Pitfalls of stereotyping and objectifying people
The violence against against Christians in Orissa after the murder of the Swami Laxmananda Saraswati (who was opposed to Christian missionary activity) is intolerable. I don’t want to go into who killed the Swami (the police say it’s the Naxals but the perpetrators of the violence insist it’s the “Christians”) and nor do I have any sympathy for those who perpetrate violence, whether mental or physical. In any case at a rational level we all know that nothing justifies revenge against innocent people.
These tribal communities lived in peace before religion arrived on the scene…and some say it is the relative affluence and educational levels of the converted Christians (better access to schools and support of the church) that has infuriated the ‘Hindus.” But the actual reasons for the divide go beyond this, reasons which are not just social but also religious and political.
Religious violence is not new to India, nor is mob violence, (often aided and abetted by political groups). Such behavior is not restricted to India…in fact it is the dark side of human nature. Only the law can keep it in check, which it doesn’t, not in India.
All of us are guilty
We may not pick up an axe and hack someone to death, we may not burn someone’s house down or threaten someone to re-convert at the point of a knife…but aren’t we all guilty of group hatred and group prejudice? Once strong negative images of a particular community and/or a group takes control of our minds, the foray into verbal or physical violence is just the next step. Some people are not physically violent themselves but are happy if someone does the dirty work for them. Or at best, they turn a blind eye.
This “revenge” mentality against groups is widespread. When the earthquake hit China, there were people who said China deserved it because of its activities in Tibet. Sharon Stone’s comment on this issue was widely publicized, but I am sure others secretly felt this too. And no, I don’t think cine stars as a group felt this way. Recently I heard someone say something similarly sick about the devastation caused in Bihar due to the river Kosi changing course. Hundreds and thousands of people have lost their homes and many have died…it is a colossal tragedy but people feel indifferent because it is poor Bihar! Then there are people who want the whole of West Bengal to suffer because of a few misguided politicians. They feel that if the Tatas pull out of Bengal, the state “deserves” it. Tomorrow if something bad happens in Maharashtra I know there will be people who will say “they” deserve it because “they” want outsiders out.
There are those who deliberately shut their minds to the fact that extreme actions are usually undertaken by a minority. And at times the minority of the minority! Those who fall victim to negative stereotypes are prejudiced to start with (with a strong “us” and “them” attitude) and also insecure I think. Painting whole communities and groups with the same brush is a matter of relief for them, an outlet for their anger. Not being a psychologist I cannot lay down all the reasons, but I think ego also has something to do with it.
Negative stereotyping is dangerous
This “us” and “them” attitude, seeing people as group members (not as an individuals) is deeply ingrained into human psyche. So wired is it into our genes that I am sure it must have helped us in our cave man days. Stereotyping people certainly makes it easier to handle the “other” and it certainly has its advantages. By definition, stereotyping is:
…a simplified and/or standardized conception or image with specific meaning, often held in common by people about another group
Those who have “suffered” due to the action of a member or two of the “other” community often allow their simmering hatred (which has been dormant since childhood) to spill on to all other individuals of that particular group. Any untoward incident (the assassination of Swami Laxmananda Saraswati is an example) can result in large-scale violence in which normally law abiding citizens could partcipate or condone. The fact that they know that they will never be persecuted by the law helps a great deal. While stereotyping in itself may not be bad, acting upon one’s stereotype is another matter altogether. As a psychologist puts it:
Stereotypes do not tell us how to behave or treat other people (or groups of people)… Stereotypes tell us what groups of people tend to be or do in general; they do not tell us how we ought to treat them.
We know that in India nothing happens to those who break the law when part of a mob. And this in a country where there are plenty of different cultural groups…enough fodder for political parties to stir up trouble by creating fear and insecurity and increasing the threat perception of their vote bank. What is tragic is that ordinary people fall victims to it, not just the bigots. The bigots just lead the pack.
(Photo credits: Orissa photo is from topnews.com and flood photo is from national geographic news)
Related Reading: Strike, agitate and paralyze, that’s becoming a way of life!
Gujjar violence of 2007
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Comparision of violent crime in the world
Poor people to Police ratio
Dalit violence in Maharashtra after Ambedkar’s statue damaged in Kanpur
Fake mob attack by political party