Aggression Vs. Punitiveness

Virat Kohli’s aggressive behaviour on the cricket field evokes both admiration and revulsion in us. Recently, the famous actor Nasseruddin Shah described Kohli as the “worst behaved player”. Needless to say, this created its own chain reaction against Mr. Shah. While Mr. Shah may have been more direct and upfront, the unease about Kohli’s aggression has also been expressed by several others.

A couple of months back, when Kohli had reacted to a fan by asking him to leave the country, it created quite an uproar. This was widely interpreted as jingoistic and intolerance towards a fan’s preference for a foreign player. Kohli did clarify that he was not objecting to the fan’s preference for a foreign player, but reacting to the disdain in the expression “these Indian players”. However, Kohli’s clarification was generally ignored.

I have no idea as to what kind of person is Virat Kohli. What seems reasonably apparent is that he is passionate, ambitious, intense, competitive and expressive. Beyond that it is difficult to say anything about him. To best of my knowledge, he has never resorted to physical/verbal abuse or been involved in drunken brawls or been accused of unfair practices like ball tampering etc. He has rarely been a “bad loser”(blaming others) and has often been generous in his praise of his opponents. Thus it is difficult to associate punitiveness with his aggression.

Aggression and Punitiveness may look alike but they are quite different from each other. The most important difference of course is, that in Punitiveness, there is a clear INTENT to harm/hurt the other. The motive for causing the hurt/harm may vary ( e.g. teaching a lesson or settling a score etc.) but Punitiveness is a MOTIVATED ACT.

As against this Aggression is an EXPRESSIVE ACT. Here, the other is incidental or in a sense irrelevant. It is essentially a release of one’s own aggressive impulses, which may have got triggered from fear, insecurity, frustration or even a sense of relief and achievement. This may cause harm/hurt to the other, but it arises from the insensitivity/callousness of the aggressor rather than an active intent.

Aggression is often deployed in the service of Punitiveness, but not always so. Seemingly non-aggressive behaviours (e.g. sarcasm, mockery, slight, disdain, dismissal etc.) can be equally effective in punishing the other. In fact, they carry an additional advantage as they are very difficult to counter. One often comes across instances when people justify their insults and ridicules as “just joking”. Thus non-aggressive act of punishment, allow the perpetrator to get away without taking any responsibility in the matter.

Aggression and Punitiveness may overlap with each other, but not all Aggression is punitive, and not all Punitiveness is blatantly aggressive. The distinction between the two is particularly important in the Indian context.There is plenty of evidence to suggest that we Indians have a very uneasy relationship with Aggression. We either tend to deny/suppress our aggressive impulses OR discharge them indiscriminately. Consequently-

a) It becomes extremely difficult for us to harness the positive potential of aggression.

b) Whenever we are faced with aggression ( either in ourselves or in others), we become punitive(towards self and/or other) and

c) Much of our punitiveness gets expressed through seemingly non-aggressive ways.

Thus when some one like Virat Kohli comes along, who is able to deploy his aggressive impulses to his advantage (I have rarely seen him play a shot in anger) without becoming punitive towards himself or others, we experience strong ambivalence. On one hand, he becomes a symbol through which our own aggressive impulses are finding expression, and on the other, all our demons about aggression begin to haunt us. We want to both admire him as also punish him for doing what we are unable to do ourselves. Just as people who do not know how to stand up for themselves feel both elated and upset, when they see someone else doing it, so do we when we see a Virat Kohli showing his raw aggression without getting consumed by it. We want to admire him, emulate him and also punish him.

Strange as it may seem, there is perhaps an inverse relationship between Aggression and Punitiveness. The more discomfort that we have with our aggressive impulses, the more punitive we are likely to become. And the more we grace our aggression, the less punitive we are likely to be.

I have often come across people who are extremely aggressive but not punitive, just as I have come across people who seem non-aggressive, but are extremely punitive. I have also found that generally we are a lot more tolerant of the non-aggressive punitive people, and a lot more critical of the aggressive ones, even if they are non-punitive. What has been your experience?

Handling Individual Greatness- from Sachin to Kohli

In the last few years,the cricket world in India has gone through a significant transition – from the Sachin era to a Kohli era. Even die hard Sachin fans (like yours truly) have to admit that in all likelihood,Virat Kohli will surpass Sachin Tendulkar, not merely in terms of individual achievements, but more importantly, in terms of contribution to team’s success. Even as fans go crazy with chants of “Kohli  Kohli”, there is a palpable difference in the kind of adulation and reverence which was given to Sachin as compared to what is offered to Kohli. During the Sachin era, it was not unusual for people to lose all interest in the game, once he was gone, but that does not seem to be the case now. I have as yet not seen Kohli being elevated to “Godhood” as was the case with Sachin. Is it only a matter of time or has something shifted in our handling of “Individual Greatness”? I hope it is the later, but it may be too early to say.

To begin with, let me state the difference, as I see it. During the Sachin era, our collective focus was much more on his personal achievements than on team performance. For many people, his scoring a hundred was more important than India winning the match. Surely, people still enjoy  a Kohli century, but I don’t think his records are being followed as zealously as was the case with Sachin. At that time, people came to see Sachin bat (or bowl or field, for that matter). Today Kohli is a big draw, but the game does not begin or end with him.

How this collective obsession about Sachin Tendulkar affected his teammates can not be said with any certainty, but it is rather unlikely that they would have been oblivious to it. In fact, some of them have talked about being extra careful in ensuring that they don’t run him out and become targets of public wrath. It has also been suggested that the huge gap between Sachin and the rest of team was one of the factors which contributed to his failure as a captain. Contrast that with Kohli, where even relative newcomers like Karun Nair and Kedar Jadhav feel free to express themselves without much inhibition. Thus it would seem that rather than feeling dwarfed in his presence, Kohli’s teammates feel more inspired and empowered by his greatness.

What we are witnessing with Kohli, is perhaps the logical extension of a process which began with several other contemporary greats of Indian cricket, particularly, Dravid, Kumble and Dhoni. Each of them a colossus in his own right, and yet never became larger than the game as seemed to have happened with Sachin. When that happens,  the greatness of an individual becomes more of a  liability than an asset both for the individual and the total collectivity. This is equally applicable to all areas of human endeavour not just cricket and sports.

In any field, there will always be individuals with exceptional talent and capability. How their greatness is handled, depends not merely on them but also on the context to which they belong. In a context of low self-worth, such individuals are either deified or crucified. In either case they are dehumanised and left to carry the burden of their greatness. I suspect, something akin to this happened in case of Sachin. He became a compensation for our low self-worth. He was a “special gift” from the almighty sent to deliver us from our gloom and through him we could feel good about ourselves.

To a much lesser extent, we did the same with Dhoni, but so far at least we have spared Kohli from it. Surely, there are huge expectations from him, but we do not feel as delirious with his successes and as devastated with his failures as we did in case of Sachin. There is a much lesser sense of “everything depends upon him”. And this in spite of the fact that in the current test team, there is no one other than R. Ashwin who comes any where close to his capability and stature. Perhaps we are learning to pin our hopes on collective effort, rather than on brilliance of one individual.

Ironical as it may seen, it is “self-belief” at the collective level, which enables individual greatness to flourish. Take away the self belief from the collective, and the individual greatness becomes more of a liability than an asset. Such collectives can at best revere but not admire, appreciate and assimilate.The real challenge lies in ensuring that the individual greatness becomes a source of inspiration for the collective rather than a source/compensation for its feelings of smallness.