The Inversion of Responsibility

“Be Responsible”, requests the sign. It’s titled “Hate Mongering” and was seen recently in the city of Pune:

Sign seen at a traffic intersection in Pune (see article for text of the sign).

Sign seen at a traffic intersection in Pune (see article for text of the sign).

Who is it addressed to, you might wonder. Is it addressed to the terrorists of the Hindu Rashtra Sena (“Hindu National Army”) who went on a rampage in the city last month and beat a Muslim man to death? No, it’s addressed to… people on Facebook. The sign advises its readers:

Choose carefully what you Comment, Like or Share on Social Media.

And it adds an upside-down image of a Facebook “Like” icon – i.e. a thumbs-down – for emphasis.

In case you haven’t been following the situation, the terrorists in question claimed offensive posts on social media as their “provocation”. They aren’t alone – just a few days before that, Shiv Sainiks went on the rampage in the city, destroying buses – they too claimed Facebook posts as their provocation. A few days after that, Maharashtra Home Minister R.R. Patil said:

Anti-social elements are posting inflammatory posts to stroke hatred, bitterness and disharmony between sects,” the minister said, warning that action will be taken not just against those who put up the photos but against others who “like” them on Facebook or forward them.

Consider the word (or rather the concept) “responsibility” that is explicit in the sign and implicit in the pronouncements of the authorities. I’ve written about the concept of moral responsibility at length before, and the difference between moral responsibility and causal determinism. In everyday life, when we talk about responsibility, we are talking about moral responsibility. (I’ve seen people argue otherwise – but it’s word games and mental gymnastics. If you pursue the question honestly and rigorously, you will arrive at that same definition.) Every crime/injustice in the world is fully caused in the causal determinism sense – even the most horrible crime you can imagine. But this has nothing to do with moral responsibility – that is an entirely different question. Unfortunately what happens is that people blur the distinction between moral responsibility and causal determinism, resulting in an inversion of moral responsibility – i.e. moral responsibility is assigned to a victim/innocent in a crime or injustice. As an example of this blurring, look at this sentence from the Indian Express article linked above:

The derogatory photographs, uploaded on Facebook and circulated through WhatsApp on Saturday, triggered communal tension in the city as activists of Hindu outfits and political organisations indulged in violence and arson.

Now try to make out what exactly is being stated here – who is being assigned moral responsibility? Both the Facebook posters and the terrorists? And apart from the direction of moral responsibility, what proportion is being assigned? Are they being held equally responsible? Why? Or are the Facebook posts merely mentioned as causes – in the sense of causal determinism – of the religious thuggery? – i.e., “If you hadn’t posted those things on Facebook, the thugs wouldn’t have committed the crimes they committed”. You can’t tell, can you – the language is ambiguous, and ambiguous language like this is part and parcel of the blurring of the two things. And when the majority of the planet isn’t even aware of the distinction between the two, the only conclusion they’re going to draw is moral responsibility.

So – are the Facebook posters morally responsible here? Well, for one, the causal determinism is itself debatable here, because it simply isn’t true that Facebook posts “trigger” religious terrorism. Religious extremists, whether organised gangs or random individuals, have never needed a “trigger” or “provocation” for violence – for them, violence is an exercise of power, and the so-called “trigger” – which could be anything from cartoons to paintings to cinema to shoes to greeting cards to petty arguments to women behaving like human beings – is just a convenient peg for it. But for the sake of argument, let’s suppose it really is true that the members of the Hindu Rashtra Sena (for example) are good honest men just going about their lives, who are suddenly and uncharacteristically “triggered” into a paroxysm of violence by Facebook posts which offend Hinduism. Even then, in no moral universe I’d want to live in, do these two acts have equal moral responsibility. The only negative reaction such Facebook posts deserve (remember, moral responsibility involves negative judgements and actions) is criticism-by-newspaper-article. If they cross over into harassment – e.g. by constant tweeting of morphed sexual imagery (which one of the images/posts is alleged to have been) at a real person – then they deserve legal action for harassment. That is the extent to which the Facebook posters are morally responsible. Religious terrorists who burn buses and murder people remain morally responsible for their crimes – and much more so.

Certain tropes or patterns of speech and action appear when this inversion of responsibility takes place. They occur not just in the case of religious supremacy, but in any oppressive social system. Women everywhere would have instantly recognised the admonition – the warning – to “be responsible”, because women are routinely held morally responsible for male violence against them. The first pattern of inversion of responsibility is what I call The Spotlight – i.e. where is the focus of attention? No signs have sprung up in the city asking the members of the Hindu Rashtra Sena to “be responsible”. The media buzz too has all been about Facebook posts, not religious terrorism. Look at the headline of this NDTV article – “Pune Tense Again Over Facebook Photos; Arrests Soon, Says Government”. The quotes from the politicians and the police too are all about Facebook posts. And the news that 700 Hindu radicals were arrested flies under the radar.

The second pattern is Who Should Change? – i.e. who is implicitly being punished (again, a feature of moral responsibility) by being told to change their behaviour? Again, it’s clear who that is in this case – Facebook posters and anyone who makes fun of religion. The question “How do we get religious thugs to change?” does not seem to have entered anyone’s mind. Apparently, they do not need to change.

The third pattern is Helpless/Invisible Perpetrator (thanks G. for pointing this out and coining the phrase). The perpetrator is either treated as a helpless non-agent whose crime is inevitable, or erased from the equation entirely (again, note how common this is in some discussions about rape). At best this is a psychologically defeatist position, because it sends the message “We can’t/won’t do anything about the criminals”. At worst it is a capitulation to and a siding with oppression – in this case, religious oppression.

Note that this is a moral argument I’m making here (sorry I haven’t spelled it out in standard form) – similar to the one I made about victim blaming. The conclusion of the argument is: We ought not to “invert” responsibility for acts of religious terrorism (and for violent crimes in general) onto victims or innocents or even those claimed to have “provoked” the crime. It’s a crucial time to be a secular humanist in India, given the right-wing tide. We are the ones who need to make these arguments, and convince others that these are strong arguments. To end with, here’s a thought exercise (which I haven’t thought through myself): when you argue this position with religious believers, you are going to come up against a problem of two big “unshared premises”: (1) gods don’t exist, and (2) religion causes net harm. Do these premises make a difference to my argument? E.g. if for the sake of argument, I conceded these premises to the believer – i.e. I conceded that gods exist and religions are all right – would the argument still be a good one?





  1. says

    Hey Sunil – stay safe, huh? I don’t mean stop posting, or anything like that. Just don’t want to see anyone hurt you, and it seems like these fanatics are doing just that. 🙁

    Your post is brave and necessary.

  2. says

    Everyone was just fine and dandy until someone “Liked” something on FB. Uh huh. Just keep excusing the violent by blaming people who talk. As if these thugs are like a tiger, just going about it’s business, until someone started throwing rocks at it.

    Inversion of moral responsibility is an apt identification indeed.

  3. Stevarious, Public Health Problem says

    The implicit message of these signs is that the terrorists are unthinking animals, incapable of reason or ethical behavior. I suppose if I were a terrorist, I would be way more offended by such an assertion… but maybe the reason I’m not a terrorist is linked to the fact that this would offend me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *