By Rutuparna Deshpande (UG23)
Okay, I’ve tried–but there is no way of saying this without sounding at least mildly, if not annoyingly, self-righteous. Maybe we should hold off accusations of empty-handed activism that have so often been used to dismiss conversations about change at this University. It is simply implausible that (somehow) Ashoka has amoral psychopaths in wholesale just roaming about not caring–in fact, given what they teach us here; not caring must be an uncomfortable existence.
People are not caricatures that fit neatly into convenient tropes. Then what about all the rolling tumbleweeds on the political ground at Ashoka? If we take all of us to be good people with more or less well-functioning empathy systems–where is the vermin?
I suspect that the real issue with Ashoka is that empathy gets articulated in small inner circles in the form of what looks more like gossip: “Do you know what happened with X? OMG, that sounds horrible!”. It makes no difference if we bow our heads in shame and observe a moment of silence within our own friend groups unless it is not translated into action outside our own minds–is that as obvious as I think it is?
Empathy feels really incomplete without movement. Take this captivating quote from American novelist Leslie Jamison’s book The Empathy Exams: “Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us – a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain – it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves. It’s made of exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse.” Expressing exasperation at the state of affairs like you have just heard a horror story is not empathy, it means going at least a little out of your way to help someone. This might seem like such a godawful obvious point but hey, it doesn't really happen even if it isn't much.
A dear trans friend of mine asked to shut up and sit down for raising her concerns during the Vice-Chancellor’s interview, but the room simply got up and left after that. We all know that transgender people are housed on the staff floor in RH1; where the water doesn’t work and the bathrooms have a permanent civilization of pigeons. There is no Resident Assistant on the floor and cross-access rules don’t account for ambiguous gender presentations.
The conditions are bad, or at any rate worse than our cisgender counterparts, and we are painfully aware. Moreover, if you are close to any trans person, you would know that much of the shouting is directed at trans people behind sinfully closed office doors. This is not just a housing issue, it is a systemic and institutional way of treating gender non-conforming persons.
There were indeed distressed murmurs in the auditorium after each of Prof. Sarkar’s statements. People were concerned, shocked and sometimes appalled. All the while I was having a deep crisis about how much this university wanted to spit people like me out of it at every turn. People did care and they expressed so, but at what cost? None. There was no effort to address the issue, not even a willingness to talk about it except in sad, dejected whispers right there and then.
Of course, not everyone has to turn into a full-blown social justice activist–that's too high of a bar, and it's easy to dismiss any responsibility by claiming the unattainable. We definitely are not bad people for being hesitant in action but neither can we honestly call ourselves fully empathetic if stay as passive as we are right now, as passive as the audience at Takshila was.
Small acts matter, no matter how small. If empathy and social responsibility are closely related, then just being mindful of wrongs in your immediate environment is good enough. Reactionary politics often gets a bad rap but it doesn't have to be this way. There are healthy ways of politically reacting to things that you are certain shouldn't have happened and that reaction can be immediate.
Emailing the student body is a good starting point I think. If we all start voicing concerns on public email threads with the same dedication (and desperation) as psychology students trying to recruit for an SRM experiment, we’d be good to go for days. If that has too much of ‘shouting at the town square’ aura, try the anonymity of social media. If some earnestly believe that confessing crushes on anonymous pages will get them somewhere, we can give social justice a try. There are endless ways of opening your conversations to the larger student body, you just have to try.
Before any of this is possible though, there needs to be a culture on campus that is supportive of concrete action. An environment where caring deeply and actively for people who are neither our friends nor anything like us is the norm not the exception is what we need. Nobody should feel stupid for speaking out, and I am not very sure if that is the case right now.
This all comes down to having people genuinely believe in the corny, sappy, lofty virtues that we espouse in classrooms. Confiding in self-fulfilling caricatures is the easy way out. It is a matter of earnestly believing in the potential for Ashoka to be true to its liberal values and acting upon that belief; rather than relentlessly deriding its inability to approximate its stated values. After all, Ashoka is only red bricks and walls without us. You and I are just as responsible for creating livable conditions for everyone here as the next person.
Cynicism is lazy and helps no one—don’t let it get to you. If anything, this mindset might be cause for momentary comfort but complacency only works until sh*t hits the fan for you in particular and there is nobody to go to.