By Sharanya Gopinathan
“What is the Hindi word for dating? Nothing!”
We speak for all readers when we say this was the best quote from a recent Buzzfeed India report on the Hindu right wing’s virulent opposition to the launch of Facebook’s new dating service in India. The full quote from Prem Verma Rajput, spokesperson of the Hindu Sena (an outfit that threw a birthday party in absentia for US President Donald Trump) reads, “Do you know what the Hindi word for dating is? Nothing! So how is it that our women can just go out and meet strange men from Facebook? We’re definitely against it.”
Do you think Rajput knows what the Hindi word for refrigerator is, and if he minds Hindi-speaking women using those? But of course, we digress. Facebook’s announcement of its new in-app dating service, aimed at its 200 million “single” users, came rather shamelessly close on the heels of the controversy surrounding the uncovering of the Cambridge Analytica data leak, and it immediately gave folks on all sides of the political spectrum something serious to think about.
The right-wing’s response in India, neatly encapsulated in Buzzfeed India’s article, has been pretty boring and unsurprising: Dating is against Indian culture, it corrupts the minds of the youth, “our women”-strange men, something something “aping” the West. The same has been said of Valentine’s Day, kissing, bars, and the education system, so let us just swiftly move on.
Given that Cambridge Analytica was found to have harvested the data of nearly 50 million Facebook users, and that this data was then leveraged by Donald Trump’s election campaign, it isn’t hard to imagine why privacy would be a concern when thinking of Facebook entering the dating pool, and many commentators have questioned its stated claim that it will protect the privacy of its dating service’s users, particularly since these measures are currently shrouded in mystery. Folks on the Left side of the world have also been voicing their disapproval of Facebook’s plan, albeit in their traditionally quieter and less absolute tones.
Since Facebook’s announcement came as close as it did to the Cambridge Analytica scandal (which also included, if you remember, a sting by Channel 4 reporters posing as a rich Sri Lankan family aiming to gain political influence, and that uncovered CA senior executives bragging about a variety of illegal services they offered like blackmail through Ukrainian sex workers), privacy was the first thing on many folks’ minds.
Some worries about privacy were articulated in ways that revealed some deeper, even more personal anxieties. Sushant Talwar, writing in DailyO, warns darkly of a time when, “our humiliating pick-up lines, sexual fantasies and even pictures that we’d rather keep away from the grasp of Facebook, [will] all [be] available for someone else to see and assess.” Okay then.
But something about Facebook’s dating service, even if it were to work perfectly with no embarrassing data leaks, actually feels very right wing, or at least very conservative, in its approach. Conservative, in the strict sense of the word, has nothing to do with beef-eating or a love for Sanskrit, but is associated with wanting to conserve a sense of the past and present: being resistant to change, or to new ideas or information. Progressive, or liberal, on the other hand, means being open to change and progress, and open to information and ways of thinking that differ from our own.
Now Facebook plans to use its algorithm and all the information it has about you (oh and you know it has so very much) to match you with folks with shared likes, interests, and presumably, especially in these highly polarised political times world-over, political affiliations. What does this mean for our love lives, and also our politics?
Plenty of people have noticed that our social media timelines have become echo chambers of our political views. Now that an increasing number of people rely on Facebook for their news (48 percent of Americans, although we don’t have reliable statistics for Indians just yet), and Facebook, unlike the Internet at large, is a private company that uses algorithms to sell advertisements most suitable to you, the nature of the news and posts you see becomes narrower and narrower, making it that much less likely that you’ll be exposed to thoughts and ideas that don’t already fall within the ambit of your own firmly held beliefs. This creates even more polarised and isolated political camps, and is truly antithetical to the inherent nature of democracy, which thrives on the sharing and interaction of varied and diverse viewpoints.
So, what will happen when the political becomes personal? Sure, right-wing elders in India may not approve of online dating per se, but there’s something about Facebook’s approach, its stated love for sameness and love born out of sameness, that should really appeal to a conservative sensibility, and perhaps, actually repel a truly progressive one.
Indian conservatives love the idea of building relationships with those exactly like us; that is, after all, the bedrock of the Indian caste system, which remains very firmly in place today (did you know that only 5 percent of Indian marriages are inter-caste?). One of the defining characteristics of right-wing authoritarianism world-over is a strict adherence to status quo, and placing great value on uniformity and homogeneity. Nothing scares the right wing more than the mixing of groups that aren’t alike or, don’t already naturally “belong” together. Some of the opposition we saw from the right in Buzzfeed India’s article was articulated in these very terms: “How is it that our women can just go out and meet strange men from Facebook?” But what if these men aren’t so strange, and are, in fact, just like us?
My friend VN tells me the story of how he met his fiancée, R. They matched on Tinder and engaged in some spicy flirtations for a week, after which she was interested enough to do some cursory Facebook stalking. She found another VN on Facebook, a Chetan Bhagat-lookalike who shared pro-Modi statuses on the daily. She messaged my friend saying, “Dude, you look like Chetan Bhagat and are a Modi lover,” a claim he hastily and indignantly refuted. They met, all was well and they will soon be married in Goa later this year, but she did tell him that she came very close to not meeting him at all.
This story has a happy ending if you’re into marriage, but the interaction tells you something important. Lately, when it comes to dating, relationships, even hookups, let alone marriage, it seems like folks on both sides of the spectrum have become increasingly suspicious and intolerant of socio-political outlooks that differ from their own, and are in search of partners who can perfectly mirror their own political sensibilities from the get-go, if not always that of their caste and class. This intolerance of difference and refusal to engage with the unfamiliar, of the work that goes into convincing someone of your political viewpoint through emotion, reason, rhetoric or, whatever your chosen tool is, is not a democratic or inclusive mode to operate within; it’s one that falls very much within a quite conservative framework, even if the values you’re espousing and seeking out are supposedly more Left than right.
In Sajith Pai’s justifiably controversial article published in Scroll back in February, he asserted that he observed a new, fast-growing caste of “Indo-Anglians”: English-speaking, urbane folks who marry other English-speaking, urbane folks and have a love of virtue-signalling through brands. He decided that this category was a caste because the defining feature of a caste is endogamy, or the tendency to marry within the group, and that Indo-Anglians only marry within the group (therefore it is a caste apparently hence proved). Most people at the time received Pai’s revelations with gentle amusement, but the prospect of Facebook helping connect people based on these very same markers, with the new, extremely convincing, marker of politics thrown into the mix, seems to put his argument on firmer ground.
Could the world we’re hurtling towards become any more politically polarised? It feels hard to believe that it could be, but it certainly seems like it now. Facebook has changed the way we look at the world, ourselves and each other, and Facebook diving into the dating pool, and taking this particular mutual-likes-type approach to match-making, is bound to have lasting repercussions on the nature and trajectories of love, romance, and since it promises “real, long-term relationships, not just hookups”, perhaps even marriage. Imagine a future of families neatly homogenous in their politics, with no rogue uncles or uppity teenagers to infuriatingly challenge each other’s beliefs at family dinners (okay when I put it like this it actually feels like a good thing, but I meant to say that it really is not.) Can you imagine a future where our society is structured so rigidly, so inherently and thoroughly online and offline, personally and politically, in a way that it becomes nearly impossible to meet someone who thinks differently than we do?
Worse still, what does this say about ourselves in love and politics, that we’re ushering in a time when what we desire the most is to simply be unchallenged, to find mere variations of ourselves in love? Does it speak of a perplexing kind of narcissism or, a resistance to anything that isn’t already perfectly like us? Is this what we want our love and politics to look like?
Co-published with Firstpost.
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