Written by Siddharth Manohar
The noise surrounding the recent controversy regarding a tweet by Indian actor (and UN Ambassador for Gender Equality) Anupam Kher made it difficult to look into why it caught so much attention. That it did is beyond doubt, garnering over six thousand hits, significantly more than almost all of his other tweets. It was also followed by plenty of coverage and promotion from its audience, who responded while sharing their own views as well. Here I try to look at whether there was any basis for the criticism that the tweet received, and the degree to which it was justified.
To start off, it would be useful to reproduce the lines in their original form:
“घरों में पेस्ट कंट्रोल होता है तो कॉक्रोच, कीड़े मकोड़े इत्यादि बाहर निकलते है। घर साफ़ होता है।वैसे ही आजकल देश का पेस्ट कंट्रोल चल रहा है।”
Which translates into: “During pest control in houses, the cockroaches and other insects etc. are removed. The house gets cleaned. Similarly, pest control of the country is going on these days.”
On an initial reading, it is a harmless and vague insult. The use of the term ‘cockroach’, which has attracted the most attention, seems to be employed as a characterisation of anything undesirable, be they problems, politics, or people. As a standalone insult, it remains a lot less venomous as compared to some of the other material that one may find on the website. Apart from containing a reference to one of the actor’s films, it is also vague and targets no group explicitly. It is therefore understandable that the issue has its share of people who may be bewildered by what could possibly be quite so harmful in this particular tweet, and are likely to pass off criticism as an overreaction that seems to be increasingly common.
To understand if there is a valid criticism of the tweet, we look at the larger context in which such a term is understood. The comparing of groups of people to animals and pests has a long, concrete, and troubling history. The process has over time and study acquired the name of ‘dehumanisation’, the process by which language and discourse is used to make a group of people seem ‘less-than-human’. It is a widely documented and extremely effective method of incitement to violence.
The reasoning behind its usage in the process is also interesting and relevant. According to Helen Fein (Benesch, 2008), the purpose of this kind of discourse is to put a certain group of people outside the limits of moral considerations and obligations. This is because the default moral understanding of a majority of people is underpinned by the principle that it is unacceptable to carry out violent acts of hate, or to kill any person. The repeated categorisation of a group of people as the ‘other’, and the polarisation of their identity as a group not worthy of human respect or equal rights, has the effect on the mind of the larger public. Acts of violence and crimes start to seem more acceptable and less outrageous when committed against this group, and this process of dehumanisation escalates over time.
The narratives most often target a specific identity, most famously that of ethnicity and religious identity. The most prominent examples of this occur during the inter-war period in Germany, where there was a large amount of material alienating and dehumanising those of Jewish religion. The content was systematically churned out by state agencies instructed with an agenda. Similarly, the build-up to the Rwandan genocide in 1994 saw a very strong narrative which demonised the Tutsi ethnic group in Rwanda, labeling them as Inyenzi (cockroaches) that cannot contribute to society because of who they were, their basic identity. This narrative creates a larger feeling of resentment amongst the public against the people of the target group, making it easier to commit acts of violence against them. Susan Benesch would argue that there cannot in fact be a large scale violent attack against a group of people that live amongst a majority without the cooperation or the tacit acceptance of that larger group of people.
The comparison of people to pests and animals has repeatedly been used as a tool in this process of moulding public sentiment against certain groups of people. In these cases, the narrative that it served to created helped in the execution of large scale genocidal operations that have left millions of people killed over the decades. Dehumanisation has also been included as part of an academic study devising a ten-step model of genocide. The historical evidence is in overwhelming suggestion that the use of such terms to build a narrative is part of a larger build up towards organised violence based on lines of group identity.
To suggest that an Indian actor is sending out a call for violence is ill-thought out, and ignorant of the complexity of the issue. What does need to be observed however, is how easily discussions are used to create and divide identities, and what values are ascribed to these identities. While healthy and vociferous debate forms an important part of a democracy, also equally important is the tangible effect that speech can have on its immediate surroundings. It is the effects and the consequences (and harm) of speech that give rise to justifications for its regulation, and it is therefore always useful to keep a watchful eye on where public discourse takes us.