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  • Writer's picturegauri nadkarni choudhary

The Policeman at the signal

Updated: Jul 6, 2021

A smart driver in today’s context is a person who can spot a traffic cop faster than the cop can spot him. An efficient cop is one who can hide and pop up like a ghost in front of the unsuspecting truant driver.

My kid once asked me why everyone had stopped at a signal when there was no policeman around. That question made me analyse the way we inculcate values and morals in our society. Ever wonder why we choose to follow certain rules and why we have no qualms about breaking others?

Social upbringing can be divided into two main types: a “shame” culture and a “guilt” culture. A shame culture society uses social embarrassment or ridicule to teach values. The “what will people say” fear is used to make people behave in socially approved manner. The guilt culture focuses more on the internal yardstick of right and wrong. Each culture has its own advantages and disadvantages.

No points for guessing which culture we belong to. Fear of being shamed was inculcated in us right from childhood. A two year old is told to wear underwear because people will say him and he/she needs to be toilet trained or else others will make fun of him.

I remember teachers in my school shaming boys into cutting their hair by tying it into a ponytail. These boys stopped cutting their hair altogether once they were out of school. A mother once told her kid that she needs to score well otherwise no one would be friends with her.

Avoidance of shame is slowly replaced by avoidance of punishment. We do homework to avoid being scolded by the teacher, we do our work to avoid getting fired and we stop at a signal to avoid getting fined.

What then is the problem if the system is getting things done from us? Doesn’t the end justify the mean? The problem lies when there is no cop at the signal. How do we behave then?

Does that mean its ok to cheat when no one is watching? Is it okay to steal or do fraud if no one is going to come to know? Can I violate someone’s rights because that person will not tell anyone? Are we in a way not propagating this attitude?

When I teach my child that he/she needs to behave in a particular way because other people are watching, how is he/she to behave when no one is watching? So it becomes a case of the mice will play when the cat is not around.

In a way are we not teaching the child that right or wrong depends on the societal approval? Is it then not simple matter of changing who watches me? If I hang around with people who drink or do drugs I need not be ashamed of doing the same.

Neither shame nor avoidance of punishment can be a permanent motivator. After a while things that shamed me or scared me earlier will cease to have an impact on me. The policeman at the signal soon holds no fear.

Why then should I follow rules? Probably because I want to or because it’s the right thing to do irrespective of who is around me.

We never teach our children to distinguish between the right or wrong themselves. It is always imposed. How many of us tell the child that he/she should do homework because it helps in learning and not because the teacher will scold? How many of us teach our children to obey rules because they are important and not because they will be suspended from school?

Does punishment and shame guarantee “good” behaviour? Does it make sure that there is no crime in the society? No it does not. Why? The answer to that is very simple. The punishment and the shame do not make me regret the action it only makes me regret being caught. The only purpose it serves is an increased effort to cover my tracks.

The shame only makes me want to hide stuff. From hiding my poor report card, to my inadequate salary to the fraud in my income tax. I met a man who was having an extra marital affair. Did he not feel guilty about cheating on his wife of many years? No as long as she did not find out it was okay and “I do my best that she will never come to know of it. I do love my wife too”. So the affair is justified because what the wife doesn’t know won’t hurt her and he can sleep peacefully at night.

A young man who suffers from alcohol dependence takes immense efforts to hide his drinking habit from his parents. “I don’t want to hurt them or cause worry”. I wonder if he could hide the alcohol from his liver too!!

Sometimes more effort is required on hiding the evidence of my wrong doings than to actually do the right thing. Have you ever seen people who make efforts to cheat during the exam? How much effort they put into hiding them? Will studying for the test not be easier? Or an alcoholic eating God knows how many mints to hide his bad breath?

We all are guilty of this behaviour. Sliding in a torn rupee note to a crowded petrol pump attendant, breaking a queue when the person in front is distracted, not buying a ticket in a crowded train are just a few examples. Your child is watching you and learning that it is important to do right only when someone is watching. So next time you complain that he/she stops studying the moment you turn your back you know who to blame.

Think of a society where each one of us does the correct thing for the simple reason of choosing the right option. A society where I take the responsibility of being my own conscience. A society where I am answerable to my own self.

The sun rises irrespective of anyone watching the sunrise and I stop at the red light irrespective of the policeman watching at the signal.

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