Is macho the only way to be for a country or its citizens? Several ongoing campaigns would have us think so.

Can 611 people represent a country of a billion? According to the recent Gillette ‘Salutes the Soldier in You' campaign, they certainly can, especially if two out of the 611 are Bollywood stars. Here's another question — if a national news channel dedicates several half-hour segments to this campaign, lending their own in-house anchor for credibility, discussing how every woman in India wants a military man for a life partner, should it still be called a news channel? So much for self-regulation.

While the compromised nature of the programme left no more than the now-customary bitter aftertaste, what lingered on was the implicit coding at work. We were being told that courage, confidence, camaraderie, grooming and integrity are copyrighted ‘ soldier values', that clean-shaven men are ‘manlier', ergo soldiers are ‘manlier' and that men with ‘soldier values' have a better chance of being chosen as a ‘groom for your daughter/sister'. These people took themselves so seriously that they wanted to petition the President to ‘rededicate' the Gateway of India to soldiers — presumably because India Gate isn't visible from Bollywood. All this to sell a razor.

New stereotypes

This same partnership had earlier produced the ‘Women Against Lazy Stubble' campaign, where various people took up national news time exhorting women to stand up against facial hair. Apparently, everyone had it wrong all along. It isn't the privileging of a prescribed masculinity, leading to the subordination and exploitation of men and women, who do not, or cannot, conform to gender stereotypes, which is the problem. That in fact is the solution. Women in order to assert themselves as independent and equal beings must join in this ‘war' to masculinise men.

The uncritical espousal of all things macho and militaristic is not limited to these campaigns; it in fact seems to be the trend in the mainstream media. Witness the response to any major arms deal, or the on-off proposals to ‘partially withdraw' the Armed Forces Special Powers Act from Kashmir and the Northeast, or even the burgeoning number of ‘intelligence training' schools where a ‘younger' force is being bred to ‘combat the Maoist insurgency'. The question of whether exertion of power (including the oxymoronic ‘soft power') is the only way for a country to progress never comes up. Wondering if the superpower-building-scheme comes with too high a price tag is too anti-national to even consider.

India's defence budget last year was Rs. 1.5 trillion ($32.5 billion), more than double of what it spends on education and health combined. Mohandas Gandhi's country now has the dubious distinction of being the world's largest arms importer and is expected to hold on to that spot for a while. A national daily quoted a jubilant security analyst as asserting that: “To become a big boy, you need to project your power”. And what does this big boy intend to do with his power? Shave the nation, of course.

The media's role in this hair-raising corporate scheme is to perpetuate the myth of might is right. But it doesn't tell us why one's might is more right than another's. It makes obedience and loyalty to the power elite seem like the default way of living. We begin to see hierarchy as natural. We worship those that are seen as powerful and dismiss the powerless. We passionately despise entire countries without ever hearing their side of the story. We do not question atrocities, injustice or suppression in our own country. We punish or silence the few who do, labelling them as traitors.

Necessary questions

There is a quip from Belfast that “to fire questions in your own community takes far more courage than to fire a bullet in somebody else's”. Writer Cynthia Enloe discusses the implications of not asking these questions in a provocative article titled ‘Does Khaki Become You?' According to her, there are clear indicators of the process of internalising military values and beliefs: “Like imagining that serving in your country's forces is more honourable than working as a social worker; or thinking that national security issues are more politically relevant than issues of nutrition. Or valuing high-tech weaponry over low-tech agricultural equipment or feeling more national pride when your government has won a war than when your government has resolved an international conflict diplomatically.”

Closer home, sociologist Maitrayee Chadhuri sees this concerted shift towards the idea of a strong, no-nonsense state, both domestically and internationally, as fitting into the neo-liberal programme of ‘ruthless efficiency' and ‘competitive aggressiveness'. “The vision of moral authority in global discourse is portrayed as a bad choice that India had made,” she says, while calling for an alternative language of peace and conciliation in our public discourse.

Resistance to militarism therefore is as much about protesting the reckless arms race as it is to confront the many power structures that divide us, both physically and mentally. It is as much about rejecting paranoia as it is to embrace critical and compassionate communication. Globally, groups such as Food not Bombs, War Resisters International, Women in Black, and now the Occupy movement, to name just a few, have been relentlessly working in this direction.

Perhaps it is time to lower our guard and reach out to one another. Wouldn't that be safer than living on the razor's edge?


At WorkSeptember 24, 2010