'Smash Brahmanical patriarchy' row: Twitter mess shows why Silicon Valley billionaires are clueless about real-world complexities

If Twitter had a model for monetising controversies on its platform, one suspects its India operations alone would have been enough to make it the world’s first trillion-dollar company. Sadly, that feat belongs to Apple. What Twitter has done though is create a platform for misinformation, perennial outrage and victimhood, and the haplessness of its top leadership is symptomatic of the larger problem that plagues Silicon Valley.

Its tech gurus are great at solving math problems or creating algorithms, but pathetic at finding solutions for issues that influence collective behaviour and concern the users of their products. It is almost as if having created the technology for altering interpersonal communication and the way humans transmit and consume information, the nerdy billionaires are grappling with the complexity of its side-effects. They are either unable or unwilling to come to terms with the magnitude of the issues that face them. They appear out of depth.

This impression is reinforced with the latest controversy over Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey posing with a picture that rubbed many Indians the wrong way. Following a closed-door discussion in New Delhi with some Indian women journalists and activists, Jack was handed a placard that read: “smash Brahmanical patriarchy”. He posed with that poster in a group photograph with some participants. The picture was eventually tweeted, and all hell broke loose.

Rituparna Chatterjee, one of the journalists who was present at the roundtable with Jack and Vijaya Gadde, legal, public policy and trust and safety lead at Twitter, wrote in an article for Firstpost that there was “no conspiratorial effort to malign any community. There was a circle of women simply speaking about their individual experiences on the platform.”

Chatterjee’s account is convincing enough. There is no reason to believe that any grand conspiracy was being hatched behind closed doors between self-hating Indians and a burdened, white male. However, Chatterjee entirely misses the point about the backlash that Jack’s displaying of the poster has generated. It is foolish to deny that casteism exists in India and the upper castes oppress those lower down the ‘order’. It is foolish to deny the patriarchal structure of Indian societies and the male bias that cuts across religions and communities.

But a far simpler and more accurate way of describing it would have been to say: “Smash all casteism/patriarchy”.

The problem isn’t that a Dalit activist has created the poster. Sanghapali Aruna’s experience as “an educated Dalit woman advocating for the safety of Indian caste-oppressed communities” is real and there is no reason to denigrate her fight against casteism and patriarchy.

The intersectionality of Brahmanism (not just casteism) and patriarchy and Aruna’s experience of gender and caste bias is for her to relate. As she writes in her article for Firstpost, it has resulted in “unspeakable amounts of harassment on the platform without any recourse” and it is entirely appropriate for her to flag it to the head of the tech platform so that solutions are found to filter out casteist slurs.

The problem starts when Jack is pictured with the poster. The message exceeds the medium and becomes problematic because as the CEO of a billion-dollar, multinational company that counts among the users of its platform members of all races, religions and communities, Jack cannot be seen singling out one community (or religion) and condoning violence against it. It negates the misogyny practiced by other communities such as Muslims, for instance, that activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali campaigns against.

“Smash Brahmanical patriarchy” is also not a simple critique of upper caste hegemon. To say “Brahmanical” would have been closer to the point. The phrase goes much beyond caste bias and misogyny and becomes an open call for violence against a community. The demonisation of Brahmins, as many users have pointed out on Twitter, borders on hate speech. It is something Jack, as the head of a social media giant, should be taking a stand against instead of actively condoning.

The intersectionality of casteism and patriarchy cannot be seen in upper caste and lower caste binaries alone when these experiences are relative, and the abuse of power structure travels all the way down in caste hierarchy. It could be an interplay between OBCs and Dalit, or Dalits and other sub-groups. Therefore, when the critique is against casteism and patriarchy in general, to say ‘Brahminical’ is not just wrong, it is a Hinduphobic term that represents anti-Hindu bigotry especially in the case of a white American male who paradropped into India and sought to solve India’s thousand intricacies with one poster.

The problem became messier still when Twitter issued a series of apologies and ended up angering everyone.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Twitter was perhaps worried that its already slipping revenues from its fastest growing market could nosedive if the sensitive issue was not handled “sensitively”. However, by issuing a number of apologies that appear even more clueless than the original mistake, Twitter has created a far bigger mess. It has not only displayed its ignorance about India’s caste fault lines and cultural mores, it has allowed itself to be drawn into the toxic discourse of a political and ideological turf war currently under way.

Playing both sides is fraught with danger, more so when western notions are interpolated into Indian context. The interpolation causes more confusion than clarity. Jack’s faux pas and subsequent self-goals, however, seem less of an instance of Hinduphobia. It is more reflective of the shallow worldview of new-age tech billionaires who cannot reconcile their Left-leaning bias with the realities of a complex world. Jack tried to be ‘woke’. Hope he has woken up.

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Updated Date: Nov 21, 2018 21:25:55 IST

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