Ignoring the context may be superficially attractive but meaningless
Anyone even vaguely familiar with social media knows its biggest sport: the charge of selective outrage. The point is simply this: because we may not have outraged over an incident which bears a passing resemblance to the topic under discussion, our current argument is automatically invalidated. With an assist from the technology and an elephantine memory, this is a game which consumes much of the social media discourse. Euphemistically described as whataboutery, it creates an endless cycle of accusation and counter-accusation which are completely meaningless in the larger scheme of things. But then we are talking about social media here.
But let’s examine a slightly different argument here. As a priori, it should be conceded that all of us engage in selective outrage. But is that always a bad thing?
The murder of two Dalit children in the state of Haryana recently rocked India. Considering the involvement of upper caste men and the overpowering brutality of the crime, it was naturally described as another sordid chapter in India’s long saga of caste crimes. That such a gruesome incident could happen in driving distance from India’s capital naturally was utterly shocking.
But let’s consider a thought experiment here. What if the Dalits had murdered two upper caste children in their sleep? (There is some evidence of long-standing caste rivalry in this case.) Would it have elicited the same outrage? Would it have captured the national headlines? The answer is (mostly) in the negative. That is a classic case of selective outrage many on social media would no doubt triumphantly point. But do they have a point?
Among the many contributions of polymath extraordinaire Herbert Simon is the idea of bounded rationality. Simon argued that though the human decision making process is rational, it is constrained by the limits imposed by cognitive ability, time and information. Therefore, humans engage in what Simon described as satisfying behavior.
A similar dynamic is perhaps applicable to the outrage business. In a country as troubled as India, it is simply impossible to be affected by all the horrors which blight this vast land. For instance, some estimates suggest that nearly ten people die in Mumbai every day due to the severely overcrowded local trains. But that is considered normal to the extent that it is doubtful that even regular train users pay much attention to such statistics. Or notice how ordinary Indians become eventually inured to the everyday horrors on display on her roads which completely and immediately shock the outsiders. In other words, selective outrage is a feature and not a bug mediated by our interests and proclivities.
Having established that a personal level, outrage can only be selective, let’s explore a slightly different idea. Why do some incidents capture the national imagination? Why do some murders are highlighted and not others?
Is it because they are canaries in the mine which betray larger national faultiness, troubled histories and resultant anxieties? And understanding that context is important and essential.
For instance, the shooting death of Micheal Brown became a catalyst for major protests as it was an indicator of the frayed relationship between the police and the African-American community within the context of larger racial history of the United States. On similar lines, the dastardly Haryana incident against highlighted that nearly seventy years since independence, Dalits continue to survive on the margins of the Indian society and caste oppression is very much a lived reality for them.
One of the frequent arguments offered against the Black Lives Matter movement is that all lives matter. True enough. And there is certainly a case to be made that no race is entirely safe from police excesses in the US for a variety of reasons—strong gun culture, militarized police et al. Nevertheless, for historical reasons which continue to impact the African-American community—witness the high incarceration rates—it is especially susceptible to police brutality. Recognizing that historical connotation is important in understanding the protests which have roiled America and something the critiques of BLM have failed to acknowledge. If anything, the Dalit history in India is a far more gut-wrenching tale and which continues to this day despite the multiple attempts at alleviation India has made.
All murders are vile and must be condemned henceforth and prosecuted to the fullest extent of law. No dispute over that. But here’s a provocative point: A murder of an upper caste Hindu by a Dalit cannot elicit the same outrage as an upper caste Hindu murdering a Dalit. Because the former is a crime; the latter carries the burden of 1000 years of caste based oppression and privileges. To equate the two and demand that they should elicit equal national coverage is to ignore context and history. Is that fair at the individual level? Of course not but it is an acknowledgement of larger social realities.
Liberal societies privilege the vulnerable. And rightly so. Democracy is inherently majoritarian and in a country like India still struggling to construct a Republic, the danger is much higher. But what we are witnessing in India is a phenomenon where the majority often displays a strange mixture of victim hood and petulance. The selective outrage story often is merely another chapter in that book.
Final point: at its heart, this argument is really about procedural vs substantive justice. The conservative argument—procedural justice—was once superbly summarized by Justice John Roberts thusly: ‘The way to stop discrimination on the basis of the race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.’ The liberal approach on the other hand highlights that true equality can only be achieved by pro-actively addressing the existing inequities in society.
Plenty of arguments can be made against the Left’s approach to be sure. For one, many on the Left have used such arguments to pretty much justify Charlie Hebdo murders. The Left is also obsessed with identity to an extent it is counter-productive and often absurd (Yes, you have woman judges but are they woman of color who are also LGBT?). And fired as it is by its sense of moral righteousness, it can only survive by making even more overwrought comparisons: Fascism arrives and disappears with the regularity of evening tides in India and US made no progress in racial justice in 200 years.
Nevertheless, it is hard to argue that we as a society have reached the stage where we are judged solely by the content of our character. Till then, a fine balance is essential for a functional society.