Sexuality, Work spaces and Me Too

This is a politically incorrect piece. It can easily be misconstrued as a defence for the predatory behaviour of several powerful men (and some women)and/or victim shaming of those who have suffered at their hands. My intent is to do neither but only to highlight how the present deluge of “victim-perpetrator” narratives can trivialise the very serious matter of sexual exploitation.

In the present deluge, there is a preponderance of the “victim-perpetrator” lens. The prevalent narrative is that these “victims” have at last found the courage to expose their predators. Not surprisingly, a counter narrative has begun to emerge viz. these are women who used their sexuality to get ahead in life and are now crying foul (significantly, in many cases, after reaching a stage when either they don’t need the patronage of their erstwhile perpetrators and/or when their sexual prowess is on the decline)

This bout of allegations-counter allegations is likely to be counter productive. One because these are rarely “black and white” situations but more importantly, because it is likely to create a situation where we may get desensitised to the severity of allegations. Admittedly, to begin with some heads will roll(which in turn may act as a deterrent) but simultaneously, we may start looking at them as “routine affair” and treating everything as ambiguous. This would be alarming as the “victim-predator” lens is crucial in some situations, but when it is applied indiscriminately, it becomes self-defeating.

Accident prone zone

Admittedly, there is a very thin dividing line between sexual misconduct and sexual exploitation, but it is important to differentiate between the two. A lewd comment and rape may stem from the same seed of “male entitlement” but putting the two together in the same basket, desensitises us about the severity of rape. Sexual exploitation is primarily concerned with use of coercive power (physical or positional) to gain sexual advantage over the “vulnerable other”. On the other hand, Sexual misconduct is an inappropriate action in a sexual situation. It may or may not have elements of exploitation, but when this misconduct occurs vis a vis a person who is lower in power/status hierarchy, it is likely to be seen as a case of sexual exploitation.

The complexity arises from the fact that a large part of the game called Sexuality is covert in nature. Very few women would blatantly seduce and very few men would directly woo or coerce. While in some cases the transactions are explicit and direct, in most others they are “implied” and hence subject to the ability of the parties involved to read the messages accurately. Just as there are many women who complain that their overtures were wrongly interpreted as “come on” signals, there are many men who feel surprised that what they considered as a “consensual arrangement” had a very different meaning for the other party.

Thus the realm of sexuality(particularly in work spaces) is highly “accident prone”. While many of these “accidents” have strong elements of sexual exploitation, not all of them do. If all such misconducts are viewed through the “victim- perpetrator” lens, unwittingly we end up reinforcing the source from which the problem emerges vis. the sexual codings which see Man as a predator and Woman as a prey

The predator and the Prey

There are many codings that we carry around sexuality. This is not the space for a detailed exploration of their origin and how they may differ between men and women. However to appreciate the complexity of the issue, it may be worthwhile to look at some of them.

1. The sexual act carries strong connotations of Dominance and Submission. Several everyday expressions like F You, got screwed, up yours etc. are a clear evidence of it. In the popular film Three Idiots, the friends of the protagonist acknowledge his superiority by “offering” their backside to him.

2. Powerful men often assume a certain “sexual entitlement” and many women in less powerful positions often assume “sexual obligation”

3. A certain amount of resistance by the woman is not just treated as “par for the course”, but is also held as desirable.It is also believed that it is the job of the male to overcome this resistance either through “wooing” or through “coercion”.

4. Men are assumed to be more promiscuous than women in sexual conduct.

5. Unwarranted sexual initiatives by men are likely to make the woman feel “violated” (e.g. expressions such as outraging the modesty of a woman). On the other hand, unwarranted sexual initiatives by a woman may seem offensive or disgusting but are less likely to be seen as “outraging the modesty of a man”

6. The sexual act is often seen as a “means to an end” for the woman and an “end in it self” for a man.

7. Physical attraction and sexual fidelity are of greater significance to men, whereas women put greater emphasis on resources/power/status and emotional commitment.

The important issue is not whether these codings are an accurate reflection of reality or not. So long as they exist in our minds we will see Man as “ever ready” and Woman as someone who has to be wooed or coerced. Note for instance that we generally use the term “sexual favours” in respect of what a Woman offers to a Man, and very rarely, the other way. Thus we almost take it for granted that proactive initiation belongs to Man and resistance/vulnerability to Woman. The most sinister side of this basic configuration is the motif of predator and prey. Sexual exploitation is a direct consequence of this basic configuration.

This configuration stems from both socio-cultural factors (such as patriarchy)and also bio-existential factors (e.g.role of the two genders in the propagation of the species)and is not likely to disappear in a hurry.However, by viewing all sexual misconduct of Men through the “victim- perpetrator” lens, we may unwittingly reinforce it even further. The more we strengthen the “predator-prey” motif, the more sexual exploitation are we likely to encounter.

Sexuality in the work space

Work spaces are human collectives where men and women bring their values, beliefs, orientations etc. including some of the codings described above. It is neither feasible nor perhaps desirable to make them sexually sterile. Whether we acknowledge it or not, Sexuality plays a huge role in the human dynamics of work spaces ( see my earlier piece on sexually charged workspaces)

In most part of human history, men and women have worked (and even lived) in segregated spaces with fairly clearly defined codes of engagement. The tight demarkation of roles is fast disappearing and increasingly men and women find themselves having to engage with each other in workspaces. This requires them to deal with sexuality in a hitherto unfamiliar space. Purely in evolutionary terms, we are ill-equipped to handle this in a mature, responsible and dignified manner.

Unfortunately most organisations pay very little attention to this need. While they invest heavily in promoting Diversity, these efforts rarely go beyond the usual rhetoric of bias, prejudice, equal opportunity and affirmative action. The only time sexuality enters the picture is in respect of transgressions and prevention of sexual harassment and misconduct. The basic assumption is that either sexuality does not exist in workspaces or that it is purely a personal matter. So long as there are no transgressions, we can all close our eyes to the impact of sexuality in workspaces.

The more we adhere to the perspective described above and push issues of sexuality under the carpet, the more prone we will become to looking at all sexual misadventures through the “victim predator” lens. Ironically, it will reinforce the codings described above and hence make us more vulnerable to sexual exploitation. It is high time that we accept that if men and women relate spontaneously with each other, sexuality will necessarily enter the picture and bring all its messy side along. Rather than getting embroiled in the “victim-perpetrator” frame, we need to invest into enhancing our ability to deal with sexuality in work spaces (including its messy side) in a responsible, mature and dignified manner

Two faces of the Hindu Monolith

Significance of the excluded

One of my teachers, late Pulin Garg, had a favourite question- ” In saying what you are saying, what are you not saying AND in not saying, what you are not saying, what are you actually saying ?” Besides being a nice tongue twister, the question is also a reminder  that in order to understand any phenomenon, it is important to take into account that which has been edited out.

Thus I was quite amused by the fact that Shashi Tharoor in his recent book “Why I am a Hindu”, makes no reference to Ambedkar’s ” Riddles in Hinduism” or even ” Annihilation of caste”. In fact, Ambedkar’s name figures only thrice in the book with no serious engagement with his views. One wonders, where does Ambedkar figure in the grand narrative of Hinduism ( religion for the 21st century etc.) offered by Mr. Tharoor. Presumably, Mr. Tharoor does not agree with Ambedkar’s position, but then why does he not refute it and explicitly state his disagreement. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that Mr. Tharoor’s book is essentially a political statement and the best thing to do would be to stay clear of everything which could spoil the grand narrative which he wishes to lure us with, as also to sidestep anything which could be potentially controversial.

Political dilemma and the same Monolith 

Mr. Tharoor’s predicament is understandable. His party has FINALLY recognised that the secular card has lost much of its sheen and credibility, and hence carries very little traction with a large part of the electorate. On the other hand, its main political rival has achieved considerable success through consolidation of what is somewhat simplistically referred to as “Hindu vote”. Under the circumstances, the only viable choice that it is left with, is to offer its own version of Hinduism and convince the electorate that it is being hoodwinked by its rival in the name of Hinduism. The strategy is identical to what its political rival had done by coining the term “pseudo-secularism” . Mr. Tharoor is now trying to turn the tables by suggesting that what his political opponent is following is “pseudo- Hinduism ( though he does not use this term) and his party is the torch bearer of “real Hinduism”

Consequently, there is very little difference in his version of Hinduism and the one subscribed to by the Hindutva brigade. . They draw from the same scriptures ( Vedas, Upanashids, Gita, etc.) offer identical interpretations and extol the same virtues of tolerance, plurality, etc. Even in respect of social ills (like untouchability, superstition, oppression of the downtrodden, cruelty towards widows etc.) their perspectives are  identical i.e. these are distortions which have emerged (mostly in the last few centuries) and have very little to do with the intrinsic nature of Hinduism.

Thus beneath the veneer of modern sensibilities Mr. Tharoor offers as the same monolithic version of Hinduism as the Hindutva brigade – the same smug claims of being the only universal religion ( without of course seeking to proselytise) and the same subtle  “holier than thou” stance. Note for instance Mr. Tharoor’s assertion- ” India’s secular co-existence was paradoxically made possible by the fact that the overwhelming majority of   Indians are Hindu” Net net, Mr. Tharoor has no difference of opinion with his Hindutva counterparts as far as the understanding of Hinduism goes. All that he is saying is that ” They are fake, I am the authentic version”

Hinduness as a cultural construct

Both Mr. Tharoor and Hindutva brigade, also seem to agree that Hinduism ( or more appropriately Hindu-ness) is also a cultural construct- a perspective, a philosophy, a way of life, a set of values, a psycho-social predisposition about different facets of human existence. This notion of Hindu-ness is not restricted to any specific religious creed but transcends  religious affiliations. In this sense, the term Hindu becomes quite similar to the way Mohd. Iqbal used the term Hindi, in his famous verse ” Hindi hein, watan hai hindustan hamara” ( We are Hindis and our land is Hindustan)

It is therefore logical to infer that both for the Hundutva brigade, and the likes of Mr. Tharoor, Hindu-ness is not the monopoly of only those who belong to the so called Hindu religions. ( I use the plural because I do not believe that there is anything called Hindu religion. At best, we can talk of a wide set of belief systems, which can broadly be classified as Hindu) . To a large extent, both the virtues and ills of Hinduness, cut across the religious barriers and can be witnessed in most inhabitants of this land, including the followers of Abrahamic faiths. 

The two fallacies

There is thus an undeniable overlap between Hinduness and Indianness. Where Mr. Tharoor differs from his Hindutva counterparts, is in his response to this overlap. The Hindutva brigade treats Hinduness and Indianness as identical and refuses to acknowledge any difference between the two. From their point of view all Indians are Hindus who belong to different sects( or Panths) Thus Moslems become Mohammed Panthi Hindus, Christian become Issah Panthi Hindus, Sikhs become Nanak Panthi Hindus, and so on.

On the face of it, this approach seems quite inclusive, but what it conveniently overlooks is that religions are not just about theology, worship of God and religious rituals. They are also social arrangements and significant anchors of a person/community’s identity. This insistence to erode the distinction between Hinduness and Indianness only fuels paranoia and enhances the need to assert one’s separateness . What is worse, it leaves the community feeling vulnerable about unwanted intrusions into its ways of living e.g. dietary preferences and the like. The net result is that non-recognition of difference between Hinduness and Indianness, only heightens the difference between them.

On the other hand, people like Mr. Tharoor treat them as disjointed separate entities,  They believe that  Hinduness and Indianness should not be mixed with each other and each should be respected and valued in its own right. This sounds perfectly rational but the trouble is that humans are not just rational beings – they also have emotive needs. Devoid of Hinduness, the notion of Indianness is reduced to a mere geo-political convenience and carries no emotive force with it. 

This approach of dealing with the overlap, not merely leaves a huge  emotional vacuum for exploitation by various vested interests, it also puts people like Mr. Tharoor in a peculiar double bind, because they are unable to take any cogent stance in respect of our collective cultural heritage. Thus on one hand Mr. Tharoor wants epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata to be treated as non-religious texts which should be taught in our schools, but simultaneously castigates Doordarshan for telecasting them and contributing to the Hindutva agenda.

There is no way we can remain connected with our heritage without gracing our Hinduness, because a large part of our epics, mythology, cultural symbols, architecture,  art forms, etc. have a strong stamp of Hinduness. Similarly in order to infuse our notion of national identity, with emotive force, we are forced to fall back on Hinduness, because it lives within us ,irrespective of our religious affiliations,  and provides the invisible thread which connects this diverse and pluralistic society. 

While the Hindutva brigade commits the error of not differentiating between Hinduness and Indianness, people like Mr. Tharoor err by disassociating them. Neither approach helps us in pursuing our cherished goal of “Unity in Diversity” In the first scenario, diversity is sacrificed and all that we are left with is a hegemony in the name of unity. In the second scenario, the invisible thread of Hinduness, which holds us together, is forgotten and all that we are left with is a soulless, incoherent melee in the name of diversity.

Unresolved Feelings about Hinduness

It is indeed not easy to acknowledge the overlap between two constructs without confusing them with each other.  What makes it even more difficult for us is the strong religious associations with the term Hindu and the host of unresolved feelings around our Hinduness.  For a variety of reasons, the followers of Hindu religions have carried a strong sense of stigma, shame and feelings of victimisation. These are either discharged through hyper aggressive reactivity or compensated through a self-image of hyper graciousness( we are tolerant, inclusive welcoming, non-violent etc.) The Hidutvawadis try and exploit the sense of victimhood and injury, whereas the likes of Mr. Tharoor appeal to the innate graciousness of the Hindu identity. The  ill effects of  stoking the victimhood are well known but ironically the appeals to graciousness are not likely to work either. This is so because graciousness and victimhood become two sides of the same coin- “We have suffered because we are too gracious” kind of syndrome.  Hence the more we exaggerate the gracious side of Hinduness, the more we will fuel the sense of victimhood, and the greater will be the counter reaction in terms of crude aggressive “show of strength”  

The followers of non- Hindu religions have their own set of difficulties . Often,the fear of being swallowed and losing their identity, makes it difficult for them to embrace their innate Hinduness.  Also, they have a clearer and tighter religious organisations, which do not always sit well with the “open-ended and fluid” notions of religiosity associated with Hinduness. This creates a conflict of loyalties for them. Their innate Hinduness pulls them towards an open ended approach, but it also leaves residual discomfort/guilt about betraying their religious doctrines. Additionally, there is sometimes a sense of superiority about the foreign ( and hence more advanced/progressive) origins of their religion and a wish to differentiate themselves from the heathen Hindu.

Another difficulty stems from the fear that any emphasis on either Hinduness or Indianness, will make us parochial and closed. This is particularly prevalent among a section of English educated urban elite, who see themselves primarily as “global citizens”. Their belief is that all social/cultural codings ( like race, gender, ethnicity etc.) create prejudice and stereotypes, and consequently prevent us from acknowledging the innate humanness which cuts across these differences.

I have a great degree of resonance with this perspective, but I also find it limiting. Human beings are not just autonomous entities but also relational beings. A large part of our identity ( a sense of who we are) stems from our belonging system (family, community, culture etc.) .Thus codings received from these systems have a significant impact on how we think, feel and act. When this impact is not acknowledged and graced, it either operates in a surreptitious manner or makes us rootless and alienated ,not just from our context but also from ourselves. It is true that often these codings become a burden and prevent us from thinking freely, but it is equally true that they are an integral part of ourselves. The more we fight them and deny them, the more virulent they become. It is only through acknowledging them, understanding them and gracing them, that we can go beyond them and release ourselves from their captivity.

To sum up, we can not escape the reality that beyond our differences of class, creed, religion, ethnicity etc. there is a shared invisible  cultural thread which holds this diverse society together. We also share a heritage which is largely ( though by no means completely) associated with the term Hindu. In this sense Hinduness  can be seen as an integral part of us. We may like it or hate it, but we cannot wish it away. This Hinduness deeply impacts the way we see ourselves as a nation. We can neither equate Hinduness with Indianness, nor can we disassociate them with each other. We simply have to learn ( both individually and collectively) to walk the tight rope of ” differentiation without disassociation ” However, this will only be possible if we first learn as to what does Hinduness really mean, and deal with our own unresolved feelings around it.  The more we get caught in the” victim-gracious ” binary , the more difficult our task will become.

 

 

 

Symbols and Persons

Recently, I read a small book about Arnab Goswami, written by Vir Sanghvi. Till then, Arnab Goswami was merely a symbol for me- symbol of a certain kind of T.V. Journalism which I intensely dislike. The book helped me to see the person behind the symbol, but more importantly, it provided insights about the contextual forces which had created this symbol. 

Mr. Sanghvi looks at not just the personal background of Arnab Goswami but also at the ethos of T.V. journalism (specifically English news channels) prior to the Goswami era. It appears that several processes were at play which created a fertile ground for someone like Arnab Goswami to emerge. Some significant features of this context were –  pretence of neutrality, compulsive consensus, synthetic amiability, focus on a selective viewership, Delhi centricity, clannish elitism etc. In this scenario, it was to be expected that a strong counter point would emerge who is direct, blunt, populist, confrontational and very very loud. Mr. Goswami fitted the bill, but it is important to remember that what we see in him, is not just him. It is also a reaction to the processes which belong to the collective context. 

In our preoccupation with individual personalities, we often overlook how the person becomes a symbol who in a sense is not just his/her own person but a carrier of the wishes, hopes, frustrations, stresses, repressions etc. of the collective to which he/she belongs. This is not to deny the significance of personal attributes, differences, choice making or the Agency of the individual. Surely they play a part, but once the person concerned has swallowed the symbol placed upon him/her by the collective, there is very little choice left for the person. The person becomes a captive of the symbol and the entire collective puts its might behind ensuring that the person concerned sticks to the script which has been laid out for him/her.

This process is starkly visible in case of public figures but can be easily witnessed in day to day life as well. R.D. Laing in his path breaking research on mental illness found that “pathology does not belong to the individual alone but to the entire family”. In my own work with individuals and collectives (groups, families, organisations) I have often discovered that what is attributed to a person, generally belongs to the entire collective. At the very least, the collective ensures that the person remains fixed in the allotted symbol.

While this is a fairly normal process, some times the symbols become so powerful and exercise such a stronghold over everyone concerned, that both the person and collective are unable to break free, even in face of heavy cost to themselves. Let me take a few examples.

One of the widely prevalent symbols among leaders in the Indian context is that of the “distant father”. While there are other symbols as well (macho go-getter, brilliant visionary etc.) the distant father has a special appeal in the Indian psyche. Several CEO’s take it for granted that in order to be effective and also to maintain their authority, they have to act the distant father, lest they appear partial, vulnerable, unfair or be taken for granted. Invariably, the rest of the organisation, plays the complementary role of the “good obedient children”, putting their best foot forward, while dealing with the “father”

A direct consequence of this process is that the “distant father” remains blissfully unaware about the “messy” side of the organisation. I recall, once a CEO was sharing with me his sense of shock on learning that one of his bright stars had left the organisation because of “interpersonal problems” with his immediate boss. When I asked him as to how did he remain unaware of something happening right under his nose, his response was” but how was I to know? These things are never voiced in my presence- they behaved so normally in my presence that it was impossible for me to know that trouble was brewing”. When I suggested to him that it may be a good idea for him to spend some relaxed and informal time with his people, he was shocked because he felt that it could seriously impair his image as a fair and impartial authority figure.

The captivity of the symbol becomes so strong that it becomes impossible for the people concerned to operate in any other way. As a result, the entire collective remains caught in its unexamined fears about intimacy and how it can contaminate the sanctity of authority relationships.

Another symbol that I have frequently encountered is that of the “villain” . In many systems, I frequently hear people saying ” But for so and so, everything would be perfect and hunky dory– ” The belief is that all problems are arising out of a single source. Sometimes this source can be a group or collective and not just an individual. For example, one often comes across the symbol of “politician” as the villain. The central argument being that since politicians are supposed to be all powerful, all ills can be attributed to them. All religious tensions, communal/inter caste hostilities/corruption/ indiscipline etc. are sought to be placed at their doorsteps. I sometimes come across people who genuinely believe that but for these handful of crooked politicians, there will be bliss and prosperity for all concerned and different communities/religious groups will be living in perfect harmony.

Needless to say, in order to make the politician into a villain, the rest of us are required to play  the complementary role of “helpless accomplice” – we have no choice but to bribe/ seek favours/ bend the rules etc. etc. On the other hand, the politician has no other choice except to play the role of the all powerful demigod who is not constrained by “normal rules of conduct”. The beauty of symbols is that they lock the  parties concerned in a relationship which neither can escape.

Both the symbols described above, ensure maintenance of status quo. There are also symbols of disruption like Arnab Goswami. In this scenario the individual becomes the medium through which the repressed shadow of the system finds expression through a “counter point”.  For example, one may find a highly aggressive and violent person in an otherwise pacifist family. The person concerned holds the aggression and violence on behalf of the entire family.

The ‘counter point” disrupts the status quo but is sustained by the hope which the collective places on it.  The hope is that the ‘counter point’ will release the collective from its present entrapment and begin a new era.  While this may lead to sporadic outbursts and releases,  the apparent  shifts in the systems are generally of only an oscillatory kind ( pendulum moving from one point to another) with no real movement.

In case of Arnab Goswami, the hope was that the TV debates will become more substantive and real.  However, we can see that the “synthetic amiability” has been replaced by “in your face aggression”. But has it led to meaningful debate as was presumably the intent? It is intense and passionate alright but where is the listening to the other? Where is the space for calm discourse and dispassionate rationality? All that Mr. Goswami has succeeded in doing is that he has replaced “compulsive consensus” with a “shouting match”,where the louder you scream the better. Expectedly, this new “ethos” of shouting matches has become the norm for many other anchors/channels.

One of my learnings from my work is that in order to meaningfully engage with collectives(groups, families, organisations, society at large) one needs to go beyond the person and understand the “symbol” which the person has become. What plays out through the individual does not belong to the individual alone. In a sense, it is part of the collective psyche which is finding expression through the individual. In absence of this appreciation all that we are left with are blame games and scapegoating.

 

 

Unintended Consequences of Unholy Alliances

Some time back, I was talking to a well known journalist and political commentator about “Modi magic”. Both of us felt that to a large extent, Modi’s appeal could be attributed to his success in fusing Traditional India with Aspirational India.  I call this an unholy alliance, not because it is undesirable or untenable, but because it has been forged without paying adequate attention to the inherent conflict between the two. An effective alliance requires engagement with both synergies and divergences between the two entities. When the divergences and inherent conflicts are put aside, because they are inconvenient to look at, they end up degenerating into opportunistic unholy alliances with disastrous consequences which neither party had bargained for.

Historically, there has been an uncomfortable relationship between Traditional India and Aspirational India. The tension between Gandhi and Nehru/Ambedkar being a classical example of it. Inspite of Gandhi’s critical views about  several aspects of the Indian tradition, his anchorage in Indian tradition remained strong and hence it was easy for Traditional India to resonate with him. On the other hand, his stances on technology, modernity, economics, social arrangements etc. made him unpalatable to the Aspirational India. Nehru and Ambekar could find some traction with the Aspirational India but remained largely alienated from the Traditional India. With his charismatic personality, Nehru managed to create huge mass following, but his connect with Traditional India was largely through regional satraps . At various points, he had to make several compromise to accommodate the compulsions of “Identity politics”, but by and large he regarded “Indian ways” as more of a handicap than an asset.

The split between Traditional and Aspirational was a major theme in the popular cinema of the 60’s and 70’s. For example, the blockbuster “Do Raaste” ( later remade as Om Jai Jagdish) centres around the turmoil caused in a joint family when one of the brothers  (in whose education, the family had invested heavily) gets drawn towards material advancement, after his marriage to a rich and “modern” girl. I suspect, that preponderance of this theme suggests a latent fear that pursuit of aspiration will entail rupturing of traditional ties.

Thus it is not surprising that the split between traditional and aspirational has played out in different ways in most spheres of Indian life. In the political sphere the divide between “Identity politics” and “Developmental politics” is virtually taken for granted– with Identity politics representing Traditional India and Developmental politics representing Aspirational India. Several politicians mouth the development rhetoric but their essential emphasis remains on Identity politics. Similarly, several politicians have carved out a niche for themselves by playing on the “aspirations” of marginalised groups. Not surprisingly fighting against”discrimination” and “oppression” becomes their primary traction, which necessarily carries an “anti-tradition” hue.

In this scenario, there was/is a huge constituency which has largely remained unattended to- i.e. of Indians who wish to remain connected with their tradition , but also pursue their aspirations. It is this constituency which Modi&co. have carefully cultivated and harnessed. The biggest advantage of this constituency is that it is not restricted to any specific socio-economic category but is spread across different castes, classes and  communities. The choice of Gujrat model was an apt symbol for this purpose.Gujrat is associated with both Tradition and Prosperity, and hence could effectively carry the message of fusion between Tradition and Aspiration. Modi’s own rise from very humble background, an image of a diligent, confident, austere and no non-sense person was/is extremely helpful. He is a role model who can be identified with. He is not a distant prince like a Rahul Gandhi. Similarly, he is not a Mamta Bannerjee or Laloo yadav, who though seen as “one of us”, are not aspired for.

How long will this alliance between Traditional India and Aspirational India last at the political level, is difficult to predict. The unease and tension between the two is fast acquiring alarming proportions. Two of the deadly consequences which have already begun to show  are as follows-

  1. Several rogue elements have given to themselves the right to create havoc in the name of Indian culture. Quite often, these elements are motivated by petty selfish interests and not any real concern for the values and traditions which they claim to be protecting. Besides the obvious law and order problem, it has become a serious hurdle in the path of Aspirational India, as several compromises are forced upon it in order to placate these elements. The worst part of this process is that a very narrow minded and intolerant picture gets painted of Indian culture.We are fast  reaching a point when many sane people will  cringe at the mention of the term Bhartiya Sanskriti.
  2. Several mediocre elements of Aspirational India, have found a convenient band wagon to latch on to i.e.  Indian culture. Scholars, artists, filmmakers with very little to their credit, have come to occupy positions of immense power and significance. What is worse is that many people with  with very high levels of credibility and contribution can be easily sidelined as “anti-Indian “. One may argue that this is essentially one set of coterie replacing another, but that argument ignores the fact that there are many hugely talented people on both sides of the ideological divide. Aspirational India can ill-afford to ignore merit irrespective of ideological orientation.                                                                                                                                                      I believe, the project of integrating Traditional India with Aspirational India is a commendable one, but it cannot ignore the landmines which need to be negotiated. If the inherent tensions are not acknowledged and addressed, it will only remain an opportunistic exercise. I also believe that a meaningful partnership between the two, will entail a recalibration  with both  Tradition and Aspiration.

 One of the biggest difficulties is that we  either glorify our Tradition or condemn it.  We attempt to preserve it  it as a relic of the past or discard it as an unwanted burden. Rarely do we engage with it as a living reality which needs to be understood and reinterpreted in the present context.  Consequently, Traditional India tries to ensure that we remain captives of our tradition, be like “frogs in a well” and look towards past for all our answers. On the other hand Aspirational India tends to treat Tradition as regressive and an unnecessary burden-  not an active partner or collaborator but a potential nuisance which needs to be placated, managed and controlled. In practice, this translates into collusion with a handful of self-appointed vanguards ( godmen, opinion makers, street goons etc.) rather than any real engagement with Traditional India. Needless to say, this only plays into the hands of these vanguards enhancing their nuisance value.

On the other hand, our engagement with the world of aspirations has got caught into the “me too” mould. Our aspirations are based more on catching up with the advanced world, rather than what we need/wish for ourselves. In our craze for glittering Malls and Smart Cities, we rarely ask ourselves whether we wish to follow a model of development which is largely based on insatiable consumption. Interestingly,  Traditional India, instead of challenging this model of development, has chosen to collude with it.There is a fast growing group of professionals/ intellectuals who are trying hard to sell the proposition that we can become world beaters by following the traditional Indian ways.

Some time back, on a visit to Haridwar, I was shocked to see large hoardings saying “lets make India the Jagatguru (teacher of the world) again”. I can not imagine anything more non- Indian than this absurdity. It is a classical example of the collusive relationship between Traditional India and Aspirational India. It conveniently sidesteps the inconvenient reality that Knowledge and Wisdom are configured very differently in the Indian tradition and deploying them for gaining dominance and supremacy may in fact, vitiate their basic essence.

Thus it appears that the present alliance is not seeing the interests of either party. This does not take away the need for a meaningful partnership between the two. In fact, as  stated earlier, meaningful partnership between Traditional India and Aspirational India is not just desirable but the need of the hour. However, this can not happen through collusive arrangements. It has to be accompanied by a healthy dose of mutual challenge and confrontation. Unless Traditional India stands up and challenges the development models of Aspirational India, and unless Aspirational India  puts pressure on Traditional India to rethink its existing beliefs and stances, we are unlikely to make much head way. Alliances become unholy, when they only accommodate, compromise and collude. In order to make them into meaningful partnership, one needs to address the inherent tensions and conflicts also.

 

 

 

 

 

Illusory Agency

These days whenever we  wish to find out anything about anything, we go to Google da, who invariably obliges. We have taken it for granted that Google da knows everything, but somehow we also seem to assume that this “everything” does not include “us”. Thus when we discover that Google da knows everything about “us” also, we feel offended, betrayed, intruded upon and violated.

Our basic stance is that Google da should be able to fulfil all our needs for information/knowledge, but the flow of information from us to Google da should be restricted by our choice. Since Google da is faced by similar requirement, not just from us, but everyone else as well, it has no choice but to “dig deeper” into what ever information each one of us is willing to provide. This exercise in “data mining” enables Google da to meet the various demands being placed on it. However, in the process, we realise that Google da has come to know a lot more about “us” than what we intended. Moreover, we also discover to our horror that in a surreptitious manner Google da has been controlling and deciding for us, what we are exposed to and what remains hidden from us.

In our feelings of outrage, we overlook the basic principle that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. We intended Google da to be our “slave” but in effect, it has become our “master”. By “outsourcing” our need for information and knowledge, we have given enormous power to Google da. It may therefore be worth asking as to what makes us outsource our need for information and knowledge. The obvious answer is that    we need a lot a more information and knowledge than what we can gather by our own efforts. Then the next logical question would be as to why do we need so much information and knowledge?

Perhaps, we believe that Knowledge helps us to enhance our Agency i.e. making informed choices, gaining control over our context, becoming masters of our destiny etc. Thus when we discover that the knowledge provided to us had a hidden agenda behind it, and was actually an attempt to manipulate us, we are left face to face with the illusory nature of our so called Agency. We cope with it by getting angry at the entities who we believe are responsible for it, but rarely recognise that it is only a logical corollary of the process we have set into motion, in our pursuit of ever expanding Agency.

In my younger days, one of my favourite definitions of Progress was “expansion of choice”. The more one progresses, the more choices one will have. For example, our ancestors had limited choices regarding where they lived, what work they did, who they married , how they commuted etc. etc. Isn’t it a sign of progress that today we enjoy many more choices in these area? Similarly, I would argue that a “mature” person would have many  “choices” in dealing with a situation than a less mature person who would react compulsively.

As I have grown older ( like many other people, I guess) I have begun to recognise that much of my so called Agency, was in fact an illusion. Many of these “choices” were in fact a product of forces (both internal and external) of which I was largely unaware. Like in the Google example given earlier, I believed that I was in control whereas in many ways ,I was a captive, who was only seeing what he was meant to see, whose interpretations followed a set pattern and whose choices had already been laid out for him. But most importantly, I have begun to realise that Progress can mean both “expansion of choice” and “living with limited choice”. In other words, not having a choice, has its own virtues.

Over the ages, philosophers have wrestled with the issue of “Free Will”, and no matter how the issue is approached, the final outcome is always the same- a simultaneous affirmation and negation. In other words, what we regard as our “choices” are really not our choices, and what we regard as our compulsions, are in some ways “our choices”. For example, is love a matter of one’s choice? A Ghalib will say ” hai ye woh  aatish Ghalib,  jo legaaye na lage or bujhyaye na bane” ( a spark which can neither be ignited nor extinguished by volition) Just as a Psychoanalyst will show how seemingly involuntary attractions, are in fact a product of complex motives and volitions.

The other day, a friend was narrating to me an exchange which took place between his 90 year old father and 30 year old son. The young man was trying to explain to his grandfather, some very interesting work that he is doing to unravel the mysteries of our universe. After listening to his grandson, the old man asked -Do you believe in God? The grandson responded by saying that he will provided he has sufficient evidence.

What struck me in this conversation was the two fundamentally different positions in respect of human volition and agency. For the young man, believing or not believing in God was a matter of choice which had to be exercised intelligently. For the grandfather, “choice” did not come into the picture at all– after all the only way one can “choose” to believe or not believe in God would be by placing oneself at an even higher plane than God.

Listening to this narrative, I was asking myself, which of the two stances do I resonate with, and I couldn’t find an answer. Earlier, it would have been easier for me to resonate with the grandson, but today I am not so sure. All I can say is that like all human beings, I have no  choice but to believe that I have choices and I must constantly endeavour to expand the range of possibilities. Simultaneously, I recognise that any “compulsion” (including that of expanding choices) can only mean  negation of  Agency.

This perhaps is the paradox which lurks behind all choice making. Nonetheless, To choose or not to choose, remains the basic question- and ironically we don’t seem to have a choice in the matter.

I wonder, how all this figures in your scheme of things.

 

 

 

Right Intent, Opposite Effect

The German philosopher Hegel had proposed a dialectic approach to history of human ideas. He suggested that every idea (thesis) becomes a trigger for the opposite idea (anti-thesis) to emerge. The resultant tension generates a synthesis which can incorporate both sides and becomes the new thesis, which in turn generates its own anti-thesis, and so on. Now imagine a scenario, where no synthesis emerges, then all that one is left with is a continuous oscillation between thesis and anti-thesis. I believe, this process can only be sustained by creating false binaries.

Virtually all spheres of present day life are full of false binaries. While this seems to be so all over the world, it is certainly true in India. Either Tipu Sultan was a great benevolent brave secular ruler ,or he was a religious bigot and a mass murderer. Either there are no difference between men and women except biological or that men are from Mars and Women are from Venus. Every issue is pushed to the extreme-  whether it be the issue  of insipid secularism vs. religious fundamentalism, or self-hate vs. jingoism, or cultural pride vs. intolerance for differences, or state regulation vs. privacy, or discipline vs. individual freedom, it is virtually impossible to find any common ground for dialogue. All you can have in this scenario are Win-lose type of debates in a battle ground.

I believe that one of the main contributors to this state of all pervasive false binaries is non-recognition of difference between Intent and Impact.

Most of us, most of the times operate from the belief that our choices and actions are governed  not just by our own selfish interests but also collective good. We almost take it for granted  that we are working towards enhancing the well-being for ourselves, our kith and kin, our families and organisations and society at large.

For most of us, this belief is crucial for our self-esteem, and hence difficult to challenge. Therefore, when the consequences of our choices run counter to our expectations, we are unlikely to go beyond making some tactical improvements and refrain from asking any serious questions which may shake up the basic foundations of our belief structure. On the contrary, we are more likely to stick to our position with even greater determination. The situation is akin to that of a gambler who after losing, increases the stake, with the firm belief that in the ultimate analysis, things will work out well.

This is where the Hegelian principle comes into play. The more stubbornly a thesis is adhered to, the more space it provides for the anti-thesis to flourish. A stark example of this process was witnessed during the Emergency days. In the early 70’s, it is quite likely that Mrs. Indira Gandhi genuinely believed  that she was acting in the best interests of the country, and a handful of unruly elements were creating unnecessary obstacles and hence needed to be put in their place.  A false binary got created between “discipline” and “protest”. Ironically, the more she tried to enforce discipline, the more “suspect” her “intent” became and eventually she was forced to take an extreme step.

Interestingly, “order and discipline” which were presumably her original intent became the biggest casualty. For several subsequent years, all that we saw was utter chaos. More importantly, in our collective psyche, the false binary between “discipline” and “freedom” continues to call the shots.

Something similar may be happening with the Hindutva brigade. Presumably, they have the honourable  intent of cultural resurgence and national pride. However, the shriller they become, the more they alienate, which in turn causes them to take even more extreme positions. This can only be supported through false  binaries like between “patriotism” and “dissent”. Ironically, in this process ,all that happens is that perfectly honourable notions like patriotism and cultural heritage, become tainted with narrow -mindedness and jingoism . Similarly,  another set of people, who have their own honourable intent,  have ended up ensuring that  terms like secular or liberal, become equated with cultural insensitivity and disdain for tradition.

The net result is that both groups have done more “harm” than “good” to their own respective agendas, and in fact,  should thank each other for keeping them alive. I have often heard people say that the only reason that they support BJP is because they can’t stand Congress, just as I have heard people say that in order to get rid of BJP, they will be willing to support even the Congress.

This is an interesting situation where no thesis can stand on it’s own feet and must derive the legitimacy for its existence from its anti-thesis i.e. becoming anti-thesis to its anti-thesis. Such a situation can only be sustained through false binaries. Imagine a situation ,where dissent is not equated with being anti-national OR where “Bharat Mata ki Jai” is not held with disdain or seen as oppressive. In such a space survival for both Hidutva-wadis and their opponents will become rather difficult.

While these false binaries reinforce each other, they do so by ensuring that no dialogue  can take place and hence no synthesis can emerge. The entire focus shifts to questioning each others’ intent rather than engaging with the gap between intent and impact.

A meaningful dialogue presumes-

a) prima facie acceptance that the intent of the other is honourable, and

b) willingness to accept that there may be a gap between one’s own intent and the impact of one’s choices and action.

The main difficulty in this endeavour is posed by the mother of all false binaries- the  binary between good and evil. In this binary, the intent of the “other” is always suspect, and hence will be  seen as a threat to be eliminated rather than  as a resource which compliments.

Fortunately, the Indian tradition does not place too much emphasis on good/evil binary. Instead our focus has been on Avidya i.e. error/inadequacy of perception and/or interpretation. Thus it is possible to accept that the intent of the other may be as honourable as one’s own and the gaps between intent and impact can be dialogued upon.

There is very little scope for dialogue between good and evil- they can only fight and try to eliminate each other. Acknowledgement of Avidya (both in self and other) opens the door to dialogue and emergence of a synthesis.

I wish we would treasure and embrace this great part of our heritage rather than focus on all the historical hurts and humiliations.

I , Me and We

George Herbert Mead made an important distinction between I and Me. His contention was that all of us are both individualistic and innovative beings (I) and social and relation beings (Me). These two interdependent aspects are part of every human being and create an inevitable dualistic plurality between need for autonomy and need for belonging.

These two orientations have some interesting implications for how we look at “We” i.e. our idea of a collective. Many societies (for example, India) have traditionally placed greater emphasis on the relational (Me) side. In this scenario, “We” acquires an all pervasive presence leaving very little space for I. In contrast, the modern day societies place emphasis on I. In this scenario, “We” becomes essentially a convenient collation of I’s, which must exist primarily to serve the needs of the I,  with no distinct identity of its own. In fact, any assertion of salience on part of the We is often experienced as an intrusion and unnecessary limitation to the freedom of “I” to embrace any identity that it wishes to.

Thus, differentiations based on collective identities(e.g. race, religion, gender, etc.) become problematic. Such differentiations are often seen as (and many times are) discriminatory, prejudicial and stereotypes. Reference to racial/gender differences carry with them the risk of being labeled as racist/sexist. Besides the obvious confusion between differentiation and discrimination, there is also the apprehension of dilution of individual salience. While there is an understandable concern that people should not be seen ONLY in terms of the collective identity of their belonging system, often it manifests itself through a complete denial of the collective identity of the individual.  The underlying belief seems to be that human beings are only I and there is no Me in them. Some of the manifestations of this stance are-

a) human beings have ( or at least should have)  unlimited freedom to chose who they are and who they wish to become,

b) messages and influences received from systems of belonging should not play any part in this process of “individuation” and

c) people should be seen and engaged with only in terms of their “personal attributes” and all references to the codings from their belonging system are necessarily prejudicial.

These beliefs are particularly strong amongst people who Joseph Heinrich has called WEIRD( see my blog piece on “Democratic Condescension). WEIRD is an acronym for Western, Educated,Industrialised,Rich and Democratic). Heinrich’s hypothesis is that a large part of our understanding about human condition is based upon this “statistical minority” , which we then apply to the entire human race..

For the greater part of my life, I have subscribed to this perspective of the WEIRD, and to a large extent still do. In many ways, both my personal and professional lives have been governed by this perspective.  However, I am also becoming aware of the limitations that it has imposed on my understanding of people who do not share this perspective. Rather than acknowledge that the relationship between I , Me and We is configured differently  in them, I have been quick to judge them as immature, dependent, parochial and regressive.

I have also begin to realise that in this process, I have actually not transcended the codings of my belonging system, I have merely shifted my allegiance from one reference group to another. Perhaps real “individuation” does not happen with turning one’s back on Me, but only through the difficult path of co-holding both I and Me.

Do share how you have experienced the relationship between I, Me and We in yourself.