Apr 6, 2017

Misgivings about motives

There is an intriguing Tamil saying, 'Saththan othum Vetham' ['Bible preached by the Devil,' or more appropriately, 'Devil preaching the Bible'].  It is usually used to point out hypocrisy, but sometimes even more sweepingly - questioning someone's moral qualification to advocate something based on who they are or what they do. Why should the whos and the whens and the wheres matter?  It may be the Devil, but what is being preached is the Bible, is it not? Can't we all metaphorically be like the Hamsa bird that knows how to separate the water from the milk, and only take the essence of what is being told?

My own skepticism about the context of Reza Aslan's 'Believer' and lack thereof about Wendy Doniger's 'Hindus: An alternative history' made me ponder about this dilemma.

I read the book without any pre-knowledge of it - the title was intriguing and I figured she could not have possibly written such a heavy tome without some serious study. Later, when I learned of the book being banned, I read up on the objections to the book more from a curiosity of what could possibly be offensive. Accusations of sensationalism, doubts about her qualifications, questions on why she didn't write something similar about Christianity, all left me unmoved. Yes, there were some parts of the book that I didn't agree with but overall I was merely puzzled by the reaction. Doniger's gender, race etc. mattered not an iota for my appreciation of the book.

In the case of Aslan's work though I found myself sympathetic to the questioning of his motives - why didn't he choose a topic from his own religion for his series, surely this is all sensationalism, and is he not misrepresenting a tad when he touts himself as a religious scholar etc. etc... I have not seen the documentary yet, and frankly, I would not know whether it is factually accurate or not. I suspect it is. I am sure something that is disgusting to the modern sensibilities can be discovered about any religion [as well as about atheism] if you look long and far enough. So should it really matter to me that he is Muslim, or that the current state of intolerance in society is not conducive for such a representation, etc...

I worried about the difference in my reaction, looking to make sure I wasn't biased.  One is visual and the other is written - with different impact, I told myself.  And the reach -- the documentary was on CNN and could cause damage. Is it because I am fully aware of the content of one and not the other? And what about the creator's credentials? It is likely all or any of the above. But at a certain level, I had to admit to myself, all that is rationalization, however clever and accurate my reasons may be.

Sadly, more often than not, it comes down to a gut-level judgment of someone's motives that makes us accept or reject or even consider something.  Absolute objectivity is rare and hard. In the meanwhile, I just have to be happy with my agonizing introspection.

April 06, 2017