December 18, 2015The Hinduliberal democracyinformation age

Moral panics are undermining public discourse

As the argumentative Indian makes way for the outraged Indian, public discourse threatens to spiral into uncharted territory. It is time we switched off from breaking news and instant analysis.

The Hindu This is from my column in The Hindu (2015-2016)

The outpouring of outrage that has characterised public discourse over the past few years shows no signs of abating.

A few years ago, many were outraged, first against corruption, and then against those who were not supporting the movement that had sprung up in protest. Over the last few weeks, we saw outrage being directed at actor Anupam Kher and his fellows for directing outrage against those expressing outrage against outrageous acts of violence against people who had said things that were considered outrageous. Then, in Bengaluru, a community-organised, traditionally non-partisan literary festival became the locus of a controversy where many were outraged that some writers had threatened to pull out of the event. This was due to their outrage over the remarks of one of the organisers who had criticised those who had returned their awards in outrage against the government that they saw as silent in the face of violent outrage against intellectuals whose views the killers considered outrageous.

Earlier, we used to react to events. Then we began reacting to the media’s portrayal of events. Now, with social media, we react to reactions to events, and reactions to reactions to reactions to events, and so on.

First we had news. Then it became a news cycle, then an outrage cycle, and now we have nested, recursive outrage cycles. There are cycles within cycles. Public discourse is fast spiralling into unknown territory. It is now mostly a grotesque drama of screaming anchors, shouting talking heads, hyperventilating reporters, partisan commentators, opportunistic cheerleaders and online hordes of the self-righteous, all venting outrage against their respective devils of the day. To not stone the devil is to invite association with him.

Dysfunctional democracy

This is dangerous to public policy and, at a deeper level, to our democratic republic: policy disagreements turn permanent and ever greater, the credibility of knowledge is forever in doubt, and the legitimacy of political authority is contested. For decades, India has been walking the tightrope between being a deliberative democracy and a confrontational one. If the current trend breaches the middle class and permeates the masses, the country risks falling off the tightrope, ending up as a dysfunctional democracy.

Yatha raja, tatha praja (like ruler, like ruled). In a democracy, it is yatha praja, tatha raja too. Those who govern us are cut from the same cloth as the rest of us. It might not be a mere coincidence that there is increasing dysfunction in Parliament, where, too, outrage — not debate — is the currency of political contestation.

We are in the throes of a new form of what sociologists call moral panics”. The term originated in the late 1960s, when sociologist and criminologist Stanley Cohen identified a social phenomenon of exaggerated responses to events, egged by the then emergent mass media, championed by moral entrepreneurs”, leading to disproportionate changes to laws. In his own words, Moral panics are expressions of disapproval, condemnation, or criticism, that arise every now and then to phenomenon, which could be defined as deviant… The media are carriers of moral panics, which they either initiate themselves, or they carry the message of other groups… The moral part is the condemnation and social disapproval, and the panic is the element of hysteria and over reaction. Which subsequently can be applied to all sorts of waves of phenomenon. It is largely created by the media: no media — no moral panic.”

Folk devils

Cohen coined the term folk devil” to describe certain individuals or groups that are presumed to be a threat to society. Folk devils are painted — by the media — as entirely negative in character, with no redeeming features. They are then hysterically vilified by the public, and sought to be severely penalised. From youth gangs in the late-1960s, to concerns over inner-city crimes, to drug epidemics and so on, scholars have diagnosed many social phenomena as moral panics. Importantly, moral panics can be based on reality, and they can highlight desirable issues: what characterises them is exaggeration and volatility. In other words, society moving from outrage to outrage.

Diversity adds further fuel to the fire. Cohen notes that as long as there is not one single set of moral values across a whole society, there will always be these episodes of moral panic”. Ergo, in India, with its immense diversity along ethnic, geographic, religious, class and caste lines, we are especially vulnerable. The question of whether women should be free to wear jeans, for instance, is likely to cause separate moral panics in conservative, liberal, local and national circles.

Effect of social media

We are yet to see academic studies of how the advent of social media changes the course of moral panics. Societies are already getting deeply networked with the penetration of mobile phones and the Internet. Twitter, to take one example, has lowered the quality of public discourse where blogs had once elevated it. WhatsApp forwards are personalised gonzo journalism, far more pernicious because people might believe such personal messages more than they would believe in a tabloid known and consumed for its sensationalism. Santosh Desai, advertising professional and columnist, argues that (there) is a growing constituency for expressing feelings that one should not have but one does, and upon finding that there are many more who feel similarly, these politically incorrect sentiments get crystallised into a larger movement”.

Moral panics in radically networked societies are likely to be intense, personal and, of course, transient. It is unclear how they will affect public policy: politicians and bureaucrats can overreact to what they see as popular demand, or contrarily, tend to ignore what they see as a temporary fad among the digitally connected population. Either way, there are risks. Politicians and parties need to keep their ear to the ground as well as have a finger on the pulse to function effectively. If they lose it, or are confused, the results are unpredictable.

Unfortunately, we know little about how to manage and defuse ordinary moral panics, less these social media-driven recursive ones. We have to grope our way out of the darkness. The stakes, especially for us in India, are high: it is not only about sustaining the conditions for economic growth and transformation. It is also about preserving our constitutional values: As Mr. Desai warns, albeit in another context, there is a risk of how using the instrument of democracy, fear and divisiveness are likely to triumph over ideals and inclusiveness”.

How to calm down

So, what can we do to calm down? Everyone in India who consumes news must engage in introspection and self-reflection. This, however, is too much to ask before a deep national crisis, which, let us hope, does not visit us. However, leaders of civil society, the media and public intellectuals do have a responsibility to challenge certitudes instead of reinforcing the passionate intensities.

At the risk of preaching my own preferences, dear reader, you can take the first step by stopping watching television. All television. Stop believing what you receive on WhatsApp and forwarded emails. Limit your exposure to social media, except during emergencies. Instead, embrace proven wireless technology with nearly infinite battery life: newspapers and magazines. Cold print is still more conducive to reflection than television or your Twitter app.

The rest of my The Hindu columns are here

That said, I do plan to tweet this article, share it on Facebook, forward it on WhatsApp and email. And someone, somewhere is bound to express outrage over it.

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