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.

 

 

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Cricket and Gender

Post the world cup, interest in women’s cricket has risen exponentially. Undoubtedly the performance of the Indian team has much to do with it, but it is also a fact that this is not the first time that our women’s team has made it to the final. Consequently, it is reasonable to assume that at least in part, some non-cricketing factors have also contributed to this  new fascination with women’s cricket.The live T.V. coverage was a big factor, but I think, the whole process began with Maithali Raj’s interview. Several people who had no idea about her or her massive achievements on the cricket field, started taking notice of her.

When Raj was asked by the interviewer as to who her favourite male cricketer was, she retorted with a counter question- would you ever ask a male cricketer about his favourite female cricketer? This was not a plea for Gender Equality- it was an un-ambiguous demand to be recognised in her own right and a refusal to piggy back on men’s cricket. Fortunately she and her team more than justified her stance.

It therefore saddens me when women’s cricket is viewed through the lens of men’s cricket, particularly when it comes from people who wish to support women’s cricket. Today, I came across a comment from  a India player ” This world cup saw women clearing the boundaries convincingly. The standard of batting has improved to another level. Women do have powerful game. All I can say is we can definitely give 60% of what men give.” I have heard same sentiment being expressed by many experts in “support of women’s cricket”

While I sympathise with the intent, I also believe that this propensity to look at women’s cricket through the lens of men’s cricket is counter-productive because it will keep the women’s cricket in a never-ending “catch- up” mode. The 60% will rise to 90 % or 95% but it will still remain behind men’s cricket. The reason for this is very simple- the rules of the game have been laid down by men.

In contrast, I find much more sense in the stance of Sunil Gavaskar who believes that in their essence the men’s cricket and women’s cricket are different games and both are enjoyable in their own right. In his words “men’s game is mostly about power, whereas women’s game leans towards grace”

One may or may not agree with Gavaskar’s view but what it clearly highlights is that the same game can have two very different interpretations and appeals. This can be easily witnessed in case of Tennis. It is meaningless to look at women’s tennis as some kind of an inferior version of men’s tennis. They are two different kinds of games with their unique respective appeal. Personally, I enjoy the long rallies and deft placements of women’s tennis as much, if not more than the quick fire and power packed  serve and volley game of men’s tennis.

When this distinctiveness is not appreciated, we end up with a monolithic interpretation which is essentially defined by men. Since several spaces of human endeavour have been traditionally dominated by men, invariably  women are compelled  to prove themselves in situations where the rules of the game have been laid down by men. This phenomenon is  is not confined to the cricket field only and can be witnessed in virtually all spheres- be it the world of corporate houses or academia or any other field for that matter.

In my work on gender and diversity, I rarely come across people who are willing to see how their notions about managerial effectiveness and leadership have been primarily shaped by the masculine perspective. For most such people the issue of gender equity rarely goes beyond being unbiased and giving equal chance to women to “show their worth”. That the rules of the game are loaded against them is rarely examined. Ironically, when some of the women are able to do so, in spite of this handicap, they are beaten for being “too dominating and aggressive”

Perhaps it is time that the gender narrative moves forward from the usual discourse of bias and prejudice and starts examining how do we value and cherish differences. If we only value what men bring to the table, we will keep the women in a perpetual “catching up” mode. More importantly, we will deprive ourselves of the tremendous unique gifts which they bring. Simply put, we need to enjoy women’s cricket for itself  and recognise that it is a different game and not  60% or 95% of men’s game.

 

Frustrated Masculinity gone astray

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Several years back, in my book ” Child- Man”, I had written ” Religion in the modern world is no longer an opiate which lulls people into resigned acceptance of their fate, but more of an aphrodisiac which provides a release from the rage, resentment and the feelings of impotence with which the modern man lives. Not surprisingly, religion in danger, has become a strong motif for the mobilisation of collective outrage the world over. It would seem that the projections of purity and vulnerability which, in earlier times were made on the female gender are now being made on religion. Hence by seeing himself as the saviour of his religion, modern man can reclaim his masculinity which otherwise seems to be under attack from all other sources”

The reality of this process became very stark the other day when I saw that the news item of a Haryana government minister extolling the virtues of ghunghat (veil) was followed by scenes of lynching in the name of “cow- protection”. Transference of the need to protect the honour of one’s womenfolk ( symbolised by ghunghat)  to protection of cows (quasi- religious symbol of sacredness)  could not have been more vivid. Continue reading “Frustrated Masculinity gone astray”

Gender Diversity Paradox

Most organisations have come around to the view that Gender Diversity is no longer just “good to have” but that it has to be treated as a “business imperative”. However, in my experience, very few people (let alone organisations) are able to muster any real conviction about it. While the case for Gender Diversity from the point of view of equality, fairness, social justice and even access to a potentially larger talent pool, is indisputable, its linkage with organisational effectiveness remains suspect. Thus in the minds of many people, Gender Diversity is linked more to “lowering of standards” than “enhancement of organisational effectiveness”.

I believe the main difficulty arises from a paradox which is inherent in the Gender Diversity issue- its promotion has required underplaying the differences between the two genders, whereas, its link with organisational effectiveness requires appreciation and celebrating the differences between the two genders. let me elaborate.

One of the most significant  blocks in the road to Gender Diversity is the frozen stereotypes around gender and gender roles. Beliefs around relative attributes/ competencies/ roles of the two genders (e.g. men have greater flair for technology, women are soft-spoken or at least should be, men are more rational and assertive, women are more emotional and caring, men are bread winners, women are home makers, etc.) are quite rampant even if they are not consciously acknowledged.

Thus, promotion of Gender Diversity has necessarily entailed confronting these stereotypes and underplaying the differences between the two genders. Not surprisingly, most advocates of Gender Diversity take a Gender Neutral stance and focus upon the inherent commonality of the two genders and draw attention to the social handicap faced by women. Their essential argument is that women have been deprived of their due, and if given the opportunity they can be as good as men.  There is also an underlying belief (with considerable justification, I think) that highlighting differences between the two genders will necessarily be detrimental to the interest of women.

Ironically, this stance of Gender Neutrality and emphasis on commonality between the two genders becomes a major deterrent to appreciation of benefits of Gender Diversity. If people are seen as Gender Neutral Robots of skills and competencies, then by implication, having people of different genders does not foster any real diversity. All that it can ensure is that the organisation is drawing its talent from a wider and larger pool, but the basic nature of the “talent” remains the same. In such a scenario, any claims of linkage between Diversity and Effectiveness, sound hollow and do not carry any real conviction.

Any meaningful claim of benefits of Gender Diversity for organisational effectiveness can only be made provided it is first recognised that the two genders bring Different sets of orientations/competencies/predispositions etc. to the table and both sets are equally valuable and the resultant tension has immense creative potential.While there is considerable research evidence about both commonalities and differences between the two genders, its applicability and implications has all kinds of problems.

The first problem stems from the fact that these differences are not absolute in nature. Like any comparison between two groups, the intra-group differences are larger than inter-group differences. Thus, on the whole, men may be taller than women, but there are several women who are taller than most men. When a inter-group difference is applied indiscriminately to every individual case, appreciation of difference degenerates into stereotyping.

The second difficulty arises from the multiple meanings and interpretations which can be assigned to these differences. For example, there is research evidence to suggest that in general women are more “empathetic” than men. However, it is difficult to say as to whether this difference is on account of the bio-existential imperatives of their gender or on account of socio-cultural factors. Thus assigning any stability/finality to these differences can become highly problematic.

The third, and I believe, the most important difficulty arises from the power imbalance in gender relations. Whenever two groups are locked in a lop sided power relationship, the attributes of the higher placed group tend to be regarded as “superior” to the attributes of the group which is lower in the power equation. This can be as superficial  as skin colour or as deep as values and beliefs. Given the patriarchal structure, there is a natural over-valuing of masculine attributes as compared to feminine attributes. in such a scenario any hint of differentiating between the attributes and predispositions of men and women, effectively degenerates into discrimination against women.

This differential valuing is even more stark in the organisational context. Since most of our thinking around management and leadership is based upon masculine principle, the picture of an effective leader in the minds of many people is heavily tilted towards masculine attributes such as assertion, ambition, analytical ability, courage etc. While the grip of the “alpha male” over our notions of leadership is reducing, we are still far away from valuing and gracing feminine attributes such as sensitivity, intuition, receptivity, resilience etc.in our notions of leadership. Thus the message which gets communicated to women is that in order to succeed they must shed their inhibitions- become more assertive and demanding and net-work better- in other words become more “men like’.

This approach does not foster diversity, but creates more hegemony. Consequently, the very argument of Diversity for Effectiveness becomes meaningless, because no diversity is being fostered in the first place. All that is being done is that people from different gender (or other backgrounds) are being put into one huge melting pot and then placed into the same mould. Simply put, the argument of Diversity for Effectiveness is sustainable, only if the Differences  are first recognised and then celebrated. For this to happen, it is necessary that the Feminine part of us (irrespective of whether in a Man or in a Woman) finds its legitimate space in our notions of management and leadership. Without that Women may find space in the corporate world, but the doors will remain closed for Femininity. The link between Gender Diversity and Organisational Effectiveness resides not so much in having more women but in integrating the feminine principle in our notions of management and leadership.

The theory of Paradox, tell us that no paradox can be resolved at the level at which it arises. In case of Gender Diversity, the paradox gets created by the conflicting needs of Gender Neutrality and Gender Sensitivity. For promoting Gender Diversity it becomes necessary to emphasise the shared humanity between Men and Women. However, for harnessing the potential of Gender Diversity, it is necessary to be sensitive to the differences between the two genders and celebrate them. If this paradox is to be resolved, then we need to look at issue of Gender Diversity not just as a Man- Woman issue, but also in terms of the Masculine  and Feminine principles- how they are configured within us and in the systems to which we belong. Only then we will be able to appreciate how these principles complement each other and how the tension inherent between them is the source of all human creativity and how they can contribute to organisational effectiveness.

Religion Vs. Religiosity

Some time back, a friend had asked me whether I considered myself a religious person. In my younger days I would have responded with a clear and emphatic No. Today, I am not so sure.  In a conventional sense, I still don’t regard myself as religious. However, it is equally true that places of worship (gurudwaras, temples, dargahs, churches mosques etc.) fill me with a sense of serenity and some of my most favourite songs have a distinct devotional flavour. This apparent contradiction in myself, forced me to think about what it means to be religious?

As a theological construct, religion deals with issues of cosmology /metaphysics such as existence of God, life after death, relationship between body and soul etc. I have no definite opinion on any of these and nor do these questions hold much interest for me. In this sense, I can regard myself as non-religious.

Religion is also a moral/social construct. It lays down ethical values, social obligations, codes of conducts, rituals and ceremonies etc. While I recognise the need for all these, I am extremely uncomfortable when they are made “absolute” through references to “sacred texts” and “religious diktats”. The sociological/ethical sides of human existence have to be governed by prevalent life conditions and hence must be dynamic. The less they are linked to theology (which tends to be absolutistic) the better. In this sense also I have to regard myself as non- religious.

Finally, there is an emotive and psychological side to religion which corresponds to certain imperatives of being human. In order to distinguish it from the theological/sociological side, I will call it Religiosity. Religiosity is a medium (and by no means, the only medium) through which certain imperatives of being human (for example, the need to find meaning  for one’s life, the need to merge and become a part of a larger entity etc.) find expression. The most significant of these imperatives is the need to have faith.

Faith is perhaps one of the most misunderstood and misused concepts. It is often confused with dogma, irrational belief and even confidence. In fact, in many ways it is the exact opposite . Notions such as dogma and confidence rest on the plank of “certainty” whereas, faith rests on the plank of “uncertainty”. A dogmatic person “knows for sure” that his/her beliefs are absolutely true. A person with faith accepts the limitations of his/her knowledge and does not feel destabilised by this lack of knowledge. Similarly, a confident person believes that through competence and effort one can gain mastery over one’s destiny. In contrast the person with faith does not feel a compelling need to control his/her destiny. The person is quite content to give his/her best shot and simultaneously accept that the ultimate outcome will be determined by a host of factors, most of which are beyond his/her control. Competence and effort are necessary prerequisites for success but by no means sufficient. What matters is one’s willingness to embrace the outcome with humility and grace.

For me, Faith is essentially an antidote to Anxiety which is an inevitable consequence of  human limitations. There is no way that human beings can have complete knowledge/control over their own lives. Thus living with the anxiety of having to deal with the unknown and uncontrollable is an integral part of human existence. However, there is a marked difference between Religion and Religiosity in how this anxiety is dealt with.  Religions  deal with this anxiety through providing certainty, either through positing an omniscient and omnipotent God figure or through a definite and absolute theology/unquestionable sacred text. Religiosity on the other hand accepts and graces the uncertainty and limitations of knowledge/control inherent in human existence.Each  religion has its own brand of   theology, morality, social norms etc. but as mediums for expression of emotive/ existential imperatives ,their essence remains the same. Consequently, religions tend to be divisive whereas Religiosity can be inclusive and has the potential of being a unifying force. The beauty of religiosity is that it is so inclusive that it does not even require you to believe in any god or divine order.

It is for this reason that I regard inclusive religiosity as a much more meaningful and potent concept than secularism. In secularism, there is very little space for the emotive imperatives which find expression through religion. The end result is a huge vacuum which is often exploited by the fundamentalist forces to propagate their own theological and sociological certainties. This is particularly applicable in the Indian context.

For various reasons, the Indian psyche is more religiosity centric than religion centric. Further, it has a huge appetite for religiosity. It is not uncommon to find people  in this country flock around a god man irrespective of religious affiliations. It does not matter whether it is a christian saint or  a muslim pir or a budhist monk or a hindu gurumata or a jain muni or a sikh guru, they all act as magnets for virtually all people. In fact so insatiable is our appetite for religiosity that we can make gods out of anything-trees, animals, rivers, planets or anything else that one can think of. There are very few objects/creatures that one can think of, which are not worshipped in some form or another in some part of India.

This almost insatiable appetite for religiosity accompanied by its “open-ended” nature is a huge potential resource which unfortunately is becoming more of a liability. While it is important to be watchful against the divisive forces which are unleashed by religion, it is equally important to ensure that in the process we don’t end up saying good bye to religiosity. In fact, the more we turn away from religiosity, the more divisive religions will become. I suspect, no one understood this better than Gandhi and hence he always emphasised inclusive religiosity rather than secularism. I believe this was also a significant factor which enabled him to mobilise people across the length and breadth of this huge country.

 

 

 

 

Prejudice is not a dirty word

Prejudice as a phenomena, and not as a problem

Most of us are prejudiced against prejudice. We tend to regard prejudice as something undesirable and a problem to be eliminated. Thus a large part of developmental initiatives in the area of diversity, focus on dealing with unconscious bias and prejudice. Ironically, this way of looking at prejudice only creates guilt and shame and usually leads to politically right stances without dealing with underlying beliefs and predispositions. The end result is that  prejudice is only denied or suppressed and often turns even  more vicious. Perhaps we will be better off, if we try to understand and befriend our prejudice rather than regarding it as an enemy and fighting it. This will require looking at prejudice as a “phenomenon” rather than as a problem to be eliminated.

As a phenomenon, prejudice can be seen as “an unintended consequence of a  natural and essentially healthy mental process of making associations and categorisation”. No matter what our epistemological beliefs, we can hardly deny the importance of association and categorisation to our learning and effective living.

Associations and Categories

Virtually all our learning comes from making associations. We associate food with nourishment, fire with danger, air with breathing, visual appearances with identities of people and so on. These associations are placed into different categories which are extremely helpful in making sense of the world around us. Thus when we meet a stranger, several categories are “at play”. Based on the complexion, body structure, features, clothes, mannerisms etc. we make inferences about the person’s gender, race, age, socio-economic status and even personality traits. These inferences are made on the basis of mental categories that we have in respect of these features. The inferences are not always valid, but it would be impossible to live without them. In such instances, where the society believes that the there should be no ambiguity, care is taken to make the association explicit, for example, through assigning uniforms to cops. Even such cases are not hundred percent “error-proof”. After all, one can always run into someone who is wearing the uniform of a cop and masquerading as one.

Thus, the process of association and categorisation always carries the risk of error. These erroneous inferences can be quite harmful both for the individual concerned and others,particularly the people who are at the receiving end of these inferences. However,more often than not, the individual concerned is not even aware of this harm because from his/her point of view the inferences are valid and reasonable. The person usually remains blissfully unaware of the associations which are at the root of the  erroneous inferences and attributes his/her beliefs and judgement to a very different set of factors. Thus a person may carry the association of untrustworthiness with people of a certain community but may remain totally unaware as to how his/her judgement of a person from that community is being impacted by this association.To complicate matters, a large number of associations that we carry in our heads have nothing to do with our direct personal experience and have been handed down to us either genetically or through process of socialisation/acculturation.

There is considerable research evidence to suggest that almost all of us are a lot more prejudiced than we realise. What this means is that while at a conscious level we may regard ourselves as egalitarian and free of prejudice in respect of race, gender,age, sexual orientation etc., our actual predispositions are being determined by a host of “associations in our minds” that we are blissfully unaware of. However, condemning these associations  as unconscious bias and prejudice does not help anyone. It is only likely to make us feel misunderstood/wrongly accused/defensive or guilty and ashamed. It is for this reason that interventions for making people “prejudice-free” are rarely effective. Instead, it makes more sense to focus on how these association lead to erroneous inferences and how best to avoid them.

Pitfalls of assocations/categorisations

As stated earlier, the process of making associations, putting them into different categories and then applying them to specific situations, has many potential pit-falls. There are several sources of error,which can derail the process. Some of the most common ones particularly in respect of prejudice are as follows-

  1. Universalisation of a category association                                                                          Associations in respect of a category may have some validity but are not equally applicable to all members of the category. Thus association of a certain body structure with gender (e.g. men are taller, stronger etc.) may have an overall validity but is certainly not applicable to each and every man and woman. There are many women who are taller/stronger than most men. In case of a tangible factor like physical attribute, it is easy to spot the error and correct it but when it comes to intangibles like psychological attributes ,the situation is a lot more complex. Firstly, their validity can not be determined in an objective manner and secondly when they are being applied universally, the error is not so obvious. Thus a person may associate aggression with north indians and then assume that it is applicable to all north indians and their individual differences may not even become visible to him/her.
  2. Over magnifying a category                                                                                                                Every phenomenon can be related to multiple categories. However when we choose to focus only on one or two categories, we run into problems. Imagine the plight of a person who associates fire with only danger and overlooks the other categories to which it belongs like light, warmth, transformation etc. This is a major source of erroneous inferences in respect of other people.                                                                                                                                                          In relating to others, there are always multiple categories at play. Thus our response to a colleague is being influenced by several factors e.g.  gender, age, profession, role status,ethnicity etc. The associations in respect of these categories may converge or diverge. Thus if one associates softness, sensitivity and compassion with the category “woman”, then one may experience some difficulty in coming to terms with a demanding and aggressive female boss,  even if such behaviour is consistent with other categories associated with her role.                                                                                      While most of us try to focus only on contextually relevant categories, the pull of some of the categories may be so strong that it may not be easy for us to ignore them. Invariably, each one of us has a a propensity to pay greater attention to some categories and underplay others. Some of us may magnify the gender category whereas others may pay greater attention to age or ethnicity or professional affiliation. Consequently, one or two categories end up clouding the rest of the person and the person becomes only a symbol of these over-magnified categories. In such a situation it becomes extremely difficult to draw meaningful inferences about the person.
  3. Frozen associations                                                                                                                                        All associations are made in a certain context. However over a period of time, these associations become frozen and tend to acquire an absolute character irrespective of the context. The saying “once bitten twice shy” captures this process whereby an association arising from one bad experience becomes a determinant of all future engagements.                                                                                                                                       At a macro level, the impact of these frozen associations is clearly visible in the area of gender relations. Our associations in respect of gender identity and dynamics belong to an era of human context (largely agrarian patriarchy) which no longer exists but the associations continue to influence us even though we may consciously resist them. Such associations can not be discarded like a piece of old clothing. Whether we like them or not, they are sitting right within us and by pretending that they do not exist we only make them more virulent. Perhaps the best we can do is to be mindful of them and not let them lead us astray to the erroneous inferences which may be detrimental both for ourselves and for others.
  4. Emotional valency of associations                                                                                                            All associations come with a feeling tonality. If darkness is associated with danger, then for most people it will have a negative feeling tonality. Similarly if brightness is associated with hope, then most people are likely to hold it in a positive tonality. This attribution of feeling tonality is much more applicable to associations in respect of people categories. Thus if one associates untrustworthiness with people of a certain community then it is likely to influence how one feels towards the people of that community. More importantly, this negative feeling is likely to impact all other associations in respect of that community i.e. one is more likely to associate other negative features with that community (for example, that they are also selfish,mean, uncaring etc.) and generally ignore and dismiss any evidence that shows them in positive light. In other words, the emotional valency of associations makes them self-selective and self-reinforcing.

This perhaps is the biggest source of “erroneous inferences”  because

a)  it  can completely blind us to  those features of a category which carry the opposite valency and

b) it makes the grip of the associations that much stronger on us.

In many ways, the earlier three pitfalls can be seen as derivatives of this. Thus the higher the emotional valency of associations with a category the more it is likely to be magnified, frozen and universally applied. For instance, if a woman has strong negative and emotionally loaded associations about men (e.g. they are uncouth, selfish, aggressive etc.) then it is highly likely that these associations will be applied indiscriminately, become frozen and the category “man” will supersede all other categories.

Hence recognising the emotional valency of the associations with any category is the doorway to dealing with all other pitfalls leading to erroneous inferences.

 

 

 

From Gandhi to Modi- India sans Indian-ness

Some time back, I had requested Google da to educate me on “Indian character”. Promptly, I was led to several writings from which I learnt many despicable things about ourselves. For example, I was told that we are hypocritical, corrupt, spineless, status-conscious, crude, insensitive, superstitious and many such things which would make us a tough competitor for the coveted prize of the worst creatures on the face of this earth. This was no surprise as  over the years, I have got accustomed to listening to stories about Indian Standard Time, Indian crab-mentality, Indian duplicity, and the like.Needless to say, these attributes applied only to an “unidentifiable Indian” and people telling these stories were  exempted from them.

What did come as a surprise was a recent encounter with a group of young college students. I found a distinct shift in their perception of Indian character. While some of the stereotypes persisted, there was much more emphasis on other attributes like our intellectual acumen, resilience, diligence, adaptability etc. Also, I was pleasantly surprised to find a degree of patriotic fervour and pride, which had got eroded in the earlier generations.

All this was music to my ears and yet it left me with some unease. I could not resonate with what I sensed as their brand of nationalism. We did not discuss specific political figures, but the impression that I got was that Modi was much more likely to be their hero and role model than Gandhi. I mention these two people because both of them are inspirational figures and have come to symbolise two different kinds of nationalism. Normally, this difference is seen in terms of inclusivity vs. divisiveness;but I suspect it is much deeper than that.

Inclusivity and divisiveness represent only the tip of the iceberg. Even if Modi wished to be inclusive, chances are that he will end up being divisive. This was best illustrated by his “kutte ka pilla”(puppy dog) comment.Some time back, in responding to a question about communal violence, Modi had made a statement that one feels anguished even when a puppy dog meets with an accident. Giving him the benefit of doubt, he was perhaps trying to express universal compassion. However, it was such an insensitive way of doing it, that it created more backlash and divisive feelings than harmony and a sense of togetherness.

I suspect, divisiveness is a consequence of the hyper-masculine flavour of Modi’s brand of nationalism whereas inclusivity has something to do with Gandhi’s leaning towards an androgynous/ feminine variety. With Gandhi, you do not associate a broad chested muscular individual ready to take on and conquer the world. Instead what you associate is inner resilience, conviction and a quality of strength which is not in your face. With Gandhi, the emphasis is more on wholesomeness rather than on advancement- a wish for self-contained, self-governing, harmonious communities rather than smart cities and aspirations of becoming a monolithic super-power.

This shift from androgynous Gandhi to distinctly masculine Modi, is perhaps in keeping with the imperatives of the times that we live in. We can see it happening in virtually all spheres of our lives. Even women-centric cinema today is more likely to be of the “Gulab Gang” or “Mardani” variety. Thus it is no surprise that Gandhi is becoming increasingly irrelevant in the hectic and hyper-masculine world of today. While, it leaves me with some discomfort, I can also see its positive side.; particularly in view of the uneasy relationship between masculinity and Indian cultural identity.

The Indian cultural ideal is androgynous- the concept of Ardhnarishwar. Perhaps this is one of the major factors behind Gandhi’s strong emotive pull in Indian psyche. Many of our cherished values like peaceful co-existence, primacy of family/belonging system, looking at nature as a living entity, faith in cosmic benevolence etc. have a distinct feminine flavour. While attributes like valour, courage, youthful virility are valued, so are wisdom, innocence, sensitivity and compassion.

However, while the cultural ideal is androgynous, the ground reality has been quite different. Rather than pursuing and cherishing both the masculine and the feminine, we have ended up neglecting both. The end result is a fragile sense of masculinity and a disdain towards the feminine. The average Indian male is more likely to gloat over the fact he is born a “man” and hence entitled to certain privileges ,rather than actively invest in acquiring masculine qualities. Consequently, one often comes across a sense of smallness, insecurity and fragility amongst many Indian men, and a propensity to take offence in face of any perceived affront to their masculinity.  Some of the consequences of this uneasy relationship are a propensity to avoid direct confrontation, servility towards the powerful and oppression of the powerless. This is most evident in man-woman relationships where large part of violence against women stems from a fragile/insecure sense of masculinity rather than hyper-masculinity.

This uneasy relationship with masculinity is not very conducive to the notion of Ardhnarishwar. Pursuit of the androgynous ideal requires a recalibration of our relatedness with masculinity. To that extent if we are investing in developing a more secure and mature sense of masculinity, then it is good news. However, if in this process  we jettison the androgynous cultural ideal then we may end up having an India in which there is no place for Indian-ness. That will be great loss not just for us but for humanity at large. Personally, I can’t think of Indian-ness without the androgynous ideal. Also, I believe that  it is the greatest gift that India can give to a world which is fast becoming a captive of the hyper-masculine frenzy.