In a somewhat expected turn of events, noted film personality Naseeruddin Shah expressed fear about the prevailing atmosphere in India, saying he fears for his children in today’s India where a cow’s death evokes more emotion than a cop’s. Shah’s comments evoked polarised reactions from both sides of the political divide. With an election of the size of Armageddon just around the corner, someone from Bollywood taking a largely anti-majority, anti-government stand is not surprising in itself. As an ordinary Indian, however, one must analyse the underlying trends of such episodes and arrive at the understanding of what it means to you as an ordinary citizen.

That Shah is entitled to his individual opinion and having that opinion alone does not make him a traitor, is beyond the scope of any argument. While the people asking why he didn’t feel similarly during the 1993 bomb blasts or the jihadi attacks of 26/11 certainly have a point, I would still say that, as long as the opinion is treated as an individual’s, he need not explain this inconsistency. 

Here’s the problem though — those who agree with Shah are not willing to let this stand as an individual’s opinion alone. As journalist-writer Sagarika Ghose tweeted on Friday, Shah’s supporters feel his opinion needs to be taken seriously and should evoke introspection and shame. This stance, taken by several eminent people on the left is disturbing and inconsistent for several reasons.

To start with, the assumption that Shah’s considerable acting prowess should make him an authority on social and political issues has no basis in reality. This is essentially the “product endorsement fallacy” which states that an athlete’s, say, Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s, ability to finish matches and his sense of timing while keeping stumps, automatically translates into expertise in which tyres would suit your motorcycle’s wheels or what sugar-saturated soft drink your child should drink. Rationally, even the most ardent fans of the celebrities would notice the fallacy at once. Despite that, the left worldwide has become something of an expert in pushing their political agenda using celebrities from popular culture. This is basically to attract the large apolitical (and thus largely uninformed) crowds who might be swayed by their admiration for Shah into accepting his opinion as the truth. 

There is no evidence or track record to support artists or artistes as the moral guardians of society either. There is no credible study showing a correlation between creativity and morality. In personal lives, many talented, creative people lead miserable, often immoral lives. Nothing in Shah’s training as an actor puts him on a higher moral ground automatically. The assumption that Shah’s acting prowess makes him immune to personal prejudices is absolutely ridiculous.

By the way, the Indian left doesn’t apply this skill — morality equivalence — uniformly either. So while Shah’s statements become a reason for introspection, opinions expressed by people like Gautam Gambhir and Yogeshwar Dutt have made them subjects of harsh, often personal, criticism. The same Ghose who wanted us to go into throes of self-loathing at one statement from Shah actually wanted to try Gambhir for sedition for expressing his point of view.

The insistence on attaching special importance to Shah’s opinion is troubling on a couple of other counts. Very often, people at the bottom rung of society are the most exposed to violence and lawlessness and, therefore, like canaries in the coal mine; they are the first to notice when things begin to deteriorate. Those asking Shah’s comments to be taken seriously are essentially making this logic stand on its head and insisting that an elite, multi-millionaire like Shah would somehow be a better indicator of how things stand. With an increasing wealth gap, unemployment and rural distress, the masses are already feeling vulnerable like never before. They need an assurance that our society is willing to listen to them. This vulgar display of elitism where one bourgeois expresses his insecurities and everyone else treats these largely unsubstantiated anxieties as established truth is pushing the needle in the exact opposite direction. A journalist defending Shah felt that “emotional safety is as important as physical safety”.

This is a worrying statement since accepting it would mean you can curtail personal liberties of people on the ground of posing danger to emotional safety just as you do in case of physical safety. Stifling dissent by positioning it as anti-safety is an old trick used by left. In the present context, it will only make those without a voice even more powerless.

And then there is the usual sleight-of-hand used by the left in such issues where disagreement is bandied about as proof of the prejudice expressed by their representatives. Journalist Suhasini Haidar tweeted that those opposing Shah are proving his point.

Saying those defending themselves are proving their guilt is like saying engaging a lawyer is proof of the guilt of the accused. In the criminal justice system, the burden of proof is always on the accuser. The accused enjoys the presumption of innocence. But in their authoritarian impulse to stifle dissent, the left continues to invert such fundamental principles all the time.

This discussion, however, can’t be completed without at least trying to address the question posed by many to Shah: Why someone who didn’t feel unsafe during the Sikh pogrom of 1984, the Kashmiri Pandit massacre of 1990, bomb blasts of 1993 and jihadi attacks of 2008 is feeling unsafe now? While it is impossible for anyone other than the actor himself to know the reason, the nearly worldwide pattern of rising anxiety among the elites is susceptible to some explanation to the question, what exactly has changed?

Well, in two words — social media. Or more precisely, the democratisation of discourse, largely made possible by advances in information technology.

There used to be a time when the discourse highway was a narrow single lane road, and celebrities like Shah and their fans in mainstream media were at once the users and the toll-keepers of those lanes. If your opinion didn’t match theirs, you didn’t get an entry into the discourse. Matter closed. The advances in technology and social media have changed this drastically and in a very disruptive fashion. Suddenly, celebrities used only to fawning of their fans were being talked back to by nobodies with Twitter handles. Even worse, part-timers (like this author), were demonstrating their ability to rebut their prejudices, often in a calm, reasoned way and (gasp!) these part-timers were not only getting platforms for their opinions but significant readerships.

This loss of monopoly of expression has happened almost overnight. The elite that have been the biggest losers have decided to shoot the messenger. The increasing hostility towards social media and constant demands for censorship are the last, desperate throw of dice on the elite’s part to go back to the way things were.

Will it work? Doubtful! The elite, due to their immense reach and influence, might end up doing some collateral damage, as they seem to be doing to Facebook right now, but the technology in itself is far beyond the critical mass point and short of imposing near dystopian restrictions on personal liberties globally, it might be impossible to roll this back.

Or, as the Joker says in The Dark Knight “there is no going back, you’ve changed things. Forever!”