Valson Thampu

There isn’t much, said Alfred North Whitehead, the British empirical philosopher and mathematician, that is truly original. What passes for the new is, often, a reworking of the old. It is old vine in new bottles. All of European philosophy, he said tongue-in-cheek, is only a footnote to Plato.

King David is swept off his feet by the physical charm – the voluptuousness- of Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. He unleashes a sexual assault, so to speak. I say so, because the text does not say a word about the lady’s consent. Not surprising; for kings then, and their counterparts now, have no need to bother about trifles like how others feel or suffer. Bathsheba conceives. Her husband, Uriah, is away on the battle front. The king summons him to create the illusion that he has done the deed. But Uriah’s loyalty stands in the way. He insists that as long as the King’s business on the battlefront remains unsettled, he would not enter his house or go back to his wife. David finds an easy and decisive solution. He has Uriah killed by stratagem. Marries the widow. Then things go wrong. The You-Too movement explodes.

Nathan the prophet confronts David. He traps the sex-predator in a simile. And then he points metaphorically the most menacing and gigantic finger ever in history at David. “You are the man”- he decrees. This is the earliest I can trace the process of ‘naming and shaming.’

There is an echo of this in John’s Gospel. A ‘woman taken adultery’ is presented to Jesus. The Jewish law has it that such perverts should be stoned to death. Jesus decides that anyone who hasn’t sinned – according to some, sinned with her, but I will not press this point – may cast the first stone. The rest may then follow with the work of moral policing. The stones from the hands of the indignant fall like hailstones. Naming and shaming, again; if you like. The difference is that it is not a few individuals, but a whole gang of hypocrites who are at its receiving end. But the pattern is the same: It is You-Too.

The difference between Me-Too and You-Too is that of the prophetic. Me-Too belongs to the victim-mode. You-Too issues from the prophetic mode. As T.S. Eliot maintains, in Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, we are not living in an age of prophecy. Prophets were, in the days of Jesus, an endangered species. Now they are extinct. So, the best this age can produce is Me-Too. Ours is a world stuffed with victims.

But if you think that only women are victims, you got it wrong; frightfully wrong. This is symptomatic of an old disease: the inability to look reality in the face. Once upon a time, women were tempters and seducers. Thereafter they became mere victims. But we did not have the gumption to recognize this as such. A lot was swept under the carpet. The new reality is that roles have become volatile. They interchange quickly. During my tenure as the principal of St Stephen’s three attempts were made, in nine years, to trap me in sexual harassment charges as part of the orchestrated bid to get me out of the way of those who matter. These instances are recounted in my memoir published last year and are, hence, not repeated here. I too was a victim. My male-identity made me more, not less, vulnerable. So, in the end, it is not always a matter of gender, but often of power and profit. It could depend on who calls the shots or in whose way you stand.

Even a cursory glance at history will convince anyone that sex and hypocrisy go hand-in-hand. Our species never has had the guts to tell the truth or to recognize it in this regard. Who didn’t know, for instance, that the socio-economic elite in every society was sexually promiscuous and perverse? That was the point, I believe, that the French author Marquis de Sade was making through a series of disgusting, nauseating sketches of the sex perverts in this social space. Even in our own time, the glamorous – especially those glittering in tinsel towns – were known to be not exactly ascetic; but it was accepted as part of a package. The society looked the other way. More often than not, what mattered was who offended the moral code and not which code or how badly.

I am now going to contradict what I said at the outset regarding originality. Yes, there is something new about this Me-Too movement. For the first time, the men of privilege are being called out. The whore-hounds who enjoyed a sort of hidden license and outlandish entitlements. But, mind you, it is only women of privilege who are in the ambit of this Me-Too movement. The plight of the poor doesn’t matter. It is doomed to remain invisible. Even the middle-class women are an exception than the rule, in this respect.

Let me return to the hypocrisy I said is immanent in our attitude to sex. Hypocrisy is compacted of two things. First, the spinelessness when it comes to facing the truth. Second, a sense of helplessness in respect of checking or mastering what is recognized as an aberration. As a rule, we experience maximum helplessness in relation to what the society as a whole endorses, albeit tacitly. The social attitude to human sexuality has always been-despite contextual and cultural variations- ambivalent. This is amply illustrated by Shakespeare’s Beadle in King Lear. He flogs a whore for doing with others what he would have loved to do with her himself. Moral indignation is more often than not suspect. It could be vitiated by a sense of under-privilege. “Why is he enjoying what I can’t have?” is often what it is. This could well be the reason Jesus said, “Judge not.”

But this discipline of refraining from judging others is not to be confused with moral apathy. What Jesus insists on is the ability to ‘see clearly.’ It is this clarity that is woefully, disconcertingly lacking in our attitude to sexuality.

I have often wondered about the plight of the man who, because he happens to be in a position of control, makes a confounded ass, an abject beggar, of himself in his association with his female colleagues, especially subordinates. What is the relationship between who he is and what he appears to be? What is it that makes him sink so low and do things that, in broad daylight, would make him shrink and shrivel in shame and infamy? How can a man force himself on an unwilling woman and extort favours vitiated by unilateralism? What sort of a creature is he?

And now to the riskiest thing anyone can say today: the foremost heresy of our times. Has he been led on? If yes, why does he walk along like an ass led by the nose? Is he no more than a human onion; all layers and no core? Who is he? What is he?

In a piece to follow I propose to examine the spiritual logic of this vulnerability a little further. Not that I have a great deal that is original to say; but only that it is imperative that we think upfront about such things.

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