Since December 2012, after the infamous and cruel rape of Nirbhaya in the moving bus in Delhi, reports of other rapes in the Indian capital and other metros continue to appear in the news, including the recent news about the rape of a photo-journalist in Mumbai. Recently, I was reading a paper from a social psychology research about the messages used for changing public behaviour, that raised some questions and doubts in my mind about the common communications in the Indian media about rape. This article explains the research and those doubts.
Social psychology is an area of study that looks at how persons relate to and influence each other. At present, I am involved in an online course on social psychology from Coursera. These online courses are run by prestigious American and a few British universities. They are free and open to everyone. If you have never looked at the Coursera website, and you are interested in continuing your learning through online courses, my recommendation is that you should take a look at it!
The research that struck me and prompted this article was done by Prof. R. B. Cialdini from Arizona university and was published in 2003 ("Crafting normative messages to protect the environment" in journal of American Psychological society). This article is one of the learning materials in the course on social psychology.
In this research Cialdini looked at undesirable behaviours and the effectiveness of different public messages that were used in USA to limit those behaviours. Cialdini's paper is not about rapes - it is about damage to the environment. He suggests that people's behaviour can be influenced by 2 kinds of norms in our communications -
(1) Descriptive norms: these norms are about behaviours that are popular and are carried out by a large number of persons. If a behaviour is seen as common, other people feel like copying it. Thus, we should use these norms in our messages when we wish people to do something.
(2) Injunctive norms: these norms tell us which behaviour is forbidden or wrong in our society and should not be done. These norms should be used in messages when we wish people to stop doing something.
Cialdini's research showed that often messages given to public for stopping some bad behaviour used both kinds of norms in an inappropriate way so that they become contradictory, and thus may not be effective. Cialdini's research showed that such contradictory messages can be counter-productive - that is, they promote the behaviour, they wish to stop.
Let me explain myself a little better.
When we talk about an issue, usually we feel that it is important to underline the gravity and the severity of the problem, because we think that if people understand how bad it is they will try to stop it. However, it may not work in that way.
Thus, when we prepare messages, we give information that this problem is very widespread. This may give the unconscious message to public that the undesirable behaviour is very common, and that it is carried out by a large number of persons in the society. Some people listening to or watching that message start thinking that "it is something common and popular, so we can also do it". Due to this reason, such messages may have the opposite effect.
Cialdini gives different examples of his studies to support these ideas. For example, in a protected natural park containing important fossils, visiters were taking away small pieces of fossils and it was a big problem. The authorities used a message informing the visiters that every year 40 tonnes of fossils are stolen from the park and asking the visiters not to steal the fossils. However, this message-campaign did not have any effect, rather the stealing increased after this campaign. Thus, Cialdini explained that this message told people that taking away fossils was common and popular, and people felt that if they also take away a small piece it will not make much difference.
Delhi as the rape capital of India
Let me start with some of my own ideas about the issue of rapes in India. Delhi was not a safe city even 40 years ago. From those years, I remember, my sister's worries about the behaviour of guys in Delhi buses going to the university.
I am sorry to confess that at that time even I used to believe that it was because of "provocative clothes" that girls wear, and if they can look like "behen ji" they will be spared. Only much later did I realize that saying that the fault is because of girls' dress or behaviour shifts the responsibility from the guys who behave wrongly onto the girls, and in a way, approves that guys can behave the way they wish and then put the blame on the girl.
I believe that Indian society's emphasis on girls' izzat and how it is equated with "family honour" worsens this situation.
Today the things seem to have worsened. Social phenomenon are almost always complex and have different causes. I think that partly, the number of rapes may have "increased" because now more girls and more families have the courage to report it. In this sense, increase in reporting of rape should be seen as a positive sign.
Asking that police and laws should stop or reduce the rapes can be a superficial solution, because it allows us to ignore the harsh social realities of India where class and caste inequalities are closely interlinked with the way women are treated. It makes us feel that we can continue to be a chauvenistic and unequal society, and that only police or stronger punishments can resolve this problem.
Just listening to the declarations of police officers, politicians, religious leaders and sometimes, even magistrates and judges (including many women), shows how entrenched such ways of thinking are in our society's psyche.
I think that it is the same societal attitudes that are also responsible for dowry killings, female infanticide and violence against women, that are responsible for rapes and the inceased feelings of insecurity perceived by girls and women in India. Unfortunately these are so common among outside the big cities and among more marginalized groups that these are taken as the norm and do not even make it to any kind of news.
However, after reading Cialdini's paper, I was wondering, if in our desire to bring a change in our society, we are not emphasising too much on how frequent and common rapes have become and if this is fueling the perception at least in some men that it is common and even they can do it?
Can talking about "Delhi as the rape capital of India" or "Mumbai as the new rape capital of India" is the wrong message to give to country's men, because it tells them that rape is common or even "normal"?
What do you think?