Lilla on the ‘Liberal’ leela

Closely related to the previous post on the matter of James Damore vs. Google, is a long piece by Professor Mark Lilla of Columbia University. It is an extract from his book being published today. It is long but it is time well spent. Google’s conduct exemplifies what he writes below:

It is time to admit that American liberalism is in deep crisis: a crisis of imagination and ambition on our side, a crisis of attachment and trust on the side of the wider public. The question is, why? Why would those who claim to speak for and defend the great American demos be so indifferent to stirring its feelings and gaining its trust? Why, in the contest for the American imagination, have liberals simply abdicated?…..

Other sentences from his piece that are worth pondering over:

As a teacher, I am increasingly struck by a difference between my conservative and progressive students. Contrary to the stereotype, the conservatives are far more likely to connect their engagements to a set of political ideas and principles. Young people on the left are much more inclined to say that they are engaged in politics as an X, concerned about other Xs and those issues touching on X-ness. And they are less and less comfortable with debate.

Over the past decade a new, and very revealing, locution has drifted from our universities into the media mainstream: Speaking as an X…This is not an anodyne phrase. It sets up a wall against any questions that come from a non-X perspective. Classroom conversations that once might have begun, I think A, and here is my argument, now take the form, Speaking as an X, I am offended that you claim B. What replaces argument, then, are taboos against unfamiliar ideas and contrary opinions…..

We must relearn how to speak to citizens as citizens and to frame our appeals for solidarity—including ones to benefit particular groups—in terms of principles that everyone can affirm……

Black Lives Matter is a textbook example of how not to build solidarity. By publicizing and protesting police mistreatment of African-Americans, the movement delivered a wake-up call to every American with a conscience. But its decision to use this mistreatment to build a general indictment of American society and demand a confession of white sins and public penitence only played into the hands of the Republican right.

Frank Bruni’s article in the New York Times (‘I am a white man; hear me out’) is a good read too.

An inner search engine for Google

The story of former Google Engineer James Damore is dominating airwaves. He was fired for writing a memo that pointed to basic gender differences as one of the explanations for why there were so few women in software. It is not just about the firing of a single employee. It is about Google. Over time, being fired from his job might turn out to be a blessing in disguise for James Damore.

I had gone through his memo. You can find it here. I found it reasonably worded and argued. I listened to the 50-minute conversation of Prof. Jordan Peterson with James Damore. Professor Peterson at the University of Toronto cited many references that supported the points that Damore had made in his memo.

David Brooks in NYT wrote a good piece as to why Sunder Pichai should resign.

James Damore wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal as to why he was fired. It is interesting that he appeared to sympathise with Google management by blaming the ‘mob’ for ‘tying’ the hands of the management:

Upper management tried to placate this surge of outrage by shaming me and misrepresenting my document, but they couldn’t really do otherwise: The mob would have set upon anyone who openly agreed with me or even tolerated my views. When the whole episode finally became a giant media controversy, thanks to external leaks, Google had to solve the problem caused by my supposedly sexist, anti-diversity manifesto, and the whole company came under heated and sometimes threatening scrutiny.

Professor Jonathan Haidt and Sean Stevens have a comprehensive post at the Heterodox academy with a list of citations and research findings that both support and refute the points that Damore had made in his memo:

If you wanted to jump straight to their conclusion, here it is:

In conclusion, based on the meta-analyses we reviewed above, Damore seems to be correct that there are “population level differences in distributions” of traits that are likely to be relevant for understanding gender gaps at Google and other tech firms. The differences are much larger and more consistent for traits related to interest and enjoyment, rather than ability. This distinction between interest and ability is important because it may address  one of the main fears raised by Damore’s critics: that the memo itself will cause Google employees to assume that women are less qualified, or less “suited” for tech jobs, and will therefore lead to more bias against women in tech jobs. But the empirical evidence we have reviewed should have the opposite effect. Population differences in interest may be part of the explanation for why there are fewer women in the applicant pool, but the women who choose to enter the pool are just as capable as the larger number of men in the pool. This conclusion does not deny that various forms of bias, harassment, and discouragement exist and contribute to outcome disparities, nor does it imply that the differences in interest are biologically fixed and cannot be changed in future generations.

If our three conclusions are correct then Damore was drawing attention to empirical findings that seem to have been previously unknown or ignored at Google, and which might be helpful to the company as it tries to improve its diversity policies and outcomes.  What should Google’s response to the memo have been? We’ll address that in a followup post next week. [Link – all emphasis mine]

Based on her personal experience, Megan McArdle agrees with James Damore.

In short, Google had an opportunity to set an example for what it means to be truly liberal. It blew it. Perhaps, Sunder Pichai’s education, background and experience did not prepare him for facing a situation like the one he faced with James Damore’s memo. It needed a non-Engineering approach. Perhaps, a woman would have handled it better? But then, Google’s diversity officer Danielle Brown did not offer any nuanced reaction. It was a mere prelude to the firing of James Damore.

There is very little to choose between the openly intolerant and not-so-openly intolerant. In fact, the former can be handled mostly through the law-and-order apparatus and framework but the latter is insidious and, hence, probably more dangerous.

Viruses on campuses and in the American society – great weekend reads

(1) The Media Bubble is Real — And Worse Than You Think [Politico].

The only quibble I have with the article is that it concludes that journalists respond best when their vanity is punctured. But, far from trying to figure out why they were so vain as to miss what was happening to America, their vanity is making them tilt at the manifestation of their failure – Donald Trump. So, they are pitting their vanity against his and are directing their energies at getting him out. Russia is their trump card (pun intended). If they succeed in removing him, they think that they can exculpate themselves of the failure to anticipate his rise. Then, it would be difficult for the authors of this wonderful article to come up with another explanation as to how the media could do worse than they did in 2016.

(2) Professors moved Left in the 1990s. The rest of the country did not. Great read although it is from 2016.

While the data confirms that university and college faculty have long leaned left, a notable shift began in the middle of the 1990s as the Greatest Generation was leaving the stage and the last Baby Boomers were taking up teaching positions. Between 1995 and 2010, members of the academy went from leaning left to being almost entirely on the left. Moderates declined by nearly a quarter and conservatives decreased by nearly a third.

What is it about the boomers that they turned so irredeemably Left? Is it their success or is it guilt conscience that they achieved so much success at so high a cost to the world at large, to Planet Earth, etc.,?

(3) Heather Mac Donald’s experience at Claremont McKenna College in April 2017. It is positively scary and despairing. David Brooks is right to call it a tale of ‘chilling intolerance’.

(4) A great title: ‘Freedom from speech’ and a great line (George Will – Nov. 2015):

Campuses so saturated with progressivism that they celebrate diversity in everything but thought [Link]

(5) David Brooks is unfortunately likely to be proven right here:

These days, the whole idea of Western civilisation is assumed to be reactionary and oppressive. All I can say is, if you think that was reactionary and oppressive, wait until you get a load of the world that comes after it. [Link]

(6) On a hopeful note: this video has more than seven million views on YouTube

(Most of the links above were picked from the Twitter handle of Jonathan Haidt)

Justice A.P. Shah’s M.N. Roy Memorial Lecture

A good friend had forwarded me the full text of Shri. A.P. Shah’s M.N. Roy Memorial Lecture. You can find it here. The PDF of the speech is here.

Overall, it is a good lecture. I understand the need for someone of his stature to raise his voice against nascent signs of intolerance and suppression of dissent in insidious ways. That is very much needed too.

However,  I do have some differences – big and small.

How then did M.N. Roy understand nationalism? In Roy’s view, nationalism was representative of the desires and ambitions of a group of people within a certain geographical area, as opposed to people uniting on the basis of class. Nationalism thus emphasised the placing of one’s country’s interest over the interest of the rest of the world. There was a time in the 19th century, when countries were still isolated from each other, when nationalism was a historic necessity, under whose banner people came together and humanity progressed. However, he believed, it had now become a selfish, narrow-minded “antiquated cult”, and the world should progress towards internationalism and international cooperation.

Nationalism in the context of the rise of China and Pakistan, the manner of their rise, their systematic and persistent hostility to India combined with their use of the social media and other pecuniary motivations, is not outmoded. Unfortunately, that is also going to give rise to inevitable restrictions on the concept of ‘benefit of doubt’ to spontaneous, agenda-less dissent.

In other words, Indians have to accept certain (that can be defined) restrictions in their exercise of fundamental liberties. The State machinery will try to take advantage of the situation to place restrictions on domestic political dissent. But, Courts, civil society and the media should and would play the role of ‘checks and balance’. In any case, Justice A.P. Shah seems alive to that risk.

While discussing the declaration made by the President of the Hindu Maha Sabha that “the majority is the nation”, Roy said that it sounds quite in “tune with formal democracy”, but in reality “particularly in the prevailing atmosphere of Indian politics, it means that in a nationally free India the Muslims, constituting nearly 1/3rd of the population, will have no freedom”.

​If some sections constituted one-third and hence had to be accepted as an integral part of India – a very fair point – then it is not consistent with preferential treatment as minorities. The State cannot mandate that they shall have the first claim on India and that they be exempt from RTE provisions, for example. One cannot have the cake and eat it too.

But, the speech does leave a feeling of deliberate incompleteness when it talks of how a group of twenty-something students of a University could be tried for charges of sedition for doing what the students in a campus would do:

More than 90 years later, however, we are still grappling with the fact that the crime of sedition was invoked against a group of 20-something University students for doing what students in a campus should feel entitled to do – raise slogans, debate, disagree, and challenge each other on complex, political issues that face the nation today.

Clearly, the State should have had the nous to separate slogan-shouting from explicit anti-national activities. At the same time, the learned Justice should have noted that the shoe is on the other foot too when it comes to the charge of intolerance. The students prevented and still do prevent alternate points of view.

If nationalism cannot be compelled – and I agree with that without qualification – then is it justifiable that anti-nationalism can be compelled on national soil as some sections of the society want?

If voluntary groups of people – like students – can resort to violence (in America, now left-liberal students even consider words as violence) to stop alternative points of view, then it becomes that much more untenable for critics to blame the State alone for resorting to violence on which it is supposed to have a monopoly!

The speech would have been more complete had he also acknowledged the special circumstances that India finds itself in – an assertive and threatening China and its poodle Pakistan, the global rise of Islamic terrorism, Naxals and Maoists and the exploitation of these fissiparous tendencies by Christian Missionaries – that places the State and the army in a uniquely difficult position, etc.

Some law and order excesses would be inevitable in such situations and they should be redressed and addressed. That said, they do not negate nor nullify the need for vigilance by the State. That would be a very naive call.

Kamal Hassan in his movie, ‘Nayakan’ asks the question of who should stop first. That applies here.

M.N. Roy’s so-called and apparent context-free commitment to certain ideals definitely had a context. Anyone who claims that they were not influenced by the context in which they lived is lying. Similarly, any message that does not take into account the context in delivering eternal homilies is an incomplete one.

Indeed, all those who speak pejoratively of nationalism are able to do so only within the sanctuary offered by certain nations. That they cannot do so in all nations is a comprehensive rejection of their rejection of nationalism.

Finally, both at a micro-level – families, small groups and communities – and at the national level, compulsion is usually counter-productive. So, I agree with this part of the speech fully:

As Pratap Bhanu Mehta points out, the order fails to understand a distinction fundamental to liberal democracy – everything that is desirable or makes for a better citizen does not, and should not, be made compulsory. In fact, making something compulsory undermines the very meaning of that action and the respect that is normally accorded to it.

Goals and Instruments; Means and Ends

Most of us have almost lost all sense of the goals we pursue and the instruments we use. The instruments or the means have become goals in themselves. Several examples from recent days:

Technology is the instrument. Productivity and comfort are the ends. My computer keyboard stopped working after a Windows 10 update. It has not been possible to put it back together. Not yet. Windows 10 does not give choice to users to choose to update or not. Restoring the old system before update is not that easy anymore. You have to update and suffer!

I am working on a Mac now. But, it won’t accept the backup drive because that is formatted for Windows! So, I do not have access to my data folder from which I could have checked the answer for your query.

Amazing feats of technology.  Their technology is the purpose now.

(2) Fans, loyalists and followers of political leaders too confuse national interest and purpose with their favourites. Some parties and leaders become favourites because others fail. If one’s favourite repeats the errors and mistakes, then followers defend them. It is no longer about the larger cause or the main cause. The instrument or the intermediary is now the purpose or the goal.

(3) For leaders too, power is the purpose now. Power was supposed to be an instrument.

(4) My wife showed me a Facebook battle where Vegans are prepared to unleash violence on those who are not repulsed as they are by violence unleashed on animals.

When speech is violence

Jonathan Haidt has a great interview with WSJ on April 1, 2017. But, the matter was anything but a matter of ‘Fool’s Day’.’

Some extracts from his interview:

People older than 30 think that ‘violence’ generally involves some sort of physical threat or harm. But as students are using the word today, ‘violence’ is words that have a negative effect on members of the sacred victim groups. And so even silence can be violence.” It follows that if offensive speech is “violence,” then actual violence can be a form of self-defense.

What are the causes for this shift. He names political polarisation as one of the causes. Campuses in the United States have become overwhelmingly left-leaning. There is no room for Right/Conservative professors on campus except, perhaps in Economics?

The second cause, he mentions, is that justice means equal outcomes now. That is very dangerous. Many developing societies have made that mistake and are now trying, with great difficulty and little success, to move away from equal outcomes to equal opportunity. But, if America is now moving towards or has moved towards equal outcomes, then that is one irreversible downhill slippery road to mediocrity and oblivion, if unchecked.

Jonathan Haidt points to that in his own, understated way:

Mr. Haidt argues, what happens on campus affects the “health of our nation.” Ideological and political homogeneity endangers the quality of social science research, which informs public policy. “Understanding the impacts of immigration, understanding the causes of poverty—these are all absolutely vital,” he says. “If there’s an atmosphere of intimidation around politicized issues, it clearly influences the research.”

Then, there are other causes – not necessarily minor. He points to ‘hyper-parenting’ although he does not use that phrase. Second is the attitude of Universities and colleges that treat students as customers and that customers are always right, in that great language of commerce. I am not sure if centres of leaning and knowledge should treat students as customers or just as students – with a mixture of compassion, understanding, justice and, importantly, discipline.

That is a great finish to the interview:

“People are sick and tired of being called racist for innocent things they’ve said or done,” Mr. Haidt observes. “The response to being called a racist unfairly is never to say, ‘Gee, what did I do that led to me being called this? I should be more careful.’ The response is almost always, ‘[Expletive] you!’ ”

He offers this real world example: “I think that the ‘deplorables’ comment could well have changed the course of human history.”

Well, after the last one week of President Trump’s audacious, unprecedented and dramatic somersaults, we do not know if history is merely continuing or is changing. That is an aside.

Back to Haidt and his ‘Heterodox Academy’. How big his challenge and how long the road ahead is, is underscored by these two stories. In case you had not watched this video, please do so (ht Harikiran). It is downright scary. It is from Australia. The disease is prevalent in all affluent societies. Perhaps, this is how the wheels of societies turn.

In the final analysis, one has to wish Haidt well. He is performing a very important task here with his Heterodox Academy. It is impossible to exaggerate its necessity in these times.

Intellectuals vs. thought leaders

Good friend Praveen sent me the piece by David Brooks in NYT on intellectuals and thought leaders.  I enjoyed reading it.

I loved this quote:

“It will be necessary to resist the tendency to render easy that which cannot become easy without being distorted.”

It is attributed to Gramsci.

Applies in many different contexts – from parenting to public policy! But, given recent policy initiatives of the government in India, easy to think of public policy applications.

Essentially, Mr. Brooks argues that the pendulum had swung too far towards thought leaders away from intellectuals. That needs correction, in his view.

The world needs intellectuals too, even if they are wrong. In other words, one needs long-term abstract thinkers who gaze into the sky for an infinitely long period as much as one needs TED talkers and thinkers.

Somewhat analogously, one needs both of

  • op.-ed. writers and long-form writers.
  • short essays and books.
  • poetry and prose