Wednesday, November 23, 2005
Fundamental Truths Times of India: May 7, 2005; Salman Akhtar is professor of psychiatry at Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia, and lecturer at Harvard Medical School. He is also a poet of repute, having published six volumes. His works are informed by both an intellectual and aesthetic sensibility. He explores the lure of fundamentalism in a conversation with A Srinivas:
Fundamentalism refers to a variety of thinking involving a religious system which broadly has five attributes:
- It is literal and narrow in the interpretation of some religious tract;
- it promotes an ethnocentric attitude, or one which says my belief and my book are the best;
- it gives rise to megalomania, or an oversimplified view of the world with a sense of knowing the solution to everything;
- it also generates a paradoxical sense of victimhood;
- and finally, that victimhood facilitates group cohesion, which, if exploited, can cause violent behaviour. You have explained fundamentalism in terms of a response to the burdens of sanity.
As Freud said, the purpose of psychoanalysis is to reduce neurosis to day-to-day misery. Fundamentalism works as an intravenous morphine for those who cannot cope with the burden of being sane. Being sane involves coping with six problems.
- The first is factual uncertainty or accepting that we cannot know what will happen in the future. Could we predict the tsunami or 9/11?
- The second is conceptual complexity, or that all feelings, thoughts and acts are determined by many factors. No behaviour has a fixed meaning.
- The third is moral ambiguity — morality changes with time and context. Murder is wrong, but murder in self-defence is not.
- The fourth is cultural impurity — reality is always hybrid and there is no such thing as purity. The search for purity is an attack on reality.
- The fifth is that a sane person accepts personal responsibility for his or her actions. This demands ownership of the body — its demands, sensations, sexuality, use and its conscious and uncons-cious life.
- And finally, a mentally healthy person must accept total mortality. Forget about heaven, hell and after-life. We start as parental fantasies and die as our grand-children’s memories.
It is not easy to bear such a burden. In return, we are offered a feeling of safety, identity, continuity in time, sexuality and efficacy. When these compensatory factors are threatened, sanity becomes hard to bear and fundamentalism steps in.
- Uncertainty is then replaced by certainty;
- complexity with simplicity;
- moral ambiguity with clarity;
- cultural impurity with purity (we are pure Hindus, pure Muslims);
- instead of personal responsibility, fundamentalists offer to take over completely;
- and instead of total mortality, after-life theories to suggest that death can be beaten.
Fundamentalism absolves us of conflict and misery by turning us from adults to children — in fact, worse, because children try to overcome their innocence. To prevent fundamentalism, we need to make it possible to bear the burdens of sanity.
So long as prayer provides a sense of peace and instills kindness, humility and tolerance, it is fine. Religion is meant to soothe, not promote, grandiose thoughts. Even atheism could be healthy or patholo-gical depending on whether it promotes love and humility or not. If religion helps people maintain an inner peace, even if fragile, they won’t sustain dangerous dreams, or hate others to idolise themselves.
We need to differentiate between benign prejudice and malignant prejudice. The foundations of prejudice are laid in early childhood experience. A child inevitably has mixed feelings towards the mother; there is always an element of disappointment and frustration. That ambivalence can be compounded with a sibling. The awareness of the father’s relationship with the mother, or Oedipus complex, adds to the problem. We teach our children the ‘us’ and ‘them’ distinction, one that is mildly ethnocentric, as part of an identity-forming process. All these add up to create benign prejudice, which can allow an individual to be humane and sane.
But if on top of these usual factors there is childhood trauma, we have a situation of malignant prejudice. The baggage of sanity becomes hard to take. Trauma gives rise to self-hate, which is projected outward as hatred for the world. Malignant prejudice can take a violent form when two processes operate in tandem — a real or imagined economic threat and a charismatic leader who steps into such a situation to exploit regressed groups. Such a leader creates a time collapse. He invokes past wrongs and talks of earlier glories.
Wednesday, November 23, 2005
The Indian Express Wednesday, January 21, 2004
The point of real interest is that human beings do not, in fact, live particularly ‘‘natural’’ lives. The whole purpose of civilisation seems to be to move as far away from nature as possible. We clothe our naked bodies (indeed, the same people who condemn homosexuality as unnatural would insist that natural nudity be covered up). We cook raw food derived from nature; we build elaborate shelters from the natural elements.
We use contraception (again, most of those who condemn homosexuality on the grounds that sex is only for procreation would not question need for contraception). Clearly, equating ‘‘unnatural’’ with ‘‘immoral/wrong’’ is simply a way of suffocating debate. The more important question is: what is the social order that the rules of ‘‘normal’’ sexual behaviour keep in place?
The family in India is indeed premised on extreme inequality — beginning with the wife changing her surname on marriage, to the property to which no sister has equal rights with her brother, to the sexual division of labour, which legitimises the unpaid domestic labour of women. The rights to equality and freedom would certainly destroy the family as we know it! If families were only about material and emotional support structures, then any such group of people would be recognised as a family. But the point precisely is that only the heterosexual, patriarchal family is permitted to exist. And this family is about the passing on of property and lineage through men.
The ‘‘normality’’ this requires is produced, maintained and policed by the state, laws and social institutions. It is far from being natural or private. In short, section 377 does not refer to some ‘‘queer’’ people out there, whom normal people can gaze upon like anthropologists at a bizarre tribe. Section 377 is about the painful creation of Mr and Mrs Normal — it is one of the nails holding in place the elaborate fiction that ‘‘normality’’ springs from nature. The author teaches at Delhi University
Wednesday, November 23, 2005
The Pioneer Wednesday, November 23, 2005
Being a feminist is no longer a positive affirmation. Popular imagination has divided feminists into two colourful stereotypes:
- First, a frustrated man-hater and
- second, a woman leading a no-holds-barred sexual lifestyle.
The core of feminism which simply espouses equality on all fronts has been misplaced among the tortuous counter currents of feminism and its evil twin 'pop-feminism' which promotes misandry in the name of women's liberation.
Feminism has been divided into numerous self-involved fragments by women who disown its spirit in favour of self-styled movements with a lot of fizz and no fibre. It has been conveniently co-opted by commerce and utilised to promote cultural atavism as emancipation. The 'new woman' is a darling of the commercial enterprise vending her as a prototype of modernity. The beauty-police showcases beauty factory assembly lines as events of international importance. In the words of Emma Goldman, "Merely external emancipation has made of the modern woman an artificial being. Now, woman is confronted with the necessity of emancipating herself from emancipation, if she really desires to be free."
On the academic front, feminism is commonly understood as a monolithic Western movement causing many activists from developing countries to refuse being called feminists. They reject it as a marginalising instrument of cultural imperialism, whereby the occidental world co-opts the third world in to sacrificing its identities at the altar of the foremothers of Western feminism. While it is true that some feminists from the socio-economic north try to dominate or proselytise their southern sisters instead of respecting contextual differences, Western feminism cannot be rejected per se as it provides rich historical lessons if approached objectively.
A pulsating rally at Seneca Falls in 1848, which marked the beginning of the American women's movement under inspired leaders asked for women to be treated as human beings "of full age and natural abilities, as equal fellow sinners, not as infants or beautiful angels, to whom the laws of civil and social justice do not apply". They adopted a 'Declaration of Sentiments' declaring all men and women as created equal and placed rational demands for core reforms which would truly emancipate women. Men played pivotal roles in this struggle and a male feminist was not an oxymoron then. These pioneers captured the soul of feminism which does not vary across countries and cultures.
The soul of feminism does not reside in rhetoric and dialectics but in public policy and civic conscience. Feminism is not about women having power over men but over themselves. It is not about women behaving like men, but being self-determined in thought and action. Feminism is the power which educated, employed, enfranchised and thus empowered women.
Feminism has forced the world to acknowledge that no progressive nation can afford to discredit women who constitute half its human resource wealth. It has allowed an increasing number of women to address problems related to health and sexuality on constructive terms without fear of favour. Women's education has helped uplift entire families and communities by default. Feminism has taught us that history is her story too. It is an entire worldview which cannot be limited to any movement, philosophy, country or culture. The common foundation of feminism, then and now is that men and women should be equal politically, economically and socially, nothing more, nothing less.
Thursday, November 24, 2005
Want respect? Earn it...especially from half of humanityRENUKA NARAYANAN THE INDIAN EXPRESS Monday, September 09, 2002
As more and more cults set up shop on prime urban land, we surely need another round of query to include the many Hindus who long to feel good about their religion, but are put off by the many regressive ideas that sully it even now. Let’s begin with a look at the fundamental issue of how our religion deals with women. The ritual impurity associated with women is revolting. That’s how God made us: how can men call us ‘defiled’, when this is what keeps life going?
It is bizarre that some of the hottest swamijis in India today refuse to even look at women. They consider themselves polluted by our very presence. Yet, when they want publicity, they send out their lay male devotees to bombard women editors with the texts of their pravachans. How can this be right? How can we respect those who have no respect for us? The first formula a Hindu child learns is — mata-pita-guru-devam. Yet praxis and theory, as we’re fed up of seeing, are so out of sync. Only the Sikh gurus seem to have got it right (though feudal tradition sometimes subverts their teaching).
Pulling no punches, Delhi’s last Sufi, Hazrat Inayat Khan, said: ‘‘Religious man, wherever found and whatever teacher he followed, has... been prone to look at contact with women with contempt, with the thought of there being something unholy in the passionate love of a woman. Indeed it is a question whether the libertine has actually debased woman as much as the religious man, who believes that to hold himself aloof from any woman with contempt and to strangle his love within him, will be to his own spiritual benefit. And is it possible to debase woman and the position of woman in the scheme of life without debasing man and the whole of life?’’
From Shankara through the Bhakti period to the band of babajis tearing up the turf today, most of these religious men leave us with mixed feelings. Their poetry is often sublime, their one-to-one with God is inspiring, but their denial of woman seems to make them unfit for true reverence. Hindu epics and literature, moreover, need a huge revamp: they were written before the era of general education and democracy. We would be poor indeed if we let go of the colour and beauty of our myth. But, in a world of rampant fundamentalism, don’t we need to weed the garden?