Why are Indian liberals outraged over Muslims’ killing but not Hindus’ plight? It’s complicated

Careful with your name.
Careful with your name.
Image: AP Photo/Tsering Topgyal
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Though they can lay the grounds for actual blood-letting, culture wars unfold through claims and counter-claims of injuries to the psyche. An aspect of this is the current criticism that goes by the name of “selective outrage.” The term is used to describe the situation where the so-called liberal citizenry engages in apparently self-serving public protests against some incidents while ignoring a number of others.

The argument unfolds through a number of loops: how come you express outrage at the killing of a Muslim boy in a train but not of a police officer in Kashmir, or the plight of Kashmiri Pandits, or the long-term harassment faced by Bangladeshi author Tasleema Nasrin, or the killing of Sikhs in 1984, or the threats faced by a Hindu posting messages on Facebook that some Muslims find objectionable? You could add endlessly to the list of objections, for we are a nation where such lists are lengthened because the first act in an argument is the resort to brute force.

The selective outrage criticism then goes on to claim a wound on the national psyche, sustained through the duplicitous acts of the traitorous and the easily misled. The healing that is offered consists of the defence and manufacture of a psychopathic nationalist personality marked by shallow empathy and the naturalisation of violence.

Simplistic assumptions

But first, one must address the logic of the critique. Do protestors against the killing of Muslims deliberately downplay or ignore the killing of Dalits and Sikhs? And, do their reactions to the killing of Hindus (say, by Muslims) display partisan emotions because they fail to organise demonstrations and protests? Let us leave politicians out of the discussion, for their actions are motivated by the psychopathology of power. But what about the rest of us? Do we discriminate in our outrage?

Actually, posing the question in this way is the first step in presenting a simplistic view of the world. This, in turn, forms the grounds for producing a psychopathic nationalist personality.

The question is deliberately simplistic and is intended to produce a black-and-white view of the world. The question assumes that all forms of actual or symbolic violence are exactly the same and require the same response. The accusation of selective outrage is intended to foreclose a serious examination of violence and any fundamental social critique of its multiple forms and causes. It stops us from thinking about actually existing social and political conditions and the conditions that make for violence. Censorship, of the kind faced by Nasrin is—as she herself has eloquently pointed out—also an issue of masculine power, and the killing of state security personnel is the tragedy of a state that is viewed as the enemy in many parts of the country.

Will the critics of selective outrage ever dare to question masculine power or the arbitrary powers of the state that create conditions of everyday violence? No, because they implicitly support the status quo, masking their psychopathology through an equality of violence argument.

As soon as we assume that all forms of violence require the same response, we are able to do two things at the same time. First, we can say that social violence can be eliminated without questioning the beliefs and norms that make for it. The selective outrage mouthpieces are not interested in eliminating all forms of violence since their argument is based on the premise that all violence—that of the weak and the powerful, men and women, black and white—is exactly the same and requires an equivalent response. This is an argument that actually seeks to maintain the status quo through providing implicit support for the powerful in their exercise of power, while castigating the powerless when they lash out in their weakness.

Second, the selective outrage argument produces pathologised personalities through presenting a picture of social life where extending empathy is always a competitive act: to be seen to protest against one kind of violence is to imagine that you condone another kind. Empathy becomes the shallow act of shoring up community feeling rather than stretching out across community boundaries. Shallowness of empathy is the classic trait of the psychopath. Empathy is translated into an act of political manipulation and fear-mongering. Empathy transforms into an instrument of producing gated mentalities and violence.

Outrage and its many forms

So then, what should be the response to the imagined abuse of selective outrage?

First, we must point out that outrage takes—and must take—many forms because different forms of violence require different responses. To think that all forms of violence are the same is to partake in violence itself by masking its different causes and contexts: Is the violence of the battered woman against her partner the same as that of her batterer? Should we respond in exactly the same manner? The thinking citizen has historically responded in multiple ways to the violence of our times, even though adrenalin-fuelled tabloid television may struggle with understanding this.

Second, it is important to insist that those who speak of responding to all violence in an equivalent manner also engage in debate about the causes of different forms of violence rather than only declaim about the immediate response. It is unlikely that they will ever be ready for any such debate, for that might expose their own complicity in the violence of our times.

Finally, accusations of selective outrage must be called out for what they are. They are displays of a limited understanding of outrage, one that is incapable of comprehending that genuine understanding of the contexts of violence requires different forms of outrage. And, second, they are the deployment of selective memory in the cause of manufacturing ideas of the injured psyche of those who are themselves the most significant perpetrators of social violence. Irony also dies a thousand deaths.

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