In search of common ground

It’s unsexy to talk about values, but it’s what we need most in these divided times

brunch Updated: Jan 27, 2018 23:11 IST
Rehana Munir
Rehana Munir
Hindustan Times
consent,#metoo,feminism
Consent is a contentious issue in sexual relations, and so the law is routinely summoned to adjudicate on it(Photo Imaging: Parth Garg)

Catching up with two old friends over a drink, I was building an argument about the temperamental behaviour of a common friend. One of my friends was in agreement. The other was not. At one point I said, “But it’s basic human decency to...” I was put in my place by my other friend who said simply: “It’s not basic.”

He was being neither belligerent nor facetious. When I had had time to process his statement, I found there was a more troubling explanation. What’s basic to me is not basic to someone else – that’s what he was trying to drive home. There is no universally acknowledged and enforceable charter of personal values. This idea dismantled an unconsciously constructed ethical framework I had built in my head over a lifetime – one that I thought was shared by “people like me”.

Master of None

Let’s take the Aziz Ansari case. An anonymous lady has accused the celebrity comic of inappropriate sexual conduct on a date, despite her repeated verbal and non-verbal requests. Ansari issued a swift statement saying he did not read her signs of discomfort, and apologised for the misunderstanding. That for him, the events that occurred during the date were not out of the ordinary.

Right there you see common ground slipping away rather quickly. What’s normal for Ansari was not normal for his date. And what we routinely refer to as “normal” is what by rights can only be described as “common”. (In a characteristically tongue-and-cheek aphorism, lively poet and withering critic Dorothy Parker says: “Heterosexuality is not normal, it’s just common.”)

Globally, people are discovering insurmountable differences between themselves on the most fundamental matters. And there’s just nowhere to hide them any more

Consent is a contentious issue in sexual relations, and so the law is routinely summoned to adjudicate on it. Recent public discourse on the matter has hopefully illuminated this dark area and started a continuous conversation. As a woman, I believe if you need to consult friends, books and the law about whether it was okay or not, chances are it wasn’t.

A while ago, I was horrified on seeing comedian Amy Schumer joke in the stand-up part of her comedy sketch show Inside Amy Schumer, “We’ve all been just a little bit raped, right?” Schumer explained in an interview: “Most women I know that I’m close to have had a sexual experience that they were really uncomfortable [with]. If it wasn’t completely rape, it was something very similar to rape. And so I say it’s not all black and white. There’s a grey area of rape, and I call it ‘grape’.” Despite her intentions, I think the term “grape” muddies the waters further – ‘rape’ is a term that does not need watering down. So, though Schumer and I both identify as feminists, where’s the common ground?

Right or left?

The conversation about a shared understanding – or lack thereof – seemed to have peaked in India in 2014, around the general elections. The country erupted in heated, often nasty, discussion. Many proclaimed allegiance to the forces of purported development despite what they agreed was morally indefensible behaviour. All signs pointed to a sharp divide on human principles, considered, till then, to have been shared.

Globally, in homes, offices and communities, people are discovering insurmountable differences between themselves on the most fundamental matters. And there’s just nowhere to hide them any more.

In an India where social aspirations furiously fuel the middle classes, everyone is chasing the high life. Offer a counterpoint to the mad dash for material success and you’re branded an unpatriotic, unambitious Pakistani. Which begs the question – what is this ‘common ground’ made of?

Batting for values

The answer is eminently unsexy. Values, of course. Even the mighty Kohli and his team have had to face a Test series defeat in South Africa. Maybe it’s time for us all to ditch the swag and bravado for some good old-fashioned values. A time to channel our inner Rahul Dravid rather than Ravi Shastri, perhaps?

Business schools, too, have ethicists on their faculty – a recent discovery that left me feeling quite heartened despite its oxymoronic quality. Soul-searching, deep thinking, conscious living – not exactly the most newsworthy activities, but rewarding nonetheless.

Saying, “We’re all too different” and giving up is the easy position of the cynic. The alternative is to think and write and discuss and debate and fight and appeal – all in a quest for this lost legacy. It’s worth every bit of effort to find the common ground that only made itself obvious once it had slipped away.

From HT Brunch, January 28, 2018

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First Published: Jan 27, 2018 21:41 IST