I was reading Loving Blackness As Political Resistance by bell hooks which struck a chord. It’s not the self-love bollocks appearing in the glossy magazines which tells you to prim yourself up, develop some skills that you can impress people with, buy some goodies and go to a spa, in essence, telling you to hate your appearance, abilities and financial situation all in the name of self-love.
We are taught to hate ourselves for all the wrong reasons, and it is difficult to overstate how deep-rooted that teaching is in most of our minds. We are judged on our physical appearance, our ancestry, our skill exhibition in certain situations, our genders, our clothes and the list goes on. We are trained by a carrot-and-stick method to value authority and the judgements of authority. The authority figures – the bosses, the teachers, the family heads, the popular guy/girl/person in a group etc. – pronounce their (often deeply uninformed, wrong and biased) judgements on us and we hang our heads in shame. When we try to talk about it, we’re told that we are making excuses for our failings. This is a tautology, because our failings are defined as whether authority figures think we’re good enough or not. But it helps to shame the dissenter into silence, into thinking that they really aren’t good enough, and most importantly, into obedience. Who will willingly want to own an identity that is considered unworthy?
But in fact, we need to own that. We need to own that and unabashedly exhibit that, and reject this definition of worthiness. Reject the terms that we are judged on, which have nothing to do with how sensitive you are to the situations of other humans or whether you are willing to put in some work along with others for collective welfare. And we need to stop accepting being pushed around.
At this point, I should clarify what I mean by being pushed around. But let’s wait for another blog article, still unwritten, about how I define work and the importance of both work and leisure-time. That will be useful in explaining my idea of ‘pushing around’. For the time being, let’s go ahead without the definition.
This is where I find bell hook’s essay so relevant. My own experience with professors of social sciences has been mostly negative. Many of them show a stunning degree of insensitivity towards their students and others below them in the social hierarchy. They speak of ‘oppression’, ‘marginalization’ in terms that are either inaccessible, or grossly inadequate, or wrong, or any combination of the three. I will recount a brief encounter with a social science professor at a lunch during a conference, where she was complaining about a student who, on receiving an A on their paper, had had the gall to ask the professor whether that paper could be published. The professor was horrified that the student thought that a paper of such inferior quality could be thought of worthy of being published, and she narrated this tale at the lunch table.
Let’s ponder over the professor’s assumptions: a) all the papers that are published are ‘worthy’. b) someone would only want to publish a paper because of the ‘worth’ of the paper. For someone who claims to be knowledgeable about the society, aka a sociology professor, she seems deeply ignorant about all the classist, casteist, ableist racist, sexist garbage and gibberish appearing in the academia as social theories (read Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak and Slavoj Zizek to get some idea as to what we’re talking about here), the child labour defending economists in the academia, the advocates of structural adjustment programmes (IMF-advocated economic strategies which amounted to crushing several social welfare measures, resulting in acute famines in more than one countries) among the economists and so on. If those papers were ‘worthy’ enough to be published, then why should this student think that their paper is ‘unworthy’? Secondly, as to point b), though academics like to pretend otherwise, the academia is as much about making a career as other professions are. A full-time professor who’s earning well above the middle-class salary may dismiss a student’s concerns about getting published, but the student knows well enough that publications are the ticket to a job in the academia. In fact, the professor herself knows it very well. After all, she isn’t shunning the anti-knowledge money-glutton Elsevier or Springer or Sage for her own publications, though at this point of her career she doesn’t really need those publications to make an above-middle-class amount of money.
I don’t know bell hooks, she’s in the academia and her profession demands that she writes and finds an audience for her writings, but that does not mean we cannot find ideas worth exploring in the writings of academicians. This is one idea that I’d like to explore in particular, namely, that of rejection of the idea of ‘worth’ as we’re taught. I’d be inclined to use the phrase ‘self-love’ here, had the word not been so corrupted by the cosmetics industry and a hoard of others who used it to mean shallow self-exhibition and feeding self-hatred which is more about lording it over others than any sort of ‘love’.
In the same vein, I’d like to invite the readers of this post to read/listen to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s insightful and clear talk titled the Danger of a Single Story. The importance of not overconcerning ourselves about the lives and feelings of the hegemonic, stories about whom fill the pages of books and newspapers and film reels. The importance of telling our stories, the stories of those around us, the stories that concern us. We are taught to idealize certain kinds of people and certain lifestyles. For instance, I’ve found my Indian friends to often fawn over White Westerners, bending over backwards to please them when they are here. I’m occasionally told to have ‘fun’, which basically means partying at expensive clubs while your eardrums are shaking from the musical torment that is blaring from the speakers. I’m told to idealize the life of an academic, which is just a day job, often with a lot of intellectual pretentiousness. To be direct, I shouldn’t be told to idealize any profession or anyone’s life, I shouldn’t have ‘fun’ defined for me by others and I shouldn’t value the perceptions of one kind of people over others (this does not mean that I find all perceptions equally valid, just that it’s the quality of the perceptions that matters here). We will be happier without these ideals foisted on us. But we shouldn’t merely stop at this acknowledgement, and this is where bell hooks’ essay is important for me. As we recognize the hegemony (and note that this hegemony is not uniform, and this ‘we’ is not homogeneous, nor necessarily non-hegemonic in all contexts), we also build our narrative not vis-a-vis the hegemonic, but in its own right. We as in those who subscribe to this idea. Talking about our experiences. Through expressions that best describe our thoughts, not through expressions that have currency in the society.
And finally, writing for us. To understand and if possible relate to each other. Not for literary critics in order to gain their approval. Not for publishers in order to get published. (Though I realize that the writers I’ve named here are published by the biggies and mediums in the publication industry, and these writings have influenced me greatly, this should not come as an endorsement of the publication industry. My ideas are also greatly shaped by the various blogs that I follow and the various people I interact with. In fact, I was directed to bell hooks’ essay from this blog post. But that is beside the point, the point is, there are alternatives to the publishing industry worth exploring, and the publishing industry often poses several restrictions, putting a price on the access of your writing is one, for instance. Also, the publishers must be satisfied with your writing, and you may not even want to write for them in the first place. So, where do you go?) In fact, with the internet and free blogs, it is best done away from them because it means less curtailing on your expressions, and still having an audience who can share their thoughts with you. I’d also suggest publishing in little magazines in your area if possible in order to reach those who do not have access to the internet. Those magazines are at times less restrictive about their content than their big counterparts. If you want to publish your writings by yourself, you can do that as well. Though I wouldn’t want to, because I don’t really want to spend that much, and it is much less labour posting on the net.