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Love And Loathing: An Anthropological Study Of (Some) Straight White Men in Exotic Lands

15/04/2015 8:18 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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A tourist is pictured on November 1, 2014 on the beach of the Brittany city of Saint-Malo, western France. AFP PHOTO / JEAN-SEBASTIEN EVRARD (Photo credit should read JEAN-SEBASTIEN EVRARD/AFP/Getty Images)

There is a moment in Gulliver's Travels when doubt first creeps up onto the reader. Between pages 10 and 30, we begin to question whether the titular surgeon is an intrepid explorer or simply a madman. As he trots from the land of miniatures to the kingdom of giants, he includes any and all exotic prototypes and freaks into his world of exploration. Assuredly, Jonathan Swift wrote the travelogue-cum-tall tale as a satire: an adventure in the land of the absurd that illustrated the shortcomings of Gulliver's (and Swift's) own England.

As much as Lemuel Gulliver was a parody, he was also an exemplar of the 18th-century English gentleman: a discontented individual in a society that was increasingly aware of its own composition. His was the unreliable narrator that showed how one "thinks differently," whether through exposing his alien physicality or by sheer lunacy. Swift's sly portrait of this unsettled wanderer was arguably the last of its kind.

"[The Scopophile is] an awkward chap who stares between your chest and the floor while quoting Arabic poetry and telling you about the sandstorms of North Africa. "

The modern traveller and, subsequently, the post-modern one became a narrator that was not satirised so brazenly. Rather, his tale became infused with a legitimacy that required readers to suspend disbelief and be mesmerised by his position as guru-protagonist. More of a Ulysses and less of a Gulliver, our traveller would invent monsters but still be a credible storyteller. In the 21st century -- a century defined by political correctness and easily-bristled feathers -- the post-post-modern explorer is homo adventurarius, the Scopophile in a foreign land, the new-age Orientalist.

Characteristics of a Scopophile

The Scopophile, as we will call him, is not a voyeur in the plainly sexual sense. He is a voyeur of cultures, a wannabe Indiana Jones, a scholar (sometimes a pseudo-scholar), adept at conversations on books, art, and film. He is an anthropologist, historian, linguist and very, very often, a doctoral student. He is also self-obsessed, somewhat agnostic, myopic, a misogynist unaware, and actively political.

He is a straight white man from the suburbs who has spent between three months and a year in some non-Western part of the world -- Latin America, the Middle East, South, or East Asia and/or Africa. And he is a self-titled expert on that country. Lacking the self-awareness of a travel writer like, say, Paul Theroux, he is complacent and annoying. Remember when Ralph Fiennes played the sultry Count Laszlo de Almasy in The English Patient? Imagine that same character in the body of a bespectacled 20-something year old who isn't an aristocrat. An awkward chap who stares between your chest and the floor while quoting Arabic poetry and telling you about the sandstorms of North Africa. Suddenly he's become a creepy fellow following you in a bazaar, trying to tell you about the proper way to bargain.

"White female Scopophiles are equally numerous and they are almost identical save for the misogyny aspect -- she prefers to prance around as a second-wave feminist until she finds a local degenerate who will treat her like dirt."

I have led everyone to believe that the male Scopophile is a dweeb. But be wary, for he is sometimes well camouflaged and does not always look like one. Scopophiles are of varying degrees of attractiveness, ranging from ugly to hot. I met several that were practically supermodels. Scopophiles are dressed in moderately priced clothes: ethnic tops paired with pants from a Gap Inc. store. Almost all wear shirts one or two sizes too big for them. This is a sign that they are afraid of being seen as even slightly effeminate despite -- or because of -- their lack of alpha-male qualities. For the same reason, a lot of them have tattoos in visible places. They smoke hookah and tell everyone about it. They also pillory one another for shoddy research, but no one ever puts a moral valence on poor scholarship so the outbursts just come across as extremely petty. Like ornery Risk players, these men especially don't like when another Scopophile encroaches on their territory. Most of them come from relatively stable households with two supportive parents.

This definition does not apply to all straight white travellers -- some are brilliant scholars, while others are reverent visitors. The Scopophile is specifically a less ambitious and less respectful individual, a person who trades hard work for taking intrusive photos and sleeping with foreign women.

The Scopophile may also be a female. White female Scopophiles are equally numerous and they are almost identical save for the misogyny aspect -- she prefers to prance around as a second-wave feminist until she finds a local degenerate who will treat her like dirt. With an eye for brevity, however, I will focus on the male variant of this species.

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First encounters

I first discovered the Scopophile in graduate school, where apparently, my heritage mattered. But I was inconsistent as potential prey. I am an Indian woman of Syrian Christian heritage and I was raised by two very liberal and worldly parents. I don't play the sitar, never watch Bollywood and certainly don't have an arranged marriage in store. I learned piano, love Eastern rite churches, speak relatively fluent Hindi and think Mirza Ghalib is the greatest poet ever. Colleagues were baffled at the incongruence between the reality of me and their own readings on India. As they absorbed my personal history, they would appraise my degree of Indianness. (I always failed the test!) In certain cases, I would be subject to armchair anthroposcopy and phrenology: "Your nose looks Levantine, but your lips are definitely South Indian." My skin colour, of course, has been described across a rather large palette between "light for an Indian" and "dark for an Indian." This isn't meant to be hurtful. The words are uttered with the kindest of intentions: my interlocutor wants to get to know me in the way he sees makes me most comfortable.

"Colleagues were baffled at the incongruence between the reality of me and their own readings on India. As they absorbed my personal history, they would appraise my degree of Indianness. (I always failed the test!)"

I was nonetheless irritated. My politeness would waver and I would start to become snappy and aggressive. I would make facetious comments like "I am in love with Mike Huckabee" or "I need an introduction to a high-end ecstasy dealer." But that, too, became tiresome. Slowly, I began to turn the tables and faced such men with the rigour of a Leach, mentally jotting down personality types as I composed myself and responded to obnoxious questions. It became a fun game, because the Ph.D. bubble is full of specimens that hardly surface in the real world.

As these men tried to pry into my personal life, I too, became more intrusive. Numerous male academics of the lazy sort are alcoholics, and so they would easily reveal sordid details after a few pegs. Having taken an informal poll, I learned that many of these men are into backdoor sex with women. They claim to never watch porn, but they fantasise about submissive foreign ladies doing the naughty things that are typically reserved for Japanese adult cinema. I discovered the sexual fetishes that existed beyond "jungle fever" and "yellow fever"-- there were men who solely dated Lebanese women, Argentinian women, Turkish women, Mexican women, even Indian women. The latter, of course, exposed me to a large number of scholars who study India, and consequently, desire intensely to have an Indian woman. They have mythologised la femme Indienne, and she is something between Bollywood bimbo and Hindu goddess. (You can surely imagine the horror when I reveal that I am not, in fact, a Hindu.) I actually had a man tell me that Western clothes were weird on me, and that I would look so much more beautiful in a sari. He is a professor of South Asian studies with a degree from Cambridge, a so-called expert in the field of Indic Studies. And all I wanted to do was punch him.

"Somehow, these men imagined living in some antique lands where they could disconnect because they were surrounded by jungles, jolly peasants, wandering poets and wise beggars."

The Scopophiles' behavior would interfere with my learning in language and history classes. These voyeurs would find every opportunity to showcase their own broad-mindedness about the world. Their shallow perceptions of Tunisia or Greece or China converged into a singular comment: "Country X is so spiritual." What the #$%& does that even mean?! At some point, I figured out the implication. It means that the non-Western world doesn't need modern life, since our religiosity and community are enough to get us by. Somehow, these men imagined living in some antique lands where they could disconnect because they were surrounded by jungles, jolly peasants, wandering poets and wise beggars. What these men want is not intellectual growth, but a time machine.

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Travelling with a Scopophile

But it's not enough to just hear the discourse of such blokes. One must see the Scopophile in action, and this is only possible when one travels with a specimen. Abroad, Scopophiles flex their voyeuristic muscles and attempt to define entire cultures with an idiosyncratic scrutiny. Over the course of my 20s, I had several unfortunate experiences with them. Notably, I went to one former Soviet Republic: a "-stan" country that has more in common with Ukraine than any nation in the Middle East or South Asia. While a normal person would have felt like Alice in Wonderland amongst the post-Communist pastiche, my colleagues felt the need to establish a list of descriptive controls.

"He will [marry a local and] say things like: "Well, my wife's mother makes ceviche with red pepper, but it's a really obscure recipe that only her family knows" or "this is an Arabic expression that we say at home." "

Their blogs were chock full of irrelevant details like the chipping plaster on the government buildings and the smell of persimmons in the air. They would take photos of people in traditional garb and then talk at great length about the Islamic spirit of the country -- in a city where few can even identify where the local mosque is located. What was wrong with them? They were intrusively gazing, but at the wrong things! To my amusement, several of these Scopophiles were approached by the local cops for photographing sensitive subjects. Two actually had to spend a couple hours in the slammer because they had inadvertently taken photos of an old KGB building.

And the Scopophilette with the brown fetish -- who told me "I feel like I should be veiled," in a city where women wear miniskirts -- was ripped off royally at the markets because she didn't want to offend anyone by bargaining.

varanasi tourist

When Scopophiles go "native"

The most obnoxious of the Scopophiles, or perhaps I should say the most ambitious of them, is the one that manages to "go native." This man chooses to live in a select country for a certain number of years, picks up the language, then marries a local and uses her family as a subject of study. He then projects the legitimacy gained from his marital status as a symbol of expertise, conveying it in academic and casual conversation. He will say things like: "Well, my wife's mother makes ceviche with red pepper, but it's a really obscure recipe that only her family knows" or "this is an Arabic expression that we say at home." The biggest pest will actually post Facebook messages in his wife's native tongue.

This type of Scopophile is more arrogant in his speech, he is more impassioned. When he talks about American culture ruining the world, we are forced to believe it. And this man is, therefore, the most dangerous. When he writes books, he speaks with the veil of authority and gullible readers assume that what comes from his pen is the essence of his adopted culture. If you are a native from that country and this man's imagery is mysterious to you, you will be made aware of your own lack of cultural knowledge. For example, I was told that I was not a well-travelled Indian because I have never been to Varanasi nor lived in an ashram.

Understanding the Scopophile

Historically, this voyeur of the exotic always existed. Romanticism in the antique and the unique was, in fact, an obsession invented by 18th-century Europeans. It's really just that the idea of the exotic has expanded. The earliest ancestor of the Scopophile was the young wealthy Englishman who went to Venice, drank and ate his fill, then whined in great detail about the flippancy and disorderliness of Italians. Like the foppish men from the Macaroni Club, our current generation is libertine (to a degree) and effeminate. The men are concerned about appearances despite pretending not to be; "roughing it" is very subjective and temporal. A later variant of the Scopophile -- for lack of a better word -- was the proto-imperialist, i.e., the man who imagined geographic conquest as well-intentioned. Someone that would stand on a soap-box and talk of civilising missions and free trade in a room full of mounted stag heads. Because in the head of the proto-imperialist and the Scopophile the idea is the same: my world is the norm, everyone else's is something I can explore and then somehow improve.

"They are like the men who unabashedly frequent porno theaters and hire prostitutes -- they are lonely and need intense gratification."

There is nothing inherently wrong with a love for travel and adventure. Because I am a writer and also a linguist, I spent years in far-flung regions of the globe. But I am a female, and more importantly, a female of colour who spent half her childhood in India. I have an a priori knowledge of the Occident and I have always been an outsider. And that status informs my perceptions of society and culture wherever I go. It does not make me a reliable narrator, but it pushes me to be aware that to be somewhat competent as a traveller, I must know my place as an Indian female abroad --the tensions that I, in particular, will experience, and those that will remain a mystery to me. I spent two years living in Eastern Europe, I speak fluent Russian, I even dated a Russian guy. My experiences make me a possible "expert", if anyone can be called that, on Russian culture. But I will never claim to know the Russian scene better than any of my Russian friends. Because I had a ticket home. All things in Russia -- the politics, the social inequalities, the crime -- are only abstract anxieties to me, while they are very real for the people that live there.

Likewise, it is the psyche of the Scopophile that makes him who he is: a modern-day Gulliver. He feels unfit for the society that has birthed him and, today, that society is the progressive technocratic state. Disillusioned, he must seek other, more chaotic polities to assuage his insecurities. Ironically, the Scopophile seeks to leave a society that will ultimately favour him as an exponent because he is a straight white male born into a stable family. But our friend presumes this society to produce automatons: personality-less investment bankers, lawyers, doctors and accountants. He fears the theoretical possibility of being pushed into an imaginary system he sees as soulless, because so many of its disciples are indistinguishable from him. And so, the Scopophile chooses to invent a world of metaphorical dragons and sorcerers, one that makes his life seem more interesting and gives him the opportunity to feel in control. (This is also why a lot of Scopophiles like Game of Thrones.) A feeling of ennui creates the necessity for gazing at others with a perverse lens; their desire for cultural meaning has emerged from self-hate.

Accepting the Scopophile

The searing question now is: how did this maddening individual get dragged into our cosmopolitan century? Shouldn't his kind be extinct? Just like no one ever thinks they are a villain, no one ever thinks they are a racist, and certainly no one thinks they are outdated. The Scopophile is a democratically spirited individual and letting you know that he loves Jon Stewart and hates Fox News is ample proof. He will always present himself as egalitarian and moral when he makes assumptions about foreign cultures. He is too well meaning and superficially helpful to ever be publically vilified. In India, the glitterati will worship you if you are a white man and vocally express your knowledge of and love for the culture. You'll get a million book deals and get to sleep with as many Indian women as you want.

"[W]e must regard the Scopophile not with derision or anger, but with a sense of wonder and compassion. For they are the wandering madmen who shun their own conventions and structures and choose to live in exile."

And we should not want the Scopophiles to be extinct! We must have them in our lives so that we can read a travelogue or a blog and understand that white men can feel miserable too. They are speaking to us between the lines, behind their prosaic descriptions of dirt and skin. They are like the men who unabashedly frequent porno theaters and hire prostitutes -- they are lonely and need intense gratification. In the case of the Scopophiles, the pressure of having nothing tangible go wrong in their lives and the sinking recognition that they are insignificant makes them feel solitary and disconnected. And so they must seek out their value with their roving eyes, and we in turn should acknowledge that being the sole white man among a sea of brown faces makes the Scopophile feel content.

In the end, we must regard the Scopophile, not with derision or anger, but with a sense of wonder and compassion. For they are the wandering madmen who shun their own conventions and structures and choose to live in exile. We must read their words, not as experts on the subject of culture, but as hapless misfits attempting to make sure that they matter. Because they are the self-made outcasts who, despite having the world in their pockets, must invent new ones.

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