Our basic nature

“It is one of my fundamental beliefs that not only do we inherently posses the potential for compassion but I believe  that the basic or underlying nature of human beings is gentleness. —[Tenzin Gyatso the 14th Dalai Lama]

For most of my life, I have held that man is essentially a base, angry, hurtful animal. Gentleness and kindness are acquired through civilization and practice, and if given a chance every person would do the thing that benefits them the most, even if it hurts others.

The online conversation in India has recently become rape-focused. Triggered by the Delhi gang rape, what was a tsunami of outrage is now a stream that is here to stay. Almost universal in the portrayal of rapists is the use of terminology that indicates that men who rape are reverting to their “real” nature. Forget what this says about men, what does it say about humans in general?

Yet, we do not have difficulty in believing this. This drives us to propose the harshest possible penalties on rapists, and insist that the basis for a rape-free society would be harsher punishments, and longer sentences. I’m even hearing suggestions that minors who commit sexual crimes should be treated as adults.

I would have discarded the Dalai Lama’s belief as religious wishful thinking if not for the evidence he presented. He asks why, if we are evil, does evil hurt?

If we are by nature evil, why does it hurt us so much? Why does good have physical as well as psychological benefits?

Not all “good” behavior has proven benefits, other than feeling good. But many do, and from violence to resentment, there is research to suggest that negative emotions and “bad” behavior can lead to physical effects.

It’s a good question, isn’t it?

Note: I’ve been re-reading “The art of happiness” a book that looks at Buddhist teachings about happiness in life from the point of view of a modern psychiatrist. The author, Howard Cutler is a  psychiatrist who follows His Holiness the Dalai Lama around for years, and catalogs the dialogues he had on topics ranging from romantic love to the nature of suffering. The book is very well written, easy to read and for any dysthymic/depressed person, a must-have. The quote above is from the book.

Are Rapists Victims?

There seem to be a serious confusion in the minds of our leaders and the common man alike about who is responsible for rape, the victim or the rapist. Things are so confusing that some even wonder if the poor rapist isn’t a victim of the crime of “incitement”.

“You can’t blame the locals; they have never seen such women. Foreign tourists must maintain a certain degree of modesty in their clothing. Walking on the beaches half-naked is bound to titillate the senses,”

This is a quote in response to the rape of a 6 year old Russian girl from no less than the deputy director of tourism of Goa, Pamela Mascarhenas.
So, should Ms Pamela release the rapist, who was apprehended the same day the quote was made, because after all he was titillated into the crime by an immodestly dressed six year old!

Unfortunately this is not an isolated sentiment of an ill-informed politician, a brief look at comments and discussions on eve-teasing would tell you that a majority still hold that more “obscenely” dressed dressed women get eve teased more, and that the onus is on women to avoid eve teasing. Why go on-line, even the deep philosophical discussions every Indian has at the tea shop echo the sentiments that women are somehow responsible for what happens to them, if not always, most of the time.

The reason why such an asinine logic has become so pervasive evades me, and if you dont think it is asinine, take a look at the root arguments:

if X does something “wrong” then Y is justified in doing anything wrong to X

(could be Hindi movies, bec the few Hindi movies I have seen have angry young men avenging the death/rape of their mothers/sisters by extreme violence. )

By this standard, if Ms. Pamela’s dog barks too much in the night, it is perfectly alright for her neighbor to poison it.

It is important that we separate the two actions from each other, and therefore the crime from the victim. Sure, a nocturnal canine opera is awful, but just because your sleep has been wronged and she is and idiot, you cannot poison her dog. You can picket, go on a hunger strike, or even talk things over with the owner, as impotent as these sound, but that’s the way, not murder.

If we all start killing irritating dogs, none of us would have any.

There is of course a bigger and more ignorant assumption underlying such statements. And that is that the human male, particularly in India is somehow a slave to his primal urges, never really having evolved his frontal cortex enough to be able to decide right from wrong. And so, like we would tip-toe around a sleeping giant, lest we wake him up, we should mollycoddle the male lest he be titillated and incited into doing something “unfortunate” and uncontrollable.

For those of you who didn’t catch the sarcasm of the previous paragraph, let me spell it out. Human beings, Indians, Pakistanis French or Greek, have the ability to resist their sexual urges, particularly in socially unacceptable situations.  If we did not, this world would have been one big orgy.

Why  a molester or a rapist commit the crime is a subject much studied and there is good evidence to show that it has nothing to do with the amount of flesh shown. Sexual assault of almost all kinds is related more to issues like power and control than sexual desire or urges. There is also a certain amount of risk-seeking or thrill seeking behavior involved. The rapist/molester gets his thrill by overpowering women and displaying his dominance. Almost all molesters started with less severe and easily overlooked forms of sexual assault and progress to more severe forms.

Dont belive me, read this paper [link]

The wonderful initiative by blank noise has made it very clear, not that we need evidence, that molesters don’t care about what you do or do not wear, people have been raped, whistled at, touched and pinched wearing burkas as well as saris. This adds to the clear evidence that victims of sexual crimes have absolutely no culpability.

This blatant criminal-victim-exchange not only increases the trauma to those affected, but it also makes the power hungry predator more confident of terrorizing women and getting away with it.

This post is a bit too late in joining the petition that blank noise has sent to the deputy director of tourism, but the fight doesnt end with a petition or a hundred, minds need to be enlightened, societies need to be changed, its a war out there, not a lover’s spat.

Having said that, I hope to write about the flip-side also, not about this particular case though, but about what the difference between personal responsibility and culpability is.

Unnatural Affections?

Straight To hell

The unknown and the different have always evoked strong reactions from people. Perhaps there is an evolutionary imperative in being wary of all that is alien. Of all the “strange” socio-cultural phenomenons to create waves in the past 30-40 years, nothing matches the gay rights movement in its perseverance and success. Yet, inspite of all the success of the movement across the world, there is perhaps no group so hated and misunderstood. Part of the reason is that in most cultures sex is taboo, and talking about “unnatural”sex is further taboo. Lies mis-conceptions and false information passed on from mouth to mouth end in a grossly misrepresented image or reality.This series will look at the most common  objections and misunderstandings about homosexuality.

That homosexuality is “unnatural” and against the “order of nature” is perhaps the most commonly used argument, heard the loudest and so pervasive as to be even in our constitution till this year.
What is Natural?

Any discussion about the unnatural must begin with understanding what natural is. Explanations and definitions abound and for this discussion I choose to define natural as that which adheres to natural laws.Natural laws are laws that govern what we observe in nature; eg. gravity, electromagnetism etc. but as far as we know, there is no universal law of sexuality and even if there was one, the very fact that homoxesulaity defied the law would mean it was not really a law. It’s not that I have chosen a definition to suit my views, taking any other definition, save those that have a religious origin, there is no scientific reason to call homosexuality unnatural.
Take for example the belief that only human beings have homosexual behaviour, and therefore it is a deviation from the natural norms. Contrary to this belief, there are hundreds of species of animals that exhibit homosexual behaviour. Following is a quote from a popular magazine. The science of the article is accurate, if a bit dramatic.

Giraffes have all-male orgies. So do bottlenose dolphins, killer whales, gray whales, and West Indian manatees. Japanese macaques, on the other hand, are ardent lesbians; the females enthusiastically mount each other. Bonobos, one of our closest primate relatives, are similar, except that their lesbian sexual encounters occur every two hours. Male bonobos engage in “penis fencing,” which leads, surprisingly enough, to ejaculation. They also give each other genital massages.

Click here for the original Article

The Moralistic Argument

However, often statements about the unnaturalness of homosexuality stem from religious or moralistic beliefs. Of the world’s dominant religions, all monotheistic religions have clear cut objections to homosexuality and one can find a wide range of personal beliefs about it, from believing homosexuals to be “lost souls” to “perverts going to hell”.

Most religions believe that there is a clear and fixed natural order, a guideline of how nature and people are supposed to behave. The problem with this outlook is that this presumes that religions know all there is to know about nature and its working. But if religions indeed are right about such an order why do their moralistic and natural standards change with time? Natural and unnatural vary across religions and sometimes even across sects within religions, it is unnatural for a man to be clean shaven if he is Amish and unnatural for him to sport a beard if he is a Quaker. Oral sex was deemed unnatural by all Christian sects till just a hundred years ago, yet now many an evangelical preacher is heard supporting it from posh progressive pulpits. So the natural-unnatural divide as proposed by religions is like writing in sand, with no sound and timeless principles behind them about the natural world and therefore cannot be accepted as a valid one.

Reproduction or Evolution Argument

There are many pseudo-scientific arguments hovering around the theory of evolution, usually propounded by religious groups to lend credibility to their moralistic arguments. The typical argument is that sex was evolved for reproduction and since homosexuality does not lead to reproduction, it is unnatural/wrong/evil. To begin with, it is quiet a big assumption to say that the only purpose of sex is reproduction, and if it were true, any sexual behavior that does not directly or indirectly lead to conception should also be deemed unnatural.

Such reductionist thinking does not keep in mind that the evolutionalry scientists themselves are at times not sure about the evolutionary significance of many human traits. One such example is the female orgasm, if the only purpose of sex is reproduction, then (sorry ladies) the female orgasm is rather useless. In fact for a long time it was not even accepted as normal for a woman to have an orgasm.

In conclusion, there is no good scieintific reason to think homosexuality is an abnormal deviation, or unnatural form of sexual preference. Hopefully with advances in science we will know better about the physiology, psychology and genetics involved.

The next part of this series will talk about the medical aspects of homosexuality, adressing questions like “Arent all gay people HIV positive?” And isnt homosexuality a disease?