Paul P. Mealing

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Thursday, 9 April 2015

Morality is totally in the eye of the beholder

The most obvious and topical examples of this truism are the behaviours of members of IS towards ‘outsiders’. But this post is not about IS; nevertheless, it is about a clash of cultures – in this case a clash of ‘old’ versus ‘new’ in the same society, which happens to be India.

Last night I saw a documentary, 2 years in the making, by British filmmaker, Leslee Udwin, called India’s Daughter about the rape and murder of Jyoti Singh in December 2012 – a crime at once so brutal and primal that it shocked the entire civilised world. The film was due to be broadcast worldwide on International Women’s Day in March, including India, but the Indian Government unexpectedly banned the documentary from being shown in the country, ‘claiming it was an affront to women’ (according to the ABC). This about-face on the part of the Indian Government is not so surprising when the documentary itself reveals the schism that exists in Indian society on the issue of women’s roles and women’s rights.

This blog is seen and read all over the world, including India, so I hope that Indians do indeed read this, especially since they were not allowed access to the documentary.

I’ve written before that morality for most people is determined by social and cultural norms, hence the title of this post. I’ve read many articles and essays that attempt to provide a meta-ethics or an objective morality, but experience and observation suggest that culture is the overriding factor in determining someone’s personal moral compass. This incident demonstrates how 2 conflicting cultural norms can lead to tragic and fatal consequences for an individual. Written in that language, one might consider that the 2 opposing cultural norms may have equal validity, but, when it leads to a crime, comparable in nature to Jack the Ripper’s, it’s hard to maintain that relativist position.

I’ve argued previously that moral relativism is an impossible position to hold because no one can hold or defend opposing moral viewpoints. This documentary is a case in point, because, whilst it demonstrates that one’s moral viewpoint is indeed in the eye of the beholder, it also demonstrates that 2 opposing moral viewpoints cannot be sustained.

Jyoti Singh was an only daughter of a poor family who put herself through university to earn a degree in medicine, whilst working in a call centre, managing on 3-4 hrs sleep per night. So she’s an extraordinary modern success story, an inspiration for any young woman wanting to pursue a career in whatever field; but becoming a doctor, given her circumstances, is an especially outstanding achievement.

She had earned her degree and was about to start her 6mth internship the following Monday. Knowing that she would have little free time, she went to see a movie with a male friend on the Sunday night – they went and saw Life of Pi. Nothing could be more ‘ordinary’. I have seen that movie and it gave a particular resonance, because no one expects that, after being entertained by a celebrated movie, they would be murdered on their way home.

But this is where we have a clash of cultures because she was trapped on a bus with a pack of animals(6) who not only raped her but disembowelled her. I use the term ‘pack of animals’ because they were not human. No human could do that to another human. In committing that act, they gave up all rights to be called human.

The documentary includes interviews with the driver of the bus and the 2 lawyers who defended the gang. These interviews, more than anything else, reveal the cultural schism that I referred to earlier, because they all defended the gang and blamed the girl – that’s their moral perspective based on their cultural norms.

The driver maintained that he didn’t partake in the ‘incident’ (he just drove the bus), which at one point he corrects himself and calls an ‘accident’, yet he defends the actions of the others and goes so far as to say, that in the case of rape, ‘the girl is more responsible than the boy’. What’s more, he argues that she shouldn’t have fought back, then she wouldn’t have been harmed. In other words, even the fatal wounds she suffered were her own fault. But he also, tellingly, said it was a ‘message’, implying that she had forfeited all rights to her dignity and her life by going to a movie with a male friend.

The truth is that he knew nothing about her: he didn’t know that she was a recently qualified doctor or the sacrifices she had made to earn that qualification or that she had a future that he could never even dream about. No, she had no value as a human being because, in his eyes and those of his partners-in-crime, she had no self-respect. It was obvious from conversations with the filmmaker that he considered rape to be a normal activity. A prison psychiatrist related that they believed they had the ‘right to enjoy themselves’. Whereas others enjoyed themselves using money they did so with their ‘courage’ and that legitimised it in their minds. What strikes one straightaway is that the girl’s enjoyment is irrelevant – in fact, implicit in this rationalisation is the belief that her suffering: physical, emotional, psychological; actually contributes to their enjoyment.

But this admission highlights another problem in a society like India’s. There is effectively no outlet for normal sexual appetites for young men because of their strict moral approbations towards women, and this is what makes rape a normal and acceptable activity in the eyes of those who practice it. What’s more, as the bus driver points out, it’s easy to justify when it’s the girl’s own fault.

But whilst the defensive arguments of the bus driver were understandable if impossible to empathise with, the arguments of the 2 lawyers beggared belief. One lawyer, to distinguish him from the other, I will call the ‘unctuous’ lawyer – the other lawyer didn’t even deserve the title, human being, but I will come to that later.

The unctuous lawyer described a woman as something precious like a flower or a jewel that needed to be protected. In ‘our culture’, to use his own words, she is not allowed outside the home. But this is a contradiction because a person who is not allowed to interact with the outside world has no value whatsoever, except of course to be a servant to her husband and a mother to her children. So she’s a ‘jewel’ or ‘flower’ who should never be seen in public. He blames ‘filmy’ culture because it portrays women as independent (he didn’t say that but it was implied) which, in his mind, is a fantasy. And although he never says it, it’s a corollary to his viewpoint that a woman should never use her brain to become a doctor or a lawyer (like himself). So a woman can be ‘precious’ as long as she’s never seen and as long as she makes no attempt to use her brain as a man can.

But the second lawyer publicly stated on TV that if he had a sister or a daughter who committed ‘adultery’, he would pour petrol on her and set fire to her in front of the entire family. That’s his mentality. A person, who publicly admits that he would burn his sister or daughter alive, doesn’t deserve the title, human being. And he’s a lawyer. Does he consider then, that a young single woman going to a movie with her boyfriend is tantamount to committing adultery?

One can’t watch this documentary without feeling the pain of the parents and without contemplating the senseless waste of a young life that had so much promise. The mother, when discussing her daughter’s situation, having just earned her degree and on the brink of starting a career as a doctor, made the following statement: ‘It seems that God didn’t like this. He ended everything.’ Implicit in this statement is a belief that God was punishing her and her daughter for daring to follow an independent career. It is not surprising that people feel a perverse sense of guilt when they lose someone so close to them. Also, just before dying, her daughter apologised for ‘all the trouble she had caused’ – her last words, apparently. This is the culture that India has imparted onto its women: that they take the burden of responsibility and guilt, whilst those who commit the most heinous crime see no wrong in what they’ve done. It’s an upside down perverse sort of morality.

Young people, from universities mostly, protested for over a month, despite being subjected to tear gas and fire hose dowsing by police. And this is probably why the film has been banned, because the protests could easily start anew. But a consequence of the protests was that the government set up a panel to review rape laws and make recommendations. One of the members of the panel, Leila Seth, a woman and former Chief Justice, held hope that young people would challenge and ultimately change the culture, which is the only long term solution. She made the logical and true statement that the key was the education of women, because only then would women attain a sense of self-worth that men would also value and acknowledge.

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