Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 7f

Gandhi challenges our assumption: why can’t you be quiet and strong? We live with a value system that can be called the Masculine Ideal — the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight, preferring  action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt. According to this ideal, a strong leader favors quick decisions, even at the risk of being wrong. It is a style that values quick and assertive answers over quiet, slow decision-making. The master-of-the-universe types are promoted over the gracious and soft-spoken types. The Feminine personality type displaying sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness is now a second-class personality trait.

But Gandhi showed the effectiveness of this leadership style. He did not, as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it of Abraham Lincoln, “offend by superiority.” He tended to listen more than talk, to think before speaking, to dislike conflict. Raising his voice and pounding the table was unnecessary. He was tough and the same time never lost his decorum. Being mild-mannered, he could take strong, even aggressive, positions while coming across as perfectly reasonable. We tend to overestimate how outgoing leaders need to be. He once said, ‘In a gentle way, you can shake the world.‘

He was more interested in listening and gathering information than in asserting his opinion or dominating a conversation. He wasn’t concerned with getting credit or even with being in charge; he simply assigned work to those who could perform it best. This meant delegating some of his most interesting, meaningful, and important tasks — work that other leaders would have kept for themselves. The leaders under the masculine ideal, on the other hand, can be so intent on putting their own stamp on events that they risk losing others’ good ideas along the way. Gandhi said:

I have naturally formed the habit of restraining my thoughts. A thoughtless word hardly ever escaped my tongue or pen. . . We find so many people impatient to talk. All this talking can hardly be said to be of any benefit to the world. It is so much waste of time. My shyness has been in reality my shield and buckler. It has allowed me to grow. 

Susan Cain says in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, 'From a Western perspective, it can be hard to see what’s so attractive about submitting to the will of others. But what looks to a Westerner like subordination can seem like basic politeness to many Asians.’ Don’t mistake  assertiveness or eloquence for good ideas. Appearance is not reality. Gandhi was, according to his autobiography, a constitutionally shy and quiet man. He learned over time to manage his shyness, but he never really overcame it. He couldn’t speak extemporaneously; he avoided making speeches whenever possible. 

A friend of Gandhi said that in  Johannesburg itself, there were 'several of his countrymen whose elocution, natural and unaffected, is far superior to his', that he spoke in a monotonous voice, he 'never waves his arms' and 'seldom moves a finger'. A student who listened to him when he shared a stage with Savarkar in London in 1909 said that he seemed shy and diffident; the students had to 'bend their heads forward to hear the great Mr. Gandhi speak'. His voice and speech were of a piece with his manner - 'calm, unemotional, simple, and devoid of rhetoric'.

While launching an agitation, he believed in systematically preparing himself and his colleagues rather than spontaneously  (or, as he would have it, haphazardly) 'rushing into confrontation.' Another friend says that while a student in London, Gandhi learnt that 'by quiet persistence he could do far more to change men's minds than by any oratory or loud trumpeting'. He was one of those rare individuals who was reflective as well as firm when he finally took a decision. 

But this passivity did not mean that he could be pushed around. An illustration of this point happened early in his life. As a young man he decided to travel to England to study law, against the wishes of the leaders of his Modh Bania subcaste. But he disregarded the order saying “I think the caste should not interfere in the matter.” He was excommunicated — a judgment that remained in force even when he returned from England. The community was divided over how to handle him. One camp embraced him; the other cast him out. Another man would protest for readmission. But he couldn’t see the point. He knew that fighting would only generate retaliation. 

The result of this compliance was that the subcaste not only stopped bothering him, but its members — including those who had excommunicated him — helped in his later political work, without expecting anything in return. Gandhi wrote later, “that all these good things are due to my non-resistance. Had I agitated for being admitted to the caste, had I attempted to divide it into more camps, had I provoked the castemen, they would surely have retaliated, and instead of steering clear of the storm, I should, on arrival from England, have found myself in a whirlpool of agitation.” 

This pattern — the decision to accept what another man would challenge — occurred again and again in Gandhi’s life.  His friends and well-wishers would be upset saying that he was weak, that he should have stood up for his beliefs. But Gandhi felt that he had learned “to appreciate the beauty of compromise.” Gandhi’s passivity was not weakness at all. It meant focusing on an ultimate goal and refusing to divert energy to unnecessary skirmishes along the way. Restraint, Gandhi believed, was one of his greatest assets. But as Nassim Nicholas Taleb says in The Black Swan:

Alas, one cannot assert authority by accepting one's own fallibility. Simply, people need to be blinded by knowledge - we are made to follow leaders who can gather people together because the advantages of being in groups  trump the disadvantages of being alone.  

It has been more profitable for us to bind together in the wrong direction than to be alone in the right one.  Those who have followed the assertive idiot rather than the introspective wise person have passed us some of their genes.  This is apparent from a social pathology: psychopaths rally followers.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 7e

It is telling that, at his trial for the murder of Gandhi, Nathuram Godse complained bitterly about how the bania (merchant-class) Gandhi had shipwrecked Indian politics with his quaint and enfeebling idea of nonviolence. Gandhi understood well the homology between colonial dominance and masculinity, and he sought to bring to the body politic a conception of politics that valorized the feminine and the non-Brahminical. 

Nathuram Godse thus divined what many others did not, namely that Gandhi represented a threat to the idea of India as a masculine, modern nation-state, indeed to the very idea of “normal politics’. India had emerged as a new nation-state from two centuries of colonial rule, and India’s elites, among them some who were Gandhi’s associates, were keen that the country should take its place in the world as a strong nation-state resolutely committed to modernization, industrialization, and the kind of central planning that characterized the policies of the Soviet Union. 

Yet Gandhi had initiated a far-reaching critique of industrial civilization and the very precepts of modernity in his tract of 1909, Hind Swaraj. His critics worried that his pervasive influence would be detrimental to the development of India as an economic and political power. Gandhi was, though this could scarcely be admitted, a nuisance, even a hindrance; and when Godse pulled the trigger, there were certainly others who thought that the man had died not a moment too soon. 

India’s desire to be read as a nation on the make, a nation that wants to be taken seriously in contemporary world politics has roots in the inferiority complex brought about by colonialism which forever marked Indian civilization with a lack of manliness. Part of the ethos of manliness consists simply in gaining recognition, in being acknowledged. One long-lasting effect of colonialism has been that the Indian continues to look up to the white European male, who confers recognition upon inferiors, and who has established the standard that the Indian (like other formerly colonized people) must meet. 

The modernizing Indian middle-classes have been pressing for India’s admission into the Security Council, arguing that India’s might and importance as a nation ought to be recognized. It is the political and economic elite in India who keep saying that India stands third in the strength of its scientific manpower, that it is a member of the ‘Nuclear Club’, that its software engineers are feted in Silicon Valley, and that it is the only Third World nation to join a few of the post-industrial countries as an exporter of satellite and rocket technology. 

Ideas like ‘competitive spirit’ are used to develop pride in the nation, refurbish the ever fragile masculinity of man, and promote a cultural ethos that thrives on such notions as individualism and self-improvement. It is this ‘spirit’ of competition that causes heated discussions every four years about why India has less medals in the olympics than some country that nobody has heard of. 

The Indian political class has accepted the argument about Indian civilization’s effeminacy and the nuclear explosion was an assertion of its masculinity, and thus a second assassination of Gandhi. India is no longer a soft state, it will not present itself to the world with any ambiguity about its manliness. Thus the obsession with personal security of politicians — the Z security, the commandos — that actually terrorizes the ordinary citizen; this contrasts with the 'effeminate' Gandhi’s mingling freely with the crowds disdaining personal security. 

Gandhi was ‘a naked fakir’ not only for Churchill but also to many modern Indians who found his supposed glorification of poverty distasteful and thought that he would hold back India’s future generations. He is symbolically assassinated every year through the empty obeisance at his samadhi and converting him into a saint which is probably the most effective means of removing his influence on Indian politics. His ghost was finally exorcised with the nuclear explosions. Displaying astonishing chutzpah, the first explosion was carried out on Buddha Purnima and was codenamed 'Smiling Buddha'.

What is called “Hindutva” today represents Godse’s legacy, playing out his deep anxieties about the loss of Hindu potency. Gandhi was assassinated. Godse was hanged. But Gandhi vs Godse is a battle that goes on today.  We see, for instance, that the feminine (typically signifying vulnerability, passivity, emotion, and so on) is deployed against the  masculine (typically signifying impenetrability, control, rationality), and both become attributes of not just individuals, but of institutions, systems, communities, and even nations. 

The colonial denigration of the Krishna lore as vulgar made Hindu elites attempt to sanitize their religion. (One British Judge of the Bombay High court even pronounced Krishna 'guilty' of lewd sensuality.) For them a proper God should be like the Semitic Gods - perfect, all-knowing and awe-inspiring. How could a God sing, dance, play with women and steal butter? So the image of Krishna wielding a discus on the index finger of his right hand is promoted. But temples depict the cowherd Krishna rather than the bad omen of the more war-like Krishna of the Mahabharata and popular culture still celebrates the butter thief God.

A crucial characteristic of Hinduism for centuries has been that, unlike other religions, the Gods and Goddesses are neither remote nor frightening. They are not entities outside everyday life but constitute a significant part of it. They are not only part of one’s transcendental life but also of one’s most comic and naughty moments. You pray to them but you can also disown them or joke about them.  They not only maintain lofty principles but also show some of our failings. Ever since the promotion of a masculine culture by the colonial rulers, Hindu reformers have tried to make Hinduism more like the Semitic religions. Educated, city-dwellers are more likely to harbor such sentiments. 

Whenever we see images of violence we notice that typically, only males are present among the perpetrators. It is not that women never indulge in violence: they can be aggressive and brutal, particularly to other women. But the culture that encourages such violence takes pride in its aggressive masculinity and it plays a key role in its recurrence, justification, and glorification. Women are constantly exhorted to be more like men to climb the ladder of success. The most successful women role models have typically masculine hawkish personality traits ; eg. Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton. Thatcher was once described as ‘the only man in her cabinet’. 

Such a conception of manhood assumes that aggression is natural and desirable in men. A ‘real’ man is eager to pick up a fight, must be muscular and unemotional. Crying is construed as a sign of weakness as it is to show empathy and understanding, gentleness and compassion. Part of what it means to be tough is to suppress empathy towards others, to be embarrassed by fear or any other vulnerability. To be counted as ‘real’ men, they must be ambitious and ruthless in trying to attain their goals regardless of consequences to others. They should approach their activities with a zero-sum, 'I win-you lose' kind of mindset. ‘Real’ men are supposed to take independent decisions that brook no questioning. 

All these must be contrasted to features that are perceived to be inherent in women: being irrational, bereft of self-restraint, crying easily, emotional, empathetic but lacking judgment and impartiality. Women are physically and mentally weak, and therefore must be dependent on and protected by their male superiors. It follows that when men display such traits, they become weak, soft, wimpish. Acting like a woman is a betrayal of manhood. Cold-blooded violence shows the opposite: that manliness is fully alive and kicking! In the world of violent masculinities, Gandhian virtues of patience, empathy, understanding etc.  are seen as unmanly attributes fit only for women and the weak.