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How Much Is Too Much

Denis Solomon • 1,105 words

Of all betrayals, the greatest treason
Is to do the right deed for the wrong reason

T.S. Eliot: Murder in the Cathedral

I never thought I would see the day. The Trinidad Guardian has condemned the actions of a religious sect. The upholder of spiritual values has actually criticised a manifestation of religion.

Why? For the most trivial of all reasons: in defence of a beauty pageant.

In its editorial of November 23 the Guardian described the Hindu group trying to disrupt the Miss World contest as “unforgiving fundamentalist fanatics”.

And the description is, let me hasten to add, correct. Any group doing what they are doing are fanatics. I think we must know a little more about Hinduism to decide whether they are fundamentalist, and I’m not quite sure why they are “unforgiving”, since the Guardian’s point is that there is nothing to forgive. But let that pass. They are, without doubt, fanatics.

On the other hand, a beauty contest is not only one of the most superficial of human activities, but is also degrading to women. It requires them to parade for inspection like prize heifers; it reinforces the belief that it is a woman’s particular duty and crowning achievement to be physically attractive (the “intelligence” and “talent” components recently added to these events only reinforce the superficiality of it all).

Let no one object that I am just being politically correct in saying this: it is a view I have held since long before the movement for women’s liberation (many of whose manifestations are just as foolish as a beauty show) descended on us from the United States. I learnt my feminism from Ibsen, Shaw and Sydney and Beatrice Webb, not from some American lesbian in aviator sunglasses. And the people I have found it hardest to convince have always been women.

That doesn’t mean that beauty contests should be disrupted by violence, or that they shouldn’t be held for those who want them. Superficiality has its place in life. What is wrong about the Guardian editorial is that it is an editorial. Of course we were right to hope that no harm should come to any of the ladies in the event, especially the one closest to us. But the concern that led the editors of the Guardian to give such prominence to the affair is of a piece with the superficiality of outlook that makes us consider the “winning” of a beauty contest to be a mark of achievement, and the “winner” a national heroine, to be met at the airport by the Prime Minister and half the Cabinet. What happens if you are ugly and win the Nobel Prize for finding a cure for cancer? Is Trinidad and Tobago any better off for being known as the birthplace of women with a particularly fortunate distribution of secondary sexual characteristics? Is it, in fact, so known?

One of the Guardian’s justifications for beauty shows is that they can be “a wonderful medium for publicising the attractions of the host country”, and that this one was an opportunity to “showcase the glories of India”. Does the editorial writer really think that India, a country about which it is possible to be ignorant but impossible to be unconscious, needs this piece of superficiality to become better known? Or that investors will be lining up to go there after the show is over? Perhaps he does – after all, he himself knows so little about India that he spelled “Bangalore” as “Bangladore”.

With astonishing condescension, the editorial went on to say that the protests “will cast a long dark shadow over India, prompting others to believe that, in spite of its first world technology, the nation is still imprisoned in a primitive, intolerant mind set”. What a dismissive phrase to apply to a country that is an astonishing mix of advancement and backwardness, of wisdom and ignorance, where anti-beauty pageant puritanism exists side by side with the Kama Sutra and the erotic sculptures of Khajuraho; a country that was one of the world’s cradles of religion and philosophy thousands of years before the European upheavals whose debris includes the “nation” called Trinidad and Tobago; in fact not a country but many countries in one.

So while it is ludicrous to talk of India having any kind of a mind set, far less a “primitive and intolerant” one, it is quite reasonable to think of Trinidad and Tobago as having a mind set that is tolerant but primitive. This is a place where every kind of superstition flourishes, where religion is well-nigh indistinguishable from Carnival, and is clearly inspired by the same impulses; a land of instant imams and common-entrance archbishops. And we indulge, nay encourage, them all: so much so that we still haven’t come to terms with the attempt by one of them to take over the country by force.

Newspapers do not generally make value judgements about religion or religion-inspired behaviour. The reason is obvious: since religion is assumed by those who accept it to be an absolute and not a relative good, anyone talking about it at all opens himself automatically to the paradoxical obligation of explaining how much of it is too much. Where the boundary between religion and fanaticism is to be found. So the only safe line is silence.

Thus, while in cases where religion has inspired behaviour of really dangerous proportions – in the former Yugoslavia; in Algeria, Turkey or Pakistan, where it threatens the foundations of democracy (another unexamined absolute), or in Northern Ireland, where it has destroyed them, the facts are reported but on the rights and wrongs there is a deafening silence. Nobody gets called “unforgiving fundamentalist fanatics”. Nearer home, when the Club Pro Vita and the Emmanuel Community in Defence of Life threaten our children’s well-being by opposing sex education in schools, there is not a peep from the Guardian or any other newspaper, and it is left to troublemakers like BC Pires and Denis Solomon to label them as ignorant extremists. But when a beauty contest in faraway India is threatened, the Guardian abandons its tolerance of one form of ole mas to leap editorially to the defence of another.

An editorial is usually about a problem for which the newspaper believes some kind of solution, however long-term, is possible; for which some kind of modification of behaviour is advisable. But what, in this case, does the Guardian propose (twice) should be our reaction to the world-shaking events in India? You guessed it: prayer.

Copyright © • Denis Solomon • Trinidad and Tobago Humanist Association • www.humanist.org.tt/humanist/forum/solomonPage Top