What’s common to clown, dummy, phony, dopey, weird, pathetic, and low-class slob? Nope, they’re not Snow White’s seven dwarfs. They’re labels that the current Leader Of The Free World has used to bad-mouth his detractors on Twitter.
By the time you read this, the free-willed citizens of the US would have hopefully slammed their doors in the face of the nastiest bully to occupy the Oval Office in recent memory. But whether Shri Doland stays or goes, the legacy that his ilk has spawned and legitimised will be harder to root out.
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Bullying is a pandemic. Like the other one we are fighting, it must be addressed with equal urgency. Look around for the symptoms — increasing authoritarianism, muzzling of dissent, concentration of power, police brutality, cronyism, repression of free speech, labelling, dog-whistling, tampering with institutions, excessive profiling, surveillance — and you can see a pattern of how bully-states operate.
If four more years of Trump are bad for the US, closer home we are staring down the barrel at a lifetime of being victimised. Look how leaders of most BRICs nations have exploited electoral systems to inveigle themselves into positions of incontestable authority: China’s Xi and Russia’s Putin have sworn themselves in for life, Brazil’s Bolsonaro thrives on brazen autocracy, and the story in India is all too familiar.
Common to these men in power are their methods. They can switch effortlessly between loud and in-your-face, to stealthy and insidious. They pick their victims, mowing down not just political adversaries but the weak, the defenceless, and the marginalised. They target every institution from the judiciary to the film industry. They tilt the balance of power in their favour and expend energy and effort, not to mention public money, to keep it that way. They sugar-coat their nefarity with bombast, and build a personality cult with lapdog media at the ready to sing hosannas unto them.
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Every public speaking opportunity, be it an alumni meet or a spot on national television, is a platform for maligning the opposition, dog-whistling, and undisguised self-praise to expand their power base. Bullies shun press conferences and media appearances, except ones they control. Their speeches are peppered with nicknames and pejoratives; not loose-tongued utterances but cleverly crafted to rouse their hordes. Cases in point: Trump’s brazen hat-doff to the white supremacist Proud Boys and Modi’s overt reference to the clothes of anti-CAA protestors.
On social media, bullies recreate the spectres that haunted our childhood. The creep that waylays you in the washroom. The beast that stalks you on your way home. The slimeball who blackmails you about your secrets. The pottymouth who abuses your looks and your family name. They’re alive and well on social media.
On social media platforms, once touted as spaces for free expression, bullies freely spew hate and disinformation. They stalk and troll, harass and demean and intimidate, and silence free speech — with impunity. Here, they are endorsed by swarms of acolytes who popularise a culture of idolising bullies as strongmen while villainising their opponents as anti-nationals.
It takes steely courage to stand up to this ugly onslaught.
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If you shut up and wait for the unpleasantness to pass, it may work — but only as a tactic, not a strategy. If you stand up to the bully, and pick yourself up each time you are knocked down, you stoke fear in his insecure little heart, because bullies are afraid of being challenged. This is not easy and demands resilience; the price to pay is high. But if you appease or befriend the bully, you end up playing straight into his hands.
By avoiding the subject or responding with non-confrontational silence, we hand over power to our oppressors. We assume that for-profit social media are free-speech soapboxes when they are merely sophisticated marketing platforms driven by rogue algorithms. Social media admins are lethargic to enforce policies that protect netizens from cyberbullying and harassment. On Twitter, hoi-polloi dissenters are regularly sent notices that their tweets have violated the laws of the land, while influential blue-tick accounts get away with murder.
What, then, is in the dissenter’s playbook?
Think independently. Unite by common cause, not factionalism. In other words, stand for what is right in the larger interest, don’t take sides because it’s convenient. Don’t be distracted by smoke-and-mirror tactics. Train attention on the issue, not the person. Call the bluff, but don’t be disrespectful. There’s no need to stoop to conquer.
When confronted by bullies, don’t get triggered. While you block, mute and report offenders, don’t get sidelined into name-calling. Staying the course demands purpose, focus, and a tough skin. The more you are targeted, the more visible you are. When you stand up to authority, wear your own power lightly. Visualise, insure, and risk the consequences.
If you’re lucky, you may be let off with a one-rupee fine, but be prepared for worse.
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