City City Bang Bang, Columns

A weapon called grace

Something remarkable happened on the Internet last week. A picture of a young Sikh girl in the US with facial hair was posted in the ‘funny’ section on a social media site. This is hardly uncommon, the use of social media to make insensitive jokes, particularly about people and communities that are seen to be different. But what made the episode different was the reaction of Balpreet Kaur, the girl in question. Far from lashing out in anger or biting back with well-crafted sarcasm, she chose to respond with breathtaking grace, taking the trouble to explain herself without a trace of defensiveness. She wrote about her faith which believed in the ‘sacredness of the body’ and the ‘need to keep it intact’, going on to express her belief in the importance of looking beyond the body into her thoughts and actions which would leave a ‘lasting legacy’. She appreciated all comments, negative and positive, ending her post by apologising for ‘causing such confusion and uttering anything that hurt anyone’. Even more remarkably, the person who had posted the original picture then apologised to her and did do in a manner that was heartfelt, calling his original action ‘incredibly rude, judgmental, and ignorant’ (the full texts of the posts are available on redditt, the site where the exchange took place).

At a time when touchiness seems to be rife and where any attack, real or perceived becomes locked in an ascending spiral of bitterness and hate, and where any critique is met not with an explanation but by a counter-criticism resulting in an endless cycle of two wrongs making many rights, this little exchange offers us an alternative mode of engagement. By not reacting with hate, but with empathy, by explaining oneself matter-of-factly and not attacking the other, by using an unpleasant gesture as a way of making a connection instead of cementing a presumptive divide, what could have been an episode of spiralling distrust became instead one of reconciliation and understanding. In the end, everyone won, and felt better about themselves in the process.

There was another event that illustrated the power of grace, albeit much less spectacularly. Last week we had the unusual experience of the leader of Apple, the biggest cult that the modern world has seen, offering a public apology for screwing up on a product (the maps application on the iphone5) and advising its followers to download the products of its competitors instead. It was an apology that went beyond usual corporate platitudes, and did not try and make excuses but simply accepted the problem without putting any spin on it. Perhaps there was no other option left for the company, but to its credit, when it apologised, it sounded as it meant it. And while those aggrieved with the product failure may not change their minds, after a sincere apology, criticism does seem churlish; suddenly it is the critic who comes under scrutiny.

By itself, the idea of someone apologising for what is universally seen as a mistake should hardly be news, but the truth that today, it is increasingly rare to admit to a mistake. The apology today is a hollow shell, a sound bite without a morsel of content, an intention that is retracted even as it finds utterance. It is common to have people apologise conditionally (I apologise in case any inadvertent offence has been caused), not for their actions but for the way the receiver has chosen to react ( i am sorry that my words were misunderstood).

The usual way of reading any life-affirming incident is through the roseate filter of nobility and goodness. It tends to evoke a mush of chewy adjectives marinated in the sweet milk of human kindness. But perhaps there is a more at work here that needs to be recognised and reflected upon.

Both instances underline the effectiveness of being gracious and challenge the notion that being open to criticism and apology is a sign of weakness. The idea that nobility is a hazy outdated idea that saps the resolve of the strong-minded by creating confusion and doubt, is one that seems to drive most of the reactions we see nowadays to any perceived injury to one’s self-esteem. Tribal opinion that sees any other view as a threat and responds with savage ferocity; self-contained and airless compartments of hate that spew re-circulated venom at each other.

This is particularly true in issues involving religion and identity which escalate into violence and dissolve into mindless self-destruction very quickly. Balpreet Kaur’s response is a lesson to many others, and is exceedingly timely for we have seen an outbreak of touchiness erupt in recent times, where a more mature and generous response to apparent provocation would have made all the difference. Those looking to be aggrieved will find reasons to feel the way they do, but as this incident illustrates there is a choice that is available, and one that will make us stronger. By her actions, Balpreet struck a blow for her faith, for the idea of looking beyond manufactured body images, for both her gender and for looking beyond gender, for the idea of embracing one’s critics and above all, for getting the other side to voluntarily change its mind and do so without feeling diminished. What she achieved is what the fanatic craves for and rarely attains- visible victory not only for the person but for the cause that is represented, and it came about because a new kind of encounter was imagined, which did not originate in fear or suspicion.

By breaking the implicit cycle of anger decisively, a new beginning was made possible. By recognising the legitimacy of the other side’s right to hold an opinion, and by acknowledging that anyone can make mistakes, it is possible to dismantle the reciprocal exchange of distrust that feeds on itself. Grace has always been beautiful, but beneath its delicate charms lurks a steely power. Not a bad way to remember Gandhi on his 143rd birthday.