Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Speaking Volumes: The Yossarian Effect

(Published in the Business Standard, July 12, 2011)

Perhaps the most sympathetic portrait of the censor’s hard lot in life is to be found in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, where Yossarian is assigned the task of censoring letters while he’s in hospital. It is a monotonous job, and Yossarian does his best to innovate:

“To break the monotony he invented games. Death to all modifiers, he declared one day, and out of every letter that passed through his hands went every adverb and every adjective. The next day he made war on articles. He reached a much higher plane of creativity the following day when he blacked out everything in the letters but a, an and the.”

For the hundreds of citizens employed as censors in China, the Yossarian Effect is inescapable. In 2009, a list of words and phrases banned in China was leaked, and offered a somewhat unsettling picture of what the regime considered dangerous or threatening. The banning of words like “democracy”, or phrases like “Falun Gong”, “Tiananmen Square”, “dictatorship”, “brainwashing” and “do not love the party” is to be expected. Some phrases are less explicable: “lonely young woman” is apparently as much to be abhorred as “toilet slave” and “bondage”, and I am unclear why the regime decided that its citizens should not search for either “take the kidney in vivo” or “Li Hong hemorrhoids”.

But the logic of censorship also dictates that euphemisms and veiled references must be censored, which can lead to bizarre twists. With every successive anniversary of Tiananmen, the phrase “16 years ago” or “18 years ago” would be censored. As rumours of Premier Jiang Zemin’s death circulate, the word “Jiang”, which means “river”, is censored — and so is the phrase “Jiangsu Province”. A few months earlier, fears of a growing “Jasmine Revolution” in China led to search engines censoring searches for jasmine tea, and in the offline world, the sale of jasmine flowers was briefly banned.

Getting past the censors in China has become a complex, almost pleasurable game. Many micro-bloggers and bloggers are quick to grasp the essential truth of censorship — unless you shut down all speech, reducing the Internet in China to a space where everything is blacked out except “a”, “an”, and “the”, people will find creative ways of getting around any block. “Writing on the Internet,” says a Chinese blogger who asks for anonymity, “is double-edged. You can find ways to say things that would never make it into print. But you have to be very dexterous to get past the censors online, and sometimes what we write is impenetrable to anyone outside a small circuit, because we have to use so many unusual euphemisms.”

Back in India, a more conventional publishing dilemma made me ask questions about how much the presence of ebooks and the Internet complicates censorship. The author Siddhartha Deb spent several years working on a book about contemporary India, The Beautiful and The Damned. One of the chapters in his book is about the founder of Indian Institute of Planning and Management (IIPM), Arindam Chaudhuri, and Deb took a careful but critical look at Chaudhuri’s empire.

The essay was carried in The Caravan magazine a few months ago, and last month, IIPM filed a lawsuit against Deb, The Caravan and his publishers Penguin India. They also sued Google, the search engine, on the grounds that Google had been the means of spreading Deb’s IIPM essay — an unusual, and risible, step that generated much mockery. Caravan and Deb are fighting the libel charges in court, and many legal observers feel they have a strong case.

But Deb’s book was due to be launched this summer, which presented his publishers with a problem — to hold off the release until the case is decided makes no sense. So Indian readers of The Beautiful and the Damned will, according to some reports, receive a copy of the book without the IIPM chapter —which is a key part of Deb’s observations about wealth, aspiration and the new millionaires in India. This is an awkward, but understandable, solution, though it’s unclear whether the UK copies of the book will contain the offending chapter — they should, since the lawsuit pertains only to India.

In the age of the Internet, though, it’s not that easy to censor a writer. The Caravan has pulled the article off their site, in compliance with the lawsuit filed by IIPM. But it is cached on Google, and the flurry over the suit against Deb, who is greatly respected for his two previous works of fiction (Surface, Point of Return), meant that more Indians had read the cached article. Another magazine, n+1, had withdrawn the issue containing the same article — and recently put it back in the public domain, as a way of protesting the lawsuit.

For either China or parties like IIPM, the question is whether it’s at all possible to censor the Net. The physical book is relatively easy to censor, and so perhaps is the ebook version. But Siddharth Deb’s case illustrates the power of the hivemind and of the online cache. The Web might end up creating multiple versions of the same book, from uncensored to emasculated, for different constituencies.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Department of Rants: The 2 am rule for rapists

"If you travel alone after 2 am and become victim of a crime, the police alone can't be blamed. It is advisable that a relative or friend is with you at odd hours." Delhi Police chief, BK Gupta, on crimes against women in the capital.

I'm assuming the Delhi Police chief, Mr BK Gupta, is a conscientious man who often patrols the city at 2 in the morning, remarking on the astoundingly high number of women out on the city's streets. I'm also assuming that his Delhi is significantly different from the city we live in, where most women who work in offices and shops will try to get back home at a "decent" hour, where it can be actively dangerous for women to walk around the city after 7-8 pm, and where it's scary taking the Metro or a bus after 9 pm, when the number of women travelling by subway seems to fall sharply.

I'm also assuming that Mr Gupta's access to Delhi's rising rape figures reveals a pattern none of us had suspected--the only reason for the Delhi Police chief to imply that women would be safer if they didn't insist on wandering the city at 2 am, after all, would be if he had noticed a distinct pattern of rapes and assaults on women occurring after 2 am.

That would make us want to assume that this attempted rape of a child, which took place at 3 pm, or this case of rape, which began well before 2 am, or any of the cases of molestation and assault that happen in the Metro or on public transport during the day, are statistical outliers. The fact is that except for call-centre rapes--often crimes of opportunity, where the rapist(s) will wait for a car to drop off a BPO worker late at night--rapists don't keep to Mr Gupta's timings, nor do men who're into harassing or assaulting women.

The truth is that Mr Gupta and his police force have been unable to make the capital a safe place for women, and part of the reason why the police repeatedly fail may have something to do with this attitude, this expectation that women should always take the blame. It's our clothes that get us raped, or the fact that we're out in public spaces, or that we have the temerity to be out without a (male) guardian: there is no parallel analysis of male behaviour in the city.

But it's not Mr Gupta's ridiculous premise--logically, he's arguing that women are more often at risk of violence after 2 am--that we need to get angry about. It's the belief behind his statements, that somehow, just by insisting on being out and about in public space, women bear the responsibility for the attacks perpetrated on them. It reinforces a powerful view of Delhi as a man's city, with public space defined as masculine by default, women defined as interlopers and intruders as a matter of course.

It's one thing to be told this, in harsh ways, by some idiot who'll brush up against you on the road, or follow you back from the bus stop. It's another thing to be told, by the police chief in your city, that if you're out after 2 am without a male protector, you get what you deserve. You don't see BK Gupta addressing men in this city, telling them that they should be ashamed of themselves for treating women with disrespect. You don't see him lecturing the boys and men who're out looking for victims, before or after 2 am, on the evils of their ways. You don't see him saying that as the police chief of India's capital, he has a zero-tolerance policy towards men who harass or offer any kind of violence to women.

Instead, he's effectively endorsing the old arguments that women, somehow, ask for it, by being where they shouldn't be, by having the temerity to travel the city without that all-important protector. The stereotype of violence against women that he's promoting is an old one, too: a crime visited upon those who in some way transgress the norms, who call violence upon their heads by "dangerous behaviour". This ignores the facts about rape and violence in the city, the fact that a slum dweller is at higher risk for being raped because of her unsafe surroundings and the perception that she has no means of redressal; the fact that neighbours and family relatives are often the ones who offer violence towards women; the fact that our streets can feel, to women, like battle zones, regardless of how you dress and when you're out.

But all of this is too complex for Delhi's police chief, who might then have to admit the truth--about the relatively low reporting of rape as a crime, the lack of seriousness with which we treat sexual assault and verbal harassment, the low conviction rate in cases of assault and rape, the unthinking aggression of many (not all) men in Delhi. He might actually have to ask his police force to change the way they treat women who are out and about at 2 am, or even at 2 pm. He might even have to change his own mind about the way he sees violence against women in this city. And if Mr Gupta can't do this, he doesn't really deserve to keep his job.

(The views expressed here are personal.)
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