Indian Men, we love to talk about you
The fracas over the recent article on Good Indian Men is telling of the form of discourse in which style often trumps substance and the thrust of the argument is quickly buried (hopefully intentionally) in verbal and print duels on turn of phrase and literary device. Anything on gender relations is bound to get heated and devolve into one such and this well intentioned, if problematic, article provided ample grist for the mill. If ‘feral’ was hash-tagged it might have trended on Twitter and, ‘undead’ and ‘muscular’, would have been fighting for second place. The thrust of the argument here was the role played by family values in fostering the mental and emotional stability of individuals. Is this something new? No. Is it wrong? No; A good amount of research backs it. Was it an attempt to balance the endless recounting of the predator Indian male? Yes. Did it succeed? Yes and no. Was caste at the core of it? Or, patriarchy? Not to the unprejudiced eye.
Where it does not succeed is the unfortunate and erroneous attempt at conflation that is the last paragraph. A couple of sentences and the argument rapidly descends into the death-trap of causality. Along the way, family values are seamlessly immingled with gender values setting the stage for the backlash. It is indeed true that Indian men have a high degree of familial commitment and responsibility and are wonderfully supportive friends. It is also true that many of our achievements have had the able and steering support of men; both elders and peers. But, it is not the lack of these generally ubiquitous family values or that of ‘nestling in family and community’ that causes or contributes to the specter of violence against women. That happens within or without familial communities and the reasons why are (as is fondly said in Medicine), multifactorial.
The livewire of gender debate routinely sparks a stack of instantaneous reactions in which, moderation is the proverbial needle. The average response on Twitter and elsewhere was negative with repetitive reference to caste and patriarchy although there was nothing in the article to suggest either. A more considered response highlighted the unproved assumptions of class and sexual violence but articulated its criticism from the tough terrain of nurture/nature and interpretations of civilization.
Viewed from any angle, civilization is indeed a process of domestication and withdrawal from nature. That is in both the environmental and behavioral sense. Adaptation, behavioral and otherwise, is our evolutionary counter to nature. The process of understanding nature cannot and should not be equated with sanction. The point is not man’s natural predisposition to sexual violence. Although it has been tried; these and other efforts have been stoutly discredited due to shoddy science. Violence and sexuality continue to be subjects of study in evolutionary psychology but, for now, the lack of evidence makes the discussion moot. On the other hand, the influence of nurture on behavior has been in continuous focus with promising results. Rape has been documented in a plethora of cultures and in other species even. What is uniquely on display in our species, is the plasticity of conscious mental process and its impact on behavioral and physical response.
Gender violence spans a wide swath of perverse behavior that range through degrees of abuse to rape and assault. The impact of nurture on the lower end of the scale is well documented and is the focus of worldwide initiatives aimed at gender parity. Attitudes that might otherwise be superior and dominant (due to any reason) can be conditioned and molded by nurture; talk of socio-cultural reasons for rape implicitly acknowledge nurture’s role and it is here, with nurture, that family values gets precedence over gender values. While the former is inculcated in children both by example and practice; the latter is given short shrift. What families must impart along with and apart from family values of support and commitment are parity values of respect, fairness and restraint, while discouraging, at the same time, entitlement and domination. Not every woman fits into the easily slottable maa, behen and beti definitions. The need of the hour is the extension of the same genteel treatment to otherness; for those who reside on the outer lines of comfort and don’t wear these familiar badges. Family values are what lead to the relative stability of marital relationships in India; but it is gender values that will leave a lasting impact on parity and equalization. The impact of nurture on physical violence and assault is less clear at the higher end of the abuse spectrum where the entanglement of causal factors is complex.
Debate on gender in India has other troubling aspects. A forced veiling of all things female in the pre-approved garb of patriarchy, domesticity and caste wins, in exchange, the legitimacy of the faith. But the social order is not a Pleistocene fossil. It is dynamic and is changing across every cultural spread. Yes, the pace of change does not match our desire and its influence is not uniform. Yet, it serves our collective interests to keep it going and nudge it along. Sweeping generalizations that do not fit many realities serve the opposite purpose of hardening stances. The road to reparation is faster traversed by nurturing cooperation; not by an ever-accusatory harangue. After all, if we believe that criminals can be reformed; we can easily give our good and decent men a fighting chance with our trust.