Thresholds of offence

If ‘vigilante’ action is simply forbidden, we can avoid even beginning the cycle that leads to mob violence

A file photo of Sudheendra Kulkarni, with face blackened by Shiv Sena activists, speaking at a press conference in Mumbai. Photo: PTI
A file photo of Sudheendra Kulkarni, with face blackened by Shiv Sena activists, speaking at a press conference in Mumbai. Photo: PTI

We have recently witnessed a series of tragedies, as well as a set of incidents of public humiliation, all of which appear to signal rising intolerance in our country. The president has expressed himself eloquently on the issue, and numerous public commentators have lamented the loss of the ancient Indian traditions of pluralism, openness to ideas and syncretism. Are we witnessing a fundamental shift in Indian attitudes and a rejection of these core values? Is this, on the other hand, a more superficial trend? Are the worrying actions that we are seeing reversible with swift and decisive action?

A theory that might help to guide our thinking was put forward by the sociologist Mark Granovetter in the late 1970s. This theory has been used compellingly by the writer Malcolm Gladwell to explain disturbing phenomena such as the spate of school shootings in the US. Simply outlined, Granovetter’s threshold model of social behaviour is that an explicit action taken in response to any perceived offence lowers the threshold for all actors in society.

To be more specific about our Indian context, consider the notion of “offence”, and the actions taken in response to “feeling offended”. Introspection suggests that different people have different thresholds for offence. That is, one person might feel offended at the slightest perceived affront (to their sense of patriotism or their religious beliefs, for instance), whereas another might require far more stimulus before considering another person’s speech or actions to be offensive.

Now suppose that the person with the lowest threshold in society (the most easily offended person) performs a public action—say, throwing black paint on the perceived offender. In Granovetter’s theory, this action effectively normalizes the response to the perceived offence, and makes it more likely that more such actions will be taken by others. Put differently, the fact that the first person acted now makes it more likely that the second person, with the next-lowest threshold of offence, acts in turn, since they feel that acting is no longer abnormal or forbidden. Following the logic through, after two people have acted, it is more likely that a third person acts in response to perceived offences, and so on. We now have the makings of a mob. If this is indeed a fair characterization of the problem that we face in India today, what can be done about it?

First, we can stop the actions at their source, eliminating the initial stimulus. At the risk of stating the obvious, it is illegal to kill. It is also illegal to hurt another person or throw things at them (black paint and engine oil included). In the taxonomy of rights and wrongs, preventing and punishing the infliction of physical harm is an absolute.

Whether or not the law was enforced during the Sikh riots, the Emergency or the Mumbai riots is beside the point (indeed, highlighting past instances of turning a blind eye to horrific violence is a classic example of normalization in action). If we are indeed serious about the pursuit of modernity and progress, and the forging of institutions that are fit for purpose, we should enforce a zero-tolerance policy on unlawful acts, and ensure that justice is administered swiftly, visibly and inexorably. If “vigilante” action is simply forbidden, we can avoid even beginning the cycle that leads to mob violence.

Second, it is a sensible policy to attempt to redirect social energy. We need to understand why the first action occurred—analogously, why the first stone is thrown in a riot. In other words, we need to understand why the very first threshold was low to begin with. This requires going outside Granovetter’s theory, but a reasonable conjecture is that poverty and frustration influence thresholds to be lower. The worse the physical environment, and the more frustrated we are with the legal and bureaucratic environment, the more likely we are to take offence at illusory threats. It is far easier to throw a few rocks to make ourselves feel better about our dreadful day-to-day circumstances than to think about the massive challenges we face in transforming India. This is a far more complex and long-term solution, but fighting poverty, as the prime minister suggests, is clearly a better way to channel energy than lashing out at minorities.

Finally, we must encourage a virtuous cycle of speaking out against those who would quash dissent in society. The higher the rank and visibility of those speaking out, the better. The president has led by example, and numerous writers and public commentators have come out in public support of liberal values and denounced the type of atmosphere in which thoughtful rationalists like Dabholkar, Kalburgi and Murugan are threatened or killed. The more people that speak out against this trend, the more we will witness a re-normalization of the normal, utilizing Granovetter’s theory of thresholds in reverse.

No less is at stake here than the type of society we wish to live in—one which is respectful of a range of views, and which celebrates freedom of speech and opinion without any fear of violent retribution. In the words of George Orwell, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

Tarun Ramadorai is professor of financial economics at the Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, and a member of the Oxford-Man Institute of Quantitative Finance.

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