For Vijit and Gita
Imagine if we lived in a world populated by two races of beings: one of them not only markedly physically stronger than the other but more naturally prone to violence by almost an entire order of magnitude and deeply motivated to pursue their weaker cohabitants. These are the frightening conditions on the fictional planet Kaminar in Star Trek Discovery.
They are also the conditions on Planet Earth between men and women.
The truth of this was brought home to me in the most powerful way on 22 May 2018 on a dusty street in a northern suburb of Bombay when a chubby little man in his forties, in a polycotton office shirt and khakis, swam suddenly into focus as if out of nowhere and grabbed me by the wrists. After a second of shocked paralysis, I began banshee screaming and struggling with all my might. It was useless. He found it trivially easy to immobilise me, as his friends encircled us, boxing me in. The next forty minutes were the most terrifying of my life. In the end, I escaped to safety, physically unhurt. But I will never forget the feeling of helplessness, of existential threat. For a while, the world seemed peopled with only hunters and hunted and I was the prey.
It is fortunate that ours is a sexually reproducing species and that therefore most women are irresistibly attracted to men and drawn to form the deepest bonds of love and companionship with them. It is lucky that men’s and women’s lives are generally so unavoidably, intimately and inextricably intertwined. Otherwise, surely, women would hate and fear men.
Humanity’s millennia-long history of warfare, colonisation, imperialism, apartheid, casteism, slavery and genocide eloquently demonstrates our capacity to dehumanise people we regard as different from ourselves, even when such differences are as superficial as epidermal pigment, eyelid shape or hair texture. Thankfully, we have gradually become less xenophobic and racist as we have come to realise how much our similarities outweigh our differences, in both number and importance. We no longer classify Homo sapiens as Caucasoid, Negroid or Mongoloid, as if those words denominated subgenera, in the same way as the adjectives white-throated, sharp-tailed and rufous-sided designate different kinds of sparrows.
The Atlantic slave trade, for example, was justified by an appeal to the idea that Africans were fundamentally unlike Europeans: either more childlike, docile and cowardly (and therefore naturally subject to white tutelage) or more brutal, thuggish, stupid—and violent. The overseers on the British West Indies plantations frequently cited the violent propensities of their slaves as the reason why they shackled, beat, whipped and tortured them. The long chronicle of man’s exploitation of man is full of such bitter ironies.
Racial harmony is largely the product of the realisation that we are not so different after all. But this is an argument that won’t apply as readily to relations between the sexes. Men and women differ, on average, on a wide range of metrics. Most of these phenomena are both robust and cross-cultural. And one of the divergences with least overlap is the propensity to violence. Clearly, we are not the same and not all of our differences are as trivial or benign as the contrasting ways in which we take off a sweater. Many men exploit their greater upper body strength to beat, rape and assault women. In some countries, this is legal, if perpetrator and victim are married.
The recent murder of Sarah Everard has aroused some of our deepest fears and many are enraged at the tone-deaf proposal of sending plainclothes policemen to protect women in clubs and bars, given that a plainclothes policeman is on trial for her murder. Sometimes, as a woman, it feels as though the world is full of dangers: both from threatening male strangers on dark streets and from the friends, dates, boyfriends and lovers we invite into our lives—and into our bedrooms, where we are most vulnerable. I don’t think we will ever completely lose our caution around unknown men, nor would it be wise to do so. But nor should we allow ourselves to be crippled by paranoia. Most men are not violent and their indisputable greater average propensity towards violence than women does not change that reassuring fact.
To treat all men as potential rapists and killers is also profoundly unjust, as we can see from the ugly history of a sinister meme that some feminists have repurposed: the poisoned M&Ms.
A similar image, involving poisoned Skittles, has been used to justify refusing asylum to Syrian refugees and to whip up fear of Muslims in general, as potential terrorists. The metaphor seems to have originated with Julius Streicher’s 1938 book, Der Giftpilz, which compares Jews to deadly mushrooms, lurking innocently among the edible fungi. Fear can make us see our fellow human beings as monsters, with potentially horrifying consequences. We should never let it take precedence over compassion.
There is a simple—though not always easy—way to avoid being seduced by our fear into generalisations about men: treat every man as an individual, on his merits. No identity group should be defined by its worst members, nor should we ever scapegoat the innocent for the actions of other members of their group, however heinous. Every human being is unique and cannot and must not be prejudged.
This is a lesson that might serve us well in race-related contexts, too. Some are deeply worried that we may discover, for example, group-level differences in IQ between people of East Asian, European and recent African origin. I have neither the expertise nor inclination to weigh in on this debate. But if we do find this to be the case, I hope we can still assess every individual fairly. Statistics can tell us nothing about the individual in front of us nor can a person be reduced to a set of averages.
Of course, caution is sometimes advisable and heuristics can be useful when we need to make a snap judgement. I will trust a female stranger over a male one in any situation of potential danger. But, absent immediate danger, there are several lenses through which to view other people: we can look close up at the individual before us and examine him in his full complexity; or we can take the astronaut’s eye view from which we are a single species eking out a brief existence on a spinning blue-green marble travelling through space at 67,000 miles per hour. Both these focal distances allow for clear vision. It’s the middle distance lens in between, which views people through the fuzzy categories of groups, that is so often distorting.