Reason Be Damned

Why has our media shown a total lack of reason when reporting and commenting on the recent Delhi rape?

ByPrashant Sareen
Reason Be Damned
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The young are back on the streets. Chanting “we want justice”. Placards read “Hang the Rapists”. There is abuse hurled at the police for having failed to prevent the crime. For being venal and insensitive. Some are confused. Some pensive. Everyone angry and seething. The trigger may be the rape of the 23-year-old. But mixed into that is the volatile just-under-the-surface-frustration with a government that is faceless. Where is the prime minister, the young ask? He has the time to explain to us the benefits of FDI, but will not speak and assure us of our dignity and security? Unwittingly, the authorities are doing a great service to the nation. With water cannons and lathi blows they are helping prepare another generation of political leaders.

In the way this tragedy has unfolded thus far, the media comes out looking clueless. Breathlessness and a high-pitched voice are not necessarily good reporting. The imbecilic media, like always, is trying to simplify the complexity of context in which such events unfold. I am not saying don’t report events as they unfold. The media should – and they do. But in the excitement of reporting from ground zero, news reports turn into impressions and a long incoherent babble of words strung together with the thin glue of adrenalin. The issue is lost in the rants of TV panelists and the shouts of the mob. After all that, no one seems to have the energy to discuss and debate the underlying causes of such horrific acts.

A constant refrain is that “The police must be sensitized”. As if there is a vaccination for sensitisation. Or that sensitisation is a vaccination for misogyny. It’s laughable to think that one week of classroom instruction to cops about how to deal with and treat women will reset the cultural impulses hard-wired into their brains. And what about sensitising the crowd that stood around the hapless, naked body lying crumpled on the cold ground? It occurred to no one to cover her and her friend? Where was the empathy of the crowd? The police force is scarcely trusted and with good reason. But by ignoring our own faults, are we just looking for a scapegoat in the cops?

Sensitisation begins in childhood. It is a process – not a pill. It is the ability to empathise. The ability to imagine what it would be like to be in the other person’s shoes.

Sensitisation takes a hit when members of parliament describe women with short hair as “par katti”. Sensitisation takes a body blow when men charged with sexual assault and rape sit in the hall that frames our laws. The same august hall that we are hoping will pass strong laws. Sensitisation is spat upon by motor mouths like Sanjay Nirupam when on national TV he passes a rude comment on a lady actor and a member of a political party. And worse, when no one from his party denounces what he said. Our elected leaders’ trash-talk puts out clues of how they think it is acceptable to treat or address women in society.

Behavioural psychology research shows that “most people who behave badly are not bad people. They’re just good people who are put in bad situations”. In a famous experiment conducted in Stanford Prison in 1971 by psychologist Philip G Zimbardo and his colleagues, the researchers randomly assigned college students to be either prisoners or guards in a simulated prison in the basement of the campus psychology building.

The goal was to explore the dynamics that developed within and between the groups over a two-week period. The guards (with Zimbardo as their superintendent) exerted force with such harshness that the study was halted after only six days. The guards, remember, were part of the same student body as the prisoners. Two conclusions were drawn for the experiment. The first is that individuals lose their capacity for intellectual and moral judgment in groups. Therefore, groups are inherently dangerous. The second is that there is an inevitable impetus for people to act tyrannically once they are put in groups and given power.

The experiment gives an idea of why we have the kind of police force that we have. Policemen have power. At the same time, the politician/bureaucrat cabal have systematically dehumanised the force. If you have ever seen the inside of a police station you will understand why most policemen are rude. Dehumanised, unclean, uncomfortable working conditions can only produce a rude, brusque force. And that is what we have. The politician and the bureaucrat have reduced policing to pimping. Pimping does not make a distinction between the victim and the oppressor. Pimping favours the one with more money and/or power. In all the noise on TV I have not heard one serious debate on the need for police reforms. What are the contours of the reforms that the Supreme Court directed the Central government to institute six years ago?

People also vented their anger on the Prime Minister for doing the disappearing act. It’s not his fault. Really. He is an economist Prime Minister. And is probably trying to understand how he can explain what happened in terms of falling GDP, high interest rates and rampant inflation. It is too much to expect him to emerge from his impersonal, number-crunching world of economics to assuage fears and apply balm to the wounded soul of the 23-year-old. He is so out of it that after he addressed the press he ended with “theek hai”. Like I did not mean to say anything but since you were all so adamant, I have said what you want to hear. Happy now? In the 1-minute address to the nation the only plea he gave was that he is also a father of three daughters. So based on that are we supposed to understand that he understands the pain of young women who travel without Z+ security? In fact, in the past week I have learnt more about the family composition of some politicians rather than their ideas and thoughts of what needs to be done going forward.

So why do TV news channels fulminate without questioning the lynch mob? Why do they not question the politicians and seek answers for long-pending legislation and police reforms? Why do they identify themselves with and become a part of the mob and cover a protest like it’s a rock concert?

I think the best explanation comes from President Nixon’s adviser William Gavin. “Reason requires a higher degree of discipline, of concentration; impression is easier. Reason pushes the viewer back, it assaults him, it demands that he agree or disagree; impression can envelop him, invite him in, without making an intellectual demand…When we argue with him we demand that he make the effort of replying. We seek to engage his intellect, and for most people this is the most difficult work of all. The emotions are more easily roused, closer to the surface, more malleable.”

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Complaining about the media is easy and often justified. But hey, it’s the model that’s flawed.

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