The Internet: Professional Provocateuress par excellence

Maureen Dowd is one of the English-speaking world’s bestknown feminists; her column in the New York Times a bellwether for the movement. So it comes across as interesting when she was described as a Professional Provocateuress by Kathleen Parker, another well-known feminist & columnist.

(A quibble with the word though. It is made by adding -ess to the French word provocateur, which is someone who says or does something intended to provoke a reaction. But the French way to do it is to make it provocateuse. But it’s only a quibble.)

After refudiate, this is a refreshing word from America. And it has its uses. It’s a word (or phrase rather, if you include professional) that neatly describes a few people. Who take an issue that the mainstream quite neglects, and bring it to fore. Or perhaps bring across a new perspective that wasn’t there before.

Julian Assange is probably one. With his WikiLeaks expose of the US Army in Afghanistan, he brought to fore many things many people didn’t want said. Maureen Dowd clearly is one; at home Shobhaa De possibly fits that role. But the biggest Professional Provocateuress isn’t a person. It’s the internet.

Despite my reservations on using the internet as an effective platform for activism, it has many positives. It certainly is an indicator of what people want. It is easy to censor overt speech on the internet in spite of what its many defenders say. Just look at China. But it is a rich medium, involving sound, visual, text, and animation. It can do subtly, and perhaps that way more effectively, what it cannot do overtly.

There are podcasts in which one can express oneself, the tone of voice conveying the actual message rather than the actual words. Or the visual could be something, the words completely different. Woody Allen made full use of the latter technique in his film What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, but I’d like to point you to a popular YouTube video. It takes visuals from a Chinese Army song, but the soundtrack is Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It’. The effect seems no more than a hilarious joke to a non-Chinese person. But for Chinese people forwarding it to one another, it is a subtle act of rebellion. And you can see a lot more such parodies here.

The BBC reports an even more interesting phenomen, through virtual gaming. These games allow Chinese citizens to get back at government through violent fantasy. In Pedlars vs. City Enforcers, you can play act the role of a street hawker fighting officials trying to evict you and destroy your livelihood. You climb through ten levels, fending off thugs who get tougher and ougher.

By Chinese law, many of these hawkers are illegal. In India, they can take the government to court and win their rights. In China, they cannot. They play the game instead.

One can have two views about this all. One, the cynical one, that it is a brilliant diversionary tactic. Vent your frustration in a game, not the street. The other view is that this is a way to send a subtle signal. At a time when overt calls for free speech, like Charter 08 and the letter by 23 senior Chinese officials have been very quickly suppressed.

The internet’s founding promise was that it would be democratising and unpredictable – a true professional provocateuress. It might yet prove to be so.

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About ozymandias

What am I? A body and brain, products of carbon concatenation chemistry, an intelligence and conscience to enable bits of DNA evolve. Maybe a pharaoh, maybe a dung-beetle, never more than a safe conduit for some genes.
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