This is the first part in a series of posts about the lies we like to tell ourselves. It is a mighty coincidence that while this post was being conceived over the past few weeks, a video has gone popular on a similar topic. This TEDx Austin (Women) video of a young lady once named “the world’s ugliest woman” is deep in that she uses that anecdote as an event which helped her raise a very vital question of “how do you define yourself?”. She did not use it to turn things around and make popular, politically correct statements like “hence, everyone of you is beautiful”. In that, I respect her. But the comments that flowed in on every site I visited just go to show how much we love to lie to ourselves.
We are not all beautiful.
We are not all ugly.
Each one of us simply is.
If everyone is beautiful, what is ugliness?
The great Lao Tzu had already pondered over that (the Chinese quote above is from his text) & before him the seers of the Vedic tradition in India. They realised that the dichotomy of beauty & ugliness arise together. It wasn’t that all beauty existed before ugliness was born or vice versa. I will come to the philosophical implications of our affair with beauty, but first, I would like to ensure we are on the same page.
Beauty is most commonly pulchritude, specifically, appeal. If something doesn’t appeal to me, I cannot call it beautiful unless under duress. This is why most of the younger generation do not consider classical music as beautiful — it doesn’t appeal to them. To the older generations, rap & hip hop claim no appeal. So be it with the subscription to literature — Shakespeare vs Rowling. Not all that appeals to one’s senses & judgement is candidate for classification under the label of “Beauty” but all that we consider “beautiful” does appeal to our senses. And each of us is unique in what we find ugly.
If I find someone completely unappealing in appearance, what must I call him/her in one word? Unappealing? And that will not be auto-corrected to “ugly”?
This entire industry of substituting words with euphemisms is based on the premise that human beings are not intelligent enough to auto-translate.
When you keep calling a child a “special child” even children will recognise that “she means, handicapped”. What we need is not newer words to express the same thing but a better understanding of the world around us. Someone who doesn’t have a leg is “handicapped” in not having a leg. Period. Nothing else is conveyed by that one word. Nothing about their artisitc abilities or intellect or shrewdness or business acumen. Nothing. He simply is handicapped in not having a leg. If people use that word to mock at someone, fix that. If people say “retarded” to mock at someone, teach them a lesson. Let the word be.
How do we then capture the inner beauty of a person? An aesthetically shaped liver? Inner beauty is a phrase invented because people wanted others to go beyond pulchritude in judging or engaging with others. The problem was not a lack of outer beauty but the fact that we as a specie are lazy enough to keep approximating & drawing conclusions about a person. I tell you that a Mr. H robbed jewels. You think he is lowly. I then tell you he gave it to the poor. You think he is dandy. I tell you he gave it to the poor so he could keep them under his control. You think he is a knave. I tell you that he kept them under his control so as to unite them against the evil forces that be. You think he is gallant.
My point is, can you stop thinking? Can you just stop concluding? Can you stop judging when there is no threat demanding a conclusion?
A speaker might be completely unappealing to your senses, but her words can have weight & truth in them. Because her words have truth doesn’t make her “beautiful”. It makes her wise, perhaps, or even clear. But not beautiful. English (& the 5-6 other languages I know) is well endowed with a rich vocabulary to capture the precise implication of an observation — wise, insightful, sharp, humourous, pithy, eloquent, courageous, diligent, inspiring, clever, etc. If before listening to that TEDx talk you thought that the speaker was not appealing, not beautiful, her speech cannot change that!
Unless we wish to expand the term “beautiful” to enshroud all that one finds appealing & touching & moving & inspiring & incredulous & intelligent & clever & patriotic & noble & priceless & anything else which might catch popular fancy. Then it ceases to be a useful word.
Let us not fix the lacunae in our beings — in our souls — with the cosmetics of language.
If we are stupid creatures who think that a sexually attractive woman is indeed a good person at heart or a dapper salesperson is honest, let us not make a beast out of being well-dressed or sexually attractive.
Susan Boyle, Lizzie Velasquez proved to us that the minute we see the other facet(s) of an individual cudgel our biases or preconceived baseless conclusions, we are shamed into another level of irrationality wherein we start calling these very same people beautiful although nothing about them changed as per our definition of beauty. Thereafter it is merely politically correct to call that person beautiful lest we enrage a horde of irrationally emotional people.
Should we then stop calling anyone or anything as beautiful lest we are pulled up to share our opinion on the other individuals/objects which we didn’t christen as “beautiful”? What is our obsession with branding everything as uniformly beautiful? Is everything as black as another? Is everyone as humourous as another?
What is it that makes us cringe when someone calls us “ugly” or we call ourselves “ugly”? Why don’t we feel that strongly when someone says we aren’t humourous or aren’t sharp of mind?
Have we made something of “beauty” that we are unable to manage today?
Scientifically, new born children are known to have a sense of symmetrical beauty in human faces. They aren’t culturally influenced at that age. Children tend to be more honest about whom they consider physically attractive or not. But they too draw the same erroneous conclusions — a pretty face is a good person. This bias, and conversely that an ugly person is a crook, seems to be ingrained. Similar correlations exist widely in the animal kingdom. It is this lazy bias that education & experience should rid us of. Calling everyone or everything beautiful is not the solution. To shame each other into rejecting our sense of what we consider beautiful or ugly is not the solution.