Amitabh Kumar-Social Surfing Workshop

Teaching #CounterSpeech to Promote #FreeSpeech

We need to teach #CounterSpeech in Indian educational institutions in order to promote #FreeSpeech

I write this blog overlooking the forests of JNU, with quotes of the ‘Dead poets society’ flashing on my screen and Sufi music playing in the background.

Amitabh Kumar-Social Surfing Workshop

Counter speech, an art form of expression mastered by activists, poets, dancers, actors, painters, singers, leaders, industrialists, entrepreneurs, politicians, sports women and men- all who inspire change through constructive action and progressive ideas, the ones who dared to take the route less traveled. It is a methodology to engage with an adversary, with the aim to make them an ally through sensitive, firm, factual conversation.

India has a rich history of amazing examples of counter speech. From traces in the Vedas & the Upanishads to the most amazing creative formulation in the Bhakti and the Sufi rhymes, Indians have had the privilege to experience the power of counter speech. Our freedom struggle, which was primarily non-violent, had many great women and men using Counter Speech to evoke a spirit against discrimination. Ajit Singh, Nandlal Noorpuri, Ram Prashad Bismil, Wajid Ali Shah, Ghalib, Bahadur Shah Zafar , Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Dalpat Ram, Bankim Chandra, and many more who took on the establishment with the style and the ink of their pen.

Social Surfing Workshop

India like many other young democracies was formed through confrontation- It is in our DNA. Post 1947 we continued the tradition of reconstruction, be it during the emergency times of Indira Gandhi or the stand against the Mandal commission, the protest against the Babri Masjid demolitions or those during the 16th December rape case.
I have been the part of the Gender movement since 2008, so I honestly cannot comment on how easy or difficult it was to ask or protest for change before that. But I have experienced it becoming more and more difficult over the years. Another change is the tone of the discourse, I remember reading the newspaper as a young boy and feeling informed- today most of the media is not about information but emotion.

Our anger against injustice and discrimination is natural, though I do believe it is important to use that anger constructively, rather than to share it through abuses (which is what we do mostly). If we look into our past and analyze successful social movements, they were always led by informed leaders who maintained a certain social etiquette. Using explicit language, might have shock value, but lacks a long lasting effect. In these times of social media, I do believe we have a major power at our finger tips (quite literally so), but we also carry a tremendous responsibility. Abusing a leader or a group is easy, though non productive. Constructively criticizing them with solutions is a task worth indulging in.

We, at CSR, have been conducting #SocialSurfing workshops in colleges across India, which aim to create a sensitive, constructive online experience. #CounterSpeech is a topic we discuss in detail, though I must say I am shocked at how normalized we are towards online violence. Young minds will, and should question the existing norms as it is essential for their growth as citizens. It is their urge to revolt when they don’t receive satisfactory answers. But the language and art of revolt which we observe in present times is truly a cause for concern.

#FreeSpeech is our right as Indian citizens, but to make it effective we need to learn and promote the art of #CounterSpeech. I do believe if our schools and colleges trained its students in #CounterSpeech, we would create a more nuanced and factual culture of discourse, which would not only be more inclusive but also add value to nation building in the long run. We are in times of global terrorism, chronic poverty, violent patriarchy and irreversible environmental destruction, it’s a fact! It probably is time to engage young bright minds in finding solutions. I do believe #CounterSpeech can be a strong tool in that journey.