This was black and this was white

 Published in: The Daily Star on February 24, 2016
This was black and this was white

An op-ed can never afford a fiction. But then when real times across the globe are closer to fiction, one has the freedom to add colour and paint the canvas to share with the readers. Back in 1961, Kurt Vonnegut wrote a short story titled Harrison Bergeron. The story is a satire, which critiques the usual claim of every man being equal. It’s also a revolt against authoritarian impositions. This dystopian science fiction portrays year 2081, and the plot focuses on 14-year-old Harrison Bergeron, an intelligent and athletic teenager who is taken away by the authorities just because he has exceptional intelligence. At the same time, a handicap radio gets installed by the government to regulate his father, George’s above-average qualities. In the story, there is a Handicapper General who works through her agents and by virtue or curse of “leveling”, she regulates the citizens of the state. Handicapper General also controls a newscaster, who struggles to read the bulletin and after failing to deliver in the most unnatural voice, she hands the microphone to the ballerina wearing the most grotesque mask and heaviest weights. The ballerina starts off by reading the news in the most pleasant tone but has to apologise and then switch to a more unpleasant voice. Meantime, the seven feet tall Harrison escapes from prison, with 140kg of handicaps strapped to his body, enters the studio, calls himself the Emperor, rips off all of his handicaps, along with the handicaps of a ballerina who he calls his “Empress”, orders the musicians to play, dances while flying to the ceiling, then finally kisses his ballerina in mid-air. Unfortunately, the story of freedom does not see a happy ending here. The Handicapper General enters the studio and shoots them both, while Harrison’s parents George and Hazel watch the episode on television. George rests on the ground with 21kg of weights locked around his neck and briefly recognises his son on TV before going back to their average lives, while the television screen goes dark.

There’s a lot of truth in the plot. Fifty-four years ago, Vonnegut saw what most countries experience today. He saw people being forcibly levelled. No one could look prettier, no one could sound different, and no one could have diverse views. The level of intolerance has grown across the globe. The alignments are regularly shifting from one plain to the other, and many of us living in today’s world are bound to rules of fear. Most of us can’t risk saying something other than what is usually being “said”; most of us can’t afford to appear “different”; most of our views are regularly “levelled”, if not by others, then very often by ourselves through self-censorship.

I remember having been struck by a work of art in Tate Modern, at least a decade ago. Francis Picabia, the French avant-garde painter and renowned cubist, painted “The Fig Leaf” in the 1920s. He used glossy household paint over another original painting, based on a technical drawing of a turbine brake. The figure in the new image had a fig leaf representing censorship. The piece caused a stir and scandal when submitted for a Paris exhibition in 1921. The concept of self-censorship has always been an issue of shame for free thinkers. Every time I confront my own demon of self-censorship, every time I think of having to hold back on what I want to speak or write, I refer back to the picture and treasure the image, holding it close to my heart.

A simple question needs to be asked in today’s world of evolving democracies with standardised aspirations. How can every text, every report, every opinion, every ideology, every dream, every disappointment, and every perception ever be the same? How can we ever expect that there will never be any deviant views (even rogue ones), or any protest in our landscape? To put it simply, can we ever be either black or white? Apparently neither black nor white, scientifically, has any specific wavelength; rather white light is supposed to contain all wavelengths of visible light, while black is the absence of visible light. To the best of my understanding, no artist, no journalist, no educator, and no hero was ever born to defend the absolute ends of these two spectrums. Rather all great men have traversed forests riddled with confusion, anarchy and have finally found watersheds to self-examine and spread their wings. And above all, one must remember that it is only history that qualifies to choose placements for those who bask in fame and for even those who rot in ignominy. And no one but time has been the best judge of all, always.

The 106 year-old Virginia McLaurin, who just met US President Barrack Obama, had once picked cotton in the fields of South Carolina and never dreamt of dining with white people in the same restaurant. She had never imagined living long enough to see a black president. Coming from a time when black American students never made it past eighth grade, Virginia danced in joy when she met the President and his wife Michelle. At the very end of her life, while the 106 year- old Virginia recollects the racial divide and shares her experience of having gone through a time where “This was white and this was black”, she has also finally seen a better day where the lines and ideas are not brutally defined anymore.

With time, shades of grey have crept in to our scenes, allowing every individual to make adjustments within his or her own sphere. Pure ‘Black’ or ‘White’ is not the flavour of the season anymore. But then, grey lines blurred with damaging reportage or advocacy should not go unpunished if anyone is proven guilty beyond doubt. But the process must be complemented by cautious wisdom, vision, and objectivity. Whatever happens in the process, anyone keen to dissect and get to the bottom must also be ready to confront odd and discomforting truths, which may be harsher to handle as shocks often stem from where it is least expected. Very often, most disappointingly, harsh truth stems from the closest corners in our lives. Discoveries of such manner rarely lead to glory.