Civic sense by public-shaming, courtesy Virat Kohli

A recap, before I begin.

Virat Kohli posted—on Twitter and Instagram—a brief video of his wife, Anushka Sharma, telling someone off for throwing garbage from the car window, on the road (car windows rolled down, with Virat’s phone video pointed first at her, and then at the person in the back seat of the adjacent car) looking at a stranger in an adjacent car. Given Virat’s and Anushka’s multi-million follower base across both platforms, the post went places, including mainstream media.

The person in the adjacent car decided to expose himself as the ‘stranger’ in Virat’s video, at the receiving end of Anushka’s anger, with a brief Facebook post.

His mother wrote a more detailed post on Instagram, with her point of view. And one of his sisters commented on Virat’s original Instagram post as well, with her point of view.

There are many angles to reflect upon, in this incident.

First, the act that caused the video.

Throwing garbage on the road is a despicable act. It’s uncouth, irresponsible, arrogant, and completely callous.

Arhhan should not have thrown garbage from the car. Like other educated and sane people, he should have kept it with him, in the car, and found a garbage bin to throw it in, once he has reached his destination. I do that all the time, making it absolutely non-negotiable for my kids, whenever we travel together. I also point to others who throw it out of the window, to my kids and tell them, repeatedly, how bad a habit it is. This is the very least we can all do, as responsible citizens.

Second, the act of Virat and Anushka noticing the act.

They noticed it. They did not move on like most people would do (why bother poking into someone else’s act, whatever it was, in public? – may be the common reasoning. A subsequent consideration for normal people would be, ‘what if the other person turns violent?’). Apparently, Virat and Anushka, being superstars in their respective fields, perhaps don’t need to bother about these 2 points – their safety is perhaps guaranteed by the guards traveling with them (I’m assuming). Calling Arhhan out for the act was out of civic sense. The fact that a superstar couple is bothered enough to get upset about the act is commendable. And an inspiration for many of their fans, and people who look up to them.

Third, broadcasting the ‘calling out’.

What was a conversation between Anushka and Arhhan became a public spectacle because Virat filmed it, and shared it with millions of people online. If the intent was to let others know that this act was reprehensible, then the video does the work. Could he have shot the video in a way you don’t see Arhhan? Perhaps. Virat, despite being a superstar, doesn’t have any right to showcase another person (unrelated, unknown to him) in his video, without that person’s permission. Here, no permission was sought or granted.

There are other ways of making the same point. One would have been to show only Anushka retelling the incident without Arhhan’s stunned expression (he least expected it, understandably) included in the video. That still makes the point, with impact.

Fourth, Arhhan’s side of the story.

Nobody would have known that Arhhan was the one at the receiving end of Anushka’s anger, if he hadn’t exposed himself as the stranger in the video. His mother and sister defending him add to that self-exposure. He was obviously concerned about people who could identify him as the person in the video and had to step in with his perspective, for that sake alone. He is wrong about the way he callously dismisses his act “The garbage that mistakenly went out of the window of my luxury car”. But he and his mother/sister have a point on exposing this act, and the talking down to millions of people.

Based on these four perspectives, here are some points to ponder.

One can argue – what he did was wrong. So, why can’t a fellow citizen expose that act, as a way to tell others? The counter to that could be – who is Virat to ‘expose’ a private citizen, whatever he is doing? Anushka’s talking down was a private conversation between 2 people, in 2 cars, in a public place. It remains between 4-5 people (in both cars). Virat’s video was a broadcast, to millions of people. The fact is that this was done without Arhhan’s permission. If Virat had proof of Arhhan’s act, given that it is a punishable, fine-able offense in our cities (though not policed as rigorously, for assorted reasons), he could have handed it over to the police for further action. But he chose to take it public, immediately. He acted as the witness, jury and judge, all in one go.

Another argument could be: ‘if this was a more serious offense (say, a crime), wouldn’t the video have helped in catching the perpetrator?’. Of course, it would have. The recent film Bhavesh Joshi Superhero was built on this premise, as much as its Hollywood predecessor, Kick-Ass. Social-shaming as a punishment tactic is the crux.

But this is a grey area. Who has the right to shame a perpetrator? What kind of offenses, civic or criminal, deserve public shaming? There are no guidelines for these, yet. The basic premise is, no individual, private citizen has the right to expose another private citizen as the source of offense to the public. They are supposed to seek the help of a law enforcement body to intervene and take the right, lawful action after ascertaining all the facts.

You can still argue – but Arhhan was caught in his act (somewhat; we don’t see him throwing garbage – we only hear Anushka say so, besides Arhhan himself agreeing what he did, in his Facebook post). He did something wrong. He will get away with an insignificant fine if Virat had complained to the authorities with his car number and the act. This public shaming may stop him from throwing garbage in public forever, besides scaring a lot more people to not do the same in the fear that someone in the adjacent car may shoot the act on video and upload it online. So, doesn’t the video shared online justify itself?

This is a valid argument, but for the fact that Virat Kohli is not a law enforcement personnel. He may be a superstar, but he is a private citizen (besides being a public personality). Arhhan too deserves the privacy, to what he wants, as long as it is lawful. His act of throwing garbage was an offense, but it doesn’t put anyone else in immediate danger. It does add to the overall danger of the environment, but that is a long-term outcome (though, small acts by many people like these add to the outcome).

The related problem is the loss of Arhhan’s character and image (whatever it was) amongst people he knows and those he doesn’t know. He could be a wonderful human being otherwise, doing great things to humanity (for argument’s sake), but this one act becomes his most famous (or, infamous) introduction. To a large extent, he himself is responsible for this, given he exposed himself – Virat did not. Virat had a stranger in the video – no names, no identity (not even car number). But Arhhan cared about his image so much that he has to take it up even if it means he had to out himself in the process (which, ironically, does more damage to his ‘image’ that he is so keen to protect). People may now look at him through this act as a lens, and judge him on whatever he does. They start with a negative, and Arhhan has to live up, and outdo himself, in the eyes of others. But again, like many things on social media, this is also a time-bound phenomenon. Arhhan, or his act, may not even be remembered 4 weeks from now, by us, or by people who are meeting him in person.

Andy Warhol’s ’15 minutes of fame’ is more relevant than ever, on social media. When he uttered that, he meant it from the media’s perspective – that the media hierarchy was so stringent that at some point those hierarchies will break down and everyone, and not just those worthy as decided by media organizations, will have their 15 minutes of fame. Now, with the internet and mobile phone at everyone’s disposal, every person could become famous/infamous for 15 minutes (or a week’s worth of fame/infamy) before some other act/person takes its place.

There is a related problem as well, on this 15 minutes of fame, if you add a new dimension to it. Read about it here.

PS: The points mentioned in Arhhan’s mother and sister’s posts are not worth discussion since they are mere whataboutery.