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Leveraging language

Patricia Pereira-Sethi

We bandy words about so loosely that they have become bereft of all impact, watered down to the point of total insignificance. One such word is iconic. Just about everyone in the current news headlines has suddenly acquired the tag line iconic, no matter how inconsequential they are to humanity or history. Sociologists contend that only a person of commanding stature should be baptised an icon, someone whose very work and existence has positively affected countless of lives. Someone who is morally, spiritually, and intellectually superior. Someone who has cut a large swathe across civilisation, heaved a yeoman task or performed a heroic deed. A person cannot be dubbed iconic merely because he is a movie star or a sports figure, here today and gone tomorrow. A true icon is not one of those will o’ the wisp, fly by night personalities who flit across our media screens for seconds, only to disappear into a forgotten abyss. An icon is someone who has emblazoned his imprimatur on society, who has carved an impression on people’s minds and the international arena. Across the global gamut: from New Delhi to New York, from London to Sydney.

Another similar word is charismatic. A mere handful of personalities in this world are charismatic. But we constantly read newspaper displays eulogising nondescript locals as charismatic leaders or movers of the masses: a travesty if ever there was one. To anoint mediocrity with the adjective charisma is to make a caricature out of the word, of the person extolled, and of ourselves. A charismatic person is defined as one endowed with a special power that comes naturally to very few, making him capable of influencing others, attracting attention, admiration, and devotion. He is in possession of the “X factor”: a mysterious elusive quality, an enigmatic characteristic which originates from mystical spheres.

Theologians and social scientists have divided the original concept of “charis”, which had hitherto been attributed to Greek gods alone, into two distinct ones: divinely-conferred charisma and sense-personality charisma. In Christian theology, the term appears as charism, an extraordinary power granted by the Holy Spirit: it symbolises someone who is blessed, favoured, filled with attractiveness and charm. And German sociologist Max Weber, as well as leading political scientists, psychologists and management experts have stretched the term to include a leadership seen as extraordinary: to designate a leader who can captivate crowds, magnetise masses, mesmerise followers into doing whatever he commands. Charisma sets apart the individual from ordinary men because of his supernatural, superhuman powers and qualities. These talents are regarded as so exemplary that the individual in question is stamped a Special Leader.

Sceptical is another word which should be uppermost in our minds. Don’t trust everything thrust before you. A startling revelation by the British Institute ICMP a fortnight ago reported that many celebrities do not have the fan following they claim to attract. The shocker: more than half their admirers, whom they regularly hold up as trophies for all to see, are all fake. Paid advertising and paid news concepts have hooked their tentacles into popularity statistics on Instagram and Twitter accounts and many personalities pay good money to keep their Fate falsely afloat. Fortunately, the social-media police are on call, ready to bust exaggerated and swollen graphs to disclose the actual truth. They have set up trackers to screen all such accounts: vigilantes demarcate the percentile tallies of organic and bogus aficionados.

Topping the list with a 50 per cent fake following is American talk show host Ellen DeGeneres; the Korean band BTS raps right at her heels. The Kardashian gang, songstress Ariana Grande and footballer Cristiano Ronaldo weigh in with high percentages of counterfeits. Hardly newsworthy if you are tuned into the Western media! But the big surprise was that two of our very own Bollywood actors, Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra Jonas, surfaced amidst the group. PeeCee, who only a few weeks ago was being lauded in the Indian press for her top rating of 43 million followers on Instagram, has been outed: 46 per cent of these hangers-on are phony. As for Deepika Padukone’s 37.9 million fans, 47 per cent are actually bots. It would appear that their “teams” had been working around the clock to help pad up the numbers to impress us all. The most interesting part of any story on PeeCee, which appears to be generated almost daily for the flimsiest of reasons, is a quick perusal of public reaction and commentary. Here are some snippets: (Rabbit)“I didn’t see a story about Priyanka in the last 30 minutes. Was wondering what happened to her!” (Bill) I would luv to see just one Yahoo homepage without a story on narcissistic, celebrity hounds.” (Meghan)All these people do is party. When it comes to weddings minimum three each per couple. Birthdays, at least five or six.” Several others were far more vicious.

Someone whose numbers have zoomed up naturally on the credible popularity scale, is the lovely Shilpa Shetty, ever since she graciously sidestepped a 10 crore deal to endorse slimming pills. She couldn’t advertise them in conscience, she said, because the only way to lose weight is to change one’s lifestyle. Kudos to Shilpa! She has taught us that money is not the only criterion in life: ethical judgment and integrity are far more crucial.

Which brings us to the last word, Cynical: a quality that any serious intellectual should possess. Psychologists tell us that man’s cynicism blossoms and grows from the age of 44. But whereas most disparage and dismiss cynicism as an extremely negative sentiment, contemporary British philosopher Julian Baggini argues to the contrary. It is the soul of satire and amusement, he says, and more importantly, it leads us to question what is wrong with the world – and strive to make it better!

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