Right Intent, Opposite Effect

The German philosopher Hegel had proposed a dialectic approach to history of human ideas. He suggested that every idea (thesis) becomes a trigger for the opposite idea (anti-thesis) to emerge. The resultant tension generates a synthesis which can incorporate both sides and becomes the new thesis, which in turn generates its own anti-thesis, and so on. Now imagine a scenario, where no synthesis emerges, then all that one is left with is a continuous oscillation between thesis and anti-thesis. I believe, this process can only be sustained by creating false binaries.

Virtually all spheres of present day life are full of false binaries. While this seems to be so all over the world, it is certainly true in India. Either Tipu Sultan was a great benevolent brave secular ruler ,or he was a religious bigot and a mass murderer. Either there are no difference between men and women except biological or that men are from Mars and Women are from Venus. Every issue is pushed to the extreme-  whether it be the issue  of insipid secularism vs. religious fundamentalism, or self-hate vs. jingoism, or cultural pride vs. intolerance for differences, or state regulation vs. privacy, or discipline vs. individual freedom, it is virtually impossible to find any common ground for dialogue. All you can have in this scenario are Win-lose type of debates in a battle ground.

I believe that one of the main contributors to this state of all pervasive false binaries is non-recognition of difference between Intent and Impact.

Most of us, most of the times operate from the belief that our choices and actions are governed  not just by our own selfish interests but also collective good. We almost take it for granted  that we are working towards enhancing the well-being for ourselves, our kith and kin, our families and organisations and society at large.

For most of us, this belief is crucial for our self-esteem, and hence difficult to challenge. Therefore, when the consequences of our choices run counter to our expectations, we are unlikely to go beyond making some tactical improvements and refrain from asking any serious questions which may shake up the basic foundations of our belief structure. On the contrary, we are more likely to stick to our position with even greater determination. The situation is akin to that of a gambler who after losing, increases the stake, with the firm belief that in the ultimate analysis, things will work out well.

This is where the Hegelian principle comes into play. The more stubbornly a thesis is adhered to, the more space it provides for the anti-thesis to flourish. A stark example of this process was witnessed during the Emergency days. In the early 70’s, it is quite likely that Mrs. Indira Gandhi genuinely believed  that she was acting in the best interests of the country, and a handful of unruly elements were creating unnecessary obstacles and hence needed to be put in their place.  A false binary got created between “discipline” and “protest”. Ironically, the more she tried to enforce discipline, the more “suspect” her “intent” became and eventually she was forced to take an extreme step.

Interestingly, “order and discipline” which were presumably her original intent became the biggest casualty. For several subsequent years, all that we saw was utter chaos. More importantly, in our collective psyche, the false binary between “discipline” and “freedom” continues to call the shots.

Something similar may be happening with the Hindutva brigade. Presumably, they have the honourable  intent of cultural resurgence and national pride. However, the shriller they become, the more they alienate, which in turn causes them to take even more extreme positions. This can only be supported through false  binaries like between “patriotism” and “dissent”. Ironically, in this process ,all that happens is that perfectly honourable notions like patriotism and cultural heritage, become tainted with narrow -mindedness and jingoism . Similarly,  another set of people, who have their own honourable intent,  have ended up ensuring that  terms like secular or liberal, become equated with cultural insensitivity and disdain for tradition.

The net result is that both groups have done more “harm” than “good” to their own respective agendas, and in fact,  should thank each other for keeping them alive. I have often heard people say that the only reason that they support BJP is because they can’t stand Congress, just as I have heard people say that in order to get rid of BJP, they will be willing to support even the Congress.

This is an interesting situation where no thesis can stand on it’s own feet and must derive the legitimacy for its existence from its anti-thesis i.e. becoming anti-thesis to its anti-thesis. Such a situation can only be sustained through false binaries. Imagine a situation ,where dissent is not equated with being anti-national OR where “Bharat Mata ki Jai” is not held with disdain or seen as oppressive. In such a space survival for both Hidutva-wadis and their opponents will become rather difficult.

While these false binaries reinforce each other, they do so by ensuring that no dialogue  can take place and hence no synthesis can emerge. The entire focus shifts to questioning each others’ intent rather than engaging with the gap between intent and impact.

A meaningful dialogue presumes-

a) prima facie acceptance that the intent of the other is honourable, and

b) willingness to accept that there may be a gap between one’s own intent and the impact of one’s choices and action.

The main difficulty in this endeavour is posed by the mother of all false binaries- the  binary between good and evil. In this binary, the intent of the “other” is always suspect, and hence will be  seen as a threat to be eliminated rather than  as a resource which compliments.

Fortunately, the Indian tradition does not place too much emphasis on good/evil binary. Instead our focus has been on Avidya i.e. error/inadequacy of perception and/or interpretation. Thus it is possible to accept that the intent of the other may be as honourable as one’s own and the gaps between intent and impact can be dialogued upon.

There is very little scope for dialogue between good and evil- they can only fight and try to eliminate each other. Acknowledgement of Avidya (both in self and other) opens the door to dialogue and emergence of a synthesis.

I wish we would treasure and embrace this great part of our heritage rather than focus on all the historical hurts and humiliations.

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I , Me and We

George Herbert Mead made an important distinction between I and Me. His contention was that all of us are both individualistic and innovative beings (I) and social and relation beings (Me). These two interdependent aspects are part of every human being and create an inevitable dualistic plurality between need for autonomy and need for belonging.

These two orientations have some interesting implications for how we look at “We” i.e. our idea of a collective. Many societies (for example, India) have traditionally placed greater emphasis on the relational (Me) side. In this scenario, “We” acquires an all pervasive presence leaving very little space for I. In contrast, the modern day societies place emphasis on I. In this scenario, “We” becomes essentially a convenient collation of I’s, which must exist primarily to serve the needs of the I,  with no distinct identity of its own. In fact, any assertion of salience on part of the We is often experienced as an intrusion and unnecessary limitation to the freedom of “I” to embrace any identity that it wishes to.

Thus, differentiations based on collective identities(e.g. race, religion, gender, etc.) become problematic. Such differentiations are often seen as (and many times are) discriminatory, prejudicial and stereotypes. Reference to racial/gender differences carry with them the risk of being labeled as racist/sexist. Besides the obvious confusion between differentiation and discrimination, there is also the apprehension of dilution of individual salience. While there is an understandable concern that people should not be seen ONLY in terms of the collective identity of their belonging system, often it manifests itself through a complete denial of the collective identity of the individual.  The underlying belief seems to be that human beings are only I and there is no Me in them. Some of the manifestations of this stance are-

a) human beings have ( or at least should have)  unlimited freedom to chose who they are and who they wish to become,

b) messages and influences received from systems of belonging should not play any part in this process of “individuation” and

c) people should be seen and engaged with only in terms of their “personal attributes” and all references to the codings from their belonging system are necessarily prejudicial.

These beliefs are particularly strong amongst people who Joseph Heinrich has called WEIRD( see my blog piece on “Democratic Condescension). WEIRD is an acronym for Western, Educated,Industrialised,Rich and Democratic). Heinrich’s hypothesis is that a large part of our understanding about human condition is based upon this “statistical minority” , which we then apply to the entire human race..

For the greater part of my life, I have subscribed to this perspective of the WEIRD, and to a large extent still do. In many ways, both my personal and professional lives have been governed by this perspective.  However, I am also becoming aware of the limitations that it has imposed on my understanding of people who do not share this perspective. Rather than acknowledge that the relationship between I , Me and We is configured differently  in them, I have been quick to judge them as immature, dependent, parochial and regressive.

I have also begin to realise that in this process, I have actually not transcended the codings of my belonging system, I have merely shifted my allegiance from one reference group to another. Perhaps real “individuation” does not happen with turning one’s back on Me, but only through the difficult path of co-holding both I and Me.

Do share how you have experienced the relationship between I, Me and We in yourself.

 

 

Cricket and Gender

Post the world cup, interest in women’s cricket has risen exponentially. Undoubtedly the performance of the Indian team has much to do with it, but it is also a fact that this is not the first time that our women’s team has made it to the final. Consequently, it is reasonable to assume that at least in part, some non-cricketing factors have also contributed to this  new fascination with women’s cricket.The live T.V. coverage was a big factor, but I think, the whole process began with Maithali Raj’s interview. Several people who had no idea about her or her massive achievements on the cricket field, started taking notice of her.

When Raj was asked by the interviewer as to who her favourite male cricketer was, she retorted with a counter question- would you ever ask a male cricketer about his favourite female cricketer? This was not a plea for Gender Equality- it was an un-ambiguous demand to be recognised in her own right and a refusal to piggy back on men’s cricket. Fortunately she and her team more than justified her stance.

It therefore saddens me when women’s cricket is viewed through the lens of men’s cricket, particularly when it comes from people who wish to support women’s cricket. Today, I came across a comment from  a India player ” This world cup saw women clearing the boundaries convincingly. The standard of batting has improved to another level. Women do have powerful game. All I can say is we can definitely give 60% of what men give.” I have heard same sentiment being expressed by many experts in “support of women’s cricket”

While I sympathise with the intent, I also believe that this propensity to look at women’s cricket through the lens of men’s cricket is counter-productive because it will keep the women’s cricket in a never-ending “catch- up” mode. The 60% will rise to 90 % or 95% but it will still remain behind men’s cricket. The reason for this is very simple- the rules of the game have been laid down by men.

In contrast, I find much more sense in the stance of Sunil Gavaskar who believes that in their essence the men’s cricket and women’s cricket are different games and both are enjoyable in their own right. In his words “men’s game is mostly about power, whereas women’s game leans towards grace”

One may or may not agree with Gavaskar’s view but what it clearly highlights is that the same game can have two very different interpretations and appeals. This can be easily witnessed in case of Tennis. It is meaningless to look at women’s tennis as some kind of an inferior version of men’s tennis. They are two different kinds of games with their unique respective appeal. Personally, I enjoy the long rallies and deft placements of women’s tennis as much, if not more than the quick fire and power packed  serve and volley game of men’s tennis.

When this distinctiveness is not appreciated, we end up with a monolithic interpretation which is essentially defined by men. Since several spaces of human endeavour have been traditionally dominated by men, invariably  women are compelled  to prove themselves in situations where the rules of the game have been laid down by men. This phenomenon is  is not confined to the cricket field only and can be witnessed in virtually all spheres- be it the world of corporate houses or academia or any other field for that matter.

In my work on gender and diversity, I rarely come across people who are willing to see how their notions about managerial effectiveness and leadership have been primarily shaped by the masculine perspective. For most such people the issue of gender equity rarely goes beyond being unbiased and giving equal chance to women to “show their worth”. That the rules of the game are loaded against them is rarely examined. Ironically, when some of the women are able to do so, in spite of this handicap, they are beaten for being “too dominating and aggressive”

Perhaps it is time that the gender narrative moves forward from the usual discourse of bias and prejudice and starts examining how do we value and cherish differences. If we only value what men bring to the table, we will keep the women in a perpetual “catching up” mode. More importantly, we will deprive ourselves of the tremendous unique gifts which they bring. Simply put, we need to enjoy women’s cricket for itself  and recognise that it is a different game and not  60% or 95% of men’s game.

 

Fishing in Troubled Waters

Today, The Times of India, Bengaluru has carried a news item on the first page which mercifully does not even find a mention in The Hindu. The news item is about a couple (Hindu woman and Muslim man) being denied entry by a hotel on “communal grounds”. The hotel staff have a very different story to tell (that the couple refused to show their I.D.) I do not know what actually happened, but it is highly likely that the truth may be somewhere in between. Most hotels are understandably a little suspicious of couples who walk in without any luggage and who want a room only for a “couple of hours” It is possible that the hotel staff may have felt even more alarmed by the fact that the couple belonged to different communities. This may have peeved the concerned couple, leading to an altercation.

Irrespective of what actually happened, the central question is – does it deserve a coverage on the front page of a “reputed” newspaper. Does this not amount to “fishing in troubled waters” in a communally charged situation? Isn’t it obvious that the more one indulges in such fishing, the more trouble is brewed? It is tempting to believe that such “fishing” is only done by politicians, journalists, t.v. anchors and the like. The phenomenon is much wider than what we may think. I think it can be witnessed in virtually all walks of modern day life.

Though a lawyer himself, Gandhi had great reservations about both legal and medical professions. His concern stemmed from his belief that often the practitioners of these professions “fish in troubled waters”. Intervention from lawyers prevents mutual engagement and reconciliation, just as the doctor by taking care of the “troubled symptoms” of the patient, de-facto ensures that the patient can continue to live with his/her unhealthy life style, which had caused the illness in the first place.

If Gandhi was alive today, perhaps he would have been forced to include several other professions in the same category- marketeers, spiritual gurus, therapists, consultants etc. who have mastered the art of selling their wares as solution to all kinds of “troubles” – fairness creams, anti-ageing solutions, interpersonal hassles, inter-group conflicts, self-doubt etc. etc. Just name the “trouble” and there will be someone or other, offering a solution for it.

What makes us so susceptible to “fishing in troubled waters”? I suspect, it has something to do with lack of “aliveness” in modern day living. Thus every “trouble” becomes a reminder of our aliveness and hence acts as a stimulant. Many many years ago, I had come across a statement from Albert Camus which impacted me very deeply. I don’t remember the exact words but its essence was something like this – ” One sentence will suffice to describe the life of the modern man- he fornicated and read the newspaper ”

Several decades later, we seem to have even surpassed that. We have successfully combined “fornication” with “reading newspaper”- today we only watch pornography- not just of the sexual kind but in virtually all spheres of life. It has been found that primates when living in a zoo, develop all kinds of unnatural habits (e.g. masturbation, violence towards each other etc.). Perhaps something similar is happening to us- we are effectively living in a zoo- a very comfortable, sanitised, luxurious zoo which has everything except aliveness. Is there any surprise then that “fishing in troubled waters” becomes are only reminder to the fact that we are alive- otherwise we are condemned to the monotony of living in a zoo.

Aliveness and Alienation are inversely related. Greater the alienation, greater the ennui and lower the aliveness. Ever since Karl Marx, the issue of human alienation from self, work, others, nature etc. has been a prominent theme of academic and literary discourse. Perhaps it is high time that we start recognising the deadly consequences of this alienation.

Frustrated Masculinity gone astray

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Several years back, in my book ” Child- Man”, I had written ” Religion in the modern world is no longer an opiate which lulls people into resigned acceptance of their fate, but more of an aphrodisiac which provides a release from the rage, resentment and the feelings of impotence with which the modern man lives. Not surprisingly, religion in danger, has become a strong motif for the mobilisation of collective outrage the world over. It would seem that the projections of purity and vulnerability which, in earlier times were made on the female gender are now being made on religion. Hence by seeing himself as the saviour of his religion, modern man can reclaim his masculinity which otherwise seems to be under attack from all other sources”

The reality of this process became very stark the other day when I saw that the news item of a Haryana government minister extolling the virtues of ghunghat (veil) was followed by scenes of lynching in the name of “cow- protection”. Transference of the need to protect the honour of one’s womenfolk ( symbolised by ghunghat)  to protection of cows (quasi- religious symbol of sacredness)  could not have been more vivid. Continue reading “Frustrated Masculinity gone astray”

Gender Diversity Paradox

Most organisations have come around to the view that Gender Diversity is no longer just “good to have” but that it has to be treated as a “business imperative”. However, in my experience, very few people (let alone organisations) are able to muster any real conviction about it. While the case for Gender Diversity from the point of view of equality, fairness, social justice and even access to a potentially larger talent pool, is indisputable, its linkage with organisational effectiveness remains suspect. Thus in the minds of many people, Gender Diversity is linked more to “lowering of standards” than “enhancement of organisational effectiveness”.

I believe the main difficulty arises from a paradox which is inherent in the Gender Diversity issue- its promotion has required underplaying the differences between the two genders, whereas, its link with organisational effectiveness requires appreciation and celebrating the differences between the two genders. let me elaborate.

One of the most significant  blocks in the road to Gender Diversity is the frozen stereotypes around gender and gender roles. Beliefs around relative attributes/ competencies/ roles of the two genders (e.g. men have greater flair for technology, women are soft-spoken or at least should be, men are more rational and assertive, women are more emotional and caring, men are bread winners, women are home makers, etc.) are quite rampant even if they are not consciously acknowledged.

Thus, promotion of Gender Diversity has necessarily entailed confronting these stereotypes and underplaying the differences between the two genders. Not surprisingly, most advocates of Gender Diversity take a Gender Neutral stance and focus upon the inherent commonality of the two genders and draw attention to the social handicap faced by women. Their essential argument is that women have been deprived of their due, and if given the opportunity they can be as good as men.  There is also an underlying belief (with considerable justification, I think) that highlighting differences between the two genders will necessarily be detrimental to the interest of women.

Ironically, this stance of Gender Neutrality and emphasis on commonality between the two genders becomes a major deterrent to appreciation of benefits of Gender Diversity. If people are seen as Gender Neutral Robots of skills and competencies, then by implication, having people of different genders does not foster any real diversity. All that it can ensure is that the organisation is drawing its talent from a wider and larger pool, but the basic nature of the “talent” remains the same. In such a scenario, any claims of linkage between Diversity and Effectiveness, sound hollow and do not carry any real conviction.

Any meaningful claim of benefits of Gender Diversity for organisational effectiveness can only be made provided it is first recognised that the two genders bring Different sets of orientations/competencies/predispositions etc. to the table and both sets are equally valuable and the resultant tension has immense creative potential.While there is considerable research evidence about both commonalities and differences between the two genders, its applicability and implications has all kinds of problems.

The first problem stems from the fact that these differences are not absolute in nature. Like any comparison between two groups, the intra-group differences are larger than inter-group differences. Thus, on the whole, men may be taller than women, but there are several women who are taller than most men. When a inter-group difference is applied indiscriminately to every individual case, appreciation of difference degenerates into stereotyping.

The second difficulty arises from the multiple meanings and interpretations which can be assigned to these differences. For example, there is research evidence to suggest that in general women are more “empathetic” than men. However, it is difficult to say as to whether this difference is on account of the bio-existential imperatives of their gender or on account of socio-cultural factors. Thus assigning any stability/finality to these differences can become highly problematic.

The third, and I believe, the most important difficulty arises from the power imbalance in gender relations. Whenever two groups are locked in a lop sided power relationship, the attributes of the higher placed group tend to be regarded as “superior” to the attributes of the group which is lower in the power equation. This can be as superficial  as skin colour or as deep as values and beliefs. Given the patriarchal structure, there is a natural over-valuing of masculine attributes as compared to feminine attributes. in such a scenario any hint of differentiating between the attributes and predispositions of men and women, effectively degenerates into discrimination against women.

This differential valuing is even more stark in the organisational context. Since most of our thinking around management and leadership is based upon masculine principle, the picture of an effective leader in the minds of many people is heavily tilted towards masculine attributes such as assertion, ambition, analytical ability, courage etc. While the grip of the “alpha male” over our notions of leadership is reducing, we are still far away from valuing and gracing feminine attributes such as sensitivity, intuition, receptivity, resilience etc.in our notions of leadership. Thus the message which gets communicated to women is that in order to succeed they must shed their inhibitions- become more assertive and demanding and net-work better- in other words become more “men like’.

This approach does not foster diversity, but creates more hegemony. Consequently, the very argument of Diversity for Effectiveness becomes meaningless, because no diversity is being fostered in the first place. All that is being done is that people from different gender (or other backgrounds) are being put into one huge melting pot and then placed into the same mould. Simply put, the argument of Diversity for Effectiveness is sustainable, only if the Differences  are first recognised and then celebrated. For this to happen, it is necessary that the Feminine part of us (irrespective of whether in a Man or in a Woman) finds its legitimate space in our notions of management and leadership. Without that Women may find space in the corporate world, but the doors will remain closed for Femininity. The link between Gender Diversity and Organisational Effectiveness resides not so much in having more women but in integrating the feminine principle in our notions of management and leadership.

The theory of Paradox, tell us that no paradox can be resolved at the level at which it arises. In case of Gender Diversity, the paradox gets created by the conflicting needs of Gender Neutrality and Gender Sensitivity. For promoting Gender Diversity it becomes necessary to emphasise the shared humanity between Men and Women. However, for harnessing the potential of Gender Diversity, it is necessary to be sensitive to the differences between the two genders and celebrate them. If this paradox is to be resolved, then we need to look at issue of Gender Diversity not just as a Man- Woman issue, but also in terms of the Masculine  and Feminine principles- how they are configured within us and in the systems to which we belong. Only then we will be able to appreciate how these principles complement each other and how the tension inherent between them is the source of all human creativity and how they can contribute to organisational effectiveness.

Aryan centric idea of India

I wonder, if Mr. Tarun Vijay of the BJP realises the full import of his statement about South Indians and black skinned people. More than the underlying prejudice, it betrays a certain idea of India and being Indian that is worrisome. When he says that we have “black people around us” and that “we live with them”, one can not help but ask as to who is this WE that Mr. Vijay has in mind.

It would have been an entirely different matter if Mr. Vijay had said the “we are dark skinned people OR that “we have dark skinned people amongst us ” OR that “we are a multi-racial society”. This may sound like nitpicking and it is tempting to forgive him for poor/misleading phrasing  of an honourable intent. It is entirely possible that his intent may have been honourable, but it also suggests a way of defining who an Indian is, which is worth exploring.

The impression that one gets from his statement is that there is a “we” which is different from the dark skinned people who are around this “we” and the two are living amicably but are not quite the same. Further, this picture of “we” is perhaps highly influenced by presumably fair complexioned Aryans.

The issue becomes even more significant in view of the constituency which his party has been traditionally associated with. Its original constituency was the upper caste Hindus of North India . While the “historical facts” may be debatable, the “history as it exists in the minds” of this constituency is that their lineage is Aryan and there country is  Aryavrata, coupled with a presumed notion of Aryan supremacy.  While from an electoral perspective, BJP has extended its reach significantly, Mr. Vijay’s statement indicates that its notions about Indian-ness are still those of its original constituency.

BJP has often claimed that its notion of Hindutva is not a religious construct but based on the notion of cultural nationalism. However their idea of this cultural nationalism is often defined in terms of their mother constituency i.e. upper caste Hindu north Indians which is highly Aryan centric. Further, in order to expand its reach, it seems keen to invite others to join and participate in this project of cultural nationalism, so long as this Aryan hegemony is accepted. From this position, it can at best include those who do not subscribe to this Aryan supremacy, but never become “one with them”.

Personally, I have no quarrel with the idea of cultural nationalism, though I prefer the term Indian-ness. The main reason for this preference is that Culture is often associated with customs and social practices, whereas Indian-ness essentially refers to civilisational quintessence i.e. psychological predispositions and perspectives. I believe ( and I have very good reasons to support this belief) that beyond the differences of caste, creed, language, religion, customs etc., there is an essential Indian-ness which is shared by all of us. This quintessential Indian-ness resides in our perspective on living i.e. what constitutes meaningful life, what is the nature of human relationships, what is the meaning of Individual freedom, what constitutes ethical conduct, what is the nature of relationship between state and society, what is the relationship between humanity and nature, what is the nature of relationship between human beings and technology, what is the role of religion and faith, and host of such questions.

Many of these perspectives or predispositions transcend differences of region, religion or socio-economic categories. No matter whether a person sees his/her lineage as Aryan or non-Aryan, whether he/she is privileged or oppressed, whatever be his/her theological beliefs, whatever be his/her dietary preferences or other living habits, there is a remarkable similarity in how the Indian mind works and how the Indian psyche looks at self and world at large. This to me is the civilisational quintessence which has been handed over to us both genetically and through processes of socialisation and acculturation.

Sadly, the predispositions of the Indian psyche have never figured prominently in our ideas of  development and modernity. Our essential picture of a progressive civilised society are based on how the Western mind works rather than how the Indian mind works. This is not to suggest a binary of India vs. West, but only to suggest that there are definite nuances which are present in different civilisations, even though essentially they deal with the same human imperatives and dilemmas. Unfortunately most of our frames, including our ways of looking at ourselves, have been borrowed from the West without taking into account  the nuances of our own civilisational quintessence. As Rabindranath Tagore put it, ” we have bought our spectacles at the expense of our eye sight”

The idea of cultural nationalism based on the premise of Aryan supremacy is yet another example of the same phenomenon. It has the same disdainful and patronising attitude towards the “non-Aryan” part of ourselves as our colonial masters had towards the native Indian. It may help in ensuring adherence to a uniform set of customs and practices, but in effect, it alienates us from the essence of our being. It merely replaces one kind of oppression with another.

It matters little, whether the oppressor is external or internal and what is the brand of hegemony that is sought to be imposed, the essential process remains the same. I suspect we will keep replacing one set of oppressors with another till such time that we learn to look at ourselves through our own eyes, understand ourselves in our own way and value ourselves at our own terms.