Posted in Of Culturel

Of Ignorance and Empathy

Similarity, Not Difference

I didn’t know South Korea had many books. – A Book Blogger

I didn’t know India had books written in English. – Same Book Blogger

What is it with Indians and blogging? – comment on this blog.

You can learn a lot from being an actor. You don’t have to get up on stage or slap Meryl Streep, as Method actor Dustin Hoffman had done without her consent. I am talking about the simple act of inhabiting someone else’s life and situation. Become someone else, even if it is in your head. Even if it is in your imagination. You do it all the time. In fact, you do it every time you get lost in a story. Whether it is someone at work complaining about their husband, or someone in a book talking about being stuck in a pirate ship – the only way you can truly engage is by nearly complete surrender. That is why we love stories. Not only is it an easy opportunity to forget the boring, frustrating one you live, but also one in which you can safely live another – feel the pain, but not the prick.

And that, my friends, is empathy. Not the thing people rather sanctimoniously preach about all the time. It is not even something moral or caring, like sympathy often can be. Empathy doesn’t require you to be a good or bad person. Like an actor, all you have to do is believe you are the other person for a while and, without judgement, see things from their point of view.

Usually, you don’t. In the passivity of a story, you can because you are not involved. When you are involved, however, you are quicker with your emotions, and slower with perceiving where the other person is coming from. It’s not your fault. Usually, there are too many signals to pick up – diction, tone, accent, body language, how they smell, any prior feelings and attitudes you have towards them etc. On top of that, most of us carry out semi-attentive interactions anyway. Even you are looking here and there, remembering this and that, and planning what you will do next as you read this sentence. You do not have enough time or will to empathise even with this blog post. How can you empathise with the dozen(s) of people you speak to in a day, with varying levels of intimacy?

Some people reflect on things later. A signal becomes clear days or weeks later, and still you’re not sure. I have new realizations about how people behaved with me years later. It’s just not possible for your brain to decode every bit of information thrown at you, no matter how significant, or potentially significant it maybe. Only the immediate count.

Which is why we get offended. You would think, in an age where we type our thoughts as our main medium of communication, where we are always guaranteed a window of opportunity to think through what we’re saying to the other person, we would not only communicate clearer, but with the opportunity to edit ourselves, we’ll be better with them. Back in the day, you didn’t litter a letter of complaint with all capital letters and an amusing proliferation of punctuation marks. You worded it carefully, as effectively as possible, because you believed that it was possible for it to be effective.

I’m very proud of the fact that this blog has been read all over the world. If I had a map based on the statistics WordPress has provided me over the years, I’ll be a little ambitious and say that at least 60-80 countries, which is anything between a quarter to half of the world, has read this blog. Which is a number I’ll never achieve for any traditional channels of writing, even if I win the Nobel Prize. In short, it is wonderful.

But, the comment I received – What is it with Indians and blogging? – immediately made me do a double take. WTF? I am an Indian, and I blog. Why does that need to be questioned?…was not my reaction. My reaction was shame. Fear. Like I had done something wrong. That old colonial hangover – oh look, those Indians are at it again, trying to be in step with the rest of us who are basking in the Edwardian sunshine* – came to the surface. Modern images of poverty porn, as it is called, appeared. And then the image of call centres – a modern source of our notoriety. Which led me to Information Technology a.k.a. IT, which changed my feeling of shame to anger.

I could have passive-aggressively replied to this person, oh, I don’t know, those Brits came here a while ago, drank a bit of tea, did various mercantile things, took off again after nearly two hundred years and among many distinguished legacies, like tea plantations in Darjeeling, left us their language too. And then some of us, after working for MNCs for lesser pay and more hours than our more privileged counterparts, have made it possible to get on the World Wide Web, and then use that same English language to do something, if we may be allowed, called blogging.

But, that reaction is wrong. It is the obvious reaction, but it is wrong on my part to feel this way. And not because I have to be the bigger person. You’re not the bigger person if someone offends you and you let it slide – which I did at the time. You’re the bigger person when you understand where the other person is coming from, even if you don’t let them know that. Was the comment meant maliciously? No. Was it made irresponsibly? Yes. And that makes all the difference.

It was made irresponsibly, because it was ignorant. I’m not ashamed of all that my country is known for – poverty, violation of human rights, cultural practices that are not understood in other parts of the world etc. It is my responsibility to correct ignorant perceptions. It is my responsibility to understand their cultures, their realities, even if it is not the same as mine. It is my responsibility to understand where they’re coming from before I get offended, and to make them understand why what they say or do can unintentionally be offensive. Intentional offence does not require empathy, because its objective is clear.

Ignorance is redemptive. Ignorance can be rectified, as long as you have an open mind. Post this comment, I did wonder about my raison de blog – why do I blog? should I blog? If this is how this person sees me, how does the rest of the world, reading my blog, see me? Do they also see me as a curiosity, or do they see themselves when they see me? Do they read this blog because they relate to it, or because they are amazed that in the land of such poverty and horrific crimes, there is someone with a computer and access to the web and a grasp over the English language?

Is my blog fulfilling some sort of a quota, ticking a box on somebody’s compassion agenda? If so, normally I would ask you to leave. I don’t need you patronizing me. But, if I acted on those feelings, my pride would make me just as ignorant. Humility lies in realising how much you are like everyone else. No matter what labels they put on you, or what you put on yourself, you are just as much an idiot as they are for acting by those labels. Those labels won’t go away, are often there for very valid reasons, but you should be making use of this never-before-seen opportunity in the history of mankind – the ability to exchange thoughts with people from most places in the world immediately, frequently and for little cost – and try to learn about each other through similarity, not difference.

*Reference to Look Back In Anger by John Osbourne


Writer, Blogger, Kate Bush Fanatic

6 thoughts on “Of Ignorance and Empathy

  1. I really like that closing statement Amrita – we do have a nice opportunity, to learn & interact, for free even, I appreciate that you were able to turn this negative experience into that positive message

  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about this! I appreciate the kindness and humility you have towards other people, even when they act carelessly. I also thought your mention of Indian stereotypes was interesting and I had a thought – for all of us who have not been to India and perhaps only know it through unfortunate stereotypes, maybe you could write a post about the things you love about Indian culture? I personally would love to read it! Either way, thank you again for sharing about your thoughts and experiences!

    1. I have thought a lot about this, and for various reasons, I do not feel I am the right person for it. Though it is necessary, because there is a lot of misinformation out there, and lack of balanced perspectives, both from foreigners, and those who’ve lived here for a long time. But, at this moment, I don’t feel I have the necessary skills to tackle it. However, if you have the time, I can recommend a fantastic YouTube channel by an English-speaking Dutch video blogger, who has lived in India in recent years for extended periods of time, and does an excellent job at introducing foreigners to the country without resorting to stereotypes. I’ll link a particular video of hers in which she gives six reasons why she loves India, and you may find out more about my country from her channel. Here’s the video:

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