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.

A letter to the Indian Prime Minister

This was first published in MINT on Jan. 4, 2016

Respected Prime Minister,

In October 2012, at the height of gloom and despondency about India amidst growth challenges, corruption charges and collapse of governance, Shankkar Aiyar, the author of Accidental India, wrote the following about leadership: “Leadership is not about pickled intellect. It is driven by imagination, a willingness to reflect, ability to inspire, to listen and to have the courage of conviction to embrace risk.”

Indeed, leadership has many dimensions as he has pointed out. But above all, it is about credibility. Credibility starts with truth and realism. For example, economic optimism ought to be founded on economic realism. The previous government took economic growth for granted. It paid a political price for it, but the country might have paid and might still be paying a bigger economic price for it.

Recently, the former finance minister cited the mid-year economic review of the finance ministry to proclaim the delayed arrival (or the non-arrival) of Achhe Din. He failed the credibility test because the bulk of the blame for India’s economic travails falls on the government he was part of. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s biggest mistake has been the underestimation of the challenge of reviving growth in an economy left in a complete mess by the previous government. It is not the only mistake, however.

The commerce ministry is brave to counter the export pessimism of the mid-year economic review of the finance ministry. But it is certainly not being realistic. For India, growth will be hard to come by in a world riven by conflicts, geopolitical ambitions and fading economic growth prospects. Hence, the role of leadership becomes that much more critical. Indeed, it can be argued that strong, effective, competent and enlightened leadership may or may not have been necessary for today’s developed economies because other factors were vastly more favourable to them. East Asia became rich when America was willing to do anything to stop the spread of communism. China prospered when globalization was fashionable. India, on the other hand, faces climate change hurdles, de-globalization and trade protectionism. A growth rate of 7-8%, properly measured, is far from assured.

Leadership is a popularity contest but with a twist. It is about appeasing the current generation versus courting the goodwill of future generations. Successful leaders bet their future on the uncertain goodwill of the unborn. To its credit, the NDA government has not concentrated its energies on appeasement as the previous government did. Moreover, it is fighting the cronyism that flourished under the previous regime. That might explain the private sector investment funk. However, states where the Bharatiya Janata Party has not fared well in local elections have resorted to irresponsible measures to woo back the electorate.

Further, the Union government is guilty of many errors of omission. It has not been able to persuade the nation of the merits of amending the land acquisition bill, of labour reforms, of privatization of airports and of raising the standards of Indian education. Higher pay for government workers is fine, but the nation needs a quid pro quo in terms of productivity and accountability—not just from bureaucrats but from ministers too. Even now, the University Grants Commission makes news for restricting educational institutions rather than liberating them. Several well-known institutions have received notices for operating off-site campuses. In short, the government has been ducking hard choices more often than it has embraced them.

Reversing this would require the government actively seeking expert advice that is not afraid to deliver the truth to the leadership. The initiative has to come from you. Tamil sage Thiruvalluvar had dedicated one chapter (10 couplets, from 441 to 450) to the idea of surrounding oneself with wise men who would keep kings grounded and ensure that they rule the kingdom well, in the interests of all the subjects. I share the translation of four of them here:

A king wise enough to have men of greater wisdom than he to advise him shall be a powerful ruler. (Kural No. 444)

Where the king’s counsellors possess the courage to reprove him when necessary, nothing on earth can bring about such a king’s ruin. (Kural No. 447)

Without courageous counsellors to point out his faults and so protect him, a king will ruin himself, even without foes. (Kural No. 448)

It is foolish surely to incur enmity of many foes, but 10 times worse to lose righteous friends. (Kural No. 450).

Finally, successful leaders eschew coercion and embrace persuasion. Communication is the difference between persuasion and coercion. After all, in the age-old fable, it is the sun that gently bears down that removes the cloth from the itinerant traveller and not the fierce wind that threatens to snatch the cloth from him. The sun succeeded because it made the traveller feel that it was in his interest to let go of the shawl, whereas the wind threatened to snatch it away from him. Success comes to those leaders who share it and who make others feel that they were in command of their decisions.

Wishing you and the nation more glory and prosperity in the new year.

Sincerely,

Anantha Nageswaran

What is it to ‘be spiritual’?

When people ask me what do I do every day ever since I quit a full-time job in July 2011, I feel reluctant to say that I am engaged a bit more than I used to in spiritual pursuits. By the end of the post, the reason for my reluctance will be clearer. The common understanding of spiritual pursuits could be somewhat different from what I intend to convey. Usually, it is taken to mean that one is engaged in religious studies, participates in group chanting and/or attends religious classes (e.g., Veda chanting or Bhagawad Gita lessons), visits temples, etc. My guess is that spirituality could include these but is certainly not limited to them.

At a personal level, I am doing some of the above activities more than I used to, in the past. I find them useful, comforting and I think they help me in ‘spiritual pursuits’ as I am going to describe them below. I believe that they help to prepare the mind just as one prepares the soil before seeding. Harvest comes much later and a lot more remains to be done after seeding. Hence, the analogy seems apt, to me.

But, it is possible that one may just stop with these activities and not pursue a spiritual path. Worse, in some cases, pursuit of the above activities is construed to be a license to engage more freely in unethical and immoral activities in the worldly plane.

What exactly is being ‘spiritual’ or being engaged in spiritual pursuit? What follows is a personal definition. I see two dimensions to being spiritual.

As one becomes more and more spiritual, in every action/non-action, one will go through three stages consciously: awareness, action (or non-action) and acceptance of outcome of the previous two stages of awareness and action. This is one dimension of spirituality.

Being aware of a situation including one’s own motivations, prejudices, insecurities, fears, anxieties, jealousies, etc. makes it a lot easier to deal with them. The moment one becomes aware of them, one ceases to justify them to oneself and the journey to a world where we are rid of them has begun in a big way. ‘Being aware’ is also the very big step in developing and maintaining ‘Saakshibhava’.

In the practical plane, awareness leads to conscious action, weighing of costs, benefits and consequences of action and inaction with greater objectivity. In fact, awareness in some situations will lead to non-action which is very different from inaction.

Inaction usually is thamasic whereas non-action is deliberate. Action usually results from the need/urge to act, driven by ego – wanting to be seen as doing something (for one’s own self-image and one for the sake of worldly perception). Awareness leading to non-action is recognition of a problem but also the attendant recognition that one’s proposed solutions might not solve the problem but compound it. That is humility or, at the minimum, leashing the ego. We all have the urge to solve all the problems that befall us (personal) or come to our knowledge (private and social) – personal, private or social – and underlying that urge is the belief and the confidence that we have the answers. It may be true on occasions but, mostly, it is our ego that makes us believe that we have the answers.

Once we have decided to act (or, not act), then we accept whatever outcome that comes our way without any attachment to it. Of course, I am not saying anything new here. Most of you know who holds the intellectual property right to this one.

May be, I should propose one amendment: Instead of ‘action’, let us say, ‘decision’ without attachment to outcomes. ‘Decision’ is broader and includes both action and non-action.

The second dimension of spirituality is to make sure that one’s actions are aligned with one’s words and words are aligned with thoughts and of course, to ensure that the thoughts be healthy and dharmic.

It seems apt to end this post with the words of Sri Chandrashekhara Bharati Mahaswamigal (1892-1954), 34th Pontiff (1912-1954) of the Sri Sharada Peetam, Sringeri:

 What is the practical use of enunciating the abstract truth of the Absolute Brahman to people who are not prepared to put into practice the elementary principles of even Samanya Dharma, Ordinary Law? After securing steadiness in Samanya Dharma, and after purifying and qualifying himself by the earnest practice of Visesha Dharma, the Special Law, prescribed for him, a person attains the requisite standard of competence to enable him to enter on the study of Advaita. The tendency to neglect the wholesome doctrine that Vedantic study is intended only for the competent is responsible for the confused thinking of modern days. Even for simple crafts, such as masonry or carpentry, a preliminary course of training is required before a person is allowed to handle the instruments; but in the field of Brahma-Vidya, the science of the Self, the highest and the most difficult of all sciences, everybody thinks himself competent and entitled to study the system of Advaita and even to sit in judgement over it. This attitude must go and must be replaced by earnest endeavour first to secure the necessary competence. If we make an honest attempt to secure that competence by following implicitly the directions of the sastras and of the Guru, the Lord will guide us along the path of progress, solve all our problems and doubts, free us from all worry and trouble and lead us on to the state of realisation of the Advaita Reality, the truth and the bliss of the absolute oneness of all in the undifferentiated Brahman. [Link, p.14]

(So, why am I reluctant to say that I am engaged in spiritual pursuits? It is not correct to say that one is working towards a doctorate just after having joined the Kindergarten.)