Saturday, July 16, 2011

Blaming Victims in a Just World

An year back, there was an accident in Adyar, Chennai. A couple traveling by bike at 10:30 in the night were run over by a speeding lorry.
The couple were married just over an year earlier; and had left their baby at the parents and gone to visit a temple or church.
The next morning I was in the waiting area of a local hospital when I overheard an young doctor and a nurse talking about this. The doctor said, "So they went at 10 in the night to a temple, leaving the baby. How stupid are they?"
The nurse agreed.
Do we expect people to be run over after 10 PM in the night? Of course not. But this pattern was familiar to me. The doctor and nurse were blaming the victim.
I have come across the blame-the-victim characteristic a lot when discussing politics; but also more generally in life in India. I have also come across it, to a lesser extent, in conservative writing in the United States.
A couple of years back, when race attacks were going on in Australia, against Indians, I frequently saw this play out. A letter in the magazine "Week" blamed Indians for not "assimilating" in Australian culture. Some blamed Indians for talking in local language in public. I wrote a detailed analysis of this behavior here.

Of course, blaming the victim is not new to women all over the world. They almost always get blamed for eve-teasing or rapes. Usually they are accused of having provoked men into such behavior.

Why is there a tendency to blame the victim when something bad happens to people? This is particularly important in India. In our road accidents, pedestrians get blamed almost all the time. Plus we have the "aren't we all corrupt?", "aren't we all racists?" crowd always blaming the victim implicitly.

The Just World Theory

In the 1960s, Melvin J.Lerner, professor of Social Psychology at the University of Waterloo, performed a set of experiments out of which came the "Just World Hyposthesis" or the "Just World Theory".
Lerner's findings, later expanded, show that human beings have the "need to believe in a just world" in-built into their psyche. It develops as a part of normal child rearing and every human being will have it.
What does this mean?
While growing up, we are taught good and bad behavior. We are taught to distinguish between them by a system of rewards and punishments. This enforces a belief in us, as we grow into adulthood, that the world is an environment full of justice. People get what they deserve and deserve what they get. That idea permeates into us.

But, of course, the real world is far from just. Just the number of varieties of personalities precludes a guarantee of justice.
Therefore, when we see something that violates our belief (in a just world), we can only resolve the conflict between
a) what is reality and
b) what is our innate belief
by looking for some way to justify the unjust scene before us.
For example, when we hear about a child getting hit while crossing a road, our trust in a just world is violated. Our mind resolves that by one of the following methods:
a) Blaming the child's parents or the child herself for crossing without proper attention
b) Trying to imagine how we can stop such traffic accidents and thus building an assurance in our mind that we can create a just world
c) By the "separated world" mechanism - we tell ourselves that this happens in some kind of parallel world.

(There are actually 9 different ways in which we try to resolve the conflict, as listed by Lerner)

Now option b, if we act on it, is of course, the healthiest. It improves society overall.
But most people who are conservative or authoritarian or over-religious have been found to go with option a - blaming the victim.
In other words, the predominant tendency in conservative societies such as India is to blame the victim.

Thus the doctor and nurse who were discussing the accident of an young couple were actually shocked by the injustice of happy lives extinguished by a careless driver. But they had the need to believe in a just world. They resolved this by blaming the couple's choice of taking a bike at 10:30 PM.

This has implications for a lot of our public debates in India. We hear about unjust accidents caused by badly designed roads and neighborhoods. Almost every person who drives a bike in India must have met with some accident, minor to serious. We hear about normal people, who are killed or maimed by drunken driving or just reckless driving
Every time, we have to be careful never to blame the victim - for traveling without a helmet, or crossing a city road, or going out in the night. The real villains are the people who drive without respect for pedestrians; and the people who designed these killer roads with no spaces for pedestrians.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

P.Sainath is wrong on Jan Lokpal

(Edited to fix link to Sainath's article, on Debojyoti's comment below)
This post addresses a few wrong arguments against the Lokpal process. Many of these are talking points I found circulating in the web. Some of these are also opinions of P.Sainath - the Magsaysay award winner and The Hindu rural affairs editor - who has criticised the Jan Lokpal process in speeches and in an article in The Hindu.

My first article on Lokpal and the IAC movement is here. It has some commentary on Sainath's video speech.

Have Anna Hazare and others worked outside the legislative process?
Argument:Anna Hazare, by his tactics such as fasting, have worked against the electoral process. They have blackmailed the government to include themselves in the legislative process

My response: Nobody has taken away the role of Parliament in passing legislation. The IAC movement or Mr.Hazare himself have not said that they will pass a bill and that should be the law of the land.
Parliament should pass a bill on Lokpal - what Mr.Hazare and others have argued is that Parliament should not pass the draft bill submitted in 2010. Instead they have suggested a different set of provisions for a Jan Lokpal bill.
Is this entirely unnatural or unprecedented? In other words, is it unprecedented for Parliament to consider a law that takes input from non-elected people?
The answer is no. It is neither unprecedented nor unnatural. The much-celebrated Right To Information (RTI) bill was actually lobbied and pushed for by activists. Just last year, the government shelved the plans for GM (Genetically Modified) crops based on feedback from "self-appointed" activists and lobby groups.
This is why the hue and cry about Anna Hazare and others "bypassing" the process is surprising. Do people seriously believe that the laws passed by Parliament on regulating healthcare, education or mining are exclusively created by legislators - without major input from industry leaders or activists? Every law that deals with industry regulation IS being written in consultation with industry leaders.
Thus, the controversy about Anna and IAC creating their own process is ill-founded.

Are Anna Hazare and others self-appointed?
Argument: Who said civil society can be represented by Anna Hazare and the India Against Corruption movement? Who decides that these people are representatives of the common people? Only the elected legislators in Parliament are representatives of the people - not self-appointed leaders such as Anna Hazare.
My Response: This question is a very critical one. It is not an attack on Anna or IAC. The general idea seems to be that the electorate has chosen their legislators. Given that, what authority do Anna and others have to "represent the people"?
The answer is, of course, that feedback on legislation in a Parliamentary democracy can come throughout the law making process. Anna and others need not represent everyone, or even a majority in the nation - all that matters is that they have the right to organize a protest and make their voices heard. Nobody can deny them that right. They have the right to lobby for their cause.
Secondly, they actually did have an alternative bill; and legitimate criticism of the
government bill. Therefore, their "interference" in the law-making process was a pretty serious, legitimate effort.
Thirdly, let us not forget that Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., or Aan Suu Kyi are all "self-appointed" representatives. It is not as if they were elected figures.

Why have a law when people can vote out corrupt administrations
Argument: Sainath says that people have now voted in the recent state elections. That is the real way to influence policy
My Response:
In any society there needs to be a way to influence (non-violently) the course of laws towards justice. Voting in elections is just ONE way of such influence.
Sainath, in his Hindu article, says that the people in different states voted in the recent elections, and that is how people can influence policy or take action against corruption. This is a profoundly misguided way of thinking about a democracy, both theoretically and practically.
Even in theory, a democracy allows free speech and free association precisely to encourage political activity at all times. People have different non-violent tools to choose and to engage in political activity. Should we all vote once in 5 years and then forget about whatever our representatives do in those 5 years? That is a pretty useless view of democracy. I would say this even if our representatives are all doing their jobs well.
Practically, of course, what Sainath says is laughable. He has been spending the past 10 years challenging the government on farmers' suicides. His whole point was that
governments in the state and center were actively adopting policies that CAUSED the suicides. How did these policies happen when people continued to vote in elections?
The answer is that no country in the world has the kind of perfect political system where we can leave our elected representatives without vigilance. Definitely not India.
The Indian Parliament gave us TADA; POTA; the constitutional amendment that has now lead to forcing everyone to be fingerprinted(Aadhaar or UID scheme). The Parliament gave us the very regressive Information Technology Act of 2010.
People should pay more attention to what the legislators are upto; and protest in case they try to pass a regressive law. That is a vital role - in fact, it is a much more vital role than voting. Voting is over-hyped.

Why should the Prime Minister be brought under Lokpal? He will get subjected to frivolous charges
Argument: The IAC movement and the government now differ on bringing the PM under the Lokpal. Bringing the PM under Lokpal will lead to filing frivolous charges against him/her. It will also lead to influencing foreign policy and national security issues
My Response: I frankly do not understand this argument. We are a British-style parliamentary democracy, with a Prime Minister. We are not an American style democracy. The Prime Minister does not have any special powers that other ministers lack. In other words, if we are ok with having a cabinet rank minister being investigated by Lokpal, then how is the PM any different?
The above argument may make sense in the United States, where the President is the Head of State. In India, the PM is not the Head of State. There is no special theoretical reason why a PM should be excluded, while a central cabinet minster is included.
If people said that ALL cabinet ministers should be excluded, then that we can argue about. But that is not what people are saying. They seem to think the PM has some special status.

By the way, I just want to remind people reading this blog - Around 2003, a young PWD engineer named Sathyendra Dubey was killed when he wrote about corruption to higher authorities. Sathyendra was afraid of getting killed, so he sent the letter directly to which office?
Yes, he sent it ONLY to the PM's Office (PMO). Vajpayee was PM at that time. That single letter to the PMO pinpointed Sathyendra for murder. In other words, the letter was leaked from the PMO and made its way to Bihar; and led to Sathyendra's murder.

Existing laws are enough to tackle corruption
Argument: The Prevention of Corruption Act and other such acts are adequate to prosecute corrupt public officials. Why do we need new laws? We need existing laws to be implemented well
My Response:This argument is very well addressed in the IAC website.
First, the Lokpal is about a process; not just punishment details.
Secondly, existing laws ARE inadequate. There are several reasons for this - one is that CBI's anti-corruption wing actually reports to the Prime Minister. Therefore it has no way to investigate corruption against the ruling party's wishes.
What the Lokpal bill does is, it sets up an independently funded co-equal branch of government. It makes political influence much more unlikely.

The government, its interlocutors and even some well-meaning citizens have muddied the waters about the Jan Lokpal bill. I urge everyone to go through the IAC website and read the actual draft law. It is a critical first move to control corruption.