The Cheat Sheet

Gauri Lankesh, Bobo dolls and the normalisation of hate

VENKY VEMBU | Updated on January 10, 2018


Isn’t Lankesh the journalist who was killed on Tuesday?

Yes. She was shot dead outside her home by unidentified gunmen.

Has the case been cracked?

Not yet, although there has been some heavy-duty conjecturing by political commentators of various hues about the motives for her disquieting murder.

What do they say?

Left-liberal commentators point to Lankesh’s steadfast, long-standing opposition to Hindutva politics, and the parallels between her killing and the silencing of other liberal voices, such as those of Narendra Dhabolkar, Govind Pansare and MM Kalburgi. Those on the right claim that in recent times, Lankesh had run afoul of Naxal outfits because she was influencing its cadres to give up arms and “mainstreaming” them. They cite two of her tweets on the day of her killing, in which she anguished over ‘infighting’ among “comrades”.

Can’t our divided polity take a break even after a gruesome killing?

Evidently not. On Twitter, which of course is not known for nuanced political discourse, there’s been a revolting celebration, by right-wing commentators, of Lankesh’s killing. We seem to be on a slippery slope towards the normalisation of hate.

That’s tragic. But what are Bobo dolls?

Bobo dolls are round-bottomed, soft, tilting toys that, when knocked down, get back up to an upright position.

And what do they have to do with all this?

The dolls were used as a prop in a series of path-breaking psychological experiments in the 1960s by renowned social psychologist Albert Bandura at Stanford University. The experiments were intended to test Bandura’s social learning theory, which holds that people learn through observing and imitating others; additionally, for people to learn, they don’t themselves need to be rewarded or punished; they can learn just as well from watching somebody else being rewarded or punished.

Tell me more.

Bandura demonstrated that after watching a woman ‘attack’ a Bobo doll as part of the experiment, children would similarly attack the doll, summoning up rage beyond their years. In another strand of the experiment, some children, who later saw the woman being ‘punished’ for her behaviour, did not attack the doll. But when they were told they would not be punished if they attacked the doll, they went about it with disturbing gusto.

What’s the parallel?

We have, of course, to wait for investigators to crack the Lankesh murder case. But in a general sense, it’s impossible not to see a larger pattern in the way thugs and lynch mobs have been emboldened in recent years by the fact that vigilante hit squads have gone unpunished for crimes. Like the children in Bandura’s Bobo doll experiments, they’ve taken it a ‘licence’ to attack and kill at will.

That’s appalling.

It is. As psychology professor Chris S Crandall at the University of Kansas noted, based on a research on supporters of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton before and after the November 2016 election, Trump’s election has changed the ‘social norm’: overt acts of ‘prejudice’ have spiked since then. Similarly, the May 2014 election verdict in India appears to have ‘normalised’ the articulation of hateful sentiments towards one’s political opponents.

Surely our politics was rancorous even before 2014?

Of course, yes, but it appears that bigotry and ‘hate’ are increasingly being worn as badges of honour. Lankesh’s killing is a tragic outcome of that sharpening of the political edge.

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Published on September 06, 2017

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