Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Guilt By Association - A Fallacy We're All Guilty Of, By Association

When I have been asked during these last weeks who caused the riots and the killing in L.A., my answer has been direct and simple: Who is to blame for the riots? The rioters are to blame. Who is to blame for the killings? The killers are to blame.

- Former US Vice-President Dan Quayle after the 1992 Los Angeles riots 

But much as we may laugh, Mr Quayle actually had it right! No one but those who commit crimes are ever to blame for them - not any group they belong to, and certainly not other individuals.

A Sri Lankan Buddhist monk was recently roughed up in Tamil Nadu, India, for nothing more than the crime of being a Sinhalese Buddhist. The mob that did this obviously believed that it was quite all right to punish an individual for the actions of other individuals who shared the same faith and ethnicity, even if the individual in question had nothing at all to do with the actions that they objected to. In this case, the mob was protesting the treatment of Tamils in Sri Lanka, and the monk who happened to be visiting India and hence within reach, paid the price. 

And in a response entirely oblivious to irony, one of my Sri Lankan Facebook friends condemned the incident, saying, "Shame on you, India".

Yes, shame on all 1.2 billion of you! How dare all of you gang up and assault an innocent monk?

Shame on me?! Eh? What's a srilanka?

I was reminded of several other such incidents, and human history is surely littered with millions more. We (and I'm generalising here) tend to generalise about groups of people based on the actions and behaviour of individuals. I'm sure this is an aspect of the survival instinct we owe to evolution. If a big, striped, furry animal attacks and kills some of your tribe, then you must quickly learn to drive off or kill any other big, striped, furry animal you come across from then on. We don't have to worry about unfairly attacking the odd vegetarian tiger. The stereotype works well in this case.

In the modern world, such conflation from an individual to a group and subsequent transference of responsibility for their actions to other individuals in that group is not just arbitrary and unfair, but has the potential to create never-ending strife.

In October 1984, two bodyguards from Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's security detail shot her dead. They were Sikh. One of them was killed on the spot by other guards. The other was arrested, tried and hanged later on. But the matter did not stop with these two individuals who pulled the trigger, nor even with those who were part of the plot (another conspirator was also tried and hanged). Oh, no. Over the four days following Mrs. Gandhi's assassination, mobs, organised and directed by her Congress party, systematically targeted and killed about 3000 other Sikhs in the capital, New Delhi. [The leaders of that pogrom have been identified and their names are common knowledge, yet they have never been convicted, and the wound festers in the Indian psyche.] Where was the need to punish anyone other than the individuals actually responsible for the assassination? 

In 2002, some unidentified persons set fire to a train carriage in the Indian state of Gujarat, an act that resulted in the deaths of almost a hundred people. The victims were Hindu, and it was believed that the perpetrators were Muslim. Interestingly, none of the individuals involved in that crime was ever investigated, caught or punished. Instead, in a chilling reprise of the 1984 reprisal, mobs, organised and directed by the state government of Gujarat, systematically targeted and killed about 2000 other Muslims across the state. None of these people was even remotely connected with the train fire. Yet they were deemed guilty by association, and suffered mob justice. It would have been bad enough if the mob had taken the law into their own hands and lynched those individuals responsible for the fire. It could have been considered vigilante justice. But the horror of the reprisal lies in the fact that entirely innocent third parties were victimised for no fault of theirs. [Some of these rioters and organisers, including a senior minister, were later tried and convicted, but most continue to evade justice.]

In 2012, an American gunman shot and killed 7 people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. He had developed a hatred for people of a certain kind after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. When he saw people wearing turbans and beards (never mind that they were of a different ethnicity, language and religion altogether from the 9/11 terrorists), he considered them similar enough to be worthy of killing. 

Later in 2012, an American woman in New York pushed a man onto the path of a train and to his death. Like the Wisconsin gunman, she had developed a hatred for the people responsible for 9/11, as she admitted later. But the man she killed was Indian and Hindu. 

Two levels of conflation were at work in these latter cases. Not only were completely different individuals targeted, the victims only bore a very superficial cultural resemblance to the group that was being hated. [It's also ironical in that Hindus and Sikhs have often fought against Muslims during the long history of the Indian subcontinent, yet are often taken to be the same people.]

If we are to progress at all as a civilisation and to enjoy the peace that comes with the rule of law, we must overcome the primitive tribal urge to generalise from the individual to the group. We have to re-learn the ability to see individual acts purely as individual acts. The rational response must be to hold individuals accountable for their actions. Transferring accountability for an act from one individual to another, or conflating from the individual to a group, or from one group to a superficially similar group, leads not to justice but its very opposite.

As a contribution towards a fairer and more just world, let's all resolve to avoid the fallacy of guilt by association. The educated among us must lead the way.

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