1630s: I think, therefore I am
1910s: I revolt, therefore I am
1990s: I code, therefore I am
2000s: I tweet, therefore I am
2020s: I outrage, therefore I am
When René Descartes, the 17th century French philosopher-mathematician and founder of modern western philosophy, coined the famous phrase “I think, therefore I am”, he was essentially trying to make a radical distinction between mind, the essence of which is thinking, and matter, the essence of which is extension in three dimensions.
At that time, he may not have visualised a future, nearly four centuries down the line, where thoughts are not just confined to an individual’s mind but can be harnessed into a collective movement through technological tools.
A Great Leveller
The explosion of social media has democratised the opinion marketspace, a domain that was earlier considered an exclusive preserve of the elite. For centuries, there were two distinct categories of people: opinion dispensers and opinion receivers, or in other words, the ruling classes and masses. The latter had no platforms to express their opinions which, in any case, did not matter. While some would argue that the expansion of social media has only ended up trivialising the discourses and amplifying the fringe voices, there is no denying the fact that technology has been a great leveller, a unifier of causes and a mass mobilising weapon. Online activism has become an integral part of the rebellious movements.
Among the features that capture the essence of the 21st century, the power of networking remains at the top. In a borderless, networked world, public resentment can be coalesced into steady mass movements that have the potential to shake the entrenched establishments and topple regimes. Public outrage finds a virtual marketplace that has the reach and impact of an e-commerce platform.
Be it the Arab Spring, “MeToo” campaign, Nirbhaya movement or the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), public anger was transformed into mass upheavals, thanks to the power of networking. The outrage of individuals, driven by a common cause, finds an amplification that can even transcend the borders.
In recent history, ‘Arab Spring’ demonstrated the organising power of ordinary individuals and how public outrage can be channelised into mass movements. It was essentially a series of pro-democracy uprisings that enveloped several largely Muslim countries, including Tunisia, Morocco, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Bahrain.
The protests resulted in regime changes in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. However, not all movements were successful — if democracy and cultural freedom was the end goal. In fact, for many countries enveloped by the revolts of the Arab Spring, the period since has been hallmarked by increased instability and oppression.
The Arab Spring began in December 2010 when a Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest the arbitrary seizing of his vegetable stand by police over failure to obtain a permit.
Bouazizi’s sacrificial act served as a catalyst for the so-called Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia. The street protests that ensued in Tunis, the country’s capital, eventually prompted authoritarian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to abdicate his position and flee to Saudi Arabia.
Activists in other countries in the region were inspired by the regime change in Tunisia and began to protest against similar authoritarian governments in their own nations.
The participants in these grassroots movements sought increased social freedoms and greater participation in the political process. Notably, this includes the Tahrir Square uprisings in Cairo, Egypt, and similar protests in Bahrain.
However, in some cases, these protests morphed into full-scale civil wars, as evidenced in countries such as Libya, Syria and Yemen. The Islamist parties gained power in formerly secular Tunisia and Egypt. Only Tunisia made a lasting shift to democracy, whereas Egypt backslid, and Libya, Syria, and Yemen spiralled into protracted civil wars.
The name “Arab Spring” is a reference to the Revolutions of 1848—also known as the “People’s Spring”—when political upheavals swept Europe.
Never Again, Black Lives Matter
In 2018, a spontaneous outburst of teenage activism gripped the United States. “Never Again” was the motto of the nationwide protests as thousands of students rallied across several American cities seeking gun control laws. Similar to the Arab Spring movement, the rallies marked the most dramatic and powerful show of teenage activism against gun violence in the wake of mass shooting at a High School in Parkland, Florida.
Despite the decades-long public demand for a ban on the sale of assault weapons and high capacity magazines and for implementing universal background checks, the lawmakers have failed to stand up to the powerful gun lobby and frame bipartisan gun control laws. The former President Barack Obama did make some sincere efforts to check the menace of gun culture but could not get support from Congress. The Biden Administration now offers hope as it has promised to make it one of its top priority areas.
The death of George Floyd, a black youth, due to police torture sparked off a mass movement “Black Lives Matter” last year, a stark reminder of the burning embers of racism in American society.
India too saw public outrage spilling onto the streets. The CAA-NRC combo evoked anger among people across the country. At the heart of these protests was the use of social media, which agitators relied on to amplify their voices and gather support at the ground level.
Trolls, Manufactured Outrage
In an age of aggressive social media driving the national narratives, one man’s freedom of expression becomes another man’s trolling. And, one man’s defiance becomes another man’s sedition.
In the present divisive political climate, the clash between hyper-nationalism and the right to be defiant often degenerates into abusive trolling and issuing threats. In most cases, the right-wing trolls unleash online outrage that takes the form of bullying. The ‘hurt sentiments’ is often cited as the provocation for the hate-filled outrage.
(The author is a senior journalist based in Hyderabad)
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