City City Bang Bang, Columns

The power of disproportion

One doesn’t have to lie to tell an untruth. Of course, lying is the most direct and efficient form of untruth, but there are other ways too. For weeks now, the Indian state and much of mainstream media has been practising a different technique, one which does not depend on lying (although that doesn’t stop it from doing so) but has a similar effect.

It involves rescaling our sense of reality by exercising the power of disproportion. Simply put, it involves suppressing or ignoring certain facts and amplifying others. Make hitherto trivial events feel momentous and diminish the significance of others so that they feel unimportant. After all, there are no universal standards for judging what is important and what is not. So powerful mainstream media can decide as to what reality does it want to make up for us. Not necessarily through fake news, but by a reinterpreted sense of what is important and what can be ignored or downplayed.

There are several elements to this strategy. Apart from selective suppression and magnification, it involves recharacterizing an issue so that its more troubling aspects are downplayed. The relatively insignificant aspects of an important issue are highlighted so as to give a sense that it is not being ignored while avoiding discussing the more problematic areas. The emotional ante is upped for trivial issues to an extent to which it starts feeling like a life-and-death issue. Media coverage is self-justifying, in that the more an issue gets covered the more important it seems.

The horrific Hathras rape and murder and the Sushant Singh Rajput- Rhea Chakraborty are cases are excellent illustrations of how this technique works.

In the Hathras case, suppression by the state has taken on dimensions so monumental that even the usually servile media has taken note. To not allow the family a last glimpse of their daughter, to tap their phones and try and make them undergo a narco test, to threaten the family with dire consequences in case they spoke up, to ban any media interaction and cordon off the whole village, the list of autocratic actions taken to deny the problem rather than address borders on the unbelievable, even in today’s times.

Then there is the attempt by some to acknowledge the problem but in terms that minimizes it. It wasn’t really rape, because no semen was found in the victim’s body. It’s not really about caste, but a problem faced by all women. It is terrible, but unless unemployment is fixed, men will get frustrated and commit these heinous crimes.

The other tactic is to try and present a small non-issue as the major problem. Why was a journalist trying to convince the parents of the victim to complain against the government? Isn’t this a clear sign of a conspiracy? Is the Opposition try to incite rioting and wasn’t it imperative for the state government to act to prevent this from happening?

Presenting the Bollywood drug mafia as a defining issue for the country shows this technique at work in a sophisticated way. Since the only conceivable charge that could be placed at Rhea Chakraborty’s doorstep had to do with her mention of recreational drug use, weed has become presented as an unmentionable evil.

This is patently absurd. For one, the use of weed and its variants cuts across all strata of society, from sadhus, Holi and Shivratri revellers, students, business executives, politicians and people from Bollywood. It is sold in licensed shops in parts of the country and is part of our cultural fabric. Opium use is rampant in many parts of the country as part of community tradition. This doesn’t justify any form of drug abuse, but one can hardly pretend that the mere mention of marijuana is a grievous crime.

The frenzied emotional manner of presentation, that borders on the psychotic, serves to recalibrate our sense of reality. The power of disproportion when used consistently is that we lose our sense of bearings. We start associating certain ideas and words with blasphemy and the mere invocation of these is enough to set us off, without regard to the issue at hand.

It has always been true that our sense of reality has been shaped by media. There are only so many things that we can know through direct personal observation and experience, so we have to rely on someone else’s account of what is happening in the world to make sense of it. It is obvious that anyone taking on this mantle of distilling events all around us into a few items of ‘news’, will even when acting in good faith, will impose their own frames of what is important and what is not.

As the market has become more central to media, it has embraced the popular with gusto, and its sense of proportion has been increasingly guided by what is more market-friendly. This does explain why a film actor’s suicide would evoke such wall-to-wall coverage. One would expect that this case would hog headlines, but one would also expect that the coverage would examine all possible aspects of the case. After all, sensationalism doesn’t care about what story is told, as long as it is titillating.

What it does not explain is the manner in which the issue has been framed and the deliberate attempt to fashion a pre-determined narrative, one that has been punctured decisively by what should have been the basis of any reports in the first place- expert medical opinion. This is not an example of market-driven sensationalism but of agenda-driven narrative building.

Both Hathras and the SSR cases are examples of how the manner in which we process reality is being tampered with. A world where we lose our sense of proportion is one where we become infinitely malleable to any suggestion. We can be made to believe anything, outrage on-demand and ignore the worst calamity that may lie all around us. As is the case right now