Vantage point

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Outrage Factor

The Blank Noise Project saw heavy participation, and chronicled some rather shocking incidents of harrassment which we didn't know happen around us. As Gawker commented somewhere, it was eye-opening, because growing up as a carefree boy in India, one has no idea about the hell that girls go through.

Some have questioned the purpose of the Blogathon itself. Some think that parts of it encourage shrill feminism which paint all men with the same brush. Some find the exercise rather pointless.

The purpose of the blogathon in my eyes, is an attempt to spread awareness about what is happening, and also the "outrage" or "shame". Is it going to stop eve teasing altogether? Obviously not. So what is the point?

I think the point of the project or the purpose was achieved when the first guy who read it felt a combination of shame and outrage. Not because the guy himself used to fondle women, and will stop doing so because of this. But because with an increase in the shame and outrage there is a small increase in society's overall outrage factor. And with a lot of guys feeling the same way, there will be a decent amount of increase in the "outrage factor".

What is the practical need for the outrage factor? Firstly, what is an outrage factor? Loosely, it can be defined as the consensus reached in society that a certain act is wrong/bad/damaging/immoral/unethical enough to cause outrage to most of its component. As a result of this consensus the society can put in place a punishment which will act as a deterrent to someone involved in that act.

In a society where personal freedom is well-defined and protected under the legal system, the outrage factor is not useful at all. The question of what you can and can not do is defined on the basis of these well-defined freedoms, and the outrage factors, as John Cleese would say, "don't intrude with it". An excellent example of the futility of the outrage factor in case of such well-defined freedoms would be the one Ravikiran cited of the United States where you can't pass laws to ban burning the American flag. The outrage factor would certainly be high. But it still doesn't overshadow freedom.

Now sadly, we in India do not live in a society which has clearly defined freedoms. In fact the definition of freedom in India is as fuzzy as it can get with a million footnotes and caveats, making you wonder whether freedom is a right or a privilege.

In such a society, punishments or deterrents imposed are framed as well as executed, not on the basis of the sacrosanct definition of freedom, but on the basis of the outrage factor. So practically speaking, the only way to get society to impose costs is to take that outrage factor to a critical mass.

It is my contention that in India, there is a cost/deterrent for robbing a house not because the robbers have violated some rights of the house owner, but because "stealing is wrong". This overwhelming consensus on the wrongness of stealing ensures the presence of such a law and that the law is imposed with a reasonable amount of sincerity.

But eve teasing or street harrassment is not seen by society as that big a deal. It is still not considered wrong/bad/damaging/immoral/unethical enough to cause outrage. Hence the Indian society imposes no effective cost on it. Even the few laws which are in place are not implemented properly. The simple reason is that the people around the victim, say the police, or her acquaintances just do not feel or share the outrage. And sadly, people sharing your outrage is a major factor, if not the only factor, that is useful in getting justice, or imposing a deterrent.

This is not how it should be, of course. Laws and deterrents should not be put in place based on the outrage factor, or sometimes it leads to some laws which end up trampling freedoms. The banning of dance bars is one example, and the law which makes homosexuality ounishable is another. These two laws are in place not to impose a cost on infringing someone's rights, but to impose a cost on "doing something unethical" and outraging the society.

If you recognize this role played by the outrage factor, you will realise that eve teasing is rampant in India because the lack of the intensity of its outrage factor which precludes putting in place an effective deterrent.

Towards this end, the Blank Noise Project is making a difference. How much of a difference is hard to say. But as I said, even if one person feels more strongly about eve teasing, it is useful because it adds to the component of outrage factor. One day I hope it reaches a critical mass.

The reason why BNP is important currently is that the ignorance or indifference about it is very high. I was shocked to read many incidents where women were harrassed as girls, but since they were confused and unsure about what happened, they did not tell their parents or create a ruckus. Yet imagine the same girls, in the event of something being stolen from them(let's say candy). Would they have stayed silent? Obviously not. A girl, whether she was aged 6,8 or 10, would immediately tell her parents that someone stole her candy. Because stealing is wrong.

Similarly if parents start mentioning explicitly to their children that a man fondling you or groping you is wrong, it will give the kid enough awareness to yell at the first instance of it happening. That a lot of girls were confused after their first instance of harrassment shows that parents are not doing enough to make their kids aware.

Parents not doing enough to proactively tell their children about this is one side of the coin. The other side being the sheer apathy of the "people in charge" i.e cops or office bearers. An autowallah in Delhi tried to rape a friend of mine. She managed to kick, scream, fight back and make him run away. When she was planning to file a police complaint, the Principal of her college (a supposedly 'modern' and 'forward' college) tried to dissuade her saying it would bring unnecessary bad publicity to the college. I will give the same analogy... would the Princi say this to a student whose bike would have been stolen on the streets?

It is correct to say that things have deteriorated so much in India due to lack of a cost. But remember, we have a 'splendid' society and legal system where costs are imposed on the basis of ethics and morality rather than an objective definition of freedom and rights.