“The Intellectual Yet Idiot pathologizes others for doing things he doesn’t understand without ever realizing it is his understanding that may be limited… Beware the slightly erudite who thinks he is an erudite, as well as the barber who decides to perform brain surgery ”—Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
A Delhi court on 17.02.2021 acquitted the journalist Priya Ramani in a defamation case wherein she had accused the former Union Minister MJ Akbar of sexual harassment during the #MeToo movement in India in 2018. The judgement upholds a woman’s right to speak not only about her own sexual harassment but also of others, even years after the incident and through any platform.
A landmark judgement which otherwise sounds quite progressive and forward-looking to a commoner like me, however, reads like a patriarchal document to an intellectual publication like The Scroll. More ludicrous still, the judgement is communal as well, says The Scroll.
The writer Madhavi Menon in her opinion piece titled MJ Akbar vs. Priya Ramani: Reading Between the Lines of the Ramayana tales cited by the judge, published in The Scroll on 21 February, 2021 says that the verdict “compels” her to ask if the judgement was really a victory for feminism or “yet another step towards communalism.” Her reasoning is that “after all, the plaintiff in this case is a Muslim man.”
Reading the article first makes you laugh for its farcical logic then subsequently leaves you shocked for the humongous amount of plain propaganda that reins galore in Indian media. Another article of 22 February, 2021 in The Scroll—close on the heels of Ms. Menon’s discursive opinion piece—is titled Why are Indians so preoccupied with what Nagas eat, Whether it is foods, bats or falcons? As if, according to The Scroll, Nagas were not Indians! Interestingly, this article has been reproduced with permission from the project Species in Peril where it was simply titled as What Nagas Eat.
Excerpts from the landmark Judgement in MJ Akbar vs. Priya Ramani case are as follows:
It cannot be ignored that most of the time, the offence of sexual harassment and sexual abuse [is] committed in the close doors or privately. Sometimes the victims herself does not understand what is happening to them or what is happening to them is wrong. Despite how well respected some persons are in the society, they in their personal lives, could show extreme cruelty to the females.
The time has come for our society to understand the sexual abuse and sexualharassment and its implications on victims. The society should understand that an abusive person is just like rest of the other person and he too has family and friends. Most of the women who suffer abuse do not speak up about it or against it for simple reason “The Shame” or the social stigma attached with the sexualharassment and abuse. The sexual abuse, if committed against woman, takes away her dignity and her self confidence. The attack on the character of sexabuser or offender by sex abuse victim, is the reaction of self defence after the mental trauma suffered by the victim regarding the shame attached with the crime committed against her.
The woman cannot be punished for raising voice against the sexabuse on the pretext of criminal complaint of defamation as the right of reputation cannot be protected at the cost of the right of life and dignity of woman as guaranteed in Indian Constitution under article 21 and right of equality before law and equal protection of law as guaranteed under article 14 of the Constitution. The woman has a right to put her grievance at any platform of her choice and even after decades.
It is shameful that the incidents of crime and violence against women are happening in the country where mega epics such as “Mahabarata” and “Ramayana” were written around the theme of respect for women.
In Balyamiki Ramayan, the reference of great respect is found, when Prince Laxman was asked to describe about Princesses Sita, he answered that he remembers only her feet as he had never looked beyond that”.
In the “Aranaya Kand of Ramcharitmanas”, a reference of noble tradition of protecting, respecting and promoting the dignity of women is found, and it refers about noble ‘Jatayu’ ( the mithical bird) when witnessed the crime of abduction of princes ‘Sita’, he came swiftly to protect princesses Sita and consequently his wings were cut down by Ravan, the abductor of the Sita. The noble bird ‘Jatayu’ though was wounded and was dying, but he lived long enough to pass the information of abduction of princesses Sita to the Prince Ram and Prince Laxman.
Similarly, in “Sabha Parv of Mahabharta”, the reference is found about the appeal of queen Dropati for justice to the Kuru Raj Sabha and she questioned the legality of her treatment of being dragged by Duhashana into the dice hall.
The subtlety of the questions, asked in a situation of intense personal trauma, is indicative of her cerebral power and her ability of sharp and logical analysis. The Indian women are capable, pave the way for them to excel, they only require the freedom and equality. The ‘glass ceiling’ will not prevent the Indian women as a roadblock for their advancement in the society, if equal opportunity and social protection be given to them.
The Intellectualization of the Verdict
The verdict thus asserts a woman’s right to “put her grievance even after decades” and for the mindful observation that that “even a man of social status can be a sexual harasser.” Did you find anything amiss in the above observation of the court? If you said no, then you must read the article once again from an intellectual’s point of view.
Ms. Menon in her article terms the judgment as “sexually dubious and politically suspect.” Through some convoluted logic and her characteristic intellectualization, she reaches to the conclusion that the judgement’s “attitude to sexuality and nationalism” is a cause for the concern. In a twisted “Have you stopped beating your wife?” kind of logic, she asserts that we ought to be cautious of the verdict when “subjects are caught in the pincer-like grip of the state’s patriarchal and communal agendas.”
Betraying her Hinduphobic ignorance, she castigates the judges for referencing to the Sita episode in the Ramayana which according to her is “one of the most sexually toxic cases from Indian mythology.” Upbraiding the Ramayana in general, she asks,
Isn’t this the same text in which Sita is shunned for being the bearer of what the judgment calls “The Shame”? Isn’t this the same text in which Sita is made to go through a trial by fire in order to prove her sexual virtue? Isn’t this the same text in which, despite passing that trial, Sita is shunned because she still cannot quell the paranoid fantasies of the citizenry around her? And this is the text that the judgment hails for its “respect for women”? In which world?
She further terms the epic as a story in which “woman’s sexuality is denied [to] her except within the tightly-policed circle of marital heterosexuality, straying away from which ends in banishment and possible death.”
Twisting the logic and narrative to her propaganda, she ignores the wider context of the Ramayana and judge’s verdict. The fact that the judge chose to refer the Ramayana for putting across a point and thus to appeal the wider sensibilities reinforces that the Indian population does not see Sita and Rama from the same monochromatic lenses as her ilk does. The Hindus see Devi Sita’s banishement episode as the king rendering public opinion—which may not be true or falsifiable everytime—as supreme even at the cost of the personal sacrifice. Remember these were the un-falsifiable allegations of Priya Ramani that forced the Union Minister MJ Akbar to step down since the public opinion dictated so.
The tale of Rama is not about judging things always from the binaries of right or wrong, true or false, only-my-version-of-feminism or false feminism. It is about being a popular king first then a husband or son or father. However, a wisdom received uncritically in the terms dictated by Western liberal discourse can not fully grasp these finer aspects. Ethnic sensibilities and retellings can not be understood from the language of Western epistemology that has sex and violence-centric reading. And therefore a reformist verdict is termed as being afflicted with “paternalistic cast of sex-phobia”.
Further, denying the women an agency in her thinking, she describes as “cold comfort” how the autochthonous women in India look at their holy books and god(s). Since, she is an intellectual, therefore, she alone can correctly see through an epic and read between the lines. She says that “The patriarchal cast of the tale of Sita in the Ramayana is cold comfort for women in India today.” In another words, women in India today do not properly understand their epics (which are basically patriarchal) and their heroes (who are basically misogynistic). And plebeian women folk, of course, need an intellectual like Ms. Menon to read to them the hidden misogyny and violence contained in Indian epics. But then intellectuals have always arrogated to themselves that they alone can decide the terms from/on which the hoi polloi do/can/should think!
Ms. Menon’s deeper angst comes to the surface in her unwarranted schooling to the judge that we are not “an exclusively Hindu state” in which “Hinduism can do no wrong.” She blames the judge for his reading of the epic in which “misogyny is converted into a sign of glory.”
Ms. Menon’s tirade doesn’t stop there. She says that since the verdict is against a Muslim in a communal India, the verdict can not be even-handed (“If this judgement is a victory for feminism or yet another step towards communalism? After all, the plaintiff in this case is a Muslim man”). To give more authority to her aberrant and erratic line of thinking, she adds that even one of her friends noted, “did Ramani win because she was right or because she was pitted against a Muslim?” Peer-reviewed by a fellow intellectual, her line of thinking was free to enter a thought trap where intellectuals read, review and vindicate each other’s “intellectual” interpretations.
Throughout her rambling The Scroll piece, she seems to be fighting an imaginary foe, hidden intentions and un-attributed motives. She criticises The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights in Marriage) Act of 2019 and hold the act as an example of “this government’s criminalising intentions.” The act, she says, is in sync with government’s “commitment to criminalising Muslim men.” Thus, Indian epics which are replete with strong and protesting women like Sita and Draupadi are patriarchal while the triple talaq is quite humane and progressive, repeal of which results in criminalising of Muslim men. Oh yeah, four legs good, two legs bad!
She doesn’t give it a thought that it might be her understanding that is limited; her lens that are monochromatic; and her own necrophilia that doesn’t allow her to appreciate the rich expansive theatre of gods, epics, anecdotes and rich traditions that this ancient land always had. Without a critical approach to the received wisdom and the terms set by the Western education and epistemology, one carries the risk of reducing oneself to what Nassim Nicholas Taleb called as The Intellectual Yet Idiot (discussed at the end).
A History of Sex-centric and Hinduohobic Narratives by Ms. Menon
Aldous Huxley once defined an intellectual as someone who has found something more interesting than sex. However, I doubt if it is always true in case of Indian brand of intellectuals.
Opinionated beyond redemption, she opines about Lord Ayyappa as the following (also note her definitive conclusions without a single sound premise):
Ayyappa is interested in men… Ayyappa planned to do away with heterosexual copulation and reproduction… His all-male milieu does not preclude women—it simply does not evince sexual interest in women and, in fact, stipulates that men should not be sexually interested in women… Ayappan’s celebration of the bonds between men is also a celebration of alternative sexual configuration that do not adhere to the constraints of heterosexuality.
Further note her interpretation about Lord Ayyappa’s friendship with Vavar, a Muslim saint:
Legend further has it that while explaining his attachment to Vavar, Ayyappan tells his father, ‘Consider Vavar as myself.’ What might it mean to consider an other as one’s self; Vavar as Ayyappan? Certainly, such a statement points to the existence of a close friendship. But usually, this language of interchangeable mutuality is reserved for married couples, the two of whom are said to make up a ‘whole’ uniting ‘two halves’. Ayyappan and Vavar are not married— remember that Ayyappan’s existence is legendarily opposed to marriage. He is very clear that he can never fulfil Malikappuram’s sexual desire for him… Given Ayyappan’s nearly all-male following, and his refusal of heterosexual union, his relationship with Vavar points to a reorientation of desire that is fascinating from a historical perspective. Without suggesting that Ayyappan and Vavar should necessarily be considered a romantic couple, it is important to remember that the possibility of male-male union is not alien to Ayyappan since he is himself the product of such a coupling between Shiva and Vishnu.
Can she dare take a similar liberty in attributing a similar perverted interpretation to gods/prophets of other religions? Not that the homosexuality is bad or unnatural per se but a similar suggestion, remember, for the Muslim prophet had caused a Kamlesh Tiwari to pay with his life.
However, Hindu gods and traditions are another matter. They are a free-for-all arena of any kind of thought experiment. Thus, Lord Rama becomes a “misogynistic pig” (Audrey Truschke), Krishna has rather a questionable personal record (DN Jha), Shiva is just an outgrowth of phallic worship, Hinduism is a violent cult (Wendy Doniger). And yeah, in case, you forgot to emphasize, Islam is a religion of peace, justice and equality!
In her another article The Unlikely Desires of Padmaavat (The Indian Express, February 16, 2018), she spiritualizes the lustful desire of Alauddin Khilj for Rani Padmavati as “what the Sufis call fanaa.” She idolises the lust of Khilji: “It is a desire that flies in the face of reason, and cares for nothing but itself. This is the absolute threat that desire wields. This is the reason why “love jihad” has become such a big issue for Hindu fanatics…” In her opinion, like the term love jihad itself, jauhar is a metaphor that allows the film to literalise the fires of passion. Anyone is free to define Hindu terms; everyone is free to denigrate our traditions. No Ijmāʿ, (Arabic: “consensus”) is required when it comes to Hindu sensibilities.
In another Hinduphobic article No Fixed Identity published in The Indian Express, she effusively defends conversions from an oppressive Hindusim and opposes anti-conversion law:
The biggest reason for which Hindus have converted to Islam, Christianity and Buddhism has been Hinduism itself, with its violent and asphyxiating emphasis on the purity of caste… Religious conversions are premised on the fact that one can be a Hindu today and a Muslim tomorrow. But, and here’s the rub, it also means that one can stop being a Muslim tomorrow and become a Buddhist or Hindu the day after, and a Muslim again the day after that… The irony of this position seems completely lost on the RSS and its affiliates. If I convert once, then I can convert again. And again… This is why an “anti-conversion” law is an exercise in the logic of fascism. It does not believe in any change that questions the status quo. And it believes in change only when change cleaves to a particular agenda. Any other conversion is deemed to be “violent”. But the violence is in the proposed anti-conversion law itself and it is the violence of pretending that conversions can, should or will stop.
Oh really, Ms. Menon? Let me ask Ms. Menon how many cases does she know of Muslims in Indian subcontinent formally renouncing their faith? I am sure not beyond a minuscule. It is because a conversion-based religion like Islam—unlike inward-looking religions like Buddhism or Jainism or Hinduism or Sikhism—does not permit renouncing of the faith. Apostasy is punishable by death in Islam. And in case she thought that conversion-based religions added its adherents through the factor of CHOICE , let me remind her the history that once upon a time Spain was completely Islamic nation before subsequently being conquered by Christianity. Turkey similarly once was a Christian country before Islam out-stubborned it. Closer home, the whole Indian subcontinent once was an expansive theatre of rich inward-looking traditions. But due to their very choice-centric nature, they couldn’t out-stubborn Islam. Result? The whole Afghanisan, Pakistan and Kashmir today is almost completely Islamic.
In her article The Road to Bawana, she reflects on how she was held in detention for 6 hours when she went to join the anti-CAA protest at Ramlila Maidan. The van she sits on had flags of Jai Mata Di atop and inside it. Though she was able to get top flags removed, she regrets not being able to do the same for inside flags:
Which van are we going in–that one over there with the Rashtriya Swayamseval Sangh flag on it, I ask. There is a brief glance of consternation. That’s not an RSS flag, I’m told, it’s a Jai Mata Di flag. I continue to protest that Delhi Police seems to be in cahoots with Hindu fundamentalists. I am pushed into the van, and the driver is told to remove the flag… The dashboard [inside the van] has idols of multiple Hindu gods on it, and there are several more Jai Mata Di flags inside the van, but I feel I can’t push my luck in asking for them too to be removed.
I’m sure she would not dare ask a Muslim or a Christian driver to remove their religious symbols from their cabs, if any, before riding it.
Furthermore, a six hours detention and she says “it is happening in the name of fascism.” I am not sure if she knows but a truly Fascist government would not have let her go after a mere 6 hours of simple preventive detention. This guilt by association fallacy in form of the comparison of a regime with Hitler or Fascism has become so common that I can only say Shiva bless her and her intellectual sense. Such a misplaced comparison in order to score political points trivializes a horrendous tragedy of Jew genocide. And as is the standard, this is the point when a person plays a Nazi card that he or she effectively loses an argument.
Criticising France’s decision to ban covering of faces in public, Ms. Menon compared the requirement of revealing face in public to what the satirist Thomas More argued in 16th century that people should not get married without first seeing each other naked. Thus, by equating the revealing of face with the revealing of the naked body, she attempted to make both look equally bad. And with her unique intellectual ivory tower argument, she concluded that religion phobia has become a law in France.
In her article Martyrs and Mothers: The Indian government sentimentalises both, without caring for either, she trivialises the sacrifice of defence forces and blames the government letting them die so as to deflect public attention:
Horrible and callous as it is, the government pays its soldiers to die. To then call these dead soldiers “martyrs” is the government’s way of sentimentalising their death and deflecting criticism away from its own policies… the Army is also being used in a battle for the mantle of nationalism – a battle in which the horrors of war are glossed over to highlight the sentimental aspect of dying for one’s country.
I am not sure why martyrs are criticised and blame is put on the government only when a particular government is in power. Ms. Menon probably thinks that she can hide her ideological underpinnings behind a facade of idealism, consider her opinion:
I will not hear a single word against my country, Phogat said. But which country is Phogat talking about? The one that attacks professors and students? The one that sends soldiers to their deaths? The one that condones a rape culture? Or the one that sentimentalises both martyr and mother, without caring for either?
In her Why it’s time to demand aazadi from Mother India, written on March 8, 2016 for The Scroll, she says that she did not want to celebrate Women’s Day that year. Why? She reasons:
…Reason is peculiar to India at this political moment. From the response to the Rohith Vemula suicide to the continued afterlife of the Jawaharlal Nehru University agitations, Indian women have emerged fully and finally in one role and one role alone – that of the mother…If the mushrooming numbers of fertility clinics in India are anything to go by, then Indians are increasingly obsessed with making women produce children…
And who is on major fault for the demeaning population growth? Hindu women, of course:
…Hindu women are exhorted to stay at home and produce more Hindu children to bolster the waning 80% majority of Hindus in the country.
And lest you should idolize your motherland as bharat mata, she has the right advice just tailor made that the concept of Bharat Mata demolishes women as sexual beings:
The myth of Bharat Mata demolishes women as sexual beings with intense desires and human beings with fluctuating opinions, and places them instead on a pedestal made up of chains, from where women are allowed do nothing but produce and then adore their sons.
As can be seen Ms. Menon has a habit of making sweeping, jaundiced generalizations for the situations her arm-chaired intellectual intellect doesn’t allow her to fully understand. The author Hamsadhwani Alagarswamy in her polemic Dear Straight People, Stop Teaching me How to be Queer directed at her wrote that despite half of Ms. Menon’s books being on queer theory, she still doesn’t understand the innate emotions about being queer. Her hurt and angry response to Ms. Menon can be read here [https://feminisminindia.com/2019/01/18/straightplaining-the-hindu-lit-for-life/]. When you find that she can be insensitive in her own field of specialization then it prompts you to be more sympathetic to such intellectual-however-idiots (also sometimes known as liberals in India).
The Intellectual Yet Idiot
Taleb describes an intellectual-yet-idiot as the following (the definition is bound to pop up many Usual Suspects in our mind):
The one-eyed following the blind: these self-described members of the “intelligentsia” aren’t intelligent enough to define intelligence…their main skill is a capacity to pass exams written by people like them, or to write papers read by people like them… They can’t tell science from scientism… they think that our understanding of single individuals allows us to understand crowds and markets, or that our understanding of ants allows us to understand ant colonies…
He thinks people should act according to their best interests and he knows their interests…
The IYI subscribes to The New Yorker, a journal designed so philistines can learn to fake a conversation about evolution, neurosomething, cognitive biases, and quantum mechanics. He never curses on social media. He speaks of “equality of races” and “economic equality,” but never goes out drinking with a minority cab driver…he mistakes absence of evidence for evidence of absence…
The IYI has been wrong, historically, about Stalinism, Maoism, GMOs, Iraq, Libya, Syria, lobotomies, urban planning, low carbohydrate diets, gym machines, behaviorism, trans-fats, Freudianism, portfolio theory, linear regression, HFCS (High-Fructose Corn Syrup), Gaussianism, Salafism, dynamic stochastic equilibrium modeling, housing projects, marathon running, selfish genes, election-forecasting models, Bernie Madoff (pre-blowup), and p-values. But he is still convinced that his current position is right… he doesn’t know that there is no difference between “pseudointellectual” and “intellectual”
Just add Hinduphobia and phobia against the idea of India, and Taleb is just talking about an Indian version of intellectual (yet idiot).
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