Indian men. Why we love talking about you

The fracas over the recent article on Good Indian Men is telling of the form of discourse that has become common in the MSM; wherein, style often trumps substance and the thrust of the argument is quickly buried (hopefully with considered intent) 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 with ‘undead’ and ‘muscular’ fighting for second place!

The thrust of the article’s argument was the role played by family values in fostering the mental and emotional stability of individuals. Is this something newly discovered? 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 the article falters, 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 and along the way, family values were 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 the absence of ‘nestling in family and community’ that causes or contributes to the specter of violence against women. Violence happens within or without familial communities and the reasons why (as Medicine is fond of saying), are multifactorial.

Gender debate is a livewire that routinely sparks a stack of instantaneous reactions in which moderation is the proverbial needle. The argument sparked by this article was no less. 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 a process of domestication and withdrawal from nature – in both an environmental and a behavioral sense. Adaptation is our evolutionary counter to nature. The process of understanding behavior cannot and should not be equated with sanction. The argument that sexual violence is a natural predisposition has been stoutly discredited due to shoddy science. Despite the push-back, 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 explored in depth with promising results.

Rape is documented in a plethora of cultures and in other species even. But unique to 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 graduates in degrees from 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. 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.

Nurture is capable of conditioning and molding attitude. Talk of socio-cultural reasons for rape implicitly acknowledge nurture’s role.  It is with nurture that family values get 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 identifiable and familial maa, behen and beti definitions. The need of the hour is the extension of the same genteel treatment to otherness. To 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.

Debate on gender in India has other troubling aspects. The legitimacy of the feminist faith is won by a forced veiling of all things female in the pre-approved garb of patriarchy, domesticity and caste. But the social order is not a Pleistocene fossil. It is dynamic and is changing across every cultural spread. It is true that the pace of change does not match our desire and its influence is not uniform. Yet, despite its slowness, it serves our collective interests to keep change 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, it should not be hard for upholders of liberal belief (who assert that even hardened criminals can be reformed) to give our good and decent men a fighting chance with our trust; should it?


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