The widely reported incident of a white woman making a call to the police in response to a black birdwatcher asking her to leash her dog in New York’s Central Park has emerged as the latest flashpoint in the racially charged politics of the United States. What was particularly striking about the incident was that the woman vociferously claimed that she is not racist and invoked the language of “protection” and “threat” in her defence of calling the police (falsified by the video recording).
The fact that the black man was put at grave risk of physical harm by the police while the complainant faced no risks, exposed the morally repugnant reliance on law enforcement by privileged groups to protect their dominance in social interactions and the racial stereotyping of black men as “aggressors”.
While a lot of the issues associated with the incident are particular to the specific racial context of the United States and its painful history of slavery and segregation, it is strongly paralleled in the disciplining of lower-class persons in India’s urban spaces by privileged Indians accessing the police. In several cases, incidents which have a class character have been redescribed by the perpetrators as responses to “threatening demeanour” and “bullying” to provide (often for oneself) a language of liberal justification. The police’s persistent class biases and tendency to resort to extra-legal punishments makes this reliance a cause for grave concern.
Social hierarchies and their violent manifestations in sporadic killings and beatings (much like race in the United States) are a staple of both rural and urban Indian settings.
However, while in the rural context the violence is often baldly justified in a casteist language, in urban settings such invocations are often desisted to ensure palatability to liberal sensibilities and ensure a certain tastefulness. The caste and class nature of the interactions are redescribed as responses to perceived aggression, sometimes with such evocative power that they are believed authentic by the very person who crafts them.
While this “disciplining” is carried out by both men and women who occupy positions of relative power, the descriptions of threats are typically most compelling when the dynamic is one between upper-class women and lower-class men. This is partly because of the patriarchal association of womanhood, especially elite womanhood with fragility and the reactive incomprehensibility when an adult man pleads “danger”.
This specific interaction is analysed from the lens of the relative “testimonial credibility” that elite actors possess in accessing law enforcement which enables them to cloak the class dynamic and falsify a narrative of “aggression”. But before that, it is important to note two cautionary clarifications.
Firstly, it is not suggested that gendered domination cannot be or generally is not inflicted by lower-class men in public settings. The threat of physical violence by men of all classes pervades the social interactions of women in workplaces, markets, and homes. Women facing these threats are entirely justified in accessing law enforcement irrespective of the status of the perpetrator in question. Despite their relative power concerning lower-class persons, privileged women can find access to law enforcement to be strenuous and harassing.
Secondly, in the present patriarchal setting, women’s accounts of threats and abuse must be believed, the popular narrative that women are “habitual liars” or regularly falsify minor disputes as “harassment” is false and regressive. The purpose presently, however, is to account for the causes of the distortion and appropriation of progressive concerns of “safety” for achieving classist objectives which would be both wrong and contrary to the interests of the women’s movement broadly conceived.
The media conversation surrounding issues of women’s safety over the last several decades has persisted with the creation of the classist profile of a rapist. Through selective coverage and a distinct pattern in the framing of debates, he is presented as a ragged manual labourer who typifies conservative rural backwardness ill at ease with the “modern women” in the city.
The dark street corner is conceived of as the site of rape and the “aspirational” working woman is judged as the primary target. These presumptions have seldom been explicitly acknowledged (that would undermine their potency) but pervade middle-class sensibility. Sexual assaults committed by privileged men are ignored, as are those committed against lower-class women because they fall outside this framing device.
Despite studies showing that these categories account for a large proportion of sexual assaults, they receive little public attention because they lack the saleability of the “clash of civilisations” narrative that the middle-class public is ready to lap up given its general contempt for the “troublemaking” lower class.
This is a dangerous stereotyping, not only does it efface the stories of a majority of victims of sexual assault (often the most vulnerable), but it presents rape as a “culture problem” of India’s most disadvantaged communities. Migrant labourers are seen to personify incurable civilisational rottenness that has to be policed and disciplined for the protection of “liberated” women (never mind the women they share their homes with).
The dirty, sweat-drenched man pulling a thela (hand-cart) is viewed as a suspect aggressor, someone to be kept at a distance and to protect your daughters from. The inflated fear of lower-class men is legitimised as rational and necessary to such an extent that the most mundane acts of assertiveness could be categorised as “threatening”.
This stereotyping of lower-class men as natural aggressors has caused them to be considered to lack complete personhood, interactions with them are marked by a transactional shallowness and barely suppressed contempt. The economic task they perform exhausts their significance, with their narratives and voices being muffled by reflexive deafness. They are considered unreliable narrators, and even when communicated, their narratives fail to inspire confidence and get much less empathy.
This social halfness of lower-class men allows for others to exhaustively describe the narrative of interaction with them, with their voices never having existed as socially significant. Consider for instance an assertive rickshaw puller’s refusal to compromise on his due fare being redescribed as masculine aggression that warrants public intervention to restore order (read hierarchy), or a security guard’s prolonged interaction with a young woman being coloured with the possibility of sexual aggression and judged adverse to her safety. The lack of money and social status effectively deprives them of persuasively telling stories rooted in their perspective and inspiring belief.
This “testimonial unreliability” is exacerbated in their interactions with the police and officers of the state. Despite a pervasive suspicion of the legal process, the police continue to represent protection against the “dangerous men” of the lower classes. This indeed is a task that the police are uniquely well-equipped for, having repeatedly demonstrated a deep-rooted prejudice against poor and lower caste citizens.
Lower-class men find themselves dismissed as habitual liars or unintelligible idiots in police settings. The fact that the policeman is the effective judge and possesses the capacity to administer extra-legal punishment, makes the consequences of this vulnerability especially stark.
The lathi (club) wielding havaldar’s (constable) capricious decisions determine the possibility of a serious injury, minor thrashing, or painful extortion, trapping the “perpetrator” in a kafkaesque prison of their social location.
This is not to suggest that women who enjoy class privilege find a reliable ally in the police, their complaints are also viewed with suspicion unless they are accompanied by men or perform a complex patriarchal “respectability”. However, there is still a pervasive prejudice that makes lower-class men and women disproportionately vulnerable in police settings.
Even in cases of sexual harassment and assault, this punishment of the police has a problematic extra-legal and disproportionate character that feminists have good cause to be suspicious of. But when the notion of “aggression” is undergoing a classist redefinition a reliance on the police even if in a minority of cases is a cause for grave concern.
The unspoken class prejudice exacts a cost in sentencing the “perpetrator” to both a barbaric punishment and the public stigma of being in the wrong. It prevents the victims of class oppression from the dignity of even recognising their own victimhood by overwhelming their narration with the authoritative wielding of adverse testimony.
The history of the feminist movement attests to the power of description being a decisive and transformational tool in the hands of women. The re-description of normalised gendered oppression as sexual harassment has created a powerful movement towards a more equitable workplace. However, there are also dangerous potentialities in the power of re-description in maintaining systems of domination that must be guarded against.
The re-description of interactions shaped by class as responses to “aggression” and a normalisation of the use of the police to discipline lower-class men (irrespective of reasonable cause) is a cause of contemporary concern for feminists and the supporters of progressive politics.
The ascendency of feminist ideas makes them especially vulnerable to distortion and appropriation by dominant structures that can blunt their radical potentialities. The dangerous association of poverty with patriarchy serves to both exonerate privileged men and reify the class segregated enclaves that characterise social life in the sub-continent. It also constricts the freedoms available to women to explore consensual relationships outside of class silos and colours all inter-class interaction with an invasive hue.
As historic victims of a culture of disbelief and public suspicion, feminists are in a position to recognise and empathise with the vulnerabilities of disadvantaged communities. The social insignificance of lower-class men and women should be a concern for the women’s movement if it is to embrace a normative objection to all forms of domination and shed its class character. It is incumbent upon the votaries of change against the oppressive reality to rebut classist stereotypes and infuse complexity in our understandings of the interplays of caste, class, and gender.