The critical mass of goodness

The country was galvanized last year by the whole Jan Lokpal Movement, and a lot was said for and against the movement, its leaders and cheerleaders, and the thousands of Indians who poured into the streets in the largest display of public outrage in recent times.

While we are all fashionably outraged at the way politicians misuse public money with impunity, a small look at the way we lead our daily lives is enough to show that what happens in the order of millions of rupees is just a bigger manifestation of a phenomenon that is integral to our everyday life. We readily pay money to cut corners; we regularly try to cheat the system and feel proud of it. Worse still, we rationalize most of it by telling ourselves that this is all because the system is corrupt—as if multi-million dollar scams in Delhi force us to ask our kids to lie to the ticket-collector about their age.

The problem is that, in India, it’s incredibly unfair to expect otherwise.

Most of the public transport in Germany (and many other countries) works on a self-help basis. You buy tickets and punch them yourselves; if you are carrying pets or bicycles, you buy tickets for them as applicable. There are no ticket-collectors in most trains, nor are there any turnstiles or other setup for verification of tickets. There are occasional spot-checks in trams and buses, but they are few and far between.

It’s tempting to skip buying tickets when simple probability tells you that the expected value of cheating the system is in your favour. Why buy tickets then? To feel that you are doing the right thing? The problem is that doing the right thing can make you feel incredibly stupid. What matters is not whether there are enough ticket-collectors, but whether there are enough commuters around you who buy tickets.

Take the case of a guy who is given a fail grade in a course merely because he didn’t attend enough classes. His friends, who attended fewer lectures than him, have managed to pass through because they asked someone to sign the attendance sheet for them. Alternatively, imagine a student who gets a lower grade than the rest of his class because no one else find anything wrong in cheating in a take-home examination. Or think of the guy who keeps a chocolate wrapper in his pocket while everyone else throws theirs out of the bus window.

The other day, we were standing at one side of a busy road in South Bombay, and were waiting for the pedestrian light to go green. There was a brief period when the road was relatively empty and the vehicle nearest to us was about a hundred metres away. If you wanted to, you could run across the road while the pedestrian light was still red. That’s exactly what everyone did. I hesitated for a second, saw that everyone else in my group had reached the middle of the road, lost the battle with myself, and sprinted. A friend, noticing my hesitation, looked at me incredulously and said—‘oh, you follow traffic rules?’ before quickly adding—‘nahin, matlab acchi baat hai’ (no no, I mean, that’s a good thing).

Before punishing wrong, it’s important to foster a culture where people recognize the wrong. Computer Science students of IIT Bombay learn, right in their second year, that there won’t be any tolerance for plagiarism/cheating/copying of any form, and that punishment would be meted out to both the guy who copies and the guy who wilfully gives his assignment to be copied. Most other departments, on the other hand, are remarkably lax about copying in assignments, and turn a blind eye to even the most blatant instances of the same. They thus foster a culture where copying is not only acceptable, it’s actually desirable. It’s a culture where not letting others copy your assignment brands you as anti-social and unfriendly.

The key then to ensuring goodness is that people who want to do good stuff not be made to feel incredibly stupid for being nice. This is where the critical mass comes in. Once enough people are good, the good ones don’t feel stupid. Once enough people are good, the rest won’t be able to rationalize their badness by referring to collective corruption. Once enough people are good, it would be a nice thing to be good, instead of a stupid thing.

Every once in a while, we hear news reports of a public officer’s life being ruined because he was caught taking a paltry sum as bribe (sometimes as low as INR 300). It’s fun to make sport of such people and to make them face public ignominy. It works beautifully—the ‘higher ups’ can give themselves a pat on the back for ‘exposing corruption’ and punishing it. The holier-than-thou common man who has been taught to feel victimized by corruption smells some kind of sweet revenge. We now have a suspended police officer, and a nation that feels slightly better. Perfect.

When you foster a culture of corruption and then arbitrarily punish a few offenders, you are not being wrong in punishing corrupt people, you’re being irresponsible. The movie ‘Shaitan’ ended with this dialogue:

सच और सच्चाई में फर्क होता है. हर पुलिस वाले का धर्म है कि वह निःस्वार्थ भाव से इस देश की सेवा करे. लेकिन सच्चाई यह है कि साढ़े-आठ हज़ार की तनख्वाह में देश संभालो, घर संभालो, या ईमान संभालो… माँ की आँख हो जाती है.

(Paraphrased translation: it’s every policeman’s duty that he serve his country with selflessness. But when you try to take care of your nation, of your family, and of your conscience with a salary of INR 8500… you get fucked up)

Let’s just hope that we can give every policeman and every law-abiding citizen in this country the critical mass of good he needs.

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  • Aneesh

    Oh, you read Gladwell? nahi nahi achhi baat hai ;)

  • Anonymous

    Nicely articulated, 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=510910485 Priti Kairam

    I really liked this article, or rather how you said it. I would like to say, developed countries like Germany, Japan, UAE  don’t have people below the poverty line like India does. There are so many un educated people. So, I  think it would take a billion years (yes, exaggerated) for us(as a whole country) to develop that mentality. But it would be nice, if people actually followed the rules in this busy, fast and hectic city. 

  • Ankur Tulsian

    Nicely written. I would only like to add here is that in my opinion, there are two primary ways to foster a culture where one recognizes what is wrong. One is roughly the CS dept way of enforcing rules against the wrong. Second is where people are made aware as to ‘why’ plagiarism or travelling ticket-less is wrong.

  • girish

    mind-blowing article, as typical of Antariksh, a real eye-opener. But the irony with us Indians is that we are used to getting the momentary fits of patriotism… Once it is out of sight, it goes out of mind… We need such constant reminders of what we should do and what we should not from all corners at every level. We hope to grow patriotically too if such things are dinned into our ears right from the childhood and the behaviour of our adults depicts the same thing… Keep up the good work Antariksh!

  • http://www.facebook.com/raghu.sharma.39794 Raghu Sharma

    This takes me back to what Edmund Burke appositely stated, ” All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
    Good on you Antariksh to vocalize and clear the underlying currents of misguided rage which fosters the pseudo anti-corruption uprise.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/isush4u Sushrut Thorat

    Hmm… By ‘rules’ you can bring things forcefully into the perspective of wrong-doers. But ultimately what’ll decide the betterment, is their philosophy. Until you get your thoughts right, right from the origin, or atleast from your rational-screening-process, no one can be assured you nt doing any wrong.
    And I didn’t understand. Who says good people feel idiotic? They feel idiotic if they are not clear about their opinions in the face of opposition. But what will make a society good, are people who don’t give a hell about how many people are on their side, if they are morally justified. I agree, numbers count, but numbers shouldn’t bother you as a conclusion of your thought process. That’s when it’ll all start to become right.
    About the fail grade vs proxy thing, all I can say is: Fight. I did, I won… :) I ain’t no authority.. You try enough, you will too.. :)

    • http://www.antarikshbothale.com/ Antariksh Bothale

      ‘Philosophy’ and ‘ideals’ alone don’t put bread on the table, nor do they change the XX on your transcript.

      However, I never condoned wrongdoing, nor did I criticize those who stay on the right side. I merely said that, for the ‘right thing’ to be both morally right and pragmatically feasible, you need a critical mass of goodness.

  • http://www.facebook.com/vinitatal Vinit Atal

    Just a related observation:
    While it takes a ‘critical mass of goodness’ to encourage people to do the right/ good thing, there’s another theory that says that it takes only one person to do something wrong and get away with it for many others to follow suit.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Broken_windows_theory

    For instance, I’m living in Singapore these days, and I used to think that the rigidity with which the cleanliness laws are implemented was a little unnecessary. But then I realized how that was absolutely necessary in not promoting a culture where people thought they could litter once in a while and it would be ok.

    I guess that along with building up the “critical mass of goodness”, we also need to find ways to make sure that the “first vandal” is not allowed to go scot-free.