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.

Monday, February 26, 2007

I read

primarily from an illuminated screen these days. And apart from wikipedia, the ones that manage to catch my attention and interest strongly enough are :

1) India Uncut : Amit Varma is easily India's most famous blogger. The new site has a lot more than the blog, including crosswords(thankfully not cryptic), fantastic links and trivia. The blog however, remains the main attraction. I often don't agree with him, but that's a question of ideology. For individualism, atheism, Hemingway, cows and Chomskyian semi-semantic yet fully syntactic sentence constructs, kindly proceed without further ado.

2) Youth Curry : Rashmi Bansal - editor of JAM, popular figure among Mumbai's student community, no stranger to controversies. Wonderfully balanced and achieves its stated intent of providing an insight into India's youth to a large extent. The blog that prompted me to pick up the cyber-pen in the first place, so much so that (and this was totally sub-conscious, I swear) I ended up choosing the same template.

3) Vantage Point : Came to know about this one from the IIPM controversy. Gaurav writes coherently about libertarianism and America and cracks PJs that should qualify for the 'PJs that only engineers can crak - Hall of Fame'. Used to post quiz questions that severly dented my self-opinion of trivia king, but that feature has been missing for a long time.

4) Recursive Hypocrisy : Cool name, though very often there's no recursion, only irony. Recent find, though apparently this guy is super-popular(in a cultish, non-mainsteam way) on the blogosphere.

5) Sanjana : Are you feeling sad or depressed? Do you need sunshine? Are you ready to listen to nostalgic anecdotes about wonderful animals and tributes and backhanded compliments to Freud and classical mathematicians? Do you want to read dreams and visions and sentiments and rants that may leave you smirking at the author's naivette yet absolutely charmed by the idealism,information and sensitivity? If yes, do visit.

6) Random Thoughts of a Demented Mind : Humour is difficult to do. To do so consistently over sustained periods of time requires a rare talent. He is not as godly as many of his commentators describe him to be, but the chief priest and prophet of Mithunism is a bloody good read anyway.

7) The Examined Life : Another member of the libertarian cartel, he has apparently defected to form a new cartel himself. Doesn't update anymore but back when he used to write, he managed to get serious, non-sarcastic non-puke comments from the great Nilu. Read him for some meaningful explorations on law, economics, ethics, you get the dirft.

8) Kalachakra : She is perhaps the most popular new blogger in the Indian blogosphere. Another libertarian, and one who often lets her perceptions colour her observations (but don't we all). The legal angle she brings to issues makes her a worthwhile read though.

9) Kaleidoglide : Infrequently updated but I visit this on and off to keep myself updated on the latest on net-feminism. Thanks to her I atleast know who Andrea Dworkin is.

10) Known Turf : Has begun to write in a dangerously Arundhati Royesque manner, both in terms of content and stylistics, which means that I'm not a regular reader anymore. However, her knowledge of the Hindi heartland is almost encyclopaedic, and this post should probably be part of a 101 course on gender issues and sexual harassment.

11) Sonia Faleiro : Journo blog. Seems wonderfully non-judgemental at first read, an image that gradually breaks down on further investigation as the prejudices reveal themselves. However. she writes about a lot of things that most of us do not bother ourselves with. The interview with Jockin Ananthapuram is a classic.

12) Falstaff : Finally, a guy who manages to be more pedantic than I am. His pedantism is usually quite non-offensive though, and he has a brilliant way with words, writes some damn good fiction. His footnotes on economic discourses though, are the reason I ever read him in the first place.

13) Sauce : If you are, like me, somewhat of a voyeur, you'd enjoy an excursion into the world of the JUDE girls. I read this on and off to nullify the effects of all the serious pop economic philosophy that I subject myself to.

14) The Indian Economy Blog : Largely dominated by the libertarian cartel. The discussions in the comments sections are usually a lot more informative and meaningful than the posts themselves. Don't read this very often either but this is a one-stop shop, so.

15) Yazad Jal : This hasn't been updated in a long time. Read the archives posted by a guy called Sauvik who has written some insane articles in the ToI in the past to know exactly how prejudiced rhetoric in the name of economics makes for cringeworthy journalism.

16) Psychotic Ramblings of a Mad-Man : Vulturo describes himself as a 'rabid individualist', and I agree. For me, once the first term of that phrase is established, the second is inconsequential. Why then do I read this? Simply because it has been witness to some of the most interesting and insanley hilarious flame wars in the blogosphere.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Ritwik's Cube

An idea has been buzzing in my head for quite some time now, and it may turn out to be mere self-indulgence or may even have the potential for some larger initiative. This post invites an open house on this idea, its correctness and its feasibility. Those who are regular readers and my close friends are obligated to pour their thoughts in writing!

1) The socio-politico-economic Cube

How often have you come across the terms left-wing, right-wing, conservative, liberal, socialist, libertaraian, objectivist, marxist etc? And how often have you wondered about where exactly you stand on various issues that affect our daily lives, our relationship with the state, and the nature of our government? Society, politics and economics are deeply inter-related and yet some delineating markers can be found, in terms of various pressing issues that can be categorized as social, or political or economic. I have been trying to think of some of these issues that taken together may be comprehensive and representative, for an exhaustive list is not possible.

1-A : The Political Spectrum (the first axis of the cube)

A person's political views can lie anywhere between(and ofcourse, including) the extremes of anarchy on one side, and absolute authoritarianism on the other. If you support a hawkish foreign policy, aggressive millitary policy, capital punishment, etc. you are likely to be somewhat authoritarian. If you support freer borders, have deep faith in the Geneva Conventions, have little time for nationalist discourse and view the government and the millitary/intelligence agencies with inherent suspicion, you are more likely to be somewhat of an anarchist. Ofcourse, you may support a few of these things, oppose a few others and then again support or oppose these issues to different degrees. Here's a possible list of representative issues

1) voting rights and form of government
2) immigration policy
3) nature of defence policy and armed forces
4) legal system esp. capital punishment
5) extent of Right to Information
6) free speech wrt to importance of flag, anthem and other national symbols
7) intelligence agencies, security and privacy
8) human rights laws and power of law-enforcing agencies

1-B : The Social Spectrum (the second axis of the cube)

A person's social views can lie on the extremes between very conservative and very liberal, and a possible list of representative issues can be (don't think I need to mention what views are consdiered conservative and what views are considered liberal)

1) freedom of speech wrt censorship in arts/media/entertainment
2) role of religion in public life
3) gay rights and laws on homosexuality
4) abortion and contraception
5) euthanasia and suicide
6) drugs and laws on substance abuse
7) pornograhy laws
8) sex-trade

1- C : The Economic Spectrum (the third axis of the cube)

Economic views can be between Stalinist statism on one side and absolute laissez faire capitalism on the other, and a list of representative topics are

1) ownership of means of production
2) intellectual property rights
3) labour laws, unions, minimum wage etc.
4) government role in infrastructure, health and education
5) environmental regulations
6) domestic and international trade regulations
7) tax system and policy
8) monopoly or anti-trust laws

Now, here's the plan. A concise but representaive questionnaire can be developed, with three sections, one for each of the above aspects. Each of these sections will have a few questions, hopefully around 10, and each question will represent exactly one of the topics listed in each section. These questions will have multiple responses, and each response will have a numerical value attched to it to measure how anarchist/authoritarian or conservative/liberal or capitalist/marxist your views are on that issue. The scores on each question can then simply be totalled up to obtain the score for each section, and a combination of the sectional totals will directly reflect the set-up you want to live in. For eg. a score that is higher than average on authoritarianism and conservatism, and very high on the capitalism side would reflect a viewpoint that matches with messrs George W Bush et al. A score that is slightly skewed towards anarchy, and very high on the social liberal and capitalist scales would indicate a libertarian viewpoint, and so on. As a sample question and responses, consider this

Q: What's your take on capital punishment?

1) State-sponsored violence, a tool of propaganda, open to flagrant subjective abuse, a form of tribal justice that has no place in the modern scoiety
2) Has some arguments in its support, but statistics show that it is ineffective and counter-productive in controlling violent crime. Plus, it is extremely terminal nature for it delas with life. Should be abolished.
3) A system of natural justice that should be present, but used minimally. Should be used against serial killers, attackers and conspirators in terror bombings, political assasins who wage war against the state, and possibly for murders which were committed in an extremely premeditated and cruel manner.
4) An effective tool of retributive justice. Necessary for setting a precedent and controlling violent crime (statistics that show otherwise are flawed). those who violate someone else's right to life violate their own right to life. Can be handed out for all the above cases, as well as single murders and possibly even rapes.

As is easy to see, the responses are arranged in increasing order in support of a strong, authoritarian state, and hopefully represent all the rational viewpoints on the issue.

This plan can end up as nothing more than a rather meaningless online test that is not even fun. But then again, it may help many of us figure out the exact manifestos and public policy that we support and expect, and the public policy that some of us may even hope to form and implement in the future. What say?