The Anatomy of Moral Panic & Sensationalisation of News: Middle Class, Media and Rhea Chakraborty
The High Court of Bombay pronounced the much-awaited verdict concerning the criminal bail application by Rhea Chakraborty and Ors who are prime accused in the alleged supply and consumption of illicit drugs. The court order dated 7th of October in Rhea Chakraborty & ors vs. Union of India & Ors., adjudicated by Justice Sarang Kotwal pronounced that Rhea had “no criminal antecedents” and expressed confidence stating that “there are no reasonable grounds to believe that the applicant might commit any offence while on bail.” The Court further observed that Rhea was not culpable under the punishable offences as per section 19, 24 or 27A. The Court, in page 69 section 8, declared that “criminal bail application stands disposed of accordingly” following the imposition of “stringent conditions” (Rhea Chakraborty & ors vs. Union of India & Ors, 2020).
The premise of this article can be argued as follows: the socio-cultural ramifications in the long run aided by history transcend the questions of legality, more so in the case of Rhea Chakraborty as a prime accused of “social sins” than about the ensuing debate around the “mystery” of Sushant Singh Rajput’s death. While the granting of bail to Rhea may not be a complete vindication of her innocence in a legal debate, she is certainly in the spotlight when it comes to“moral outrage”.
However, I submit that the frenzy surrounding the Sushant-Rhea affair might not be adequately explained by the social psychology of moral panic alone. There is another element that is playing an equally effective role in driving this centrally engineered mass paranoia through media houses and social media. With all due credit, a similar article was published in The Telegraph (India) on 19 September, penned by Asim Ali with the title, “Amoral Panic”, which focused on the moral panic theory. While this article will also focus on moral panic theory, it will aim at providing an equal weightage to the culture of media reportage surrounding this issue.
There are two broad explanations one can arrive at while observing the frenzied reportage of Rhea and her “sins”: the unabated sensationalization of news dissemination and the engineered social moral panic. One, the advent of modern media houses combined with social media with the communications revolution in the aftermath of the economic liberalisation has democratised public discourse. This in combination with individualisation and commoditization of social relations have largely divorced social beings from leisure. Two, the ensuing debate surrounding the alleged “cronyism”, “elitism” and “amoral” lifestyle of the Bollywood elites has incited moral panic among the popular audience.
The 1990s was an era of a drastic political shift world over, including India. The reactionary project of neoliberalism largely depoliticised the economic arena while culture became a tool for political opportunism. The communications revolution and thus the advent of popular platforms enlarged the space for public discourse for non-traditional elites to assert equal footing or in many cases displace the monopoly held by traditional cultural elites who had partly emerged with state patronage. This democratisation, as feared by Plato, while resulted in the debasement of discourse, also exposed the popular audience to wider sources for unfiltered dissemination of information. This aspect, however, may not adequately explain the sensationalization of news.
In addition to the communications revolution, the underlying impact of the combination of modernity and capitalism dislocated ensconced life into serialised events. The mechanisation of life with the cycle of work-home robbed the social beings of a “way of life” into a series of unpredictable and non-negotiable incidents. With this mechanisation and the surge of relativist outlook, the admissibility for shared living became extremely limited. Political scientist Ajay Gudavarthy argues while quoting Bertrand Russel that the path to happiness amidst serialised events is the engagement with the external world and sense of belongingness without a sense of ownership and without excessive self-absorption (Gudavarthy, 2020).
One cannot look at the lack of meaning-making in modernity and the process of individualisation in isolation. Individualisation, Nicos Poulantzas argues—as quoted by Shankar Gopalakrishnan—is a creation of an “individual” or a “juridical-political person” identical to the rest of the individuals while disconnected from them (Gopalakrishnan, 2008). Here, the monotonous lifestyle constructed by modern capitalism in combination with individualisation has left social beings craving for entertainment. This acts as a cultural capital for the newly emerged popular media houses to tap into and thus disseminate unfiltered information. The media works to “amuse, entertain, inform and to inculcate individuals with values, beliefs, code and behaviour that will integrate them into the institutional structures of larger society”, (Chomsky and Herman, 1988) and the modern media taps into the emotive cravings of the larger audience and manufactures consent.
In the age of finance-capital emerged a new financial elite who predominantly belonged to the forward castes largely displaced the old Nehruvian elites. This new social class carried forward the popular notions of family values and non-western identitarian cultural values. The ceding and the structural changes in the Nehruvian construction of a socialist state with the rise of finance capital reinforced social structural hierarchies (Chakravarthy, 2020). The class-caste social praxis became predominant. I submit that there began the social hegemony of once-displaced social elites and the social assertion of the Indian middle class.
Historically, the middle class has been the backbone of the national political imagination. No class of citizenry has been able to dominate the political discourse as the robust middle class. With the economic liberalisation, the political space for economy shrank while that of culture grew. This was the invariable relationship between culture and capital. The rise of BJP under Modi has cultural connotations to it. The social hegemony of the middle class has never been stronger. The outrage vented against Bollywood in general and Rhea, in particular, can be construed as a tendency to assert cultural dominance of the popular over the minuscule elites.
Ali, while quoting American sociologist Joseph Gusfield argues that the middle-class politics is “the politics of status goals” where there exists a constant moral panic among the middle classes against the cultural-industrial elites who are threats to their own “social respect and honour” (Ali, 2020). Therefore, in the outrage we witness against Rhea where she is called “witch” and other egregious names, it is this “moral” angst against one who is destined to defame the social order by “drugging” Sushant and the disregarding “sanskaar” which the socially constructed “woman” must embody. Rhea is accused of attempting to break the historically woven patriarchal set-up sustained by conditioned misogyny and thus deserve a social boycott. While we are indeed witnessing outrage solely aimed at a Rhea and relatively far less outrage against Showik Chakraborty and his alleged fellow male accomplices, it raises serious questions about the skewed public outrage against a woman who allegedly committed the same “social sins" as men.
Such social responses of moral panic against autonomous individuals are devoid of any reasonable shreds of evidence. Moral panics are susceptible to far-reaching political implications and leave indelible scars on civilisation for generations to come. The succession of moral panics enables the state to cement power and arbitrarily abrogate individual freedoms with a social sanction. This socially sanctioned decadence turns political culture into crude majoritarian mob rule and thus raises serious questions about civilisational continuity.
By K.S. Nikhil Jois
CHRIST (Deemed) To Be University, Bengaluru
Nikhil is a politics and philosophy enthusiast. He finds solace in Indian classical music. An aspiring civil servant.
Rhea Chakraborty & ors vs. Union Of India & Ors., 1.2-B.A-st-2386-2020. https://www.livelaw.in/pdf_upload/pdf_upload-382517.pdf
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Gopalakrishnan, S., (2008/ 14-11). MRonline. Retrieved from https://mronline.org/2008/11/14/neoliberalism-and-hindutva-fascism-free-markets-and-the-restructuring-of-indian-capitalism/
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Chakravarthy, A., The Making of Modi’s Ramrajya: How Indian citizens became subjects and the Prime Minister King. (2020, August 09th). Scroll.
Ali, A., Amoral Panic (2020, September 19th). The Telegraph India.