Weighing the rights and correcting the wrongs

Despite my ideological differences in this scenario, I feel there is something to be learnt here about how to be a public figure, humanly.

Published: 11th October 2023 10:50 PM  |   Last Updated: 12th October 2023 09:47 AM   |  A+A-

Express News Service

CHENNAI : The other night, I was dismayed to see a post by an author I deeply admire, expressing their support for the more powerful side, the systemic oppressor side, in a longstanding international conflict. The most telling aspect of their post was the visual used: a national flag, indicating that their support was not for the collective imaginary of a country’s people but for the nation-state itself.

I checked the comments, and was heartened by the thoughtful but incisive ways in which the post was questioned, especially by people who are in a privileged position in relation to the conflict. I like-reacted some of the comments, which was as far as my public engagement with the post went. I noticed before I fell asleep that the author had begun to respond to a few of them, in their own signature gentle way. There was no vitriol in their words, only horror.

In the morning, I was curious to see what had transpired overnight. I opened the author’s profile again. The post remained up. The caption may have been edited. All the comments had been deleted, and the feature turned off. They had stood their ground, albeit in a more measured fashion than many do when under fire. But they had also dug their heels in, in a way that disappointed many, including myself. It is also true that they gave others solidarity.

Despite my ideological differences in this scenario, I feel there is something to be learnt here about how to be a public figure, humanly.

To assert the right to disappoint — in a time when public pressure is more immediate, less nuanced and more demanding than ever before — takes courage. The author lost not just followers, but will also likely lose current and potential readers. For some, especially those for whom the partisanship on display hurts in a personal way, this is a true fall from grace — not just a disagreement. To them, the fact that someone may still respect the author, like I do, is also a privileged stance. Which it is.

Some months ago, author Elizabeth Gilbert chose to rescind a novel from release after pressure from readers who did not like its geographical location. I wrote in this column then that I found that action cowardly, because she had buckled under public opinion. There is a certain kind of compulsion, relating chiefly to threats to one’s life, that a person can and maybe even should reasonably acquiesce to. Some years ago, Perumal Murugan experienced such a capitulation, declaring his authorhood deceased and taking time to recover from political coercion and danger to himself and his loved ones, before returning with renewed vigour to his public and publishing life.

He exerted the right to disappear in order to heal. Now, an author I still admire has chosen authenticity over being disliked, over even possibly being on the wrong side of history. They’ve chosen to allow themselves to be seen as flawed, in keeping with the long arc of how they’ve appeared in the public eye. Today, I want to ponder this rather than presume intention, to learn rather than leap to judge.

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