The importance of being earnest

Brawls by stars, sexist remarks, ‘debates’ on violence... Does our acceptance of bad behaviour by the influential expose us as a society lacking an ethical core, one that’s unable to distinguish right from wrong? Manjula Narayan asks.
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Updated on May 26, 2012 09:54 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | By Manjula Narayan

Consider this: reigning superstar Shah Rukh Khan gets into a public altercation with a dutiful security guard; V Dinesh Reddy, AP’s DG of police attributes rapes to the way a woman is dressed; Siddhartha Mallya reacts to Zohal Hamid’s accusations against Luke Pomersbach by tweeting digs about her character.

Each of these incidents featured a prominent personality behaving badly and each played out in public accompanied by much media and social networking cacophony. Disturbingly, the discussion largely treated issues like public aggression and sexism which should, in any civilised society, not be tolerated, like lifestyle choices rather than the ethical failings they are.

Take SRK’s abusive outburst against Vikas Dalvi at Wankhede: everyone from Mamata Banerjee to Vijay Mallya supported the star with ad man Prahlad Kakkar even equating policemen to simians during a television debate. “He lost his temper; he’s only human,” was the most popular excuse. It was a fine case of the aggressor being presented as the victim. “Celebrities who flout the law might attract greater attention but to present excuses for an individual because he is a good actor or sports person is not correct,” says Dipankar Gupta, who taught at JNU’s School of Social Science.

All of which begs the question: does our eagerness to provide excuses for the bad behaviour of prominent personalities expose us as a society without an ethical core, one unable to distinguish right from wrong? We certainly are a long way away from the standards of some western societies where transgressions invite immediate repercussions as in the case of John Galliano who hurled racist abuse at a Jewish woman in a bar in Paris. The ill-considered attack cost him his position as head designer at Christian Dior. Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic comments directed at a police officer have effectively ended his Hollywood career. And the Toronto policeman Micheal Sanguinetti who advised students not to dress like sluts if they wanted to avoid being sexually assaulted was silenced by the very successful Slutwalk. In all these cases, there was no ambivalence about the appropriate reaction to the deed and very few voices piped up with excuses to explain away the offences.

Not so in India. It’s difficult to understand the twist in our national character that pushes us to endlessly debate contentious issues and to still bizarrely view contemptible behaviour, especially by prominent individuals, as not deserving of outright condemnation. “We all have role models whom we idealise,” says Pulkit Sharma, Clinical Psychologist at VIMHANS, stressing that when those role models behave badly, the layperson feels encouraged to behave similarly. “People begin to think its easily done and gotten away with,” he says. So when senior police officials make statements suggesting that the way a victim was dressed led to her molestation, it definitely intimidates women. “It adds to the fear of potential victims, and it desensitises men who think that a certain kind of behaviour is justified,” he says.

These pronouncements also shift the onus of responsibility for the crime onto the victim. “At the subconscious level, the victimser understands that it is okay for him to do what he did. The burden of shame and guilt is shifted because the aggressor believes the victim shares the blame,” says Bhavna Barmi, senior clinical psychologist, Fortis Escorts.

Ranjana Kumari, Director, Centre for Social Research, believes waywardness by influential individuals must be met with immediate disapproval and punishment. “In the case of the Siddharth Mally tweet, he spoke like a juvenile. Whatever the character of the woman, nobody has the right to assault her. If you justify such an act, you are an accomplice and you should be prosecuted too,” she says. The problem, however, is that not everyone is equal before the law. “Because there is no immediate and appropriate punishment, and it’s not even projected that consequences can be dire, there is no fear. Seeing this, people with antisocial tendencies get the leverage to act out their thoughts,” says Barmi.

Our ambivalence towards incidents that would be condemned outright in the UK or US can be traced to our lack of clarity about the distinction between the private and the public spheres.

“If a person admits his children only in government schools, or bathes once a week there is no law to constrain him, and considerations of a public nature are not involved. If he is behaving in a way that has a negative impact -- like beating someone up -- there should be some ramifications,” says Gupta. The distinction between the public and the private, he believes, becomes clear once we understand that, as citizens, it is our duty to uphold the law. Our inability to make a distinction between the two spheres lies at the root of our wishy-washy approach to hot-button issues. “That’s why we allow the public world to be undermined by sentiments and emotions that run contrary to what is our role as citizens,” he says.

Pulkit Sharma attributes the support for badly-behaved celebrities to the ascendence of a culture of machismo and suggests that brawlers like Saif Ali Khan are admired because they conform to the emergent idea of the aggressive Indian male. As Sharma sees it, support for unruliness by those in exalted positions – this writer herself at first thoughtlessly tweeted sympathetically about SRK’s abusive outburst – is a result of our immediate sympathy for the aggressor instead of the victim. “People sympathise more with the person who has done something bad because they are scared of identifying with the victim,” says Sharma pointing out that the phenomenon of ‘identification with the aggressor’ is seen often in schools where students gang up to bully a child.

Madhu Kishwar, senior fellow at CSDS and founder editor of Manushi thinks the collective loss of self esteem that emerged from the colonial experience manifests itself in the way the media encourages prominent personalities to consider themselves above the rest and therefore free to behave as they please. “In Europe, the media doesn’t fawn over celebrities; they chase them because they have a voyeuristic interest in them. Here, TV anchors have painted-on Cheshire Cat smiles and big businessmen are never asked difficult questions,” she says. This grovelling is mirrored in the way the public treats the powerful even when they are in the wrong.

Things are not about to change overnight. “We are in a transitory phase and that coupled with a weak legal system and corruption influences minds,” says Barmi who thinks it could be a good half century before we become a morally evolved people.

“We don’t have a strongly defined sense of right and wrong. We allow private sentiments to get in the way of our reactions to public events. This happens when a public norm is not clearly articulated,” says Gupta who explains that Indian society’s inability to grasp the difference between the private and the public spheres has much to do with the huge status and economic differences in the country.

“This makes the large mass of people relatively powerless in contrast to those who can readily assume a patron-like persona,” he says. This asymmetry keeps the awareness of the public from developing fully. “The public and the citizen are two sides of the same coin. Citizenship is not just the letter of the law, but also its observance. But when there are asymmetries, the law is easily subverted which then undermines the worth of citizenship,” Gupta says.

It might be a while before we become unequivocal in our disapproval of negative attitudes and behaviour displayed by the influential and, by extension, of anti-social tendencies within the general populace. If Barmi’s projected timeline is accurate, many of us won’t ever know a nation that’s clearer about what it condemns and condones. Ah, perhaps we can can console ourselves with the thought that 50 years is but a brief period in the development of a society.

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