in that other thing
  • Beliefs, like colour and musical notes, exist on a spectrum. To protest the haphazard hacking of trees at Aarey is not to be against the purported benefits of the Mumbai Metro

Cancel culture has a new cousin. It’s “this or that" culture. This or that culture dictates that you believe in this one major thing and its precise prescribed subset of minor things. It demands that you stop engaging in any dialogue whatsoever with anybody who believes in that other thing. Except name-calling, which is allowed, even encouraged. And you must be able to explain the one major thing you believe in, in a 240-character tweet.

Let me give you an example. You believe that the polluting effects of greedy corporations and poor governance need to be checked urgently and that teen climate activist Greta Thunberg is the messiah we need and that anyone bringing up the mental health of a 16-year-old deserves to be shamed. How dare they. This is you, right?

Here’s another example. You believe an extensive modern Metro network is the answer to Mumbai’s transport troubles and that “seven lives lost on an average every day" because of an archaic and overburdened suburban railway system is ridiculous and that the Save Aarey activists are short-sighted. That is you, isn’t it?

Here’s yet another example. You believe successful male artists such as Subodh Gupta have mined their gender privilege for too long and that an anonymous Instagram account is a legitimate route to call out his allegedly predatory behaviour and that Gupta should not have filed a civil defamation suit. How dare he. This is you, isn’t it?

In isolation, these appear to be inarguably good things to believe in for those who do believe them. The people who subscribe to these belief sets believe they are unquestionably right. This is the type of woman who makes lists of feminist resources to circulate on WhatsApp (including non-judgemental gynaecologists). That is the type of man who is against censorship in any manner or form. This is an individual who seeks verbal consent before reaching out for a first kiss. That is one who campaigns eruditely for minimal taxation and better access to quality healthcare and education. This uses gender-neutral pronouns and carries their own steel straw everywhere.

“This" people do not engage with “that" people. Neither can identify with a person who subscribes to one or two of the beliefs in a belief set. It’s all or nothing. This or that. Both parties are likely to press Delete or Unfriend at the slightest hint of betrayal. Hashtags are the new face tattoos to recognize warring tribes. They do not talk, not directly. Which is why the discourse soon plummets to the level of comparing 16-year-olds to Hitler and Pol Pot. Debates are reduced to the minutiae of a single statistic. Neither party remembers what they were debating in the first place. The world is divided into binaries.

But beliefs, like colour and musical notes, exist on a spectrum. To protest the haphazard hacking of trees at Aarey and question the transplantation drive is not to be against the purported benefits of the Mumbai Metro (SeeThe Truth About Aarey’s Trees"). Many Save Aarey activists are aware of the benefits of the Metro, so to say that the activists are privileged liberals with no regard for those struggling with public transport is a false binary.

I bring up Thunberg and Aarey and Gupta as examples because they have been divisive subjects lately. A writer friend told me over the phone that he thought there was an element of absurdist comedy in Thunberg mania but he dare not tell his family. “They are fans. It would lead to too much tension," he said. Another friend sent me a petition to condemn Gupta’s decision to seek legal recourse and went silent when I queried her intentions.

The “this or that" culture finds it hard to place individuals who wonder why world leaders are having serious meetings with a rhetorical teenager who is not a trained expert while still condemning vile jokes about her Asperger Syndrome. The “this or that" culture has no room for individuals who believe that anonymity is a valid recourse for feminist movements but that those accused should have access to justice.

At a dinner I attended recently, the hostess shut down “climate change talk" claiming the food would get cold. Who does this serve, this or that?

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