Social Identity

Looking for icons to transform social norms

  • Blog Post Date 28 January, 2013
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Debraj Ray

New York University

What can be done to reduce the incidence of rape? This article proposes that messages from role models such as cricketers and film stars can change outlooks. It outlines a strategy for measuring the effects of the proposed policy.

The recent and much publicised rape in New Delhi makes it all too clear that many parts of India (Delhi a leader in this respect) exude a culture that is toxic for women. While we might seek to understand the social and economic foundations of these barbaric acts, no society can tolerate them.

The reactions to the incident have proceeded across two broad lines. One is that women should do more to stay out of harm´s way. These have run the gamut from caution in attire to appropriate times for women to be outdoors, and other even more outlandish suggestions, such as holding the hand of a potential rapist and calling him a brother. All of these are outrageous, and can be summarily dismissed. There is no civilised society in which women must obey any restrictions, other than the norms of conduct that apply equally to men and women.

The second, dominant reaction is a call for more severe punishments, ranging from such esoteric such as chemical castration all the way to the death penalty. These are unacceptable, not necessarily because they are outrageous (to some, they may well be) but for other reasons. For instance, castration presumes that the dominant impetus for rape is sexual. It is not. It is the desire to exert power over a woman in the only way a rapist knows, through unbridled violence. It is even possible (though not necessary) to argue that castration might heighten those urges, not diminish them. The death penalty is inappropriate (quite apart from fundamental ethical reservations that many might have) because it would lead to the murder of rape victims, the marginal punishment from rape to murder now having dropped to zero and the marginal gain being obviously positive.

Quite apart from these specific objections, it is entirely unclear that we would like to live in a society where transgressions are not committed just because there are severe penalties for doing so. That is not the way to build a just civil society.

Social engineering: calling upon role models

What has been noticeably missing from the outcry is the fact that rape is committed - often but not exclusively - by young males who, reprehensible though their outlooks may be, have their own role models in society. Who are these role models? I highlight two sets: cricketers and film stars. There may be others. Every young man looks up to these demigods of India. It is time to press the demigods into service via a concerted series of television and radio commercials, preferably played over and over again during the live broadcast of cricket matches. The government must buy the ad time, or tv channels must donate it. The demigods must be encouraged to donate their time, but failing that, the government should pay for their services.

What must these ads say? They must speak in no uncertain terms. I call upon the many cool advertising specialists in our country to design them.

Certainly, they would categorically reject sexual violence, but they must go one step further to shame the person who indulges in such violence: a man who touches a woman without her consent is a kutta, a dog who is only worthy of the demigod´s contempt (and that of society, but never mind society, as society´s contempt matters not an iota to a rapist). And they must take yet a second step, to say that a woman may go anywhere, at any time, in whatever clothing suits her pleasure and with whomever she wishes, or with no one.

This is social engineering, the quickest way of affecting the distorted sexual tastes of an unfortunately significant section of India´s male society. But it is social engineering that not a single human being can find fault with. Accordingly, it must be done and I claim that it will have an enormous effect. I propose, also, that we measure such an effect, for possible use not just with sexual violence but in a variety of other social contexts, though in several of these contexts the universal merit of such social engineering will be correctly debated and called into question. (Consider, for instance, a similar campaign to denounce someone that steals. While accepting that there are laws against theft, I would oppose a campaign that vilifies stealing in a poor, unequal society.) But there is no debate with rape.

Measuring the effect

Let me return to my proposal that we measure such an effect. There is, first, the conveyer of the message: a demigod (cricketer or film star), or a local leader, or an NGO, or a politician. There is, next, the media: television, radio, billboards, or even nonstandard media such as text messages. There are times of day and night, and there are events (such as cricket matches). I propose that we deliberately randomise over a variety of such approaches over different regions of India: one would presumably target urban metropolitan areas to start with. Economists and scientists have developed rigorous methods to evaluate to outcomes of such randomisation. Such randomised experiments have been debated in economics on several counts, but perhaps most often for their inability to convey ``external validity," or knowledge of outcomes beyond the immediate field of the experiment. No such issue of external validity need concern us here: the field of India is large enough. On the other hand, randomisation on such a scale would call upon all of the expertise (and then some more) of the researchers who have pioneered such experiments in the social sciences. Deep questions of internal validity would arise. Such questions must not deter them.

Two considerations in particular come to mind. A media blitz of the sort I am proposing will not just affect the "true" incidence of rape, it may alter the reporting of rape in ways that we need to think about. For instance, encouraged and emboldened by the media attention, more courageous women may come forward to report acts of violence committed against them. This would be a wonderful outcome, but because we cannot factor out "true incidence" from "reporting rates", the effect of the campaign on rape might look smaller than it truly is. It is also possible that the opposite occurs: the relatively high-report rapes (such as those perpetrated by a stranger) may be discouraged by the campaign, leaving the low-report rapes (those committed by family members or husbands) to continue, and giving the impression that the campaign is more effective than it really is. We need to think about such issues, and in particular (to judge the relative efficiency of different measures: e.g., demigod vs minister), how such effects might vary over the different districts that experience these campaigns.

A second consideration consists of public knowledge of such a deliberate campaign, or its variation over different parts of India. Is this a big deal? Maybe it is and maybe it isn´t. I would suggest that it isn´t. The percentages in the country who are aware of (or follow) discussions such as the one we are having now is low. That is lamentable in general, but in this context it is useful. It means that we can try different strategies: the same words spoken by different people, different words spoken by the same people, in different parts of India. The idea is to start a process and at the same time, to see what works. It is not as perfect as a controlled experiment because we know that statistically similar conditions across the districts of India are just not to be had. But if the campaign is well-designed, we have the econometric wherewithal to extract information from it.

Finally, reports of rape are not the only measure we can construct. For instance, attitudinal surveys before and after the intervention, could have much to tell us.

A policy worth trying

Measurement is important. I´ve simply asserted that my proposed policy will have a huge effect. It may have none. But how are we to know that? After all, no policy has zero cost. So there is no escape from scientific analysis of the impact of a policy, and while we are about it, we may as well consider the relative efficiencies of demigods and (say) local leaders, and not just policy versus no policy at all. We need to try something like this. The alternative doesn´t bear thinking about.

The author would like to thank Raji Jayaraman, Parikshit Ghosh and Ashok Kotwal for their inputs.

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