Empathy sans Caring

In a recent discussion on impact of AI (Artificial intelligence) on Coaching, an interesting issue came up – the ability of the Robot to generate an empathetic experience for the client. Clearly, the Robot can be programmed to make all the appropriate responses and ask the relevant questions, which will make the client feel “understood” and “empathized with”. It has been reported that the experience of “empathy” with a Robot is often stronger than with a human coach.

The fact also is that the Robot does not really “care” and has no genuine feeling towards the client. In fact, it can be argued that this absence of feeling, enables the Robot to manufacture “empathy”. A human coach is likely to experience many feelings towards the client and some of them may not be very conducive to empathy.  For example the human coach may feel irritated, angry or impatient and these  feelings will block the human coach from extending empathy, whereas the Robot is free of any such limitation. It is programmed to respond in a way which will be most helpful for the client, even though the Robot does not really care about the client

The ability to split empathy from caring is also acquired by human beings, to varying degrees. As part of our socialization, we all learn to respond in ways which may have very little to do with how we are actually feeling. This split has no great significance in ritualistic situations as it is treated as “par for the course” by all concerned. Thus, when someone expresses condolence at our loss or greets us on our achievement, we do not assume that the other person is actually feeling sad or happy.

The moot question is what happens in situations ( e.g. helping relationships)  where we  expect empathy and caring to co-exist. I recall, several years back, I was co-facilitating  a group, with a colleague who  is a master at the art of providing empathetic experience, irrespective of how she is actually feeling. Hence, to each participant she would give the most appropriate response (e.g. ” It must have been terrible for you” or ” I felt so good listening to you” etc.) To begin with, this created a very positive impact in the group, but soon the group started experiencing this synthetic empathy as oppressive and eventually one of the participants called her a “stale record”

Similarly, there was another colleague who had a ritual of greeting anyone who he was meeting after a lapse of some time with ” I was just thinking about you” This worked wonderfully well in establishing and rekindling a link till the other person discovered that there was no genuine feeling or concern behind the gesture.

We can also have a situation where there is caring but no empathy. A domineering parent is  a typical example of this phenomenon- the parent cares for the well being of the offspring even when he/she has no awareness of what is important for the offspring- how he/she feels, desires, values etc. In both cases the biggest casualty is Trust. In the first case one is left wondering ” Does any one really care?” and in the second “Does anyone really understand? ”

However, in the times that we live  in, Empathy sans Caring is a more prevalent phenomenon than the other way round. The main reason for this is the increasing emphasis on looking at ourselves as “autonomous beings” rather than as “relational beings”. It is true that in the ultimate analysis each of is alone and responsible for our lives. It is equally true that each of us is connected and part of a context.

When we look at ourselves only as atomized autonomous entities, our entire focus goes on enhancing our skills and competencies, ability to understand and manage others, and have greater control over ourselves and our context. It is therefore not surprising that Daniel Goleman’s  notion of Emotional intelligence talks of Empathy and Social Skills but not of Caring. Similarly it recognizes the need for Self Awareness and Self Regulation but not  authentic self-expression.

Intense sense of loneliness, anxiety  and cynicism are inevitable consequences.  It is this loneliness, anxiety  and cynicism which  often the client brings to the coaching setting. While coaching is essentially a learning space, it entails engagement with feelings and emotions. Hence a certain degree of catharsis and emotional nourishment are an integral part of the coaching process.

There has been a significant increase in the demand for interventions which can provide space for this catharsis and emotional nourishment. It is therefore not surprising  that the coaching industry is flourishing. It is often suggested that this is due to the need to keep pace with the VUCA world. This may not be the whole story.

It is worth asking whether the degree of uncertainty  has increased or whether our ability to live with it has decreased ? Are we really living with more uncertainty than what our ancestors did ? Often they had to deal with vagaries of nature, be ready for sudden attacks and did not have a stable infrastructure to fall back upon. Perhaps what they did have was a more stable social infrastructure and anchors of emotional nourishment. It is the sharp decline in this which has taken a toll on our  ability to deal with uncertainty. Every change creates anxiety because the belief is that we have no one else to fall back upon except our own skills and competencies.

The irony is that the more we try to become “self-reliant”, the more we isolate ourselves, the more lonely and anxious we feel , and more VUCA the world appears. This in turn increases our anxiety levels and we become even more hyper. The process is akin to a dog chasing its own tail.

In this context, it is in fitness of things that we should  turn to a machine for emotional support and empathy. The less we need other people the better. Indeed Huxley’s brave new world has arrived. .

 

 

 

 

The New India Project

Last few days, we have been hearing a lot about New India. Opinions differ about what exactly does it mean as also the hopes and fears that it generates. But what everyone seems to agree upon is that we are at a crucial inflection point and the next few years are going to see a significant transformation not just in the political space but also in other aspects of the Indian society. Personally, I am not too sure about the extent and depth of this transformation but I will not get into that debate. For the present, I will accept that we are likely to see some shifts, though they may not be as dramatic as some people expect.

There are two broad pictures of New India, which people are talking about- depending upon personal orientation and political ideology, most people subscribe to one or another. The feelings that they have towards the New India project, is a direct consequence of which picture they are looking at.

The first picture of New India is of a young, strong,  united, confident, meritocratic, aspirational society striving to claim its legitimate space under the Sun. In this picture, the emphasis is on your merit, performance and delivery – your lineage etc. are of no concern.  In this picture, everyone is ( or hopefully will be) on the same page. While different groups may  have different affiliations (e.g. of caste, creed, language, region, religion etc.) they are all aligned to same goals, values and nationalistic fervor. It is a picture which supporters of the New India project find extremely inspiring and even the detractors find it difficult to argue against.

The second picture which the detractors find very frightening is of a majoritarian, jingoistic, intolerant, insensitive, boorish society run by an autocratic regime. In this picture, there is no space for dissent and there is an insistence that everyone must adhere to the same ideology. Goals, values and behaviors which do not conform to those propagated by the majority have to be strictly regulated and any potential disruption weeded out.  Whether the ideology is called Hindutva or Bhartiyta or Indianness, is irrelevant. It is the monolith of the ideology which frightens the detractors.

The supporters of the New India project try to allay these fears by arguing that the ideology which they are propagating is inherently open, flexible, tolerant and diversity friendly. Acts of intolerance are attributed to “fringes”, but the failure to regulate the fringes( and often extending implicit support to them), brings into question the intent and motives of the powers that be.

Not surprisingly, often the discourse turns into an examination of intent and motive.  The detractors argue that the New India project is nothing but a sham and the real purpose is to gain power at any cost. On the other hand, the supporters argue that the detractors are blowing things out of proportion so that they can protect their vested interest in the “status quo” After all, the feudalistic and corrupt  politicians, the elite in various other fields (the so called Lutyens and the Khan market gang) have much to lose if the New India project becomes a reality.

In this bitter exchange of attributions of motives, the real issue gets lost viz. the inherent tensions and contradictions in the New India project.  It is easy to see that the two pictures of the New India project ( as portrayed by its supporters and detractors respectively) are intimately connected. In many ways, they can be seen as two sides of the same coin.

A monolithic ideology and an authoritarian regime are more pronounced in the second picture, but are an implicit part of the first picture also. A simple example of this is the PM’s speech to the MP’s of NDA.

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Take for example, his preference for “efficiency” over “effectiveness”. Efficiency requires adherence to a laid drown process in a disciplined and rigorous manner.  Thus, authoritarian regimes are best suited for efficiency ( recall  that  running of trains on times was touted as the biggest achievement of Emergency) Effectiveness is a more messy affair, it entails juggling with several variables in order to achieve the desired result.

In a soft and gentle manner, the PM kept reminding his MP’s to stick to their ” maryada” – refrain from speaking out of turn, ensure that they do not misuse (or let others misuse) their power and status, dedicate themselves to their duty in a selfless manner. The message was loud and clear- ” you are to be dedicated soldiers of my army- yours is not to question WHY but to DO and DIE. However, the message was delivered in such a suave and self effacing manner that the underlying authoritarian streak did not become “in your face”.  My suspicion is that perhaps he looks at himself also as a dedicated soldier who is fulfilling the task which destiny has bestowed upon him.

The simple point that I wish to make is that there is no way you can pursue the first picture of New India project, and stay clear of the second picture. Nationalistic fervor is a necessary ingredient of the New India project, without which it loses its emotive appeal and inspirational value. Similarly an authoritarian streak ( even if it be of a soft benevolent variety) is necessary to enforce the “selfless disciplined effort” which lies at the heart of the New India project. The similarity  between the New India project and protestant work ethic is quite stark and its aims seem to be inspired by the western concepts of progress and development. In this sense it is closer to Calvinism than Hinduism.

This is a significant difficulty which the New India project is likely to encounter. Its success depends upon its ability to manage the tension between Indian cultural identity and western notions of progress and development. Not surprisingly, the path chosen by the New India Project is far removed from both Gandhi and Deendayal Upadhayay, though it claims to be inspired by them. Significantly, both rejected the western notions of progress and development.  Both were great champions of Indian cultural identity though they defined it in very different ways. Similarly, the differences between Gandhi and Ambedkar were not just tactical but fundamental. They conceived of an ideal society in very very different ways. If the New India project claims to draw inspirations from these conflicting sources, then it has to address the tensions between them. Without that it is unlikely to go beyond well intended homilies.

Indeed, the vision which underlies the New India project is problematic and full of internal contradictions. However, with all its limitations, at least the supporters of the New India Project have a vision, which is much more than what can be said about the detractors. Every time, the detractors are asked for a vision, they have very little to offer except homilies like pluralism and social justice. This is essentially a fall back on the Nehruvian vision, which I believe has already run its course.

The Nehruvian vision was a source of great inspiration for people like me who grew up in the fifties. There were several reasons for its losing steam after the first decade post independence. One of the significant reasons was that it was a culture agnostic vision. It side stepped the question of what does it mean to be Indian, beyond citizenship of the geo -political entity called India. Unity in Diversity was a great slogan – it  urged us to transcend our sectoral identities( based on caste, creed, language, region etc.) and embrace a national identity. However, the national identity remained an abstract construct with no cultural anchors. Not surprisingly, people either remained caught with their sectoral identities of caste, creed, language, region etc. or embraced soulless, rootless notions of national identity and/or global citizenship.

It is great to talk about diversity and pluralism, but simultaneously one needs to ask as to what holds this diversity together. Does India have a heart and soul or is it a mere geo- political convenience to hold together disparate, disjointed clusters ? Thus at  the core is the issue of our Identity – Who are we and what do we wish to become ?

The supporters of the New India project have defined it in a certain way, which is both problematic and full of internal contradictions. On the other hand, the detractors do not wish to engage with it at all. They either dismiss it as irrelevant ( let us only focus on issues of development, social justice and individual liberties) OR respond to it with negation ( we are not Hindu Rashtra).

I find it rather disturbing that  terms such as cultural identity or  Indic have been virtually usurped by the right wing. I am sometimes invited to participate in discourse around Indianness, and invariably it is by bodies and institutions which lean towards the right side of the political divide. It is another matter, that very soon they discover that what I have to offer does not suit their agenda and promptly drop me like a hot potato. I have rarely come across initiatives from the other side ( generally referred to as left liberals )  to explore this issue. At times I feel that they are allergic to terms like cultural identity  and see it only as a reactionary, regressive endeavor which will support oppressive monoliths.

I believe, it is high time the detractors of the New India project give up their aversion to notions such as cultural identity and Indic. Mere denial or defiance will keep them perpetually on the back foot. It is time that they start defining Indianness in their own way. Their fears are very real but the only way to deal with them is to actively participate in the New India project rather than scoffing at it or fighting it. Whether they like it or not, a New India is emerging and will continue to emerge.  In this transformation process, we can ill afford to ignore the issue of cultural identity. A culture agnostic rhetoric of Pluralism, Inclusion, Development, Social justice etc. is just not enough. It must take into account the salient predispositions of the Indian people and their cultural identity, otherwise it will not have any emotive force.

In other words, if we do not wish to get trapped in a narrow, restrictive definition of what it means to be Indian, we have no choice but to participate in defining it.

 

“Not to Deny, Not to Defy, but to Define”

gully-boy_1547029867140The title of this piece is a quote from late Professor Pulin K. Garg (of IIM Ahmadabad) and refers to possible responses to systemic rigidity and oppression. I was reminded of it while watching “Gully Boy,” where I found the response of the protagonist as very refreshing- neither rooted in denial nor in defiance. Instead the protagonist chooses to pursue his own path.

I believe both denial and defiance are counterproductive.  Denial(non-recognition/engagement) leads to collusion and perpetuation of systemic inequities, and ironically, defiance leads to the same result- it can be easily dismissed as aberration or suppressed as disruptive. Meaningful transformation requires defining a new vision, a new path, which is not just a reactive response but embodies the hopes and dreams of the individual/collective.

The journey from denial to defiance to defining is complex and entails engagement with multiple aspects, particularly in respect of power and authority relations. Some of the shifts in the popular Hindi cinema can give us some clues to this process.

Till the emergence of the Angry Young Man in the 1970’s, most protagonists were in the denial mode- they were good sons and daughters, excelled in studies, did well in sports/extra curricular activities, chose respectable professions and generally stuck to the “straight and narrow”. If any of their deviations (e.g. falling in love) met with parental disapproval, they either gave in meekly (e.g. “Dhool ka phool”) or became self-destructive (e.g. “Devdas”). They rarely challenged the rigidity and oppression of the System. A few of them rebelled (e.g.”Birju” of “Mother India”), but these were exceptions not the rule.

Willing to defy the straight and narrow!

The 1970’s changed this and defiance became the norm. The Angry Young Man refused to be confined to the “straight and narrow” and was willing to confront systemic oppression head on. Often the trigger was injury to the father, who was invariably in the denial mode – either on account of naive idealism or due to lack of courage (e.g. “Deewar”). Sometimes the father was the perpetrator(e.g. Trishool) and the protagonist’s main agenda was to settle score with him. In either case, the protagonist remains tied to the father, irrespective of whether the father was seen as a victim or a perpetrator. While the Angry Young Man evoked our sympathy, he also left us with a sense of futility.

For the “Gully Boy”, the father is both a victim and a perpetrator, but he is not hooked to either. He neither yields to his father’s helpless resignation to the situation, nor does he fight the father’s tyranny. Instead he chooses to stand firm and pursue his own path. His angst towards the systemic oppression is expressed through his music. In this respect he reminds us of “Vijay” of “Pyaasa”, but there is one major difference.

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Unlike “Vijay,” “Gully boy “does not deny his own ambitions and aspirations. Thus he does not turn away from the System but works towards carving out a meaningful space for himself. Similarly, he does not break away from his personal context, but remains integrated with it even after achieving success.

In this sense, Gully boy is a new response to systemic oppression, coercive power, authority relations and systemic membership. What the Gully boy seems to be saying is that ” Yes I know, I am a product of an unjust system, there are several injuries that I carry both in my personal space and the larger context to which I belong. I would neither Deny, nor Defy, instead I choose to Define a new world which is meaningful both for me and my context.”

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Standing firm without rebelling against the father!

The Gully boy is only a dramatic representation of a change which is taking place all around us. It is much more pronounced in relatively smaller towns and lower socioeconomic strata. I find many young men and women in this segment (sons and daughters of domestic help, drivers, semi skilled workers) who are working as company executives, I.T specialists, doctors, engineers etc. The most interesting thing about these young men and women is that they remain deeply rooted in their context, without getting limited by it. For many of them their parents (usually one of them) are their role models. Even when they have grouse against their parents or family, their affiliative links remain strong. What they seem to be saying is ” I am part of a context, which I know is limiting. However, I do no wish to break free. Instead, I will anchor myself in my context and stretch its limits”.

This is particularly significant in the Indian context. The tussle between personal needs, desires and ambitions on one hand, and responsibility towards one’s family and community has often been difficult to negotiate for many Indians. If the individual rebels and break free, he/she has to live with the resultant guilt. On the other hand, a meek surrender to the diktats of the context, is suffocating and saps the vitality of the individual. This is a very real double bind in which many Indians find themselves and are forced to make a choice between Self or System. Several Hindi films have been made on this theme (e.g.”Do Raaste”) and almost all of them glorified the stance of “System before Self”

The stance of the Gully boy shows a third alternative which can be very liberating. It does not place the individual in classic binaries such as selfish vs altruistic, ambitious vs caring or modern vs. traditional. It enables the individual to find her agency/individuality without losing connection with the context.It is this simultaneity of self and system, which gives me a lot of hope.

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?

Strong Leaders- Weak Leadership

More than two years back, in a blog post “Intoxicating Invincibility”, I had speculated about the rise and fall of brand Modi and how it may impact BJP. So far, the events have unfolded, more or less in line with what I had anticipated. Whether or not, they continue to follow the same script is yet to be seen.

I am not a political analyst, nor am I very well informed in such matters. Essentially, I am a student of human behaviour and dynamics of human collectives such as organisation, families, communities etc. My speculations were based upon my understanding of the interesting relationship between systems(human collectives) with charismatic leaders, particularly of the alpha male variety. The script that unfolds has an eerie commonality across different individual narratives. It goes something like this-

1. An individual with some outstanding capabilities emerges,often from sections which are not central but peripheral in the system. He/she has a meteoric rise and becomes the most significant and powerful person in the system.

2. Under the leadership of this person, the system experiences some early successes, which enables the individual to consolidate his/her position as also the grip over the system.

3. Very soon, the person gains almost complete control over the system. All significant role holders are handpicked by the leader, with loyalty to the leader being a major criteria.

4. While a facade of openness and accessibility is maintained, the operating norms are-
a) The judgement of the leader is never to be challenged, and
b) No “bad news”should be allowed to reach the leader i.e. he/she should only hear what he/she wants to hear.

5. Over a period, the gulf between the “grass roots” and centres of power begins to widen and consequently, the performance of the system begins to slip. This is often attributed to individual failures and sought to be corrected through scapegoating and/or enhanced controls. The end result is further alienation of Leadership from the people at large.

6. At this stage, the disillusionment with the Leader begins to simmer and his/her sheen starts eroding.However, often the disgruntlement is not directly acknowledged or engaged with.

7. In a sense the System is now caught in a double bind.It is far too heavily invested into the belief that leader is invincible and hence can not release itself from the stronghold which the Leader has over it.Simultaneously, the Leader who till now was its greatest asset, now starts appearing like a liability. Simply put, the System can neither get rid of the Leader nor go on with it.The problem is further accentuated by the TINA factor, as usually under such leaders there are very few alternatives.

8. Most Systems at this stage go into a “free for all” state of drift and start waiting for the next Messiah to arrive, who invariably meets the same fate.

The only way that Systems can break this double bind is through unclogging the channels of upward communication which have got blocked. This is easier said than done, particularly in “high power distance” cultures like ours, where a high power distance between the leader and the follower is taken for granted. In case of strong charismatic leaders the problem is even more acute.

In relatively smaller systems, strong leaders take care of this problem through direct personalised connect. Thus one often hears of great leaders who knew each and every one of their employees by name. This is clearly not feasible in large complex systems, where one needs institutionalised processes to facilitate upward communication.

It is therefore not surprising that exercises such as “employee surveys” are being increasingly used by several organisations. While such exercises have their utility, they rarely go beyond identifying what people are feeling “good” about and what they are feeling “unhappy” about.

The feelings of “happiness” and “unhappiness” are mere symptoms- they may have little connection with what the real issues are. This is so, because all collectives have both “wisdom” and “noise” and what the surveys throw up is a peculiar mix of the two. To take an example from the socio-political sphere, a survey may well reveal that a large number of people are unhappy about “minority appeasement”. On this basis, it would be downright foolish to conclude that “minority appeasement” is either factually correct or is indeed the “real” problem.

In a way, such surveys are attempts to “by pass” the intermediary levels and connect the “top” with the “bottom” directly. This would be akin to a political boss who believes that he/she is directly in touch with the “masses”, even when, people who are directly working with him/her are scared to open their mouths in his/her presence.

The problem of clogged channels of upward communication can not be addressed through structural arrangements and introduction of systems like employee surveys. It requires us to revisit our basic notions about leadership. So long as we see leadership as vested in a person, we will continue to create the same double bind.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that leadership is a process to which all members of the system contribute. The so called “leader” is only a medium through which a collectivity expresses itself. How this leader is created, how he/she functions, how he/she is dethroned, has much more to do with collective (its myths, its aspirations, its anxieties, its mythology etc.) than with the individual concerned. This is not to suggest that the individual is of no consequence, but only to emphasise that over-emphasis on the individual blinds us to the forces which create and destroy leaders.

Efficacy of leadership process in a system is hugely dependent upon the quality of communication and state of communication channels, particularly of upward communication. If these channels get clogged ( which they often do, in case of strong leaders) the efficacy of leadership is bound to suffer. Ironical as it may sound, Strong Leaders often mean Weak leadership. Thus perhaps we need to let go of our obsession with Leaders and pay more attention to Leadership.

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.