The De-coupling of free speech from political correctness
The opprobrium and the hate campaigns against Manu Joseph are likely to only add to his grit. Pic:Twitter @manujosephsan

The 'De-coupling' of free speech from political correctness

In the current censorium of thought and speech that the urban, articulate society has built up so painstakingly, one man comes as a breath of fresh air: Manu Joseph. It is because the air in the room is so stuffy, every time someone like Manu steps in, carrying with him the free mountain air of the imagination, the freshness itself comes across as offensive.

This does not mean that I like everything Manu writes. I don’t have to. He is under no contractual obligations to please everyone who reads him. Yet, if the reactions of the Members of the Good Society’s (MGS) reactions to Decoupled, a Netflix series Manu has written the story for, is any indication, nothing he writes can be allowed in the public space.

Feminists consider Manu sexist. He is more. He is an individualist. And one of the best writers of his generation.

Though I have not met or spoken with him in years, Manu is a friend. One of the very few I can claim to have. As you grow older, the years and the events sift the grain from the chaff. Manu is the kind of guy who would have supported Oscar Wilde, shamed and sent to jail in the 1890s, (for criminal libel and his affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, a dilettante of sorts) when homosexuality was a crime.

Over a hundred years later, you could be sent to jail if you went against gays. The circle has turned. It is easy to be correct when correctness is the currency. It costs nothing, and you get to feel outraged, a victim in need of urgent and perpetual justice. And if you are a victim, how can you be in the wrong? The debate is over before it begins.

The series is about Aryan and Shruti, a writer and an investment banker respectively; an estranged couple living under the same roof. When the series ends, they decide to divorce but choose to stay in the same house, for the sake of their daughter. The subject is potentially a tragedy, and so it is potentially a comedy, given Manu’s outlook. The narrative that explains the rift is dominantly ‘sexist’, and all those empty terms of endearment that come along with that overused word: patriarchy, male privilege, boor, body shaming, and the rest of it.

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I did not like much of the series as it was not funny enough for me. But my likes and dislikes do not matter. What matters is how when a writer like Manu takes up a position in a man-woman relationship, how easy it is to categorise it a priori and condemn it because a certain terminology and jargon have come to dominate the current social discourse. You are not reading what is written. You are reading your prejudices into what is written.

The men and women who benefit from that discourse, in terms of victimhood and the empowerment they can derive from it ( the benefits of the Club), not to mention the need to appear to themselves and to the world as the Robinhoods of Morals, seek to ban what they oppose, cancel the crooks. If killing were not a legal offense, there would be severed heads staring at you from stakes in public squares.

In point of fact, the MGS is not really different from the censorship that the right wing, which they hold in contempt for its intellectual hollowness, imposes upon, say, comedians and their witless-anti-patriotic gags. One news portal carried a murderous piece at this ‘vomit-worthy’ series and tried to drum up support so Netflix would ‘divorce bad content.’ It was a cancellation campaign thinly disguised as a protest of the victims.

Very few in this generation are likely to have watched the series, Curb Your Enthusiasm.They would still watch Friends because it’s like a lot of cute children trying not to have sex. Curb Your Enthusiasm, (Manu would be a fan), is about middle-aged Larry, a writer, just being himself, despite others’ constant corrective efforts.

I remember one early episode. Larry has a bulge in his groin because of a poorly-tailored pair of trousers. All his problems in the episode stem from that. In the middle of the story, Larry goes to watch a movie, and a woman in the aisle seat wearing a décolletage dress is reluctant to give him way. Larry’s both hands are occupied with popcorn and coke. The woman rolls her eyes. Larry says: how I am supposed to go in if you don’t give me the way? The woman’s expression says you are in my way. Larry refutes this in a manner of speaking. The woman, irritated, puts him on the defensive, asking, did you look at my breasts? And so it goes.

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The exchange could be construed as misogynistic. But that is what makes Larry an individual. He finds himself in situations, where his individual eccentricities get the better of him. The humour of the series comes from that conflict. The MGS wants the curtain down on this kind of humour. Could it be just true that often misogyny is what you attribute when a woman, or, pretty much the same thing, a simpatico man (Woman’s Best Friend), find themselves intellectually threatened?

The MGS that is trying to collectivise human thought wants only one type of conflict. The good vs bad. But they will decide what is good, sorry. They are looking for simplicity so they can control thought. The trouble is you cannot control thought unless you control experience. By policing language/thought and a certain aspect of the experiential nature of Man himself, a new set of commandments is being written; a kind of secular Bible.

To my mind, this is what makes political correctness such a middle-class, mediocre, anti-art phenomenon. The values of political correctness, by contributing to uniformity of thought and experience, are fundamentally a movement against art. And art is nothing without individualism. Logically, the cult of political correctness is only a step short from burning books, which the calendar boys of fascism, Hitler and Mussolini—whom the MGS never fails to spot in the persons of the BJP and RSS leadership— resorted to at the drop of a pen.

Indeed, only a few months back, a right-wing history book on Delhi riots, commissioned by Bloomsbury, was decommissioned by the MGS, and the book went to, ah, well, a right-wing publisher. Is it any wonder the BJP wants history rewritten? To a large extent, the MGS is in control of publishing, literary festivals, the books page in newspapers, and academic institutions. Their biggest fear is that they may be deprived of that legacy, the right to cancel those who disagree with them.

The opprobrium and the hate campaigns against Manu Joseph are likely to only add to his grit. His source material is a certain contrarian quality (an individuality of thought, let’s say), which at its best has a touch of the caricaturist genius about it. As when he takes a detail out of the ordinary things in life (consider in Decoupled, the hero trying to tell a Muslim fellow passenger that his prayer in public space is as out of place as he, Aryan, is using it to stretch his muscles — to Gayatri Mantra) and blows it up and out so large that the whole thing assumes an un-dismissable, epic proportion.

The good thing about right-wing censorship is that its agenda is clear. And free speech is not part of that agenda. With the MGS, it is insidious, though they may not recognise it. They want their kind of free speech. It is censorship, of course. But they mistake it deliberately for free speech because they consider that is CORRECT. It is fascism dressed up as liberalism while berating fascists. It is the kind of duplicity a Benito Mussolini would approve of.

Now that we are talking of Mussolini. Hemingway (a romantic individualist now in the bad books of the MGS for his ‘toxic masculinity and ‘animal cruelty’) as a young journalist once was Mussolini’s admirer. Six months later, he suffered a conversion when in 1923, at a press conference, in Lausanne, the dictator ignored the international media and kept his bug-eyes on a fat book. An intellectual! Hemingway went around and peeped over Mussolini’s shoulder. He found that it was the French-English dictionary — held upside-down.

The MGS does not wear a uniform, but the book they hold in their hands is the new Bible— of political correctness. The good news is that even if you hold it upside down, it reads with the same ease.

(CP Surendran’s novel, One Love And The Many Lives of Osip B, is available on Amazon, and in all leading book stores across India)

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