Jordan Peterson

Peggy Noonan has an interesting article (ht: Venugopal Ramakrishnan) on the interview of clinical psychologist and social philosopher Jordan Peterson by a British television journalist. From what she writes, I think Peterson’s work resonates with me. I listened to the interview he gave to Cathy Newman of Channel 4. He handled himself exceptionally well.

If you want to be shocked by how someone could so deliberately distort the interviewee’s words and if you do not want to watch the interview, you can read an article in ‘The Atlantic’.

I got to know of Jordan Peterson as the person who had interviewed the Google employee James Damore. Sunder Pichai fired him for posing important questions on the culture at Google. Now, Mr. Pichai says he stands by his decision. Well, I suppose, it is too early for a mea culpa. Julian Baggini has a review of his book at FT.

The sub-title of the review is: ‘A YouTube intellectual’s advice on how to live emphasises order and tradition’. That is enough to put any objective reader off. The arrogance of some of these self-styled intellectuals is blinding them to the obvious reality that it is not helping but hurting the very causes that they claim to espouse – so-called liberal values. There is nothing very liberal or liberating about putting down another person. It is cheap and vulgar. It is intolerance. There are far better, more effective and more persuasive ways of critiquing a book’s content or the lack of it.

Cathy Newman of Channel 4 and Julian Baggini have done the greatest disservice to genuinely liberal values and principles.

Peggy Noonan has an answer for Julian Baggini:

When cultural arbiters try to silence a thinker, you have to assume he is saying something valuable.

So I bought and read the book. A small thing, but it improved my morale.

As many readers-commentators in FT have said, the article in ‘The Guardian’ on his book is far more insightful. I could also read what Professor Peterson had to say about the backlash his interviewer from UK’s Channel 4, Cathy Newman, faced.

The last line of that article tells me that he is a liberal:

If Cathy is interested, maybe we could model a conversation. That would be a good thing.

That is the way to foster a dialogue.

The right leadership

… While capitalism at last stands electorally victorious and philosophically without serious rival, its performance has become manifestly unsatisfactory. Its core credential of steadily rising general living standards has been badly tarnished: a majority now expect their children’s lives to be worse than their own. It is time for “The Future of Capitalism”. Unfortunately, nobody has yet successfully written that book. In its absence, I will try to weave something from the strands of recent contributions to the field.

Whatever emerges will not be a new ideology. If Levinson is not enough to convince you, try Jonathan Tepperman’s The Fix. His title refers not to our current mess, but to ten case studies of how some political leaders really have transformed situations for the better. Tepperman searches for the formula by which these people have remedied serious problems. The cases are valuable in their own right: many leaders could learn from how Lee Kwan Yew drove out corruption in Singapore, how Pierre Trudeau defused Québécois separatism, and how Paul Kagame rebuilt cultural identities in Rwanda. But for present purposes it is Tepperman’s conclusion that is valuable: eschew ideology; focus on pragmatic solutions to core problems, adjust as you go, but be as tough as is necessary. A viable future for capitalism will cut across the ideological baggage of the twentieth century: forget Left versus Right, set aside the familiar pious moralizing and start from the problems. As Tepperman argues, the leaders who stuck rigorously to this approach initially faced intense criticism. Pragmatism is guaranteed to offend the ideologues of every persuasion and they are the people who dominate the media. [Link]

Did Paul Collier forget Nelson Mandela?

Among the global leaders of today, who comes close to this pragmatic centre?

Studying natural stupidity

Read the ‘New Yorker’ Review of Michael Lewis’ book on Kahneman and Tversky. The review by Sunstein and Thaler offered glimpses into the relationship between both the men than about the book by Michael Lewis – whether it is readable, worth reading, its strengths and weaknesses, etc. In passing, yes.

Some lovely glimpses into Tversky’s personality:

He was an optimist, not only because it suited his personality but also because, as he put it, “when you are a pessimist and the bad thing happens, you live it twice. Once when you worry about it, and the second time when it happens.

When asked about artificial intelligence, Tversky replied, “We study natural stupidity.” (He did not really think that people were stupid, but the line was too good to pass up.)

From the review, it does appear that it would be interesting to read the portions of Michael Lewis’ book after the duo – Tversky and Kahneman – moved to America. Even the most perceptive scholars and students of human minds are not exempt from the common afflictions of human minds, it seems.

I do have a personal anecdote to share. I shared with Professor Kahneman my review of his book, ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’. He replied:

Thank you very much for sending me these very perceptive notes.
Best wishes,
Daniel Kahneman

This was on 21st August 2012.

Jonathan Haidt’s ‘The Righteous Mind’- a review

When I met my friend Nitin Pai in July in his office at Takshashila Institution on a Sunday evening, at the end of the conversation, he recommended the book, ‘The Righteous Mind’ by Jonathan Haidt who teaches at the New York University (NYU). I read some reviews. Ordered it on Kindle then and finished it recently. I am glad I read it. I am thankful to Nitin for recommending it. He has done a very good job. I wrote an article based on the book for MINT last Tuesday. You can find it here. This blog post is largely based on that.

Why are the Indians still supportive of the decision of the Indian government’s decision to demonetize currency notes without replacement as Prof. Indira Rajaraman had called it, despite their inconvenience and hardship?

Why is it likely that Ms. Merkel’s decision to contest for an unprecedented fourth term after her liberal decision on refugees could turn out to be a crowning failure on her illustrious career?

Why is ‘unity in diversity’ not a slogan that has only one conventional interpretation that diversity is to be celebrated, unquestioningly? Put differently, why the case for federalism and devolution in a country as large and diverse as India from a governance perspective has its limits too?

If you want answers to these questions and more, the best place to start would be Jonathan Haidt’ book, ‘The Righteous Mind’.  The book is an important read for many, especially those who believe that they are liberals and are open-minded. But, that is an oxymoron.

That is what the author, a self-confessed lifelong liberal, atheist and scientist, establishes. He had equated conservatism with orthodoxy, religion, faith and rejection of science. But, he sees things somewhat differently now. His open mind and the spirit of inquiry disqualifies him from being admitted to the ranks of modern-day ‘Liberal’.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part shows that reason is not the one that drives intuition but it is the other way around. That portion must sound familiar to those who have read the works of behavioural science researchers such as Professor Daniel Kahneman, for example. Without the heart, the head drops dead. Jonathan Haidt writes:

Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason. Reason is not fit to rule; it was designed to seek justification, not truth. As an intuitionist, I’d say that the worship of reason is itself an illustration of one of the most long-lived delusions in Western history: the rationalist delusion.

The belief in the infallibility and the primacy of reason – in the tradition of Socrates, Plato, Kant and Kohlberg – leads to the primacy of the individual over groups. All human beings are capable of reason and hence all are equal. Anything that harms the individual or is unfair to the individual is not acceptable; is immoral. There is no morality beyond harm or inequality. Social norms and groups do not matter.

The second part of the book prepares the ground for the third part that exposes the limitations and the societal consequences of the mindless application of the above ‘liberal’ principles or concerns. There is more to fairness than equality. The theory of karma is about fairness as proportionality, rewards and consequences consistent with efforts and actions or the lack thereof. Emphasis on equality encourages free riders and severs the link between effort and reward. Sustained over time, it causes societies and economies to weaken and eventually collapse. Thus, what is happening in Indian school education systems across States has dangerous portents. The link between effort and reward must be restored.

Similarly, there is more to morality than merely not causing harm. With the demonetisation move, clearly some people have been caused hardship or harmed. That has raised many a liberal’s hackle. But, even those who are affected are still supportive because they place the immorality of black money above the harm and hardship caused to them. Of course, there are thresholds and trade-offs beyond which the prioritisation can shift. For now, it is possible to explain this dichotomy using Haidt’s framework.

Groups that are cohesive easily defeat those that are not and are fragmented. Group rituals that are dismissed as irrational and inefficient bind members of the group. Think of the Sabarimala pilgrimage. It demands a 45-day preparation from the devotees. It demands abstinence from meat, alcohol and other physical comforts. The more sacrifices that a group demands of its members, the longer the group lasts and better it coheres. That is why externally imposed interference in group norms and rituals are guaranteed to destroy group coherence and identity.

Haidt channels Emile Durkheim to warn that “societies that forgo the exoskeleton of religion should reflect carefully on what will happen to them over several generations. When societies lose their grip on individuals, allowing all to do as they please, the result is often a decrease in happiness and an increase in suicide. We don’t really know, because the first atheistic societies have only emerged in Europe in the last few decades.”

Recognising and respecting differences is, in general, the right thing to do. But, it is a fine line. In principle, federalism is desirable and is effective. But, there are lines in the sand that cannot be crossed and nor should the principle of federalism be invoked to promote differences in all and sundry aspects. Then, unity would slowly unravel. “The process of converting Pluribus (diverse people) into Unum (a nation) is a miracle that occurs in every successful nation on Earth. Nations decline or divide when they stop performing this miracle.”

The question is whether Germany has abruptly halted that miracle with its policy on refugees, not to mention the veritable mess that it has created in international politics too. “In a paper revealingly titled “E Pluribus Unum,” Putnam examined the level of social capital in hundreds of American communities and discovered that high levels of immigration and ethnic diversity seem to cause a reduction in social capital. We need groups, we love groups, and we develop our virtues in groups, even though those groups necessarily exclude nonmembers. If you destroy all groups and dissolve all internal structure, you destroy your moral capital.” Vielen dank, Frau Merkel.

Jonathan Haidt is walking the talk. With likeminded professors, he has now set up the Heterodox Academy with the goal of promoting viewpoint diversity in the academy, primarily in the United States. He is clearly striving to be open minded. Something that most liberals lack. Indeed, certitude is the hallmark of self-styled ‘liberals’. In my view, there is something inherently contradictory about a liberal’s certitudes.

Some important quotes from the book:

The process of converting pluribus (diverse people) into unum (a nation) is a miracle that occurs in every successful nation on Earth. Nations decline or divide when they stop performing this miracle.

When everyone in a group began to share a common understanding of how things were supposed to be done, and then felt a flash of negativity when any individual violated those expectations, the first moral matrix was born. 57 (Remember that a matrix is a consensual hallucination.) That, I believe, was our Rubicon crossing.

Institutions emerge gradually as social facts, which we then respect and even sacralize, but if we strip these institutions of authority and treat them as arbitrary contrivances that exist only for our benefit, we render them less effective.

Moral communities are fragile things, hard to build and easy to destroy. If you don’t value moral capital, then you won’t foster values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, and technologies that increase it.

It is the reason I believe that liberalism—which has done so much to bring about freedom and equal opportunity—is not sufficient as a governing philosophy. It tends to overreach, change too many things too quickly, and reduce the stock of moral capital inadvertently. Conversely, while conservatives do a better job of preserving moral capital, they often fail to notice certain classes of victims, fail to limit the predations of certain powerful interests, and fail to see the need to change or update institutions as times change.

John Lennon captured a common liberal dream in his haunting song “Imagine.” Imagine if there were no countries, and no religion too. If we could just erase the borders and boundaries that divide us, then the world would “be as one.” It’s a vision of heaven for liberals, but conservatives believe it would quickly descend into hell. I think conservatives are on to something.

On optimism

On Saturday morning, I woke up determined to locate a few sentences on ‘optimism’ that I had used for my ‘signature’ in email messages. I had shown it to a friend few days earlier. I thought I had used them in 2011. Turned out that I had used them in 2010 and hence I could not locate it until I remembered good friend Shekhar Gupta’s email that helped me identify the author of those lines as ‘Julian Baggini’, editor of ‘The Philosophers’ magazine’ and author of a book called ‘Complaint’. I had not read the book. I then searched on ‘Julian Baggini’ and found a page of quotes attributed to him. Several of them were interesting. Sample two below:

Every time we recall an event, we must reconstruct the memory, and with every recollection the memory may be changed … Truth and reality, when seen through the filter of our memories, are not objective facts but subjective, interpretive realities.

Many philosophers have argued that we are constituted by a psychologically continuous web of thoughts, feelings, beliefs and memories. Dementia says, well, okay, let’s pick that web apart, piece by piece and see if anything of you remains.

Then, I found that he has a TED talk on an interesting topic, ‘Is there a real you?’ Must listen to it. Here are his lines on the distinction between being positive in an intelligent sort of way and being positive for the sake of it:

The issue, …., is whether we start with the facts or with our attitudes. What positive psychology gets right is that when we confront reality, we always have some control over how we then respond to it, and that a lot of misery is avoidable if we try to make the best rather than the worst of things. In practice, however, this sensible advice often degenerates into an excessive optimism, in which reality is whatever we think it to be. But you can’t make the best of a bad situation if you pretend it’s really just a good one in disguise.

These lines appear towards the end of an interesting review of four interesting books on the cult of optimism and happiness. The book review is worth a read. I had picked up the book by Ehrenreich some two years ago but yet to read it!

Hence, the Saturday morning hunt for a quote returned a treasure.

A review of ‘Srirangam to Sivaji’

I just finished reading the short biography of writer ‘Sujatha’ (original name: S. Rangarajan). He is one of the top three writers for me in English and in Tamil. The other two being ‘Devan’ and P.G. Wodehouse. It is a matter of immense satisfaction that my favourite writer Sujatha had the same admiration for the writings of ‘Devan’ that I had. Devan’s full name was Mahadevan. His novels set in Tanjore – Mayavaram – Kumbakonam were masterpieces.

I did shed a few tears when I heard of ‘Sujatha’ passing away in 2008. It is hard for me to rate his books because I rate them highly – most of them at least. For starters, I would recommend the collection of stories based on his early life in Srirangam   – Srirangathu Devathaigal’.

The biography of Sujatha by Ranjan was an interesting read. Sujatha acknowledged with pride that Tamil was the only language, among Indian languages, whose letters could all be contained in a computer keyboard.

He had done a lot of work on the electronic voting machine, demonstrating its usefulness and reliability in front of all layers of the Indian judiciary. Yet, losing candidates routinely blamed and still blame them.

He has had many stellar personal qualities: did not cry over spilt milk; not an overbearing parent; did not dismiss nor was he disturbed by criticisms; took them well and lightly; was able to admire his critics’ stellar qualities and other strengths (remarkable).

For the most part, he was forward-looking. He loved technology and was a keen learner. He welcomed change. His range of interests was as impressive as was his depth in the many subjects that he touched upon – from science fiction to folk literature to the works of Azhwars, Thiruvalluvar and Brahma Sutram.

As is the case with most writers from India, poverty exercised him deeply and sights of the poor moved him. But, surprisingly, economics was one area he did not spend much time on.

While he was right to lament about the rising inequality and the de-sensitization of the rich and the upwardly mobile to sights of poverty and the poor, he did not connect technological advancements (which he was fond of) and inequality. There is strong causality from the former to the latter.

We admired his writings and they captivated us because he exposed to us our innermost fears, desires and vulgarities. He put them all out on paper. He knew all of us very well.

Equally, what this book confirms is that he knew himself very well. We should miss him for that.


Good friend Nitin Pai had sent me the e-copy of ‘Yugantar’ by Iravati Karve. Was recommended to me by my friend Rupal Majmudar’s father some years ago. I finally had a chance to read it this year. It is a good book but my personal impression is that one would not have to feel terribly sad if one missed it. Perhaps, researchers who are interested in the ‘authenticity’ of Jaya or Mahabharat might be more excited to read her work which seeks to inform readers of the originality of the content by pointing out what she sees as later-day interpolations. These have been done by comparing different versions of Mahabharat available in India and based on the dates of those versions. The book is incisive for its character-analysis of different players in the epic.

The book acknowledges that it is an epic but given its secular nature, seeks to steer clear of divinity. She points out that not all of the eighteen chapters could have been part of the same advice given by Krishna to Arjuna. She says that the Yadava King was just the friend of Arjuna. His divine-like qualities and actions – now part of the Mahabharat – were added later.

Personally, I have no problems in accepting the later day versions. For me living in the 20th-21st centuries, both were versions prepared at a time when I was not around and about a time in which none of us were around. So, what is really ‘authentic’ becomes an alluring invitation for the argumentative Indian. Not for me.

Whether Krishna should have been depicted as just a friend of Arjuna or as a God who knew his God-like status (of course, if he was depicted as a God in the original version, then it is a valid point that his end does not fit in well with that depiction) is interesting for researchers. But, to the extent that it sustains many people, gives them hope and keeps them sane and purposeful, his depiction as God has been more than useful.

This description of ‘Saguna Brahman’ from a passage in ‘The life of Pi’ (I have not read it and I found it in an email that came as part of a mailing list) provides an indirect answer to her dismay at these later-day interpolations:

There is Brahman nirguna, without qualities, which lies beyond understanding, beyond approach; with our poor words we sew a suit for it – One, Truth, Unity, Absolute, Ultimate Reality, Ground of Being – and try to make it fit, but Brahman nirguna always bursts the seams. We are left speechless. But there is also the Brahman saguna, with  qualities, where the suit fits. Now we call it Shiva, Krishna, Shakti, Ganesha we can approach it with some understanding; we can discern certain attributes – loving, merciful, frightening – and we feel the gentle pull of relationship. Brahman saguna is Brahman made manifest to our limited senses, Brahman expressed not only in gods but in humans, animals, trees, and in a handful of earth, for everything has a trace of the divine in it.