Saturday, August 13, 2016

Of empowerment and its interpretations ...

I was going through my archive of quotes, and came across this gem by Michael P. Watson.

“Strong people don’t put others down, they lift them up.”

One thought led to the other, and then the next one. And the ruminations chugged along …

You name any field, any area of interest, any sphere of life, any white space – one word that makes a repeated occurrence in today’s world is “empowerment”. People are so mesmerized with the concept, that fighting for those who are historically not empowered has become bread and better for multitudes. Justifiably so … that is the need of the hour. Be that as it may, the constant adulation it receives gives me some hope that soon we will be left with no “not-so-empowered” folks in the society. However, disenchantment comes from the way the noble concept is wrongly perceived, and perhaps misused. It makes me wonder whether too much of it with a wrong approach will lead to the previously empowered moving to the other side of the divide, with the new cycle of empowerment movements.

To begin with, empowerment, to me, doesn’t mean snatching the power from one and giving it to the other. Historic mistakes are commonly attempted to be corrected by following this “snatch-and-give” principle. At the end of the day, you are laying ground for another set of “empowerment movements” sought by the newly wronged ones. There are enough examples across the spectrum today which give credence to this argument. This sometimes goes to the extent of espousing empowerment at the cost of compromising on somebody’s basic needs, all in the name of modernity and liberal thoughts.

Then there is a set of people for whom empowerment means scoffing at everything that is traditional, by calling it orthodox. However, doesn’t it really mean looking at things with an open mind, realistically – being practically practical? People selectively oppose certain traditions based on how convenient it is, whether it makes their lives easier or not; and not based on any scientific reasoning or logic. When it comes to age old duties and responsibilities, even if they are logical, opposing them is empowerment. And when it comes to rights, fighting to secure them is empowerment. While the latter makes perfect sense, doesn’t it reflect selfishness when combined with the former? Isn’t this combination very conveniently followed by many members of the empowerment brigade today? How can rights come without any duties and responsibilities? Or does the definition of empowerment mean duties and responsibilities are meant for lesser mortals? Borrowing a quote from Mahatma Gandhi, which subtly touches upon these thoughts -

“Rights that do not flow from duty well performed are not worth having.”

Empowerment for some means using the power to resist any kind of influence, and not agreeing to any kind of adjustments. This is primarily because any infringement on these lines is considered an attack on the freedom that empowerment brings in. Simply put, if there are conflicting responsibilities you need to take care of, with one of them closer to your heart than the other, you are not expected to divide your attention equally. The empowered you is expected to bring in a logical balance between the two responsibilities, so that you do justice to either of them. Both the responsibilities need to move side-by-side. One cannot go without the other. Ensuring this balance doesn’t mean your freedom is compromised or curtailed. The least one can do is not to make it too obvious that you are favoring one above the other, and at least have some semblance of honest effort displayed in your actions.

A conflict that is the closest to my heart is against the school of thought which takes pride in calling itself empowered, by giving more power to the already empowered. They will always be surrounded by similarly empowered folks. Won’t this exalted status be more fruitful to the society or to the cause itself, when you use this to empower the not-so-empowered? Ok, that may sound too socialistic for some capitalists, or for that matter too emotion-heavy for the pragmatists, I still find it difficult to understand the logic of ridiculing the struggle of those on the other side of the divide. Why do we forget that there was a day and time when you also belonged to the other side? Deriding those who make an attempt to get empowered brings out the narcissist streak in today’s empowered lot. If you cannot support their struggle, how can you call yourself a champion of this movement? Is it just because you do it successfully for yourself? You will always want more for yourself, will not be satisfied with what you have, even if that comes at the cost of somebody’s survival. Isn’t this yet another case of self-centered behavior? By going down this path, aren’t you demeaning the very concept you are so proud of? Doesn’t it belie the basic definition of the movement? In fact, is this really empowerment?

This thought process led me to something that I came to know a few days back about a close family friend. Coming from a not-so-large city but having a rich family history (hence within the definition of "financially empowered"), the lady has managed to earn enough respect in her father in law’s eyes that she stands up to him and fights for her mother in law. More importantly, she found the need to do that for her mother in law, putting aside all the “traditional friction” that is a hallmark of this relationship. Now, it is anybody’s guess what approach she took to achieve this, but that to me is true empowerment, rather than shying away from the responsibility siting no reason. While our empowerment brigade often still goes by the age-old definition of this relationship, this small but significant effort in redefining the relationship in the true spirit of empowerment is certainly adorable.

Last but not the least comes another favorite of mine … the use of the word “sorry”, which is not a word in their dictionary. Their empowered self finds it demeaning to apologize for a mistake, even big ones, even if the mistakes would have altered the lives of people around. No iota of remorse is found in the behavior, and of course correcting mistakes is out of question, often getting behind the realms of sacrilege. All their transgressions, that is if they accept them, must be overlooked, and others must be crucified for trivial misses in their behavior. Not to say, anything and everything is justified in the name of, what else, empowerment.