Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Victims of Political Correctness

What are the similarities between British biochemist Sir Tim Hunt and American biologist James Watson? Both have made great contributions to their respective fields and both are victims of political correctness - both paid a heavy price for holding and expressing views in areas that are considered sacrosanct by society and in which a different opinion or questioning of the commonly held, politically correct beliefs will not be tolerated. Both had their career ended disgracefully for speaking their minds in an age in which free speech is celebrated as a fundamental right. 
Sir Tim Hunt was in the news earlier this week for the comment he made at a conference in South Korea. "Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.", he had said. Clearly, he had only stated his personal opinion. He notes the difficulty he has had with female colleagues and terms it as "his trouble". It is understandable that many would not agree with his comments and might record their objection to it. But what is painful is that this man has been removed from almost all of his official positions without as much as giving him a chance to explain himself - as if this one comment has erased all the great work he has done and all the contribution he has made towards growth and promotion of science. As if by speaking his mind with absolutely no malice, he had lost the inalienable right to be heard - a right that even felons of the highest degree are entitled to in a civilized society. 

I live in a country where there are many single-sex schools and colleges and many parents want to send their wards to such institutions because they think it will help reduce distractions and allow students to focus on education. If this is acceptable, I think we should also allow a person's opinion that having single-sex labs and research centers would help scientists focus more on their work. The important question here, in my opinion, is not the merit (or lack of it) of a particular point of view, but a person's right to hold that point of view. One may agree or disagree with that point of view, but I cannot understand why we shouldn't be open to accepting that a person who holds a different opinion is not necessarily evil?

To understand this, it is worthwhile to look a little closer at the life of this gentleman and to listen to what women who have known him have to say. If the opinion of his wife, who is also a professor (and former dean) at University College London from where Hunt had to make a rather unceremonious exit after this incident, that her husband is not a misogynist is not sufficient, one can check with female colleagues and students of Hunt before judging him unfit for positions in which he will have a say in selection and funding of students. There are many such women who have come to his defense and have vouched for the support he has given to young scientists of both genders. That his career in science was still brought to an end for no greater crime than going public with his unconventional views is a grim pointer to the intolerance in scientific community (and society at large). 

Another victim of such misplaced sense of justice is James Watson who is a co-discoverer of the structure of DNA and a Nobel laureate. In 2007, in an interview to Charlotte Hunt-Grubbe, on being asked on the subject of race and intelligence, Watson said that while social policies are framed on the assumption that all races have same intelligence, this is not the case. Though he maintained that his call was to understand the differences and evolve more effective policies, his comment led to much criticism and he was labelled a racist. This incident brought his distinguished career to an abrupt end, but the work that he had done continued to serve as a foundation for important research in molecular biology and genetics (among other fields) that continue to this day. In 2014, Watson was once again the center of media attention when he put his Nobel prize medal on auction citing his dwindling income and to contribute a part of the fund thus raised to support scientific research.   

Lawrence Summers, American economist who had to resign as the president of Harvard University, partly due to his observation that differences in intrinsic aptitude could be a reason for the higher representation of men in high-end science and engineering positions, is yet another example. Sheryl Sandberg, who is now the COO of Facebook, had defended Summers noting that he had been a "true advocate for women throughout his career". However, that is immaterial and insignificant considering that he had dared to question the unquestionable notion of equality among the genders. After all, it is more important to have faith in equality and silence any who dare to doubt it, than to analyse or understand the differences. Drawing obnoxious posters or cartoons intended to offend millions of believers of a particular religion is an acts of heroism and liberation, but airing sincere thoughts with a good intention will be considered blasphemous if they are even slightly "politically incorrect"  

Ostracizing or hunting down people who are different, or hold views that challenge the commonly accepted notions which form the very foundation of society is not unique to our age or the modern society. Many great men of art and science have paid with their lives, their contributions to humanity nullified, because they could not conform to the social norms of their day. Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing, having lived in different ages and made timeless contribution to their own fields, met similar ends because they were social misfits in their age. Many societies have murdered thinkers who planted the seeds of ideas that were totally unacceptable at that time, but have later found acceptance. It might have been the flatness of earth that had to be defended then, equality of all humans now; religious dogma might have given way to political correctness. But beyond that how much change do we really see?

The hypocrisy and stupidity of our modern thinkers who celebrate the victims of nonconformity from a different age as heroes and at the same time persecute nonconformists of today as evil incarnate should bring a sad smile to the face of those who care to look.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

What Makes A Loser - a Nonsocietal Perspective

It was a long time ago (well, at least in the scale of time that I have lived through) that someone told me that I am a total loser. I was not happy at being told that, and retorted that there may have been times when I have found myself to be totally lost, but that I wouldn't ever consider myself a total loser. That thought was lost somewhere in the depths of my memory, but surfaced again when I was recently asked by a dejected person whether he should consider himself a loser. I was surprised (as well as pleased) to see that I still hold on to what I instinctively felt years ago. However, it also triggered a thought process in me on what really makes one a loser. 
If winning makes a winner, losing should also make a loser, should it not? But as long as hope and optimism are alive in us, we tend to think of our losses and failures as temporary, and look forward to a victory which will eventually make us a winner, thus rejecting the idea that a loss has made us a loser.  While this is very reassuring, how valid is this argument? How is a loss any more temporary than a win, and what makes us think that a victory is permanent? No athlete who has bagged the most coveted trophies has been able to maintain that superiority forever - their winning streak would end sooner or later as they are past their prime, or when more capable challengers appear. But few would tag them as losers, and this throws some light on our criteria for labeling people as winners and losers. 

If a person were to win at least once in life, he is often considered a winner. As a corollary, losers are those who do not ever win in their lives. Since an entire lifetime is too long a period to wait before judging people, the "loser" tag is also applied to those who are considered incapable of ever being a winner. With this new definition, it appears that the optimist's contention that he would one day be a winner in spite of his present losses seems justified. After all, it is impossible for anybody to live for a few years and never be successful in anything at all. But, again, I find it hard to believe that success at "anything" is sufficient to redeem a lifetime of failures.

A person terms himself or another as a success or failure based on the latter's performance at what the former thinks is important. Those who attach importance to money equate wealth to success. Those who crave for recognition and fame measure success by renown. Those who seek power think that to wield and use power is a sign of success. There are still others who consider success as the ability to attract and control women. Most of these indices are competitive, and success or failure depends on the relative performance of others. Some other parameters, like academic performance, while having little intrinsic value, are used as indicators of future success in other endeavors. For example, the better a student performs in school, the more likely he is to get admission in a good college, thus improving his chances of landing a well paying job, which is conducive to making more money, which constitutes success for many. Money in turn is considered by some to be useful in increasing one's influence in society, while some others think of power as a shortcut to making money. For some, money and power are both means of attracting women.

From an evolutionary perspective, this does make sense. Just as it is customary to align the goals of all units of an organization to the goals of the organization itself, human societies still judge the success of an individual based on how it aids the success of the species. The success of a species is in its continuation, and thus the success of an individual is his ability to live on for a longer time and to pass on his genes. Money, power, fame, popularity with women, all contribute to determining a person's success in this endeavor.

In a true sense, however, how important is it for an individual to perpetuate his bloodline? What does it matter to him if genes derived from his are still around, say, a hundred years after his death? Should he even care? While natural selection can possibly have chosen more of those who care, humans have grown beyond a point where this base instinct can control their actions and aspirations. It should be possible for humans of today to think and find for themselves what they really want, rather than follow the dictates of an evolutionarily acquired ambition. Once they do, they can use this as a criteria for measuring success.

Fortunately for us, this question has been asked and answered countless times, by wise men who came before us. Their knowledge, passed down over generations for several millennia, makes it easy for us to arrive at that answer ourselves and to apply it in our own lives. Sri Paramahansa Yogananda, in his book titled The Law of Success, gives us this same answer when he notes that "Success should be measured by the yardstick of happiness".

Neither money, nor fame, nor power, nor any material accomplishment, has any intrinsic value (quite akin to the utility of academic grades) and are deemed important only as means to attaining happiness. In reality, though, happiness is seldom a function of any these extrinsic factors beyond a level required for basic sustenance. After that, all these things which we believe will bring us happiness will only give rise to fear, making happiness even more difficult to attain. This is clearly explained by the great poet Bharthruhari

भोगे रोगभयं कुले च्युतिभयं वित्ते नृपालाद्भयं
मौने दैन्यभयं बले रिपुभयं रूपे जराया भयं
शास्त्रे वादिभयं गुणे खलभयं काये कृतान्तात् भयं
सर्वं वस्तु भयान्वितं भुवितले वैराग्यमेवाभयम्
In enjoyment of pleasures, there is fear of disease; in nobility, there is fear of disgrace; in wealth, there is fear of King (or of losing the wealth to those in power); in silence, there is fear of weakness; in strength, there is fear of enemies; in beauty, there is fear of old age; in mastery of the sciences, there is fear of debaters (or of losing in a debate); in good qualities, there is fear from the (company of) evil men; in this body, there is fear from death. All things material on this earth are accompanied by fear and only vairagya (roughly, dispassion or detachment) offers freedom from fear. 

It is those who are destitute of substance that seek material riches to fill that vacuum, thereby hoping to find happiness. Those who find their lives out of control seek more power, thinking it will let them take control of their lives and be happy. Those lacking in self esteem seek to redeem themselves in the eyes of the world, craving for recognition and fame. Verily, none of these external accomplishments can quench their inner thirst. Those with worldly ambitions will keep extending the range of their target until at one point it comes beyond their reach, leading to disappointment. This is quite unlike a man of dispassion who has nothing to gain and nothing to guard - who, ever free, is beyond the definitions of success and failure that are laid down by society.

If one has wealth, or fame, or power, or anything else, but isn't happy, all his accomplishments are worthless. Even if society considers him an achiever, he is a loser when it comes to accomplishing what he has been seeking from the bottom of his heart. A happy person, on the other hand, has succeeded where it matters, and is thus a winner regardless of how he is tagged by the society. Success thus defined is intrinsic, non-competitive, absolute, and very much within the reach of anyone who has their priorities right. It is up to each person whether they want to spend their life chasing after the mirage of worldly passions or focus on fulfilling the only worthwhile aspiration. Those who choose the former end up as losers, and those who follow the latter will eventually achieve victory and lasting happiness. 

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Bargaining with Street Vendors - Exploitation or Prudence?

Today, a video was brought to my attention through WhatsApp and it wasn't difficult to find the same on YouTube. It carries a message which at first seemed to be perfectly valid. The comments on this YouTube video also showed that many or most viewers agreed with it. However, if we think a little deeper, like everything else in this world, it isn't as simple as that. To make this discussion easier, it will be good to spend two minutes watching this video. 

For those who are unable to watch this video for whatever reason, it is about a rich man bargaining with a street vendor to reduce the price of tender coconut. When the vendor refuses to bring down the price pointing out how he has been in the sun all day to sell this, the rich man calls the vendor a thief and walks away. Later, when the same person walks back with a bottle of some soft drink, the vendor asks him if he bargained on the price of the drink (which turns out to be higher than that of the tender coconut). He then asks why bargain only with the poor on streets and not with rich in superstores and malls. The rich man agrees with the point and feels guilty. The video ends with a message of how bargaining with the poor is a form of exploitation and how, by doing so, we are a part of the problem of poverty. 

I do agree that the street vendor is putting in a lot of effort and, in this case, his price also is not very unreasonable - especially when compared to the bottled, unhealthy soft drink which is undoubtedly overpriced. I also have no doubt that the poor are vulnerable and subject to exploitation. It almost goes without saying, that we should not exploit anybody (the poor included), because when we exploit, we are always exploiting their weakness. As long as we are talking about such broad and high principles, we can speak in absolute terms. However, the closer we get to reality, the more factors come into play, and the less we are able to take an unqualified stand. Hence the need of this elaborate discussion rather than merely giving a thumbs-up to this video. 

Before we take up the specific case of this video, let us analyze why people bargain. In some situations, it might be an attempt to exploit the inability of the poor vendor to enforce the fair price that he is demanding. If so, the behavior is undoubtedly despicable. (Is there a need to specify that this is in reference to my own moral standards and may not hold for somebody else?). However, what about the case in which the poor vendor is demanding an unfair price? He might be making an attempt to exploit the ignorance of the rich person. Isn't the latter justified in making an attempt to save himself from being fooled? Take another example of a cab driver trying to exploit the need or urgency of a person who needs to get to the hospital by demanding a high fare. The customer might be willing to pay a higher fare in a metered cab because he trusts the meter, and might bargain with a poorer, local taxi driver whom he might suspect of asking an unreasonable fare. 

This suspicion is often justified because many a times drivers of auto-rikshaws and cabs charge based on the customer's knowledge of the route or his urgency (e.g., exorbitant fares during night or when it is raining). Many street vendors also give you a price for their goods based on whether you walk to their shop or drive in a luxury car (i.e., based on their reading of how much you might be willing to pay for it). So if you are a rich person or has at least given that impression to the vendor, if you don't bargain effectively, you might end up paying much more than the person who bought the same item before you. On a branded item with a marked price (as in the case of a metered taxi), you are at least sure that everybody is paying the same price. 

I don't think it is any more right to exploit a rich man's ignorance or need than it is to exploit a poor man's weakness. Also, it is no more wrong for a rich man to defend against such exploitation by bargaining than it is for a poor vendor to refuse to sell his goods at the lower price being bargained for. While we must allow the poor man his rights, we should not deny the rich man his. The rich man in this video is definitely in the wrong - but that is not for bargaining or for refusing to buy the coconut except on terms acceptable to him; he is in the wrong for abusing the vendor and calling him a thief. It is to be noted that this fault has no relation to the act of bargaining (this would be wrong even if he had bought the item at double the price that was asked for), and has been included in the video only to show the customer as a bad person and to make the propaganda more convincing.

It is this propaganda element that I found most offensive in this video. It is not difficult to take a video in which a tender coconut vendor on a deserted highway abuses a polite, thirsty, exhausted rich customer and refuses to reduce the price to a reasonable level. (Note that in the video we have no way of knowing whether the price being asked for is fair or not. In Bangalore, the price of tender coconut is Rs 15 to Rs 20 while the vendor is asking for Rs 30. In Kerala, the price is Rs 25 to Rs 30. I don't know of the price in other places, but depending on where this is happening, the price might be justified or not. It depends on scarcity of tender coconut in that place, transportation costs, etc., but not on how much a bottle of branded soft drink costs). Isn't it interesting to see how the hero and villain roles have now been reversed?

In general, it is naive to take such videos at face value, fall for the propaganda in them, accept the message in them without questioning, and sharing them to the peril of more naive persons. It doesn't hurt to give some serious thought, to separate propaganda and real substance, and decide for ourselves what we want to believe. This holds true in the case of this video, and holds true in the case of this blog post. Of course, I know that readers of avalokanam are already in this category!

Monday, 23 March 2015

On Sports, Patriotism, and National Heroes

I find it very interesting when sports stars who play in national teams are not just praised for playing and winning medals, but elevated to the status of unrivalled patriots and national heroes. If the so called Indian cricket team represents the country in the world cup (and say, brings home the cup), do they do it out of patriotism and their commitment to furthering national interest? I hope there is nobody who is foolish enough to answer this question with a 'yes'. These players play because they are good at it (and in many cases at nothing else) and get paid for it, and are idolized and celebrated for doing that. To them, it would make no difference if they're representing their country or some petty club, as long as they derive the same benefits from playing. On the other hand, if wearing the national jersey would disqualify them from some more prestigious professional tournaments or when there is any clash in the fixtures, they would gladly trade national pride for their own professional advancement. 

If someone likes a sportsperson for their game, admires their skill and puts them on the pedestal for that, I am perfectly fine with it. But that holds equally for others who excel in their own field. It could be a great music composer, a captivating author, or a mesmerizing artist, for instance. All of them follow their passion, make great sacrifices for its sake, and inspire us to bring out the best in us. And, in time, they all make their countrymen proud. I fail to see how playing in a designated national team can make some of them more patriotic. However, if their primary motivation is national pride and  for its sake are willing to give up other things of value in life, their case for being patriotic national heroes is stronger. As an example, consider an exceptionally talented young athlete from a poor country who has very limited facilities at home to refine his skills to perfection. If he turns down an offer from a developed country to accept their citizenship and represent them in a prestigious international sporting event in return for providing him the best-in-class training and equipment, but instead stays back and works even harder with the limited resources that his own nation can provide, to go on and win a silver medal in the name of his motherland (where he could have easily won the gold had he accepted the offer), I would grant that his commitment to national pride is greater than both his  passion for the sport and desire for personal accomplishment. I would consider his efforts patriotic in nature. 

This criteria of sacrifice to filter patriots from other achievers can be equally applied to other spheres of human activity such as politics. We have many in politics today, but only a few of them are in it for the sake of the nation or its people. The vast majority have other reasons for entering politics, and the lure of power or money is perhaps a leading one among them. In any such lucrative field, those who have talent or ability will be found irrespective of what their motivation is. Now, contrast this with the situation when India was under British rule. Those who stepped into the national struggle at that time had nothing to gain from it except the freedom of their motherland, and were willing to risk their lives and personal liberty to further this cause. In a perilous field that this was at that time, only those who are devoted to a selfless cause will be found, regardless of whether they have much talent in the field or not. This may be roughly visualized using a diagram with four quadrants as shown below. 
Extending the same logic to other fields such as military, you'll find that the army of a militarily dominant country will have more people who aspire to rise to rise to the top and make a name for themselves, whereas the army of a country that is on the verge of survival will consist of mostly men who care less for themselves and more for the country. At a time when computer science is a lucrative profession, you'd find talented people with varied interests ending up in this field. If there be no money to be made from this field, however, only those who have a genuine passion for the subject would remain in the profession. Much in the same way, those who aspire for a careen in a sport such as cricket in India need not have any patriotic fervor or even a passion for the sport - they basically need to have confidence in their abilities and right opportunity to develop them. To think of them as patriots who defy all odds to defend national honour and to blindly adulate them is, in my opinion, an insult to those true patriots who have sacrificed their lives and dreams on the altar of their love for their nation. 

Monday, 26 January 2015

How Noble is your Patriotism?

Today, the 26th of January, is celebrated as the Republic Day in India. My social network streams are flooded with posts that involve patriotism and love for the nation, TV channels broadcast the parade live from Rajpath followed by movies and programmes based on the same theme, children on the road have a tiny national flag pinned to their school uniform, and messages from friends congratulate our nation on the anniversary of adoption of its constitution. This is one of those days on which many Indians become conscious of their national identity and feel proud about it. What better day than this to do a critical analysis of patriotism? 
Patriotism is generally defined as devoted love and loyalty towards one's nation, and is often compared with the love for one's mother. In this aspect, I consider this as one of the highest emotions that a man can have, and has inspired countless humans to dedicate their lives for the protection and betterment of their fellowmen. However, it is also in the name of patriotism that numerous men have turned conquerors, colonialists and mass murders. Is it the same emotion, feeling, or ideal that leads men, on one hand, to noble deeds of selfless service and, on the other, to acts of monstrous cruelty?

The flavour of patriotism that justifies and encourages people to subdue and kill others is based not in love for one's nation, but in a national identity that builds an insurmountable wall between those who share their nationality and those that don't. This is similar to how fanatics of some genuine religions worry less about following the path to knowledge laid down in their religion and are more concerned with punishing and cursing non-believers and "blasphemers".  They're the kind of sons who are too busy making proud statements of their ancestry and slandering others that they don't bother to take care of their aged parents.

In all these cases of twisted loyalty, the key element is dislike, hatred and mistrust of those who do not share a particular identity. True patriotism, religious allegiance or filial love should be rooted in a sense of duty towards our nation, religion or parents. It should serve to unite citizens of a nation, followers of a religion, or siblings towards a common cause. When gone wrong, all of these can only share to divide people along lines of nationality, religion or family. There is nothing wrong with loving your own, trouble starts only when it is rooted in ill-will towards others.

In modern nations, attachments to identities that are narrower (or even broader) than national are usually denounced in the interest of national integration; so much, that the terms referring to these feelings - such as regionalism - have a negative connotation. Patriotism, on the other hand, is encouraged and so glorified that it becomes difficult for people to think beyond its boundaries. What is a nation today comprised of many princely states a few decades ago. Attachment or loyalty to those kingdoms of yore will now be looked down upon as parochialism. An example in point is how Sir Ramaswami Iyer, Dewan of the erstwhile state of Travancore at the time of Indian independence and an able administrator who has made great contribution to the growth of southern Kerala,  is referred to by many as a traitor, only because he loyally stood by the Maharaja of Travancore in his wish to remain independent from the Indian Union.

So, what is a general thumb rule in deciding whether patriotism, or a particular level of loyalty is good or not? While I cannot claim to give a universally applicable rule, I think the general principle is that anything that unites us and broadens our consciousness is good, whereas anything that divides us and makes our thinking narrow is bad. Love for family is definitely great, and it should serve to replace the selfishness in us. Love for our village or province should be even stronger. For example, if one needs to give away part of his property to an infrastructure project that will benefit a larger population, one should gladly do that. The broader love for nation should take precedence over love for one's province, and even this feeling of patriotism should not come in the way of one's love for the world and all its inhabitants. Finally, even the world should be sacrificed for the sake of God (our real self) which is all-encompassing and is the broadest ideal that is.

This principle is outlined by Vidura in Mahabharatha (Vidura Neethi):
त्यजेत् कुलार्थे पुरुषं ग्रामस्यार्थे कुलं त्यजेत् |
ग्रामं जनपदस्यार्थे आत्मार्थे पृथिवीं त्यजेत् ||
A person shall be sacrificed for the sake of the family; family for the sake of village; village for the sake of country, and even the earth shall be sacrificed for the sake of self