Civilization, really?

StonesWilliam Hazlitt, a literary figure of centuries ago, once remarked: The desires that bring us to witness heroic tragedy cannot be separated from the instincts that drive us to observe public executions.

Never once did I imagine a theoretical idea being put to practical everyday living, through that epitome of public and mass psyche- the television news channel. A few weeks ago, a man in a rural part of India who was accused of stabbing his friend, was publicly dragged out of the ICU of a hospital, tied by a rope at his feet and hands and stoned till he bled to death. The news channels kept replaying it over and over, and like a curse that just would not go away, I could not switch over to another channel. As a generation that has witnessed the WTC bombing, the Parliament attack, local train blasts in Mumbai on television, we have become a little ‘desensitized’ to numbers. And perhaps, that is the defense system that we build up, in order to survive. Had we registered every face of the bodies strewn on the pavements, caked with blood, daily living would have become an ordeal. So with a rather hard heart, we push away most of our emotions and switch channels after listening to cold hard numbers thrown our way. The point I make is this: even through the superficial layers of stoic resilience that we have built while taking in such news, the stoning of that man made an impact on me like never before. Here was a man, blindfolded, tied up like an animal, jumped and kicked upon. The camera that stood there as the sole voice of that gaping silence of our barbaric years, captured the demise not only of a man, but of any faith in a remotely sane judicial system.

With two armed police officers present, nothing was done. With hospital staff and a guard at the hospital, nothing was done. With a magistrate that could have given orders to fire, nothing was done. And with a possibility of apprehending such violent, absolutely base mobs, nothing was done.

Are we turning into the idea of the Hobbesian state – reductive and animalistic, where each person is at war with his society, in the absence of a governing authority? The tragedy is that there is no one to blame. It isn’t the news channels that showed it, it isn’t the camera that stood there still, it isn’t the police constable who wasn’t given “orders to shoot” from the magistrate -it isn’t anyone. Maybe we have failed to grasp that, sometimes, a universalistic ideology works in different ways for different marginalized communities. While we tell an Africa to stand up against violence, inequality, exploitation; we fail to consider what exploitation might mean for the average Caucasian American who thinks his job has been robbed of him. The suppressed will rise, and that has been the cycle of power…but what will be the change? Will the oppressors be the oppressed? And so it continues.

Handing a camera and a microphone (which ironically acts as a loudspeaker on the world stage) to the average citizen, does bring to the fore the problems – it does bring to light the power cuts in Rajinder Nagar, the shortage of water in Greater Kailash. However, it also acts as a source of power showmanship. We have enabled every man with the idea of him being a story, so much so that most of us are not too alien with the concept of ever being a story. The Girl Who Survived Her Break Up. The Boy Who Ate Glass. The Man Who Did Nothing. However, sometimes – just sometimes – when the occasional mob-figure looks into the camera, waves and proceeds to vandalize or beat up someone whom the law should legally take care of, one cannot help but wonder- what would have been different had there been no extensive media coverage? Would half that mob not be there? My argument may have its potholes. The media is enriching, and the world is exactly where it should be and we are getting what we deserve. Yet, that does not stop us from wondering when this will end. Flashing headlines scream “Saudi woman stoned in Middle East” as if it was the most alien and primitive behaviour for our own country. If you relegate stoning episodes, witch trials and public lynching to a minor tag-line at the end of a news bulletin, we are reaching that primitive state. And we are getting there fast. With the most horrible, gut-wrenching feeling, I suspect this isn’t the last stoning that I will view on television. And the tragedy isn’t that it is being showed on prime time, but that it is happening at all. Shruti Rao

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