Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint.
Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint.

Opinion | Why the upper classes are imitating the weak

The strong are discovering the power of vulnerability, victimhood and the moral high ground

If you are married to a Jain you may have heard the comment, “This egg is too eggy." Or, “This fish is too fishy." I am reminded of this every time people complain that our politicians are pampering “the vote bank". That is like saying our electoral democracy is being too electoral and that our politicians are being too political. We heard a lot of this from concerned citizens over the past few days after the government announced a 10% quota for upper castes in educational institutions and jobs. Most of the opposition backed the move, exasperating social activists and unpliable journalists. What should be of greater interest to the guardians of the weak is that increasingly the political movements, tactics and sentiments of the socially weak are being adopted by the strong. Usually, in a society, the strong get their way by intimidating the weak or exerting disproportionate influence, but now the strong are discovering the power of lament, vulnerability, victimhood and the moral high ground.

While proposing the quota the government said it was for the “poor" among those castes that were too high to qualify for any of the existing quotas, but the proposal’s poverty threshold is so high that over 95% of India’s top social rung will probably be in contention. This makes the quota a farce. The social justice and empowerment minister has hinted that the economic qualifier will be brought down as a way of introducing common sense into the policy. In any case, nothing alters the fact that what India has proposed is a quota for the upper castes.

Would B.R. Ambedkar have ever thought that a day would come when the upper castes of India would get a quota for themselves? If India’s finest thinker had not anticipated this, it is because it did not occur to him that the behavioural politics of the oppressed would be imitated and usurped by the strong. This is a phenomenon that we can observe across the world, chiefly in democracies. The strong are even claiming to be offended for being deemed privileged. They even use those two phony expressions that until now were the preserve of “vulnerable", politically correct charlatans: “It’s problematic" and “It’s offensive."

In November 2018, a group of journalists, all of them women, posed for a photograph with the CEO of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, who held a placard that said, “Smash Brahminical Patriarchy". The response to the image was unusual. Until recently, the Brahmins of modern India lurked in historical guilt. If they believed in their genetic superiority, they conveyed it only among themselves and in private. They certainly did not object to any exhortation that their power should be decimated. But now they rose in rage against a mere metaphor on a mere placard. They found the reference “casteist", “racist". They said they were offended, and that their sentiments had been hurt, which in India clearly means, “I want to put you away in jail." Dorsey had to issue an apology.

In the US, Donald Trump has used the #MeToo movement and its framing of men as a repulsive collective to give white men the most prized quality of our times—victimhood. He said it was a “difficult" and “scary" time for young men in America who, he claimed, were at risk of being falsely accused by women. His son, Trump Jr, said that he was more worried about his sons than his daughters in the age of #MeToo. Men as victims of women is not a new idea but it was always a nutty fringe movement. Now it is more mainstream than the media portrays. From what I gather, American men are exhibiting a set of behaviour that is similar to the political behaviour of women—for instance, they consider themselves a political bloc with common concerns and fears. In response, the Democrats appear to be wary of strident, articulate and intellectual women, like their senator Elizabeth Warren, who will intimidate the average American male.

In other places, the new urbane male may not despise strong women but he has other torments, psychological and social, and in the liberation of modern emasculation, he is enthusiastic about flogging them.

Why is this happening? The most important reason why the privileged are imitating the weak is in the huge success of the movements of the socially deprived. For instance, caste-based reservations has worked well. Not just that, their biggest beneficiaries have been the most privileged families within those communities. On the back of reservations, they have overtaken their equals in other castes. That is the flaw in every quota. The primary beneficiaries are the cream of the community. This is why many socially powerful castes in India feel they have a moral right to ask for quotas.

Also, there has been a loss of respect for reformers. The champions of equality are all beneficiaries of inequality. For instance, in the “Brahminical patriarchy" image, the Brahmins did not see any social underdog. When women who were not only privileged but got more opportunities than most Indian men abuse “Brahminical patriarchy", the claim is so farcical it gives a Brahmin the moral confidence to be offended.

This confidence is a contribution of social activism itself, which has created a culture of lament. In a society that rewards expressions of vulnerability, it was inevitable that even the fortunate will find moral reasons to state that they have been wronged.

In the age of lament, we hear those who are born with the megaphones.

Manu Joseph a journalist and a novelist, was a former columnist for ‘The New York Times’

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