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

Sagely advice

These are verbatim extracts from the article, ‘Finale’ written by James Taranto who compiled the ‘Best of the web’ for the Wall Street Journal for nine years.

In our own postelection conversations with Trump supporters, the predominant emotions we’ve detected have been joy and hope. It reminds us very much of the prevailing mood in the mainstream media around this time eight years ago.

No doubt before the election a lot of Trump supporters were angry about the incumbent and the status quo more generally. But the same was true of Obama supporters in 2008.

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Territorial animals fiercely defend their turf: “When a territory holder is challenged by a rival, the owner almost always wins the contest–usually within a matter of seconds,” observes biologist John Alcock in “Animal Behavior: An Evolutionary Approach.” We’d say the same instinct is at work when the great apes who call themselves Homo sapiens defend their authority. When it is challenged, they can become vicious, prone to risky and unscrupulous behavior.

That, it seems to us, is the central story of our time. The left-liberal elite that attained cultural dominance between the 1960s and the 1980s—and that since 2008 has seen itself as being on the cusp of political dominance as well—is undergoing a crisis of authority, and its defenses are increasingly ferocious and unprincipled. Journalists lie or ignore important but politically uncongenial stories. Scientists suppress alternative hypotheses. Political organizations bully apolitical charities. The Internal Revenue Service persecutes dissenters. And campus censorship goes on still.

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We argued in November that Trump’s election was “probably a necessary corrective” to left-liberal authoritarianism—a point PJMedia’s Roger Kimball echoes in a recent column:

Among the many things that changed during the early hours of November 9 was a cultural dispensation that had been with us since at least the 1960s, the smug, “progressive” (don’t call it “liberal”) dispensation that had insinuated itself like a toxic fog throughout our cultural institutions—our media, our universities, our think tanks and beyond. So well established was this set of cultural assumptions, cultural presumptions, that it seemed to many like the state of nature: just there as is a mountain or an expanse of ocean. But it turns out it was just a human, all-too-human fabrication whose tawdriness is now as obvious as its fragility.

What we are witnessing is its dissolution. It won’t happen all at once and there are bound to be pockets of resistance. But they will become ever more irrelevant even if they become ever shriller and more histrionic. The anti-Trump establishment is correct that what is taking place is a sea change in our country. But they are wrong about its purport. It is rendering them utterly irrelevant even as it is boosting the confidence, strength, and competence of the country as a whole. Glad tidings indeed.

That may prove overly optimistic. On the other hand, do you see what we mean about joy and hope?

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Our advice to journalists who wish to improve the quality of their trade would be to lose their self-importance, overcome the temptation to pose as (or bow to) authority figures, and focus on the basic function of journalism, which is to tell stories. Journalists are not arbiters of truth; we are, unlike fiction writers (or for that matter politicians), constrainedby the truth. But fiction writers bear the heavier burden of making their stories believable.

When you think about journalism in this way, its failure in 2016 becomes very simple to understand. Whether you see Trump as a hero or a goat—or something in between, which is our still-tentative view—his unlikely ascension to the presidency was a hell of a story. Most journalists missed the story because they were too caught up in defending a system of cultural authority of which they had foolishly allowed themselves to become an integral part.

New Year Greetings

Absolute wishes:

May the Almighty wish you all a healthy, happy and prosperous New Year!

Relative wishes:

May the Almighty bless us with opportunities for more self-doubt, more
reflection and more of less certitude, from time to time.

A friend responded:

Absolute wishes:

May we abandon all wishes!

Relative wishes:

May the Almighty’s and our wishes coincide from time to time!

For those familiar with Tamil Nadu politics and names:

Wishing you

Paneerselvam’s luck,
Sasikala’s wealth,
Karunanidhi’s longevity and
Stalin’s patience in this new year

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.