Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Of Analogies, Individuals and Categories

Amit Varma warns about the perils of thinking in categories. He says

We tend to think in categories, and ignore individuals in the process. We are pattern-seeking creatures, and this can be a useful cognitive shortcut: classifying things into groups of things helps us make sense of the world. But it has its perils when we take it too far.

Very true. It also explains why those of us who feel a compulsive urge to analyse and understand the world around us tend to make lists, ranking systems, etc. But I digress. Amit goes on to tell us why the individual is important, and says that communal riots, reservations policy etc. are the result of thinking in terms of categories at the cost of ignoring the individual and certain situations that sound absolutely ridiculous are actually analogous to these scenarios.

And we have many convenient labels like that. Imagine someone saying, “Some Indian bloggers have been seen cheering for Pakistan during cricket matches. Therefore, all Indian bloggers are anti-national.” Or “Some bloggers burnt a train full of drivers, therefore we drivers will slaughter all the bloggers we can find.” Or “Bloggers have been discriminated against in the days before the internet, when they didn’t have access to any readership, therefore we will reserve a set amount of newspaper space for them.”

Ahh, the perils of stretched analogies. An analogy is usually a very convenient tool to explain or accentuate an idea. Indeed, Douglas Hofstadter has argued that analogy is at the very core of all cognition and that there is no difference between high level perception and analogies. But there is such a thing as an overly stretched analogy. All of the analogies mentioned above break down. The first one about cricket matches obviously replaces the term 'Muslims' by 'bloggers'. Wrong, because the terms 'Pakistan' and 'Muslim' have some attachment due to historical and current contexts while the terms 'Pakistan' and 'bloggers' have no such attachments. The second one references communal riots and is invalid because in any events of communal violence the violence is perpetrated/experienced solely because of one's belongingness to a particualr community. In Amit's example above, it is implicit that some individuals who happen to be bloggers burned a train that happened to be full of some other individuals who happen to be drivers, the drivers are not burned because they are drivers . It would be unnatural to think in terms of bloggers/drivers in that scenario. In communal riots however, some individuals kill some other individuals specifically because those other individuals belong to some particular community. It is difficult not to think in terms of Hindu/Muslim then. The third example obviously references reservations and to my mind is invalid because newspaper space cannot be considered essential by any definitions of a minimum acceptable level of life, while a decent education and an opportunity to make a livelihood, i.e a job are very much integral to any such definition.

Let me make it clear that I do not condone any of the three specific situations that have been referenced. Muslims do not become anti-national simply because some Muslims cheer for Pakistan in a cricket match. Communal riots can not be condoned in any circumstance. The issue of reservations will be discussed in the next post. However, the failure of these analogies, and indeed of most arguments that are propounded in favour of giving an indiviual supreme importance as opposed to the community only illustrates a belief I've always had - that an 'individual only' stance is as unnatural and as open to contradiction as a 'community only' stance.

Think about yourself hard enough, and try to describe yourself. The terms that most of us will come up with will all have something to do with allegiance to a larger community. I am 22, male, engineer, short, dark, math-inclined, Bhavanite etc. All are adjectives or nouns that describe categories. Do you fare any better? What to make then of this romantic notion of that 'I' within me that distinguishes me from everyone else, assuming one is disregarding the existence of a 'soul', that as a firm believer in all things rational, an individualist must disregard.

Of course, the point Amit makes is that thinking in terms of categories should not influence our reactions to other people and more importantly, state policy. In principle, I agree. But all around us we see that certain opportunities are created for us, or conversely certain opportunities denied to us not because of any talent/shortcoming as an individual but precisely because we belong to certain families and/or categories. I have access to the best institutes to train me for entrance examinations to postraduation courses. This goes a long way in aiding whatever natural abilities I have to succeed in those examinations. I have this access because my parents can pay for it. This has nothing to do with my innate 'individual' nature, and everything to do with the past of my family. My father was not as lucky as I am, and had to struggle much harder to make it in life. However, he still had a basic minimum base to build upon, for we were one of the land-owning families in the village, being 'upper castes'. I wonder if it would have been the same if he belonged instead to one of the land-tilling, poorer, 'lower catse' families. To summarise, my chances of making it to an IIM have been aided by the fact that I descend from an 'upper-caste', non-poor lineage. This has everything to do with my community and category, and nothing to do with me, the individual.

I want to repeat that I have not supported reservations here, atleast not yet. All I'm saying is, thinking only in terms of 'individuals' is neither very possible nor enough, for a lot (though definitely not all) of our experiences and opportunities are the functions of our unchosen allegiance to certain communities and have little to do with either our abilities or our choices as individuals.

2 comments:

Bleddy Blogger said...

It's impractical to adopt an 'individual-only' stance but we have yoked ourselves to far too many categories. As a person grows up, he or she needs to try and unbelong rather than belong. Of course, there are things you can't disassociate from but to not try would be another way of saying

"I spit on roads coz even if I don't the roads would still be dirty".

Secondly, 22 Male Engineer doesn't really put you in any category. I would say you belong to a category when you really make an effort to conform to the ways of the category...e.g. religion.

First time here. Nice to see an Amdavadi blogger :)

zen babu said...

@marar,

You're welcome here. I agree with what you've got to say about the need to unbelong. I don't quite agree that male, engineer doesn't put me in any category. I think we can define a category/community as a feeling of belongingness to any larger group of people. When you refer to me as an Amdavadi blogger, you've just assigned the category 'Amdavadi' to me, and you do it because you feel that you relate/belong. Whether or not either of us makes an effort to conform to the ways of the 'Amdavadi', whatever they may be, is quite inconsequential. It is proof that you somehow feel a certain empathy out of the sheer fact that I'm an 'Amdavadi', which is precisely what I was trying to say. Even those bloggers who profess to dislike the concept of communities frequently use terms like 'The Indian blogosphere'. In any case, the point I was trying to make is that if even our self-realisation tends to be largely in terms of categories (and I think it does), a call of 'I hold only individual right sacred' is not sufficient or representative because it is ideologically absolutist. Ofcourse I realise that 'the larger good at the cost of individual rights' is a very dangerous concept, but I think it cannot be eliminated completely.

Do keep visiting, and check out the archives if you like what you see.