By Anu Karippal
I was doing an interview with a retired college professor and Bharatanatyam dancer a few weeks ago for Humans of Kerala Instagram page. The interviewee, a teacher by the name of Gayathri, learnt to dance as a child, is a single mother and teacher, and when she was about to retire, resumed dancing and has performed widely in the last four years. Her voice was filled with the affection of a teacher and humility for her achievements. Something distinct in the interview was that, she was not a product of any -isms and ideologies that define our generation today — feminism, liberalism, environmentalism, activism, atheism etc. Gayathri was different. She belonged to another era when there were no burdens of ideologies for a layperson to attain something or establish an identity. She became a professor and a dancer and accomplished everything unbound by any ideological objective. She was only bound by her passion. Doing something or defining ourselves within an ideological framework was not popular back then as it is today.
This is not to discount the values such ideologies have enriched our lives with. Feminism empowered women and men. Liberalism opened up the rights discourse. Environmentalism educated us to own up to our responsibility towards nature of which we are a part. Activism taught us that we need to be a collective and make a little noise to stir meaningful and useful changes. I, as a girl, was sent to school just like my brother without a second thought because of the years of the struggle by the women who fought for it in the past. Labour unions can challenge the exploitative and environmentally destructive changes because ideologies provided us with the sense of awareness of the power dynamics. To forget this is to undervalue the achievements of such struggles that have now given us a comfortable life. While it empowered us and made us better people in many ways, they also came with their limitations.
One must be aware of all of the above ideologies and question power in our daily life, what if in the attempt, our life becomes ideology-centric? When an environmentalist sees everything solely as an environmental issue or an activist sees everything solely as an issue or propaganda by state or corporate, one loses out on the other perspectives of seeing life and makes life a war to be fought. An old saying is worth remembering here, “If you look with yellow eye, everything will look yellow”. This can turn dangerous. Probably, this is something that the dance teacher, Gayathri, could have taught our generation — that we can do good, accomplish our passion without being ideologically assertive and let our life speak as our identity/ideology.
Perhaps, the rising interest to define our lives within dictates of any ideology has intensified with the intrusion of social media into every aspect of our lives, acquainting us with several ideas. I can vouch for it because I have done it too, and continue to do this over and over again. The way ideological battles are fought out in politics and public domain shows how listening to an opinion that is not in agreement with our ideological orientation is becoming an impossibility.
While opinions regarding public matters were left to a few earlier, it is in the hands of anyone with a phone and internet now. This has promoted inclusion of opinions, but it has also led to polarisation of identities and ideologies. Internet was supposed to uphold the spirit of democracy, but it has actually made people intolerable towards each other. There is a continuing loss of intimacy among people in the name of ideologies, easy judgement of people and the constant use of “unfollow” button that we easily press when somebody does not agree with our ideological thoughts on social media. We forget that we cannot press a “delete” button in the real world and that the world is always made of different people with different perspectives.
It took me three year-outside-academia life to begin to understand that life and its ways cannot be contained in any ideology. During my three-year stint at ATREE (Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bangalore, India), my dear friend Kumar taught me several things on our post-lunch walks. Once our topic was feminism, its possible misinterpretations among men and women and how it might be taking the wrong track. I was immediately angry and asked him why.
He said, “These days sometimes women want to do something because men are doing it. The fact that you want to do something should drive your goals and not the question whether or not men are doing it.” He added, “Do you want to dance, sing, jump, swim, be a CEO, pilot, doctor, anything? Go do it. But do it because you want to and not because men are doing it.” It took me months to understand the gravity of what he was saying. This is not to imply that we shouldn’t ask questions regarding why men and women do different things or why we are different. Our question should be a quest to understand than to react. And our goals should emerge from our passion.
As I was sharing these thoughts with a friend, she told me that doing something for the sake of any ideology gives a “restricted contentment”. When you do something because you like it, it is a fulfilment, a larger contentment of inner peace and elation that cannot be fit into any ideology. If you don’t want to buy a pink doll because pink has largely been associated with feminine, that is a vain battle to fight. If you like a pink doll, buy it. If you want to reduce plastic use because capitalism has been environmentally drastic and overpowering, then it might not give you enough contentment. Reduce plastic use because you care immensely about nature and you want to do your part. If you decide to grow long hair because men have primarily been associated with short hair and wants to break the stereotype, that is a limiting happiness. Grow long hair if you like long hair. If a husband and wife begin to look at everything in life through rights and equality, then marital life might create tensions and frictions. One who mocks arranged marriages as traditional and one who mocks love marriage as modern both know that despite the nature of acquaintance before marriage, married life anywhere is filled with adjustments and compassion. Life is always beyond ideologies.
Once, as the man I first fell in love with and I were walking back after our class. I was walking on the pavement to his right, touching the road. He held my hand and moved me to his left side, away from the road. He wanted me to be safe and if anything happened, that I would be spared. We were just friends at that time, so I smiled inside, enjoyed how my heart had felt a free fall and walked with him. If I were to call this as an instance of benevolent patriarchy and tell him I can take care of myself, I would be being so unfair to that act of love and destroy my happiness and his.
Even if it were a power relation, can it be scraped off with a reactionary attitude like a stain on the plate? Probably we are then replacing one form of power with a politically correct, elegant looking form of power. How ironic! And this is one of limitation of any ideology. If we begin to look at every little thing through liberalism, feminism and rights discourse, then all we might see is inequality, power and our life can get burdening. If we look at it through love, respect and kindness, life can be easier to live.
How easier said than done, right! I try to let go of my personal ideological thoughts, but it is one of the most difficult things for me to do. In the few retrospective moments of thinking and writing, it is easy to appreciate that one must go beyond the ideologies to understand life. Difficult as it may be, we must still try to not let ideologies influence all our actions. Life can best be viewed in simple terms. At the end of the day, environmentalism, feminism, activism and liberalism can turn as restricting as capitalism and fascism if we don’t treat them carefully. Even the idea of freedom can be limiting and can bind us. Ideologies are as transient as anything else in this world. Yuval Noah Harari shows how the world has gone through different historical epochs such as imperialism, communism and now liberalism in 21 lessons for the 21st century.
Let’s ask questions to understand and not to react. If we approach anything with a predisposed reactionary attitude, we will merely spread our opinion on the matter before understanding it. If we do something in the name of an ideology despite wanting something else, our life wouldn’t be as fulfilling. This self-fulfilment is not be misunderstood as selfishness, but as the open-mindedness to see life beyond ideologies and live a fulfilling life.
An ideology can get twisted and turned and corrupted in no time. But staying true to your passion and dedicating your time and effort, will give a certain contentment that is unparalleled. In one of his lectures, the Indian mystic, Sadhguru, despite his biases, refers to the thought that our minds are becoming a market place, where we weigh everything. The thought struck me. If we give something and expect the exact quantity in return in friendships and romance, we might end up being disappointed and angry at everything. Moving beyond ideologies; feminist, liberal, capitalist, activist, right-wing, left-wing etc. can probably lead us to a satisfied life.
Social media is all intrusive. While it brings lost friends and families together and keeps the world functioning even as the pandemic struck, it also catalyses polarising identities and proliferation of ideologies. While we imagined our house or immediate locality to be the world before, now we imagine our self-curated social media to be the world. We follow and unfollow people to create a desirable world of similar ideologies that we can easily agree with and offer a collective critique of ideologies we disagree with. And we become intolerable of the vast differences of opinion in the real world. Paying attention to passion is probably more important and fulfilling than assembling a life out of ideology, only to be discounted by another ideology of sound arguments. Writer Howard Rheingold wrote: “Attention is a limited resource, so pay attention to where you pay attention”.
Anu Karippal is a student of Anthropology and Sociology at Graduate Institute, Geneva. She is from Kerala and she writes personal essays, movie reviews, short stories and poetry occasionally.
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