Preetha G’s Facebook page, largely in Malayalam, is a delight to look at: visible to the public, unapologetic, and frankly expressing radical leftist and feminist opinions. On her “About” page, the one-word descriptor next to “Studied at” adorably says: “Atheist”. She has almost 24,000 followers. On a website that makes the most unimaginative possible use of thumbs, she refreshingly thumbs her nose at things, like the late APJ Abdul Kalam’s politics, although in the politest way possible. (Funny apocryphal story: Apparently thumb signals come from ancient Roman emperors or arena audiences decreeing life or death to a gladiator. More on this later.)
Though some left-wingers might find that reasonable tone regrettable, Preetha G has been fending off attacks from the other end of the political spectrum. This week, a wave of profane, misogynistic right-wing hate has flooded her inbox and her life: Facebook pages calling themselves things like “That bitch Preetha G” (that Google cache link will probably disappear soon, so here’s a snapshot) and “Whore Preetha Nair: Facebook Gunda”.
A woman being lynched by a mob for opening her mouth – sadly, this is one of the oldest stories in the world. But Facebook’s reaction has been pricelessly revealing – an unforced error, as they call it in tennis. Facebook received complaints from the mob, and instead of taking the trouble to read the comments and pages in Malayalam, they took down Preetha G’s Facebook page instead until she verified her identity to them. She then wrote a dignified and civilized open letter to Facebook. Writer Inji Pennu openly sided with Preetha G and faced a flood of threats and harassment. One of the mob threatened to choke her. She also had her Facebook page taken down. A couple of other women followed suit, with the same result.
Oh, Facebook. We could’ve sat here on the footpath for decades telling the world how evil you are, and we’d have been dismissed as leftists who believe in alien abductions. But you went and showed your hand. Now what are we going to do with the rest of our lives? As the Dhammapada says:
O house-builder, you are seen!
You will not build this house again.
For your rafters are broken and your ridgepole shattered.*
Inji Pennu wrote about the incident here and on her blog. Unlike Preetha G, Inji Pennu has gotten the activist tone right: this calls for a radical voice, furious, unreasonable, asking large-scale questions. But although Preetha G’s open letter to Facebook is seemingly polite to an organization that doesn’t deserve her courtesy,it is not quite Gandhi’s lame letter to Hitler. She explains caste (among other patriarchal systems) to Mark Zuckerberg with gracious condescension, since Facebook asked her to verify her name:
On official records, my name is Preetha G Nair, wherein the surname ‘Nair’ stands for the Nair caste I belong to. I had removed this ‘Nair’ from my FB account for the reasons I detailed above. But this also put me in trouble. When I used to express my political opinions firmly, dissenters of the progressive movements used to harass me online. When they fail to engage in a meaningful debate with me, the very first thing they do was to malign me personally and then report my profile en mass. And to my disappointment and frustration, FB regularly blocked my profile without any scrutiny. Further to my dismay, you always ask my documents to prove my identity which forces me to restore my caste name on my account.
This entire story teaches us so much about how systemic violence works, and why it’s so difficult to stop. It’s classic textbook material: Patriarchy 101. As Preetha G told The Hindu: “As soon as the Cyber Cell closed down the first hate page, the second one sprung up”. Everyone knows of the Lernean Hydra she describes: jail one rapist and five others spring up in his stead.
So who are the faces in this particular mob that lynched Preetha G, Inji Pennu and others while Facebook looked on and gave the gladiatoral thumbs-down to the arena? The Hindu asked Assistant Commissioner, Police High-Tech Enquiry Cell, N. Vinaya Kumaran Nair, who said: “Many of the abusers are Malayalis residing in Gulf countries. If we have to take action against them, we have to get the government of those countries involved.” In other words: Absconding. Scot-free.
We can’t just chop off Hydra heads. That’s irresponsible activism. We have to cauterize the stumps, so more heads don’t grow back. But if we knew how to do that, well, Facebook wouldn’t be Facebook. And we’d be cheated of an entire life’s mission.
*Dhammapada Quote from verse 154 of the Pali Canon