Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for September 2020

The renowned sociologist Zygmunt Bauman once quipped that, in some strands of postmodernist rhetoric, Descartes’ cogito (“I think, therefore I am”) has been replaced by its neo-tribal version “I shout, therefore I am.” The one who shouts loudest, whether on social media or in the university, becomes the new moral leader.

So we need to take care that the self-righteousness of the “radical left” that has come to the fore in recent outbursts over colonialism, racism and transgenderism does not kill tolerance in the name of promoting tolerance, suppress intellectual diversity in the name of protecting diversity.

I read recently of a school in England that rescinded its decision to name one of its houses after novelist J K Rowling simply because the latter had tweeted: “I know and love trans people, but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives. It isn’t hate to speak the truth.” (6 June 2020)

We cannot afford to play this game. Isn’t it better to meet lies with facts, poor arguments with better arguments, insults with civility, and false narratives with counter-narratives?

I have written before on this Blog about the insidious threats posed by ideological versions of “political correctness.” They stifle argument and forestall legitimate criticism simply by attaching the suffix “phobic” to any contrary viewpoint. Hence the widespread use in Western media and even academic circles of neologisms such as “homophobia” and “transphobia”- simply mirror-images of the “Islamophobia” that is deployed by some Muslim writers and organizations to deflect any criticism of Islamic theology and practices. It is why I welcome the letter written in July by 150 writers, academics and activistsby decrying the way freedom of thought and expression about racial and sexual politics is being threatened by the “left” as well as the “right”.

This is one reason I have avoided open discussion of sexuality and transgenderism on this Blog. What I would want to say is heavily dependent on the context into which I am speaking; and what I would want to say to a fundamentalist Christian audience that believes that “the Bible has settled these issues once-and-for-all” is very different to what I would want to say to the left-liberal fundamentalist lobby that subsumes everything under “identity politics”. Both sides, in my experience, distort and demonize views with they disagree.

There is, undoubtedly, a biological phenomenon of “intersex” and persons in this category need social and legal protection from stigmatization, abuse and physical violence. (Didn’t Jesus refer to those who were “born eunuchs and those who were made eunuchs by the acts of men”?) But whether this implies the obliteration of sex difference as if the latter were a social construction like gender, or whether it justifies resorting to reconstructive surgery to “choose” the sexual body we want, are matters for legitimate philosophical, moral and political debate. Outlawing difference of views in the name of respecting difference is hypocrisy.

So, what is ironic in all these postmodern postures is that rejection of “essentialism” and “binary thinking” perpetuates new essentialisms (e.g. “colonialism”, “hetero/homo/bisexual”) and binary thinking (e.g. inclusivist/exclusivist, tolerance/judgmentalism, victim/victimizer).

Moreover, satire is a powerful weapon when wielded against those who enjoy positions of political and economic power. But when used against defenceless and insecure people, it becomes simply another weapon of the powerful. An interesting question to raise: Does Charlie Hebdo publish satirical cartoons of sexual minorities (even though some of the latter are in powerful political and economic positions) or only against religious minorities?

The Black Lives Matter movement has belatedly claimed global attention following the George Floyd and Breona Taylor murders in the US. Through its non-violent direct action to protest police brutality and the systematic violence done to black people in the US (and elsewhere) it has won the sympathy of many whites who are not fascists but have hitherto tacitly supported racist practices through widespread ignorance. However, if BLM is not to alienate itself from conservative, white majorities in the US and Europe, it needs to eschew in its campaigns blanket assaults on capitalism and the nuclear family, romantic notions of pan-Africanism and blaming European colonialism entirely for the refugee crisis today.

In my last Blog post, on slavery and colonialism, I noted the importance of nuance and a certain measure of relativity when it comes to historical understanding and judgments. Simplified narratives are what demagogues of the political right and the left thrive on. And when academics and journalists do the same, they betray their calling to honest intellectual labour. It is the difference between the “party intellectual” and the genuine prophet.

Thus Hindu and Buddhist nationalisms in South Asia, like Islamist versions elsewhere, are not atavistic retrievals but modernist reactions to European colonialism. They borrowed heavily from modern European discourses on race, religion and nationhood. The irony is that they are wielded as ideological weapons against secularism and Christianity, forgetting their indebtedness to both, and blaming the colonial era for all the national evils that are rampant several decades after the end of colonialism.

I myself am grateful to British colonialism for the English language, without which my “take” on the world would be extremely parochial. I am grateful, too, for liberal political institutions the British left behind (however hypocritically they were administered in practice by colonial governors and judiciaries) and which have been steadily dismantled in my own country as well as in many other former colonies by racist and self-serving local elites. And one mustn’t forget cricket and rugby, which stir the passions of the most ardent anti-colonial nationalist!



September 2020