Tuesday, 28 January 2014

On Philosophy as an Alternative to Pepper-Spray

A friend of mine has successfully fended off the attentions of miscreants by asking the question "Why?" Based on a small sample size (n=2), it seems like an effective strategy. (I should say at this point that my friend is one of the least threatening-looking people I know, so the threat of physical resistance is unlikely to have been a big factor.)

Incident 1
My friend was walking alone down a dark alley in London when she was accosted by two muggers.
Mugger 1: Give me your phone.
friend: No.
Mugger 1:
(thrusting his hand into a jacket pocket and pretending to reach for a gun) Give me your phone or I'll fucking kill you.
friend: Why will I give you my phone?
At this, Mugger 1 grew confused, and Mugger 2, perhaps sensing that all was not going to plan, told him to leave her alone. Both muggers disappeared into the night.

Incident 2
My friend sat next to a creepy guy in an auto rickshaw in Calcutta.
Creepy Guy: Are you going to tuition?
friend: No.
Creepy Guy: Is that a camera bag?
friend: No, it's my handbag.
Creepy Guy: What is your good name please?
friend: Why?
Creepy Guy: Umm, err... just like that.
Creepy Guy kept to himself after that and meekly got off at the next stop.

It is worth noting that the "why" questions in the two incidents were slightly different. The first asked for a reason in the normative sense, i.e. why she ought to do a certain thing. Interestingly, Mugger 1 had already answered this question: "or I'll fucking kill you," a statement which offered my friend an extrinsic motivation to hand over her phone, in the form of a threat of bodily injury, if not death, in the event of non-compliance. I believe it was in fact my friend's implied second-order question, "Why is handing over my phone preferable to the possibility of death?" that stymied the mugger. Assuming the mugger's threat was credible, my friend, by refusing to hand over her phone, would effectively be committing suicide. But the mugger could not, on the spot, come up with a convincing argument why she should not. As Albert Camus said, "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide."

The "why" question in the second incident is more ambiguous (and perhaps therefore doubly effective). It could be interpreted as asking for a reason in the normative sense ("Why should I tell you my name?") or in the explanatory sense ("Why are you asking me my name?") Note that Creepy Guy's response, "Just like that," could potentially be an answer to both questions (and indeed to most of the fundamental questions in philosophy). But perhaps he felt that a more specific answer was owed, and in this he came up short.

Possible answers could be, "Because exchanging names is a preliminary step in social interactions between strangers," or "So that we can get to know each other better," but these are susceptible to second-order "why" questions: "Why do names matter?" or "Why would I wish to know you better, or indeed, at all?"

The "why" question is so powerful because it resonates through many levels; an answer to a "why" question can always be interrogated with another "why" question until the would-be miscreants are confronting – perhaps for the first time in their lives – their most fundamental beliefs and assumptions.


Sujaan said...

Doesn't always work that way, though. The pepper-spray may not be an efficacious alternative either. In most cases it ends in something quite violent. Lechers generally are supposed (thought) to be non-confrontational. Incidents like these and much more violent are actually far too common and far too serious an issue, methinks. People actually lose their lives almost on a weekly basis here because of situations like these that escalate. Happy that the two cases mentioned proved lucky for the friend.

Sroyon said...

True, the post was not intended to trivialise mugging or accostment, and I hope it will not be read as such.

Tommy said...

On the other hand, asking "why" usually doesn't work so well when police want you to do something.