On Sunday, the IMF chief and potential French presidential candidate, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was arrested by the police for sexually assaulting a maid in his hotel suite in New York City.
Less than two years back, in a similar high-profile case, a Bollywood film star, Shiney Ahuja, was arrested for assaulting his maid in his house in Mumbai during his wife’s absence.
Why do powerful people inexplicably cross the line into deplorable behaviour?
In his Ballad of East and West, Kipling famously spoke about the two antipodes not meeting until Judgement Day. Perhaps, he should have added a caveat: or when they face a person they deem powerless.
The above two incidents can be linked in a chain that extends to Abu Ghraib – the infamous Iraqi prison where US military personnel carried out torture and abuse of the inmates which became public in 2004.
Some understanding of this phenomenon can be gleaned from a psychological experiment conducted in 1971 by professor Philip Zimbardo. In what is known as the Stanford prison experiment, twenty-four students were selected to play prisoners and live in a mock prison in the basement of the University Psychology building. Roles were assigned randomly.
The experiment, which was filmed, was planned for two weeks. However, it was abruptly stopped after only six days. The participants adapted to their roles so well that ‘officers’ carried out actual physical abuse of the ‘prisoners’ who succumbed into passivity.
A key conclusion of the experiment was what Zimbardo called the pathology of power: when people believe they are powerful and do not have to justify their actions to any one, they will invariably abuse that power. He worked with the defense team of lawyers representing a soldier accused of abuse at Abu Ghraib. Arguing that rather than a case of a “few bad apples” as explained by the military officials, it was systemic failure which resulted from an unregulated and authoritarian incarceration system.
While there are those who argue with Philip Zimbardo’s conclusions we would do well to reflect on the manner in which the roles of the powerful impact their conduct.
The IMF oversees the global financial system and its chief, consequently, has a high degree of influence in world affairs. No wonder Strauss-Kahn, nicknamed “The Great Seducer” by French media, thought he could force himself on an unsuspecting maid – a single mother of African descent – who was much lower in the power hierarchy. Apparently she has identified him in a police line up but he, who departed the hotel in evident haste and was apprehended from a plane waiting to take off, will reportedly plead not guilty.
In India, it is joked that there are three Gods: cricket gods, film gods, and God gods. No wonder Shiney Ahuja is still to be convicted. His maid has retracted her statement and the accused is out on bail. It is generally believed that she was coerced or bribed.
I don’t know about holes in Philip Zimbardo’s theory but I do know about roles. The Indian tenets of dharma and karma have resulted in a society built on a hierarchy of set roles and concomitant expectations. Over time these have devolved into pejorative pairs: woman-submissive; caste-discrimination; politician-corrupt; judiciary-delay …
However, as India changes, people have begun to question the established roles. Recently, an anti-corruption call by a social worker garnered such support across the country that the Government was forced to accept his demand.
With India’s growth, crimes against women have become a growth industry too. Delhi, which ranks number one in crimes reported against women, has seen a new initiative launched by the police: a make-at-home version of pepper spray, Mirchi Jonkh, literally ‘chilli burst’, to help women fight assailants. Police have distributed empty spray bottles with pamphlets explaining the method of preparation, both in Hindi and English.
The deputy commissioner of police has stated that in view of the increasing crime rate they had increased police presence but realized self-defence was the answer.
In a culture where women are traditionally told to look the other way when faced with lewd male behaviour kudos has to be given to Delhi police. They have subverted the meek role expected of women, arming them instead with the powerful notion that they aren’t helpless. And equipping them with a handy tool too.
Perhaps the management of Sofitel hotel will consider arming their maids with pepper spray. A burst of chilli in the eyes would have sent “The Great Seducer” scurrying back to the bathroom.