Friday, January 13, 2017

Social Media and Vigilantism

Could there be a sinister aspect to commonplace grumblings on social media? I recently came across a complaint on social media by a person who claimed that a young man on a bike had assaulted him and threatened him. The complaint which included a photo and a caption ended with the complainant asking the readers of his post “What should be done about such goondagiri [sic] where a law-abiding citizen has to face such humiliation that too by people who have shamelessly broken the law?”

Judging by the fact that the photograph was shared close to one hundred and ninety three times on social media the question was obviously rhetorical. The post was shared precisely to offer up the biker to public justice and ensure that he be shamed, ostracized or punished by other means. But this is precisely where we have to pause and take stock of our actions because these kinds of complaints and appeals to public justice are in fact calls to vigilante justice.

Vigilantes are groups of citizens who take it on themselves to undertake law enforcement in their community without legal authority, typically because the legal agencies are thought to be inadequate. Because vigilantism is often associated with mob justice we associate the term with howling mobs and violent action. However, the roots of vigilante actions lie well beyond these dramatic acts. Vigilantism does not begin with a lynching. Lynching is merely the highpoint of vigilante action.  Vigilantism begins when individuals abandon the state’s justice delivery system, prefer a kangaroo court of public opinion, and take it upon themselves to administer justice. When this happens what we have is the jettisoning of the system of due process through which facts can be established and a fairly objective decision can be reached.

What is particularly scary is that it is not just in the realm of social media that one can see appeals to vigilante justice. Indeed, one sees the mass media, whether print or audiovisual, also engaging in setting up popular courts, presuming guilt before a person is held guilty by the judicial system, and condemning these people in very forceful terms. These are in fact terrifying signs because it signals that we are increasingly moving towards a breakdown of a system of a rule of law, and due process, two concepts that ensure that justice is done.

Let us mine the post that inspired this column for examples. In this particular instance the complainant alleged that the biker rode on the sidewalk and responded violently to the polite request to follow the law and get off the sidewalk. If we rely entirely on the account on social media we have only one side of the story. What we do not have is the biker’s account. It is possible that the biker’s version may be radically different. He might argue that he recognizes that the bike should not be on the sidewalk but there were extenuating circumstances for the violation. He might also argue that while acknowledging his fault the complainant was not particularly polite but in fact aggressive. It is because there are always at least two versions to a conflict that one needs a judicial system manned by an impartial third party. Without an objective system of justice delivery we have no way to determine whether the photographer was in fact telling the truth. One would recognize that a social media complaint does not provide such a dialogical approach to conflict resolution but only presents one version that we often take as the gospel truth.

Central to a justice delivery system is the requirement of being dispassionate. In the post that I refer to, the complainant indicated that after being assaulted and threatened he approached the police who did not act on his complaint. It was the failure to get support from the logical agents of law and order enforcement that he turned to social media. As such, it turns out that the police were also responsible for the disaffection that drove the complainant to social media. If this was the case, why not post images of the allegedly errant police persons as well? Indeed, in the post I refer to the complaint ended the caption with statement indicating Please note that I don't intent [sic] to target any politician or policeman. My grouch is purely against such law-breakers who are full to the brim with arrogance.”

One of the significant features of vigilante justice is that the vigilantes very often attack the weak. Further, it is not the structure that is attacked, but individual manifestations of a larger, social problem. For example, we know that the sidewalk is hardly respected in our country. Sidewalks are often in a bad state of disrepair, and when available are routinely used to park vehicles. In such a situation it is little wonder that when people are rebuked for using their vehicles on the sidewalk they respond aggressively wondering why they are the only ones to be pulled up and not the others.

Interventions in social media are not innocent. They can often be the apparently innocent appeals that will eventually end in violent vigilante justice. It is imperative, therefore, that we resist the temptation to invite social ire against individuals on social media. To redress this problem what we need to do is to hold the state and its agencies responsible for their primary task; the upholding of a system of due process and the rule of law. It is no use utilizing social media as an alternative to the state system precisely because such a process is not only capricious but it threatens to empty the state of its responsibilities leaving behind a state only interested in asserting its powers. Neither of these situations is an ideal one.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo on  10 Jan 2017)

Thursday, January 12, 2017

How the Archbishop should have turned the other cheek

Not too long ago, the décor of a recently-opened pub caused a ruckus in the city of Bombay. Styled “Goregaon Social”, the interiors of the pub made plentiful references to the Gothic aesthetic that marked a significant phase of Western European Christianity, and the neo-Gothic which has an intimate history with the city of Bombay. They included stained glass panels with the figures of Catholic saints, Gothic-styled pews for clients to sit on, and a variety of other paraphernalia that clearly references Catholic worship.

Arguing that the establishment’s decor was blasphemous, a group of Catholics, calling themselves The Watchdog Foundation, filed a police complaint against the owner of the pub. Simultaneously, the Archdiocese of Bombay released a statement charging that the décor of the pub was blasphemous and a deliberate attempt to insult Christians. Therefore, they demanded the closure of the pub with immediate effect, and a cancellation of various permits and licenses until the décor was changed.

While the responses of both the lay Christians and the clerical hierarchy are problematic, I would like to focus on the response of the hierarchy because as leaders of the Catholic community they seem to have not only made a grievous error, but also lost a significant teaching moment.

At the very outset it needs to be stated that one can understand the reasons for the response. Along with other minoritised groups in the country, Christians too have increasingly experienced a shrinking of socio-political space along with simultaneous attacks on their places of worship and property. These attacks have particularly perplexed some Christians in India who play along with the whole rhetoric of Indian nationalism and cherish a deep-seated idea that they are an ideal minority.

On the other hand there has also been a parallel move to appropriate Christian lifestyles for the purposes of entertainment. The case of the interiors of Goregaon Social are but one example of a trend that is also evident in the way in which the settlements of Catholics, whether that of Bandra in Bombay, or villages in Goa, are being occupied while the residents who created these settlements and ensured its character are pushed out. Added to this is the simultaneous disparaging of these populations visible in the way Hindi films represent the Catholics of the west coast as a sexually promiscuous, alcohol-imbibing community given to song and dance.

In such a context of appropriation and attack, it is not surprising that Catholics should try to respond by asserting ownership over markers of a community lifestyle, nor that they should petition the state to redress their hurt religious sentiments. Unfortunately, rather than innovatively engage with Catholic tradition, these responses have played directly into the hands of the Hindu nationalists, as well as strengthened the growing tendencies towards authoritarianism.

The Archbishop’s argument of hurt religious sentiments merely follows political trends that have been crafted to favour the establishment of a Hindu rashtra. While it is true that the cries for the redress of hurt religious sentiments come not only from Hindu nationalist groups, but other minoritized groups as well, the fact is that the complaints of these groups are usually heeded only when they formulate their complaints along theocratic lines, not otherwise. But if one can ban images in a pub, or a film because it is blasphemous and offends Catholic sensibilities, it follows that one must also ban the slaughter of cattle because it offends brahmanical sensibilities. In other words, it is the upper caste Hindu nationalist groups that benefit once hurt religious sentiments are recognized as a legitimate basis to quash actions.

Phrasing appeals for state attention on the basis of religious sentiments also occludes the real issues at stake, the systemic inequality of power between the groups that comprise the country. To put it in the still relevant words of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, “The Indian Christians need two things. The first thing they want is the safeguarding of their civil liberties. The second thing they want is ways and means for their economic uplift.” This agenda is more crucial than the mistaken imitation of identitarian politics that the Archbishop seems to have lent support to.

The Archbishop’s statement opens up dangers beyond the possibly identitarian problem of living in a Hindu state; that of authoritarianism and populism. What is evident in the statement is that there is an appeal to a state that does not follow the due process of law. In the Goregaon Social case one has a situation where a group of citizens that claims to speak for all Catholics have determined that they are upset by an activity and demand summary redress by the state in the form of a ban. The group demanding the ban does not want the complaint to be evaluated by a dispassionate judicial system and the issue treated through appropriate channels. What we witness in this case is a complete violation of the very due process that ensures the equanimity of the law. One wonders if the church hierarchy contemplated that, given the balance of power in the country, this same strategy of demanding immediate action and dispensing with the due process of law could easily be used against Christians in India?

This situation reveals the manner in which Hindu nationalist authoritarianism does not spring merely from the actions of upper-caste Hindu nationalists. Rather, it is sustained through the authoritarian tendencies that lie within minoritized groups in India, and especially in fonts of authority in these groups. In this context the Catholic Church has much introspection to do. Despite the winds of change in terms of leadership style that Pope Francis has brought to the church, the Church has had a long history of clericalism and authoritarian leadership that is often confused with respect for a healthy system of hierarchy.

Considering the delicate nature of politics in India, and the bitter reality that one cannot rely on the neutrality of the state, the Archdiocese of Bombay ought to have considered a more nuanced response to the provocation that the décor of Goregaon Social allegedly represented. At a time when the law has been reduced to cynical interpretations of codes to secure the interests of the hegemonic, the Archbishop could have used this opportunity to deepen our ethical appreciation of the problem that the décor of Goregaon Social represented. In this way he would have also fulfilled the prophetic role that is the true calling of the Church.

Rather than insist on a parochial assertion of ownership, and a consequent banning of the imagery, a deeper exploration of the use of the symbols in Goregaon Social would have demonstrated a surprising possibility. In statements published on social media, the management of the pub indicated that they saw the space as “the church of anti-consumerism” or the “Cathedral of anti-consumerism”.  In other words, the owners of the pub were attempting to set up an alternative to consumerism and recognising that this alternative might be present in a Christian, if not Christianized, lifestyle. In many ways Christianity is fundamental to modernity not in an abstract and discursive way alone, but very materially; with a liberative lifestyle associated with Christians. Christians, and especially those one finds in Portuguese-influenced areas like Bombay, enjoy a lifestyle that is largely unmarked by brahmanical taboos. Catholics enjoy a material lifestyle that does not place taboos on the consumption of meat, approves of social drinking, and allows for a respectful approximation of the sexes; social features largely absent in brahmanical cultures of dominant castes but crucial for claiming modernity. Indeed, one could inquire if the name of this pub does not take inspiration from the ‘socials’ that are a feature of the convent schools. In these socials, in the presence of chaperones and other adults, youngsters could learn the skills of not only drinking in moderation, but also to woo members of the opposite sex, dance with them, developing in this process skills of respectful sociality.

In this context the Archbishop could pointed out to a basic fact that many in India do not seem to have sufficiently appreciated, that however attractive it may appear, the Christian lifestyle is empty without a real encounter with Christ and Christian values. The Archbishop could have pointed out that a substantial alternative to consumerism was available through deepening the encounter with the person of Christ mediated through the Catholic Church. Such a response would not only have countered the appropriation that the décor of the pub represented, but also the empty promises of the prophets of consumerism, not to mention the anti-Christian rhetoric of the Hindu nationalistic forces, especially the voices in favour of the forced conversions of gharwapasi.

In sum, by following the dominant logics of Indian politics rather than cleaving to its prophetic tradition, the Catholic hierarchy has done more damage than it can imagine, not only to the community it leads, but other minoritized groups as well.
(A version of this text was first published in The Wire on 18 Nov 2016)