Thursday, October 27, 2011

Preaching to the Choir: Tourism, Sexuality and the Church

There is good reason for the representatives and leaders of the Archdiocese of Goa to be terrified when they are reported to be on the same side as the Hindu Right on any issue. Regardless of whether they have a valid point or not, the Hindu Right seeks not to encourage a discussion, but to impose its fiat, and quell discussion. The Catholic Church in India, like any of the other minorities cannot afford to lend its shoulder, willingly or unwillingly, to such a power, no matter what the provocation, for eventually, this power that they support, will grow to consume them.

The reference is obviously to the debacle surrounding the cancellation of the ‘knowledge session’ on LGBT tourism at the Goa International Travel Mart. Most news reports on this episode suggested that Hindu rightwing groups, and the Catholic Church were in solidarity on this issue. When spokesperson for the Bharat Swabhiman trust Kamlesh Bandekar indicated that they would “lobby hard with…like-minded people against such a trend” one wonders if he had the Catholic Church in mind.

If one is not to join forces with the likes of the Hindu Right, then the option for democratically inclined individuals and groups is not to oppose outright, but to engage in critique. Critique then, is what this column will attempt, not only the Government’s plan, but of the response of the Archdiocese, through its social justice organ the Centre for Social Justice and Peace (CSJP).Link

The statement of the CSJP was deeply disturbing because it seems to have drawn from a well of homophobia, of the kind that has led to violent hate acts against persons of different sexuality. In suggesting in its statement that, “The organisers have stayed short of including paedophiles in their list, since child sex is also a preference of a few” the CSJP is making a number of critical mistakes. Sexual acts between members of the same sex are based on consent between two adults. Paedophilia is markedly not based on this consent. Furthermore, relations between homosexual persons are not based on sex alone. It is also, and primarily the desire of persons of the same sex to emotionally relate to each other. Finally, transgendered persons are markedly not about sex, but about gender change. The CSJP seems to have not realised that sexuality is not about sex alone.

In phrasing its statement the way it has, the CSJP appears to have drawn on the kind of phobic stereotypes that see people of differing sexuality as sex-crazed, immoral seducers and rapists. This is not just unfortunate, but profoundly irresponsible, because it is these sorts of positions that encourage society to the violence against these groups. Furthermore, this hate-act stands in violent contrast to the position of the universal Catholic Church. No matter what our differences with the position of the Church, one has to admit that it has actively sought to not engage in, or condone, homophobic violence. In its critical document, ‘Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons’; the emphasis is, as you will see, ‘care’. The statement of the CSJP is thus not only guilty in light of secular principles, but also in light of the larger principle established by the Church.

This column is not a defence of the plans of the Dept. of Tourism. It is merely the desire to see in operation a more humane and critical approach to the situation. Indeed from within the Christian oeuvre, the reported statement of Fr. Francisco Caldeira, "We cannot alienate these people. No one can prevent them from coming here, but why does the government need to be oriented towards them," is much more acceptable, and can form the basis of reasonable critique of the Department’s plans.

The basis of the social teaching of the church rests, among other fundamental principles, on a recognition of the dignity of the individual. From the reports available, it is not clear what exactly the Tourism department had planned. Some suggest that what was being attempted was merely a sensitization to LGBT issues, which judging from the statement of the CSJP would have been highly welcome. However, the explanations offered in the wake of the hullabaloo reveal another, not surprising dimension of the tourism industry. The statements of Rika Jean-Francois, Thomas Bomkes, who represented international industry, and those of State tourism director Swapnil Naik indicate that what motivates the agenda is not only a desire to humanely respond to the needs of LGBT persons, but to also exploit their difference commercially. This would follow the trend in large parts of the world where LGBT right are recognized, where what was originally a movement for the recognition to be able to love (in the sense of an emotional relation) without prejudice, has largely been commercially colonized to allow persons to have sex. This arrangement is perverse given that not only is the individual exploited by the system itself, but under the influence of this system, individuals tend to see others merely as providers of sexual pleasure. As with most forms of consumerist exploitation, that allow us to feel like we are exercising a choice, after the initial buzz of hedonist indulgence, we are left with the same craving for affection that we started out with.

The dilemma of contemporary times however, is that the two come in a package. For all its problems, the tourism industry has also been the vehicle for great amounts of liberation. Despite initial opposition, by the Church and segments of Goa’s elite, tourism was the critical tool that allowed for a widespread destruction of the feudal system in Goa, offering otherwise impoverished tenants the economic options to materially improve their lives. It allowed women and children to escape patriarchal abuse, even as they continue to uphold the standard model of the family. If we have not been able to prevent this material explosion from sliding into the desert of the soul that tourism in Goa now represents, then it is because we have failed our mission. It is a failing of the Church, of the Department of Tourism, and of our society at large, that it has not been able to use this material wealth to allow for a concomitant explosion of the intellectual and sentimental (both being forms of the spiritual) options of those who have been materially liberated.

There are two images of the Church that I hold particularly dear, the first of the Church as confessor, a spiritual and moral guide; the second, that of the Church as pilgrim. The pilgrim stands as a symbol of one who is cognizant of not holding the entire truth, and simultaneously vulnerable, bereft of power, and yet committed to the journey. We may be well-served by these images when we contemplate the response of the Church to situations that demand a response. As a pilgrim Church, we are not in the position to dictate or command. More so in the context of the rise of an authoritarian power like the Hindu Right. We cannot comprehend the manner in which an act that on the surface appears abominable may bring liberation. As such, the job of the pilgrim confessor is to accompany us, whispering insistently at all times the options before us, actively constructing alternative paths for us to follow. In addition to being unacceptably homophobic, the CSJP in its statement seems to have held out the Goan social structure as based on an unblemished moral and value system. Something it is not, and never ever was. We would benefit more perhaps, if rather than flinging diktats, it accompanied Goan society; insistently, even to our annoyance, being our moral compass, while simultaneously leaving us, as does its image of God the Father, free choice.

(A version was first published in the Gomantak Times 26 Oct 2011)

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Letters from Portugal: Sabores do racismo

Writing in The Guardian some time ago, and dealing with the issue of racism in Portugal, Joana Gorjão Henriques, a Portuguese journalist wrote that ‘Even though Portugal has racial profiling, race crime and the daily subordination of black people by whites, most Portuguese would deny that their country has significant "racial problems" – that's what they have in America, France or the UK. Such attitudes are a hangover from the dictatorship years and the “luso-tropicalism” ideology created by the Brazilian Gilberto Freyre in the 1950s, which spread the idea that the Portuguese were better colonisers – and that ongoing British or French soul-searching over race was a result of “bad colonizing”.

This is the curious feature of Portugal, in that as much as they aver that things have changed since the bad days of the Estado Novo, and things have changed, some things still remain; perhaps not the same but they linger. But this is another matter, and perhaps we should stick to discussing racism.

The problem perhaps lies in the fact that when we (or ‘the Portuguese’) think about racism, we think of dramatic occurrences, ‘significant racial problems’. In doing so, we seem to excuse the small, hidden acts of racism that we effect on a daily basis, that lay the basis for the more significant acts to emerge. If we acknowledged these small acts, we would realize that racism inheres not in the dramatic acts, but in these small quotidian actions. Take for example the simple act in which we brush away the ‘coloured’ peddler of wares, or jump back, even if ever so imperceptibly, when a person of colour approaches us.

Bairro Alto, one of Lisbon’s more popular night-spots has a number of street-vendors who seem to have racially divided their occupations. If ‘the Africans’ sell you beads and trinkets, the South Asians sell you roses and toys that flash with light, and the Portuguese-Gypsies politely offer you ‘drugs’ of various sorts.

It is with this background that the reader should imagine me setting off, rather dandily, on one of my first evenings in Lisbon to a dinner party. Being ever so well-brought up, I had in hand a designer bouquet for the hostess. Stopping enroute, at the Jardim Principe Real, not too far from Bairro Alto, I approached (what I presumed to be) a lady to ask for directions. The response left me bewildered for what I received was a rather rude brush-off as she rushed away saying ‘No, no, no’. Scratching my head in bewilderment, it too me some time to realize that the bouquet in my head (and probably the colour of my face) gave the good lady cause to assume I was trying to sell her my bouquet! Or take the example when another lady, seemed somewhat nervous – she actually jumped back - when I approached her (admittedly in the less secure Intendente neighbourhood) for directions to my destination.

Two swallows admittedly do not make a summer, and this is not to argue therefore that ‘the Portuguese’ are racist. It merely illustrates some of the possible flavours of racism. Indeed, one should inquire into my own South-Asian racism, when my response to such racism is to point indignantly to my class location, given that our class locations allow us so often to operate as white. One could also inquire, whether like most South Asians from a certain background, I am also not reading race whenever my ego is bruised by someone whose respect I merely take for granted. And yet, each of these inquiries should not prevent the partner in these encounters to inquire if they too sniff the odour of racism in their actions.

To repeat a point and elaborate somewhat, racism should be understood as inhering not merely in the dramatic and violent acts that attract our attention, but also in the quotidian acts that draw from gut instinct, preconceptions, and unconscious reactions. It would be impossible to deny that any of us is not racist, given that the contemporary world order is still recovering from its colonial past, a past that was actively based on racial stereotypes. If we can recognize that in this game of racism, it is not just about aggressors and the violated, but also about all of us participating in a market where we use racist ideas as capital to build on in whatever form, then perhaps we can get away from these ridiculous suggestions that we are not racist and begin to examine what exactly are the ingredients that contribute to the peculiar flavour of our individual racism.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo 16 Oct 2011)

Friday, October 7, 2011

Letters from Portugal: Little fascists in training

Last week this column discussed the peculiar traditions that mark the beginning of the academic term in the university and associated institutions in Lisbon, when students dress up in an antiquated dress (traje) and engage in ragging (praxe) the new students (caloiros).

Perhaps it is the wistfulness that comes with age, but there is something remarkably heart-warming about seeing young men and women, dress up and attempt to be adults. Traje it appears is also about self-importance, when these young people can shed their regular sneakers and clothes, and dress in capes, suits, and trot around in formal shoes. This self-importance however also comes at the cost of engaging in a sometimes disrespectful and humiliating manner with the caloiro. But all of this pales in comparison with the somewhat distressing features of the institutional format in which all of this praxe is carried out; elements that make it look, at least superficially, scarily fascist in appearance.

Fascism in its European version had an obsession with spectacle. Thus there is a concert between uniforms, a massing of people (or bodies), and the choreographing of ritual performances for this proto-mob to follow. Added to all of this, was the fascination with the medieval, and more particularly Roman imagery, thus salutes, banners and flags, oh yes, lots of flags.

Fast forward to an institute in Lisbon, that is the basis for the observations of this column, and you have a disturbingly similar correspondence to these elements of populism and fascism. The traje of the senior students is only part of the uniformed element of the praxe spectacle. The senior students in their black robes in fact operate as ‘officers’ to the recruits to the little armies of caloiros that they amass from their department. Each department enforces its own little ‘uniform’ onto their caloiros, of articulating a clever theme for the group. In addition to persecuting their individual brands of praxe, the senior students of the departments, also march the caloiros from time to time, to a courtyard in the institution, where caloiros and senior students from all the departments gather. Each department carries its own little Roman-standard-like banner, and one beholds the different groups, marked by their colours, yet united in the noisy ritual they perform together. It is an infernal din that they create together, each department yelling its chant, trying to outdo the other departments, giving the impression of a revolution or war at hand.

The most disturbing element of this entire performance however is the ‘Fuhrer balcony’ that gets incorporated into the process. The ‘Fuhrer balcony’ is the name given to the balconies that either got built on to buildings, or were used by the Fuhrer to address the adulating masses of the Nazi Reich. In any case, there is something profoundly hierarchical about a group of persons being addressed by a select elite located on an elevated platform, whether a stage or a balcony. In the case of praxe in this particular institution, in almost every setting they have chosen, a balcony has manifested itself. From this balcony, the directions for the entire performance are called out via a microphone, by a group of senior students in traje. Some of these are actively engaged in the process, others, lounge about ever so casually, marking their superiority by an apparently disinterested manner; the militarist manner of the whole drama terrifyingly obvious.

As pointed out in the last column, praxe, and the rituals that go with it, are subject of some debate in Portugal, many disapproving of it for its apparently rightist tendencies. From the manifestations in this particular Lisbon institute, these critics may have knocked a nail smack on the head!

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo 2 October 2011)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Letters from Portugal: Lisboa in Ragtime

The month of September, that marks the beginning of the school year in Portugal, brings with it a costume change to the capital. It is as if the denizens of Rowling’s wizarding world have shed their inhibitions and have decided to walk openly among the mud-bloods; as if it were Lord Voldemort who had won the great battle and not Harry Potter. The reason for the costume change however is more prosaic, though given the associations with a kind of torture that this costume change accompanies, the Voldemort reference may not be entirely misplaced.

The costume change is effected by senior students in graduate courses, dressing in antiquated styles. The dress or traje includes trousers, waist-coat and a long jacket for me, and stockings, skirt, waist-coat and jacket for women, all of this in black, except for their shirt that is white. Above all of this, these students wrap a cape, once again black, that is either worn on one’s shoulders (and this is what really makes them look wizardly) or folded smartly over their forearm or shoulder.

The purpose of this dressing up is not linked to any curricular requirements. It is not a uniform that one must necessarily wear to attend a lecture. The purpose of this dress seems largely to enable one to mark oneself off from the caloiros, students who have recently joined the university, those we South Asia would call ‘freshers’. The point of this costume change then is extra-curricular, to facilitate what the Portuguese call Praxe and what South Asians would call ‘ragging’.

The change of dress may not be necessary to participate in praxe, but it does provide the senior students with a spectacular advantage, as dressed in their antiquated garb they line the freshers up and subject them to ridiculous, and sometimes unwelcome, tasks. As is ragging in South Asia, similarly in Portugal, praxe is the subject of some debate, many holding that the practice is quite undesirable, given the excesses that it can sometimes lead to. One of my first encounters with praxe, was graffiti on the walls of a university building that eloquently screamed, ‘Praxe Não!’ Others however, hold the usual defense for the practice, it allows for fresh entrants into the university system, a forge new bonds, not only with their fellow oppressed juniors, but also with the seniors who enjoy the brief opportunity to humiliate them. In addition to this, a part of the praxe tradition seems to be the allocations of a padrinho or god-parent, who walks the caloiro through the intricacies of life in university in the first couple of weeks. It is pointed out that very often, these students are persons who have only recently come into Lisbon from the rural areas from across the country, and this is a fine way to counter the anonymity they may experience. Indeed, all too often one sees the complete abandon with which some students participate in being praxe-d (?).

There are moments when one can has to marvel at the ingenuity of the senior students who devise the routines for the juniors. There was this one memorable routine whose theme seemed to be ‘Under the Sea’. Some of the caloiros were provided with flippers and scuba-diving gear, others made to hold up little fish motifs and wait by the traffic lights. As long as the pedestrian light was green, these students were made to ‘swim’ back and forth across either bank of the road, providing much mirth to the persons in vehicles awaiting their own green light.

Such acts of transgression of boundaries, from outside of the university or institute campus into the city, at traffic lights, metro stations, side-walks in the city present a stimuli that can be variously received. On the one hand it can be most annoying to have one’s travelling meditations interrupted by quite literally a horde of students, whistling, chanting, being screamed at, jumping all in unison inside the metro carriage. On the other hand however, there is something uniquely liberatory about using, and being able to use, the city as a stage on which to act out one’s ridiculous dramas. One imagines that this sort of spilling over goes that much further to also making the praxe these students engage in that much safer, than when hidden away in the dark corners of an institutional campus.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo 18 Sept 2011)