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The NS Interview: Nitin Sawhney, musician

“I wouldn’t like anything with the word ‘empire’ in after my name”

You've played a wide range of roles in the arts. How would you chiefly classify yourself?
I'm a producer and a composer. I work with lots of different forms - theatre, film, dance, video games, orchestras, albums.

Is there anything you wouldn't like to do?
Lion taming? I like to push myself. I used to try to do one challenging thing a month that would be out of character. I was scared of heights, so I did trapeze for a bit at a circus place and I learned to fly a plane.

Your new album intersperses narrative with song. What's the thinking behind that?
It started as a script. The idea was to try and find a way of expressing what I felt during the last general election. Whenever there's an economic downturn, they try to blame immigrants first. It's a device of political opportunism, that parochial small-mindedness that surfaces every time there is hardship. I wanted to try to personify it in some way, through a character.

It sounds very political.
I wanted to avoid being political. It's much more of a human story. It might be a metaphor for political ideas, and it might have been inspired by political events, but it's about a character, the epiphany of a man who's caught in his own cage. It's an ode to Little England.

Do you think British culture is inclusive?
Integration shouldn't necessarily mean that we need to assimilate people; it should mean that we are able to accommodate lots of different ways of thinking.

What did you think of David Cameron's speech on multiculturalism?
That was absolutely disgusting and so inappropriate. The Tories are using immigrants as the scapegoats to distract attention from their doing a lot to rip apart the fabric of society.

How did you find being involved in the inception of Goodness Gracious Me?
Sanj [Sanjeev Bhaskar] was a very good friend of mine. We started off a double act a long time ago. At that time, there had only been a series of programmes that were very stereotypical and derogatory to Asians and made them the butt of the joke. My thinking was that we needed to find a way of subverting stereotypes, and that was something that we started doing with The Secret Asians and Goodness Gracious Me. Then it started taking on a different agenda and I walked away from it. Not that there was anything wrong with what they did - it was just very different from my way of thinking.

Do you think British Asians are pigeonholed?
The media do that a great deal. At one point things were moving on, but then 9/11 happened and political opportunism on the back of that created an atmosphere of fear of "the other", which then led right into 7/7 in 2005. Those two events did more to put back the acceptance and understanding of multicultural England than anything, and we all suffered.

You turned down an OBE. Why?
I wouldn't like anything with the word "empire" after my name. One of my heroes, [the Bengali polymath] Rabindranath Tagore, gave back his knighthood to the British after the Amritsar Massacre. I felt very strongly about what had happened in Iraq, and I thought it would be hypocritical to take any award that said "empire" in the wake of this country invading another country and killing women and children. I don't want to be part of that world. Having said that, I didn't know who put me up for it. I was very grateful to whoever did, so I didn't make a big deal of it at the time. I just said, "No thank you."

What do you make of the coming cuts to the arts?
How are you going to stimulate an economy if you starve everyone of anything? By cutting the arts, you're cutting the lifeblood of inspiration for people. That's how you preserve a sense of hope. They've already crushed the hope out of a generation with the student cuts.

Is religion a part of your life?
I don't believe in any orthodox religion. I have my own perspective, which is based on a weird combination of ancient Hindu philosophy and theoretical physics. That sounds quite mad, but the two are actually quite compatible. Hinduism in my world doesn't work as a religion; it just works as a philosophy.

Is there anything you would rather forget?
No. Everything is about experience and experience makes you who you are, so I don't want to obliterate any memories. I'm always trying to recover memories so that I can learn from them or develop something from them. Memories are how you inspire yourself creatively.

Was there a plan?
I try to stick to my intuition.

Are we all doomed?
We're not doomed as long as we have collective responsibility and respect.

Defining moments

1964 Born in Rochester, Kent. After quitting a degree in law, works on the radio version of Goodness Gracious Me
1994 Releases first album, Spirit Dance
2001 Fifth album, Prophesy, wins a Mobo
2006 Receives honorary degree from South Bank University, London
2007 Turns down an OBE
2009 Collaborates with the dancer Akram Khan to stage Confluence
2011 Releases Last Days of Meaning

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the next Prime Minister

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Tweeting terror: what social media reveals about how we respond to tragedy

From sharing graphic images to posting a selfie, what compels online behaviours that can often outwardly seem improper?

Why did they post that? Why did they share a traumatising image? Why did they tell a joke? Why are they making this about themselves? Did they… just post a selfie? Why are they spreading fake news?

These are questions social media users almost inevitably ask themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Wednesday’s Westminster attack. Yet we ask not because of genuine curiosity, but out of shock and judgement provoked by what we see as the wrong way to respond online. But it is still a question worth answering. What drives the behaviours we see time and again on social media in the wake of a disaster?

The fake image

“I really didn't think it was going to become a big deal,” says Dr Ranj Singh. “I shared it just because I thought it was very pertinent, I didn't expect it to be picked up by so many people.”

Singh was the first person to share a fake Tube sign on Twitter that was later read out in Parliament and on BBC Radio 4. The TfL sign – a board in stations which normally provides service information but can often feature an inspiring quote – read: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.”

Singh found it on the Facebook page of a man called John (who later explained to me why he created the fake image) and posted it on his own Twitter account, which has over 40,000 followers. After it went viral, many began pointing out that the sign was faked.

“At a time like this is it really helpful to point out that its fake?” asks Singh – who believes it is the message, not the medium, that matters most. “The sentiment is real and that's what's important.”

Singh tells me that he first shared the sign because he found it to be profound and was then pleased with the initial “sense of solidarity” that the first retweets brought. “I don't think you can fact-check sentiments,” he says, explaining why he didn’t delete the tweet.

Dr Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychology lecturer and author, explains that much of the behaviour we see on social media in the aftermath of an attack can be explained by this desire for solidarity. “It is part of a mechanism called social processing,” she says. “By discussing a sudden event of such negative impact it helps the individual to come to terms with it… When shocked, scared, horrified, or appalled by an event we search for evidence that others have similar reactions so that our response is validated.”

The selfies and the self-involved

Yet often, the most maligned social media behaviour in these situations seems less about solidarity and more about selfishness. Why did YouTuber Jack Jones post a since-deleted selfie with the words “The outmost [sic] respect to our public services”? Why did your friend, who works nowhere near Westminster, mark themselves as “Safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature? Why did New Statesman writer Laurie Penny say in a tweet that her “atheist prayers” were with the victims?

“It was the thought of a moment, and not a considered statement,” says Penny. The rushed nature of social media posts during times of crisis can often lead to misunderstandings. “My atheism is not a political statement, or something I'm particularly proud of, it just is.”

Penny received backlash on the site for her tweet, with one user gaining 836 likes on a tweet that read: “No need to shout 'I'm an atheist!' while trying to offer solidarity”. She explains that she posted her tweet due to the “nonsensical” belief that holding others in her heart makes a difference at tragic times, and was “shocked” when people became angry at her.

“I was shouted at for making it all about me, which is hard to avoid at the best of times on your own Twitter feed,” she says. “Over the years I've learned that 'making it about you' and 'attention seeking' are familiar accusations for any woman who has any sort of public profile – the problem seems to be not with what we do but with who we are.”

Penny raises a valid point that social media is inherently self-involved, and Dr Kirwan explains that in emotionally-charged situations it is easy to say things that are unclear, or can in hindsight seem callous or insincere.

“Our online society may make it feel like we need to show a response to events quickly to demonstrate solidarity or disdain for the individuals or parties directly involved in the incident, and so we put into writing and make publicly available something which we wrote in haste and without full knowledge of the circumstances.”

The joke

Arguably the most condemned behaviour in the aftermath of a tragedy is the sharing of an ill-timed joke. Julia Fraustino, a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reflects on this often seemingly inexplicable behaviour. “There’s research dating back to the US 9/11 terror attacks that shows lower rates of disaster-related depression and anxiety for people who evoke positive emotions before, during and after tragic events,” she says, stating that humour can be a coping mechanism.

“The offensiveness or appropriateness of humor seems, at least in part, to be tied to people’s perceived severity of the crisis,” she adds. “An analysis of tweets during a health pandemic showed that humorous posts rose and fell along with the seriousness of the situation, with more perceived seriousness resulting in fewer humour-based posts.”

The silence

If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all? Bambi's best friend Thumper's quote might be behind the silence we see from some social media users. Rather than simply being uncaring, there are factors which can predict whether someone will be active or passive on social media after a disaster, notes Fraustino.

“A couple of areas that factor into whether a person will post on social media during a disaster are issue-involvement and self-involvement,” she says. “When people perceive that the disaster is important and they believe they can or should do something about it, they may be more likely to share others’ posts or create their own content. Combine issue-involvement with self-involvement, which in this context refers to a desire for self-confirmation such as through gaining attention by being perceived as a story pioneer or thought leader, and the likelihood goes up that this person will create or curate disaster-related content on social media.”

“I just don’t like to make it about me,” one anonymous social media user tells me when asked why he doesn’t post anything himself – but instead shares or retweets posts – during disasters. “I feel like people just want likes and retweets and aren’t really being sincere, and I would hate to do that. Instead I just share stuff from important people, or stuff that needs to be said – like reminders not to share graphic images.”

The graphic image

The sharing of graphic and explicit images is often widely condemned, as many see this as both pointless and potentially psychologically damaging. After the attack, BBC Newsbeat collated tens of tweets by people angry that passersby took pictures instead of helping, with multiple users branding it “absolutely disgusting”.

Dr Kirwan explains that those near the scene may feel a “social responsibility” to share their knowledge, particularly in situations where there is a fear of media bias. It is also important to remember that shock and panic can make us behave differently than we normally would.

Yet the reason this behaviour often jars is because we all know what motivates most of us to post on social media: attention. It is well-documented that Likes and Shares give us a psychological boost, so it is hard to feel that this disappears in tragic circumstances. If we imagine someone is somehow “profiting” from posting traumatic images, this can inspire disgust. Fraustino even notes that posts with an image are significantly more likely to be clicked on, liked, or shared.

Yet, as Dr Kiwarn explains, Likes don’t simply make us happy on such occasions, they actually make us feel less alone. “In situations where people are sharing terrible information we may still appreciate likes, retweets, [and] shares as it helps to reinforce and validate our beliefs and position on the situation,” she says. “It tells us that others feel the same way, and so it is okay for us to feel this way.”

Fraustino also argues that these posts can be valuable, as they “can break through the noise and clutter and grab attention” and thereby bring awareness to a disaster issue. “As positive effects, emotion-evoking images can potentially increase empathy and motivation to contribute to relief efforts.”

The judgement

The common thread isn’t simply the accusation that such social media behaviours are “insensitive”, it is that there is an abundance of people ready to point the finger and criticise others, even – and especially – at a time when they should focus on their own grief. VICE writer Joel Golby sarcastically summed it up best in a single tweet: “please look out for my essay, 'Why Everyone's Reaction to the News is Imperfect (But My Own)', filed just now up this afternoon”.

“When already emotional other users see something which they don't perceive as quite right, they may use that opportunity to vent anger or frustration,” says Dr Kirwan, explaining that we are especially quick to judge the posts of people we don’t personally know. “We can be very quick to form opinions of others using very little information, and if our only information about a person is a post which we feel is inappropriate we will tend to form a stereotyped opinion of this individual as holding negative personality traits.

“This stereotype makes it easier to target them with hateful speech. When strong emotions are present, we frequently neglect to consider if we may have misinterpreted the content, or if the person's apparently negative tone was intentional or not.”

Fraustino agrees that people are attempting to reduce their own uncertainty or anxiety when assigning blame. “In a terror attack setting where emotions are high, uncertainty is high, and anxiety is high, blaming or scapegoating can relieve some of those negative emotions for some people.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.