Monday, February 20, 2017

False Equivalence

A eight year old boy pushes a girl off a swing in a park and sits on it himself. As is customary, the screaming match is far hotter between the mothers than between the children.

There is always a third person, who comes in to cool down tempers and ends up becoming the main target of the more aggressive party if not both parties. This time, it is the mother of the girl who has been lobbing all the missiles while the mother of the boy was mainly engaged in defensive action. And, so, when the mediator comes in saying,"Please don't fight over it. Boys will be boys", there is an explosion.

"Yes! When he grows up, he will rape girls and people like you will say the same thing."

Ah! Our luckless mediator only meant that, at the age of eight, it is hardly likely that a boy will be offering an arm to escort the girl in, open doors for her and pull chairs for her to sit on. IF he did and IF the girl is intelligent, she will skip a couple of steps away when he crooks his arm for she would know that it is the only way to avoid an elbow in the ribs; jump back if he holds open a door, especially the auto-close ones, since she knows he is doing it only to let it swing back into her face and laugh maniacally; and would know not to try and sit with the boy pulling the chair, for the chair would be pulled much farther away than necessary. In short, when you are saying 'boys will be boys' about children, it only indicates that they tend to be mischievous, even when they are not malicious, and not that they have license to be criminals.

There is this widespread tendency, though, to make statements of false equivalence, like in this case - equating the downplaying of the mischief of a kid to the condoning of criminal acts by men - and silencing others. It is a nasty habit which used to be generally adopted only by bullies who care only about getting their own way without regard to others. The problem, though, is that it is increasingly being adopted in public debates of all issues.

In the recent discussions about the Jallikattu issue, it was argued that it was long-standing tradition. People promptly countered with 'So, would you argue for Sati and Child Marriage as well?" Yes, tradition is not a sufficient argument to retain a practice. But if, say, the Central Government enacts a law banning the wearing of the Mysore Turban, and one argued tradition, would you still be springing Sati and Child Marriage on the opponents of the ban? This is use of false equivalence again - the discussion has to be about whether the Jallikattu is as heinous as Sati as to warrant a ban DESPITE it being a tradition. To automatically ASSUME an equivalence is to leave no room for discussion; to deny any legitimacy to an alternative viewpoint. To illustrate, there is a tradition of ear piercing for children - male and female - and it is not like children jump with joy at having to undergo it. The conditions are met here - pain is caused to someone who cannot give informed consent and it IS a tradition. As bad as Sati/Child Marriage?

Much the same happens when people grumble about the implementation of the demonetization exercise. They are anti-nationalists who spit on the brave sacrifices of our men in uniform. Really? IF something CAN be done better and has not been, you have to be a traitor to your country to point that out? IF it could not have been done better, in your opinion, and I think that it could have been, I have no respect for my country? To equate criticism of the government to a slur on the country is the use of false equivalence too.

Societies change not by diktat but by evolution. When you seek to change deeply ingrained ideas, you need to be listened to with interest if not respect. Overstating your case engenders disbelief in your veracity and thus to a denial of the concepts that you espouse. If someone is renting a floor of his house out, and does not like meat cooked in his house, he may choose to rent it only to vegetarians. Start calling him a racist and you will end up creating one in him.

False equivalence is one of the most dangerous things in liberal speech these days. People may not be able to logically counter the accusations but, make no mistake, they will be aware that you are being unjust in your portrayal of them and THAT will render them deaf to all that you say, reasonable or not. You do not endear yourself to people and cause them to be open to your thoughts, when you start your speech by calling them incorrigible villains. You end up making them feel that they might as well be hung for sheep as for lambs.

But, then, if changing Society for the better is an unimportant by-product and the main intention is to gain personal popularity, false equivalence IS the way to go. When has Reason ever gone Viral? Only diseases spread that way!

Monday, February 13, 2017

Of a winner

We are born; we live; we die; and we fight endlessly about our beliefs about what happens after we die. While we live, we seek relentlessly to 'succeed' and we define ourselves and others as winners and losers based on the achievement of 'success'.

The yardsticks we use for success are all out there in the world. Our material possessions, our position in Society, the people who respect and care for us...and, yet, when we see someone succeed against odds, we respect them the more. Like when a Dipa Karmakar, who despite flat feet and lack of top class support, becomes a top gymnast. There is something in us that understands the inadequacy of the material measures we use and appreciates the fact that it is the character that is needed to achieve success which makes a winner.

But, yet, we do need the person to achieve the external success before we appreciate the character which caused them to succeed. The fact, though, is that it is invariably the character that makes a person a winner, whether or not the life and efforts of that person were crowned by 'success' as it is popularly understood.

And, yet, what indeed is character? It is easy for you to be an optimist, when life is going well for you. It is easy to be compassionate and empathetic when you are yourself not in dire need of compassion and empathy. It is easy to be determined when you are confident of success. It is easy to be courageous when the risks are minimal. It is easy to be honest when the consequences of honesty or the rewards of dishonesty are not too important to you. It is easy to be generous when it involves no major sacrifice on your part.

Life can throw curve balls at anyone. When your life turns to one of pain and suffering, can you maintain your ability to laugh? When you are yourself in serious trouble, can you rise above your tendency to self-pity and show compassion and help others in need? When you are fighting a battle which cannot be won, can your determination rise to the challenge of living every day to the full? When your life and your well-being are balanced on a knife edge every day, do you have the courage to rise above the inclination to depression? When you need something badly, can you still be generous with it?

When a life is so lived that the person's character will remain stable or become better when put to the test, THEN is that life the life of a winner. Other 'winners' are mere impostors, who have not been found out yet.

It is a privilege to even engage with one such true winner in a lifetime. To have been born to one - my mom, to have met one in office life and, now, to have known one on Social media is a privilege beyond compare.

I have written of my mom in Child-Like. I have mentioned the colleague in 'Do you have the courage to face going slowly blind?'

This is a tribute to a man who suffered from cancer and passed away recently; a man who never ever put up a single self-pitying post on Social Media, through all that suffering and could still find life funny; a man who could still take interest in the pursuits of his friends and help them where he could; a man who I wish I could emulate.

Rest in peace, Bennett Parrish! In the modern parlance, YOU are a true winner. Or, in the words of the Bard...

"His life was gentle and the elements so mixed in him that Nature can stand up and say to all the world, 'This was a man'."

Monday, February 6, 2017

Learning from History?

Why this phrase 'learning from history' should remind me of this rather well-known anecdote, I do not know. (Oh! THAT was not an invitation for you to offer explanations about the abnormality of my brain or for speculations about whether I have one).

The temperance advocate was demonstrating the evils of alcohol. He drops a worm into a glass of water and another into a glass of alcohol. The worm in the water thrives and the one in the alcohol dies.

"What do you learn from this?"

"That Alcohol is helpful in killing the worms in your stomach"

People speak of something called a 'Confirmation bias'. You know, something like if you are convinced that your life has been a long story of bad luck dogging you like Mary's little lamb, you can remember all the incidents where you embraced an opportunity and ended up with egg on your face. Your friends talk of all those times when you did the equivalent of tripping over your bootlaces and falling into a girl's lap but you cannot remember any of those incidents to save your life. It almost sounds as though they are talking of someone else's life. THAT is confirmation bias - you only notice those facts that confirm your opinions.

In other words, facts, which support your own ideas, dance a bhangra around you, pinch your cheeks, pull your nose and kick your butt till you take notice of them. The facts that oppose your idea, on the other hand, are coy little creatures that play hide-and-seek with you, lurk in the undergrowth till you are out of sight and generally take the high road if you take the low. Of course, there is also that problem that, if you do catch one of them unawares before it can hide itself, you give it a cold stare and start seeking 'alternative facts'.

But THAT is nothing...after all it is only a small matter of cherry-picking your facts. What is a little thing like that compared to reinterpreting facts - like that alcohol-as-a-useful-vermifuge thingy - to suit your own purposes? AND people talk about learning from history. As though we do not! All of us learn from History but WHAT we learn from History somehow seems to support what we already think. (THINK, did I say? I am very much of a wuss. I should say KNOW, even if I AM talking of astrophysics and am in opposition to Stephen Hawking.)

Have you ever wondered about the fact that this fickle goddess Fortune always supports the leader you detest and does the dirty by your favorite leader? I mean, there is your leader doing astute and effective things, so it is all thanks to his brains and hard work that he achieves his goals. Every now and then, though, Fortune plays scurvy tricks on him and causes him to fail. That other moron does stupid things and works ineffectively, so it is of course thanks to his incompetence that he fails. But, you know what, this tricky goddess smiles on his idiotic bumbling every now and then, and grants him success. (AM I saying that you attribute your guy's failures and the other guy's successes to luck AND your guy's successes and the other guy's failures to their efforts? Of course, I am not SAYING it!) How is one to learn from History when results can be as much from luck as from policy?

AND everyone knows that History is written by the victors - so exactly how reliable can it be? I mean, if I like a leader, say, and he is known to have set the standard by which all human villainy is to be compared, it is of course because History has not told the truth of his sterling qualities and ended up vilifying him. AND that other guy, who I hate but the world calls a great soul? I mean, come on, how can someone who ate mutton in his youth ever be called a great soul? It is proof positive that all the rest of the things written about him is false glorification!

Learning from History means to know how to pick the grains of truth from all that chaff. The problem with other people is that they do not realize that what I can so clearly see to be grains ARE indeed grains and end up picking up and holding the chaff proudly. No wonder, we all learn different things from History and, surprisingly, we are left exactly as we were before we started digging around in all that muck.

If only confirmation bias were the only problem...

Monday, January 30, 2017

Nostalgia

I have never really figured out this nostalgia thing. You know, going all dewy-eyed about a place from where you could hardly wait to get away, when you were there. Feeling all warm and fuzzy about the guys who you dreamed of bashing up, if only you could. Never really thought that it could afflict me but, then, every man thinks he is immune to any disease - till he gets it, that is. So, back in Neyveli for the nonce, all dewy-eyed and feeling warm and fuzzy and all that jazz.

Exactly WHY I am feeling warm and fuzzy, I cannot figure out. Yes, that was the Teachers' room where they passed around my test notes. Not because they were taking turns at admiring my intelligent answers. No. It is just that they were all taking turns at figuring out exactly what I had written - my handwriting being what it is. I was even told that there was a prize for the one who actually managed to decipher it - and it remained unclaimed till the day I exited the portals of the school. The sigh of relief of the teachers, I am told, was mistaken for a cyclone. AND, yet, I am all dewy-eyed in this place which had heard my name cursed in English, Tamil, Hindi and Sanskrit, and in mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, history and geography metaphors.

Not that the teachers had restricted themselves to cursing. I probably spent more time on my knees than on my ass; more time standing on the bench than sitting on it. AND, yet, these scenes of childish pain now evoke a 'Good Old Days' feeling - hah! Days very seldom become 'good' unless they become 'old', I think. But, I suppose, there IS a special feeling when you visit these places with the confidence that you cannot be made either to kneel or stand on the bench, now. THAT special feeling of immunity probably accounts for that warmth and fuzziness under your T-shirt.

And the people - your former co-students! THIS was the guy who thought that the pen was useful for only one purpose - to spray ink on your white shirt. (No - he is not in HR still reading ink-blots...). THAT was the guy who felt that a show of friendship involved wiping the dirt of his hands on your back. AND this chap...who came first in class all the time with the sole purpose of providing an example for parents to beat up the rest of us kids with. WHY am I feeling warm and fuzzy with them?

THERE, I think I have the iron-clad reason. You see, you may love but cannot be sure that the love is returned. You may feel friendly but cannot be sure that the friendship is returned. But, by God, if people have traveled miles to get back to this place, when you feel nostalgic about them, you KNOW that it is returned!

No wonder, Nostalgia scores are possibly the strongest emotion!