Friday, August 22, 2008

Culture and law

Tom Vanderbilt in his new book, "Traffic", mentions how the traffic of a country correlates well with the amount of corruption in the country. This set me thinking: why is that so? When there is a large amount of corruption in the country, the traffic is more chaotic and follows no law.

At the outset it seems that traffic and bribery both stem from a disregard of laws. If a person is more likely to break a traffic law, then they are more likely to break a rule about accepting bribes as well. Move along folk: blogger finds nothing new. Let's all read some real content instead.

I think the issue is much deeper, and it seems to tie well with some current issues regarding piracy (!). Along the way, I hope to show why we are all equally culpable when the traffic is terrible in India, or when another woman becomes the unfortunate victim of a dowry-related crime.


Culture and law


The issue is of culture, and the intersection of culture with law, which always bodes ill for the law.

A friend of mine told me this anecdote recently. A German friend of his was visiting and they walked by a gated parking lot which had a sign saying, "No Public Parking". The gate was to disallow unauthorized people from parking in the lot. On seeing this, the German asked, "why do you need the gate?"

The Germans might need just a sign to ensure that no authorized parking occurs, but in India, even a gate might be insufficient. Personal experience, and lots of funny anecdotes establish that the Germans are an orderly bunch. Put up a sign saying that no parking is allowed in a certain area, and they will follow it.

Over in India, we seem to have made a pastime out of being disorderly. Do Indians ever wait for a traffic light to turn green before they accelerate? No, we inch forward while the light is red, nearly reaching the other end in some cases. We don't care for the law. It is merely advisory. Unless we spot a police man, we do as the Bombay-folk do: we inch forward. Many years ago, this wasn't the case. I've lived through a Bombay where people stopped at red lights, and patiently waited for the light to turn green. You got frowned at if you drove like "someone from the North". Now you don't, and if you're one of the unfortunate few who does drive properly: you'll get honked at. If you wait for a pedestrian to cross the road, both the driver following you and the pedestrian will look at you as though you've arrived from Mars.

Following the rule of the law will get you honked at by those you don't. Culture asserts itself over the law, and you follow the culture by inching forward at the red signal. Congratulations, you're a law breaker and a part of the problem.


Dowry is illegal in India, but it is exchanged at weddings. It happens all too often. It is in the culture, and the culture isn't frowning on it badly enough. Further, the law is too lax, and isn't frowning on it either. It happens, it is rampant in some areas. What's worse, when you hear that someone else took dowry, it is not in hushed tones. I've heard plenty of people talk about how much dowry was exchanged in so-and-so's wedding. Out in the open, with kids and servants within earshot. Or out in the open, in a train compartment. No repercussions by the law. And what's worse: nobody looks at you funny. That's why dowry is such a big issue. Culture permits it. Hell, culture even encourages dowry. What's that: you didn't accept dowry at your son's wedding? It's because you're a damn fool, that's why. Any sane person would have. At least 20 lakhs for a boy like him.

It is more difficult to talk about your beef kebab dinner than it is to talk about accepting dowry. That's why dowry is here to stay: we don't care. We've made up our mind that it is acceptable. When our relatives talk about it, we don't look at them as though they're uneducated yokels. We don't debate it, we don't question them. Too bad: innocent women will suffer because of us. Innocent women will die because of our attitude towards it. We're all killers! (Who says blogs aren't as good as media? I try to be just as sensational.)

Many years ago, it used to be that sati was in our culture: women were expected to burn themselves at the death of their husbands. Everyone did it, it was encouraged. If a widow didn't burn herself, she was frowned upon, perhaps ostracised. Many people worked very hard to change that. There was a huge change in the law, and its enforcement. The British get a lot of the credit here, since their law enforcement was a bit more persuasive than our current system. But there was also a huge shift in culture. Cultural leaders like Dayanand Saraswati convinced us that this was a poor choice, and that we needed to re-evaluate this bit of our culture. We did, and we're much better off for it now. Sati is a hazy memory, a mere paragraph in history texts rather than a practice as widespread as dowry. So eradicating sati is due to a fundamental change in both culture and law. Something similar happened in the mid 90s, when the tax code was significantly cleaned up. It was made simpler, and the enforcement was tightened. Culture, too, started accepting this new-fangled thing called tax. Things are better now, and more people view tax evasion as disreputable rather than a mark of pride. Many years ago, great dinner conversation included how much money people were hiding as "black" money. It is much less now, and boasting about tax evasion is a thing of the past (in the humble middle-class groups that I have access to).

Is bribery so prevalent in India because the law permits it? I would argue that it is entirely because our culture embraces it so openly. Postal employees come by every Diwali to openly ask for money. What the hell for? Why do we have to pay them? Because otherwise they might misplace some mail. This is open bribery. Think about it for a second: a person who is paid to deliver your mail comes up to your door to ask you for money once a year. If you don't pay him, he might disrupt your postal deliveries. He is openly asking for a bribe. And we pay them! We hand out this cash, and claim that it is because of the holiday season. Well, why not pay everyone? Why not pay the vegetable seller some more, or give extra money to the bus conductor? Clearly, we pay one person and not the other because we are bribing them for a service they will perform all the year round.

Spitting and littering in Bombay is another classic example. No law will be able to stop such an activity, especially with the enforcement being as poor as it is today. You'd need a 1:1 ratio of policemen to civilians to stop spitting and littering. They are a huge problem because our culture allows it. It encourages it. Parents encourage their kids to spit on the street, to toss the empty packet of potato wafers right on the street. Eat some food on the street, and drop the packaging right there, in case you have to trace your steps back. Friends don't mock others who litter. Parents don't correct their kids, and the policeman doesn't care. Suddenly, Bombay looks a lot like a garbage dump, and we all complain about "our" beautiful city that others are ruining. The same Indians that litter copiously in their home cities carefully obey litter laws when holidaying in Europe. Partly because of the steep fines, and partly because the locals will shoot nasty looks. When in Rome, they do as the Romans do. Again, culture wins.


An example of culture clashing with law is taking place in the developed world with piracy and law. Copyright law wants to punish school-kids who copy MP3s from each other. Unfortunately, schoolchildren have decided that this is a completely harmless activity, which it is. They fail to see who they're hurting when they burn somebody a copy of their music CDs. Culture has embraced copying and sharing of music. In the past, when copying equipment was precious and rare and music came on records, very few people could copy music. If you had somebody's music collection, chances were that you were depriving them of their property. Today, I could give you a full copy of my music collection while still being able to play my music. Cultural norms of sharing tell us that this should be fine, and so people freely copy music. It is unclear which side wins this clash, but it looks like the law is losing ground. Many new artists are releasing their music as free downloads, which sides with culture rather than the law. This also puts to rest the faulty argument, "Who will pay the artists?" Guess what, the artists like their music shared. Record sales don't add much to their bottom-line anyway, so they'd like schoolchildren to share their music freely. In this struggle too, culture will eventually dominate.


Before you push your keyboard into vitriol mode, I should point out that clearly our culture isn't all bad. I would claim that our education is so good because of our strong culture of seeking academic distinction. Parents feel ashamed if their child is a poor student. Thus the incessant pressure to perform well. While we may debate the utility of this performance-driven education: it does churn out a lot of students who pride themselves in their academic qualifications. I'd rather have kids compare academic standing than the number of guns they own. So in this case, we come out ahead. Well done.

So the next time you see a dowry related crime, or mountains of litter, or traffic that resembles a herd of cattle rather than flow of civilized humans, blame yourself. We're all complicit in the problem. If we aren't speaking up, and changing the culture, we're perpetuating it.