The tragic death of George Floyd at the knees of white policeman, Derek Chauvin, in Minneapolis, USA has triggered a global outrage, rekindling the #BlackLivesMatter movement after five years. Processes of social marginalisation are historic and actualised in economics, however the violent articulations in daily experiences are manifested differentially; ask a Dalit person in India or an African American denizen for their tales of everyday injustice.

Communities at the social margins experience structural violence which results out of economics, spatial dynamics, race, caste, and ethnicity converging and refracting in strange, unanticipated ways. The axis of oppression (or evil) shifts shape with context.

From Maharashtra (Bhima-Koregaon) to Missouri (Ferguson), oppressions are nested in dense strands of complexity which are tangled into obscurity of daily life. One act of injustice boils over the kettle of subliminal yet perennial simmers of discontent and frustration over to our news feeds.

Hashtag culture has led to a greater awareness of issues at hand but has also manifested in an awkward set of contradictions for the left liberal genre. The Left is peculiar as it aims at the universal/normative and thus has a transnational, loosely configured network of NGOs, billionaire funders, media, and academia to raise issues at the drop of a hat -oops- a tweet.

The Activist-Industry-Media trio is anchored in the notion of the ‘progressive’ global, projecting local grievances on to the international project of protests, forging solidarity in causes ranging from Palestine to Renewable Energy.

They disregard the idea of the nation-state, which is otherwise fundamental to conservative values, as tribalism, and channelise and invoke Tagore and Einstein at the slightest hint of intellectual contestation. This delusion about the nation-state cannot be any further from the truth as the site of the nation is the node of power analysis in the international system.

Where/When Protests Do Work

Historically, protest movements have a legitimate and often outsized role in fermenting social and political change, ranging from the ‘Quit India’ Movement in India that accelerated the march towards independence, to the American Civil Rights Movement that laid the foundation for many of the privileges of citizenship coloured people enjoy today.

In contemporary history, the Arab Spring fuelled protests throughout the Arab world from Tunis to Sohar. Many of the democratic gains made in the process have been rolled back as well, bringing into focus the importance of building institutions that stand the test of time. Unlike the Middle East, America’s deep state has a culture of institution-building which ensures that the foundational values enshrined in the constitution endure. As the widespread protests in America have shown, there is a vibrant civil society mobilisation which creates generative spaces of policy conversation. There is a genuine democratic culture that catalyses critical thinking, channelized during and after election season.

Communities in India, such as the Maratha community in Maharashtra or Gujjar community in Rajasthan, took to the streets to register the need for affirmative action through ‘reservations’ in academic institutions and jobs. Effective social justice mobilisation is carried out through movements or, even better, through vote bank configurations for enhanced negotiating power at the ballot box.

Twitter Toxicity is not Social Justice

The flipside of the protest culture is when it transforms to ‘cancel culture’. The liberal ‘illiberalism’ is demonstrated amply in the realm of Twitter’s echo chambers where politics trumps common sense.  Terms from a sociology undergraduate course such as ‘Privilege’ are uncritically spewed to throttle discourse when, in fact, the very purpose of humanities and soft social sciences is to foster an open, inclusive, and transparent conversation. ‘Woke’ activist politics makes a person lose friends rather than change the status quo, and friendships are dearer than winning a facetious online argument.

Twitter is a space for dialogue, although it is merely a monologue most of the time. Real action on the ground needs resources, vision, and patience. A social media post will go ‘viral’ and die down into the dark abyss of the cache in no time. The nature of the attention marketplace of social commerce is conducive for social justice themes i.e. high on emotion and low on action. Trolling is an expression of politics in the form of propaganda which deteriorates into threats of actual violence, which a lot of female journalists tackling sensitive issues face. Actual good work towards social justice, such as reporting on the mafia/organised crime in Italy, cost a journalist her life in a bomb blast in Malta.  

Will the toppling of a slave trader’s statue in Bristol substitute for massive monetary reparations for the dastardly slave trade and colonial atrocities? The answer is a stark no. It might only massage a few egos and make a splash on the hashtag trends listing for the day.   

Beyond ‘Woke’ Politics and Towards Real Change

Being deeply interconnected with the superhighways of information can make events from far away seem local and visceral. This is a total illusion. Politics is deeply intertwined with local power structures and history in order to bring about social change. The current digital environment regarding issues of social justice, caste and race is polarising the society and creating mistrust. This is dangerous for a pandemic scenario.

Protests in Minnesota have yielded concessions from authorities. Protestors who have placed their bodies on the line as a site of resistance have mobilised perceptions, but they are also creating openings for an alternative political imagination rather than only online buzz.

There is no value in being woke apart from the performative aspects of virtue signalling. Greta’s millennial activism cannot arrest climate change; it needs better technology, finance, behavioural change to work in a melodious symphony to make a dent.

Awareness for the sake of awareness delivers little progress. Tweet-worthy ideas of social justice, such as ‘revolution’ are seductive and sexy for the youth and carry global currency while sipping artisanal coffee in a fancy café downtown. The actual flowering of ideas of social justice takes actual work of tilling the land for reform, with hard work and persistence.

Manishankar Prasad

Manishankar Prasad is an environmental engineer, sociologist, researcher and writer. He has studied at the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He has published across numerous national and international platforms such as the New Indian Express and the Huffington Post, been a panellist on Al Jazeera International and BBC World, and has been interviewed by Forbes and The Guardian.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.

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