Dilemmas, Polarities and Paradoxes

The other day, I heard a renowned expert state that the difference between a dilemma, a polarity and a paradox is essentially a matter of semantics. I was not particularly surprised because I have often come across people using these terms almost as synonyms. While there may be some similarities between the three, the differences are extremely significant. In this piece, I have tried to articulate my understanding of the three and also why it is important not to confuse them with each other.

Dilemma : Dilemma is a difficult choice between two equally strong alternatives. The two alternatives may not have any inherent contrary tension, but in some situations it may not be possible to pursue them simultaneously. Thus a judge may have to choose between “upholding the law” and “being compassionate”. This does not mean that there is an inherent contrary pull between “adherence to law” and “compassion”. It is just that in some situations, one may have to choose one over the other.

Since all needs and values may sometimes conflict with each other, a dilemma can arise between any two of them. Sometimes a dilemma can arise between elements which are normally highly convergent e.g. between liking and loving.  Most times they go hand in hand, but we may at times have to deal with the dilemmas arising out of  situations when we may like somebody but may not love the person or be unable to stop loving someone who we do not like.

Engagement with dilemmas requires exercise of ingenuity to find a third alternative which can take care of the requirements of both sides. Thus, in the example of the judge given above, the task would be to find a compassionate way of adhering to the law. In situations, when a third alternative  does not emerge, the individual will have to make a choice and live with its consequences.

Polarity:  In case of a polarity the two sides have a high degree of  contrary tension making them polar opposites. In extreme cases, they may become mutually exclusive (e.g. day and night, life and death) In other cases, the contrary tension may be strong enough  to make us believe that there simultaneous existence is impossible (e.g. introversion- extroversion, masculine-feminine etc.)

This also means that in a polarity, the two sides are intertwined and interdependent. They are like two sides of a coin which cannot exist without each other. The relationship here is not of “either-or” variety but of “foreground- background ” variety. While one side becomes prominent, the other does not disappear, it only gets relegated to the background. Thus the feminine side of a visibly masculine person, does not vanish, it merely remains in the background, exercises its influence in an indirect and invisible manner and occasionally shows itself. Just as during day time, the night does not cease to exist, but only remains in the background.

A polarity does not necessarily create a dilemma. The person who has a strong leaning towards either of the two poles, sidesteps the engagement with the dilemma through suppressing/repressing either of the two poles. The dilemma is only experienced by the individual  who does not polarize (i.e. have a marked preference for either of the two sides) . For example, the person who embraces both the masculine and feminine side, will face many more dilemmas than a person who embraces only one of the two.

In other words, non-engagement with a polarity becomes a way of avoiding the dilemma. Engagement with a polarity entails understanding the interdependence of the two sides, acknowledging the significance of each side and working towards a more supportive relationship between them. Consequently, engagement with a polarity means readiness to face more dilemmas than side stepping them.

Paradox: The situation in case of a paradox is all together different. In both dilemma and polarity, there are two sides.  In the case of a dilemma the two sides are tied in an “either-or” relationship; and, in case of a polarity, in a “foreground-background” relationship. In paradox, there are no two sides. There is only one side, which is inherently untenable.

In formal logic, a paradox is defined as  “a proposition whose logical conclusion, negates the premise itself”.  A typical example of a paradox is a statement like ” I always lie”.  If this statement is true and then by its very stipulation it must be a lie. Hence the statement is inherently untenable.

A paradox does not create dilemmas, it creates double-binds i.e. situations which lead to the same conclusion no matter what alternative is chosen. For example, when someone is asked “Have you stopped beating your wife?”, both answers (yes or no) are an admission of guilt.  Similarly a paradoxical injunction can neither be obeyed nor disobeyed.  If a parent tells a child ” Don’t listen to me”, the child can neither obey this command nor disobey it.

Paradoxes arise through “self-reference” i.e. the statement being applied to itself. In the famous Russel’s paradox (a set of sets which are not members of themselves), the paradox arises when you ask the question whether this set belongs to itself or not. If  it belongs to itself, then by its own stipulation it can not: and if it does not, then it must belong to itself. This led Russel to postulate the theory of logical categories and to show how mixing up the different levels of logical categories can create this confusion. A set of sets is a meta-set and can not be treated in the same class as a set of objects.

Thus, when a paradox is engaged with at the level at which it arises, one keeps going round and round in circles. Engagement with paradoxes necessarily entail transcendence in level of thinking or consciousness. A paradox which is frequently encountered by most of us is that “the more we cling to a person/object, the more it slips out of our grasp”.    Unless we shift the terms of reference and focus on our “compulsion to cling”, we can never release ourselves from the paradox.

Why these differences are important?

The differences between dilemmas, polarities and paradoxes are not merely of semantics or academic interest. They make a very real difference to how we engage with them. When a dilemma is treated like a polarity, we exaggerate the contrariness between the two sides. Imagine a judge who treats compassion and adherence to law as a polarity rather than a dilemma. Such a judge will treat them as mutually exclusive and is likely to become as dispassionate as possible, lest her/his compassion comes in the way of upholding the law. There will be no attempt to explore the possibility of co-holding the two.

Similarly, when a polarity is treated as a dilemma, the inherent contrary tension (as also the interdependence) between the two sides is either wished away or posited in either-or terms. This is most evident in the popular approach to engagement with the gender polarity. The differences between the two genders are either exaggerated ( Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus) or ignored ( we are all the same and gender is of no consequence).  Thus, not surprisingly, most organizations in their attempt to promote diversity either enhance masculinity among women or are left with a sense of compromise at having to take care of their feminine attributes and needs. In either case, the potential of the interdependence between masculine and feminine remains unfulfilled.

When Paradoxes are treated as dilemmas or polarities, the inherent contradiction is not experienced and hence one can not see that one is an untenable situation. A choice is presumed where none exists – a person clinging on to straws can neither let go nor continue in the same situation. The only way forward can emerge through exploring the fears and anxieties which the individual is trying to escape.  A typical example of this process is hypochondria. The more a hypochondriac is confronted, the more he/she  will insist that his/her illness is real and not imaginary. The only way forward is through addressing what lies beneath the hypochondria (in most cases need for attention)

Similarly, when all contrary phenomenon are treated as paradoxes, an inevitability is presumed where it does not exist. For example, simultaneous increase in wealth and poverty in a society is contradictory but not paradoxical. Treating it as a paradox, will prevent us from addressing the underlying issues such as  skewed distribution, inappropriate technology etc.  Thus, treating anything and everything as a paradox becomes a convenient way of escaping the responsibility to deal with the problem.

To sum up, dilemmas, polarities and paradoxes are quite different from each other and require different ways of engagement. Dilemmas can be addressed through ingenuity of finding a third alternative, which can accommodate (to the extent possible) both sides. Polarities require acknowledgment of the interdependence and consequent gracing of both sides. Paradoxes are essentially triggers for exploration to enliven deeper levels of consciousness. Further, these differences are neither a matter of semantics nor of mere academic interest. They have very profound implications for our day to day living process.

I look forward to your thoughts as also how you experience the difference between the three.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Patriots Vs. Globalists

In his recent address to the U.N. Assembly, president Trump predicted that the future belongs to Patriots and not Globalists. Irrespective of whether one agrees with Mr. Trump or not, one cannot deny the growing schism between the two groups. The mistrust, acrimony and hostility between the two groups has been steadily increasing  and this binary has become a significant determinant of political agenda, all over the world. Even every day life and social/professional engagements are being increasingly impacted by this binary.

There are several ways in which one can look at this binary. In this piece I have explored it through the EUM Lens ( Existential Universe Mapper) The framework posits six simultaneous and interactive Universes which reside within each individual/collective. Each of these Universes is a composite set of needs, values, behavioral propensities, world-view etc. Interested readers may like to visit eumlens.in for a more detailed understanding of EUM.

Of the six Universe, the two which have a direct bearing on the Patriot- Globalist binary are UBP (Universe of Belonging and Protection) and UMI (Universe of Meaningfulness and Intimacy) A brief description of the two Universes follows-

1. Universe of Belonging & Protection (UBP)

This is the part of us that wishes to belong to a safe haven where we feel secure and protected.  Its primary orientation is towards familiarity, predictability, harmony, and strong bonding/identification with our own kith and kin.

It enables us to have trust and faith in our people, abide by the established norms and customs, and experience a sense of pride in our heritage.  It gives us a strong sense of “oneness” with the group(s) we belong to, and enables us to accept all its positives as also its angularities.

When this orientation is subdued, it leaves us feeling rootless and not having a sense of “home”.  On the other hand, when this orientation is excessive in us, it generates a fear of the unknown, mistrust of “outsiders”, and fear of disturbance. Consequently, we become closed to new experience/learning and hence become somewhat like a “frog in the well”.

2. Universe of Meaningfulness and Intimacy (UMI)

This is the part of us that wishes for and works towards a utopian world where everyone can live in peace and harmony. Its primary orientation is towards meaningfulness, intimacy, compassion, empathy and respect for others irrespective of their clan and creed. It enables us to feel one with the larger human context, transcend the preoccupations of ourselves/our subgroup(s), and dream collectively for a world that ensures a higher level of well-being for all. It also helps us to accept others and ourselves at a human level beyond issues of class, category, ethnicity, etc.

When this orientation is subdued we experience ourselves as self-absorbed, devoid of empathy and compassion, over consumptive, dry and alone. On the other hand, when it is excessive, we become impractical and are unable to accept that strife is as important for human existence as is harmony. Consequently, our tolerance for anything that disrupts our idyllic scenario becomes low and we wish to either ignore it or suppress it.

Nature of the binary

As can be seen, there are several commonalities between these two Universes- both emphasize our relationship orientation and human values. Simultaneously, there are significant divergences. Whereas UBP lays emphasis on, commitment to one’s kith and kin, anchorage in one’s heritage and inward gaze; UMI is more inclusive, has a wider perspective, and goes beyond one’s own system of belonging. Thus, from a UMI lens, UBP appears as clannish, closed and regressive. Similarly, from a UBP lens, UMI appears as rootless, disrespectful of heritage and unmindful of the immediate belonging system.

It is this conflict which is playing out in the binary of Patriots and Globalists. While the Patriots appeal to our UBP instincts, the Globalists focus on the UMI.  Thus, to the patriots, Globalists appear like self-seeking anti-national people, just as to the Globalists, Patriots appear regressive and intolerant. It is tempting to equate this binary with other related binaries such as left wing- right wing, liberals- conservatives, modern- traditional etc. While there are obvious overlaps, the intricacies and nuances are quite different. Unlike others it is not an ideological binary- it relates to different imperatives of being human.  This is most apparent in the political sphere. Voters who had traditionally supported left leaning liberal parties have deserted them, not just because of ideological reasons, but perhaps due to the voice of UBP within them.

Why Now ?

Why has this conflict between UBP and UMI become so pronounced in the modern day world ? I suspect, this is primarily due to the neglect of UBP and its consequent backlash. We seem to have deluded ourselves into believing that UBP is mundane and lower order state of being.  We take pride in being liberal, progressive, inclusive as also strong, autonomous and self-reliant. Any  acknowledgement of our UBP needs makes us feel small and vulnerable, and consequently we either suppress them or fulfill them insidiously.

A denial or suppression of UBP does not make it go away, instead it casts its shadows and manifests itself in a variety of ways. Some of the associated processes are-

  1. The unfulfilled UBP needs get channelized through parochial/nationalistic jingoism. Some time back, I came across a study which found that many of  the extremist group draw their membership and support base from migrant workers, particularly from villages to small towns. While the religion, language, region based ideological agenda carries some traction, the primary pull is to experience a sense of belonging and giving expression to the angst arising out of intense loneliness and a sense of meaningless.
  2. At the macro level, groups which are less privileged, become the primary holders of UBP, whereas the more privileged groups tend to define themselves in UMI terms. For example, one would find a clear demarcation in the kind of collective issues that they take part in. The privileged sections are more likely to be a part of candle marches on issues such as human rights, gender relations, freedom of expression, individual liberty etc. On the other hand, the less privileged groups are more likely to participate in religious processions, or morchas for protection of local language, regional preoccupations, reservations and cultural insensitivity.
  3. The UBP needs and predispositions of the privileged group get expressed and fulfilled in an insidious manner.  Since they have sufficient “elbow room” it is possible for them to pursue their UBP needs without directly acknowledging them or taking responsibility for the consequences- prevalence of nepotism being a stark example of this phenomenon. Similarly, one can continue to hold on to the belief that one is fair and inclusive, and simultaneously hold on to unacknowledged biases and prejudices or racist paranoia and even  act from them   in a subtle manner. Thus their claims to a higher UMI orientation rarely carries credibility and is seen primarily as “lip service”. In the eyes of the less privileged groups, they become self- centered people who merely want to protect their vested interests in the status quo, have little concern for others and merely use high sounding words to deflect the more pressing down to earth issues.
  4. The repressed UBP orientation of the privileged groups also gets channelized through hyper concern with issues of national security and mistrust of minorities. A clear manifestation of this process is the growing  popularity of TV channels and serials which rely on jingoistic rhetoric, even among people who regard themselves as liberal,broadminded and free of racial/religious prejudice.

The cumulative result of these processes is a highly explosive situation. On one hand, we have the increasing frustration on account of unmet UBP needs, and on the other a growing cynicism in respect of UMI claims. The Patriots seek to channelize the frustration and cynicism through appealing to our jingoistic instinct, whereas the Globalists either pretend that they do not exist or regard them as illegitimate. The growing schism between the two, only pushes each group towards a more extreme position.

Gracing the interdependence

I believe, the essential issue that we need to look at is our engagement with our UBP orientation. This has both individual and systemic implications. Increasingly, I find organizations operating from the belief that dealing with the UBP needs of their members, will compromise performance standards and become a hindrance in their pursuit of meritocracy. Similarly, many individuals believes that it would be “unprofessional” and “regressive”of them to bring in their UBP orientation, except in limited familial settings.

These are legitimate concerns. Indeed, UBP has its problems and down side, and UMI appears more liberating, progressive and evolved. However, what gets overlooked is that without the base of UBP, UMI is hollow and unsustainable. The two must co-exist. As Gandhi had said ” I want my house to have a solid foundation, just as I want it to have many doors and windows”

The patriots focus on the foundation, while the Globalists are concerned with doors and windows. The irony is that doors and windows, cannot exist without a foundation, just as without the openness of the doors and windows, the foundation is nothing but a tombstone. Thus, like all binaries, the Patriot- Globalist divide is a false binary. You cannot be a Globalist without being a patriot, and without the wider and inclusive perspective of the Globalist, Patriotism is nothing but self-destructive jingoism.

One of my significant learning from my engagement with the EUM framework is that when any two  human imperatives get locked in an adversarial relationship, they push each other to the extreme. This leads to mutually exclusive binaries, where both  see the other as a threat and work towards its exclusion. This creates a counter reaction and the binary is further reinforced. This is what seems to be happening between Patriots and Globalists. The more one side shrieks, the more virulent is the response from the other side, pushing each other to untenable positions. Thus, increasingly patriotism is being defined as compulsive glorification of heritage and tradition, refusal to engage with the dysfunctional features of the context and blind support for authority. Similarly,  globalism is being defined as preoccupation with the dysfunctional features  of one’s heritage, insensitivity to the distinctive features of one’s context,  and compulsive criticism of authority.

The only way this binary can be transcended is by gracing the interdependence of the two. This would entail a recognition by the Patriots that without the fresh breeze which the Globalists bring, they would suffocate themselves to death. Similarly, for the Globalists to acknowledge that without the anchorage provided by the Patriots, they would get blown away into nothingness. In EUM terms, UBP and UMI have no choice but to co-exist.

 

 

 

 

 

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Empathy sans Caring

In a recent discussion on impact of AI (Artificial intelligence) on Coaching, an interesting issue came up – the ability of the Robot to generate an empathetic experience for the client. Clearly, the Robot can be programmed to make all the appropriate responses and ask the relevant questions, which will make the client feel “understood” and “empathized with”. It has been reported that the experience of “empathy” with a Robot is often stronger than with a human coach.

The fact also is that the Robot does not really “care” and has no genuine feeling towards the client. In fact, it can be argued that this absence of feeling, enables the Robot to manufacture “empathy”. A human coach is likely to experience many feelings towards the client and some of them may not be very conducive to empathy.  For example the human coach may feel irritated, angry or impatient and these  feelings will block the human coach from extending empathy, whereas the Robot is free of any such limitation. It is programmed to respond in a way which will be most helpful for the client, even though the Robot does not really care about the client

The ability to split empathy from caring is also acquired by human beings, to varying degrees. As part of our socialization, we all learn to respond in ways which may have very little to do with how we are actually feeling. This split has no great significance in ritualistic situations as it is treated as “par for the course” by all concerned. Thus, when someone expresses condolence at our loss or greets us on our achievement, we do not assume that the other person is actually feeling sad or happy.

The moot question is what happens in situations ( e.g. helping relationships)  where we  expect empathy and caring to co-exist. I recall, several years back, I was co-facilitating  a group, with a colleague who  is a master at the art of providing empathetic experience, irrespective of how she is actually feeling. Hence, to each participant she would give the most appropriate response (e.g. ” It must have been terrible for you” or ” I felt so good listening to you” etc.) To begin with, this created a very positive impact in the group, but soon the group started experiencing this synthetic empathy as oppressive and eventually one of the participants called her a “stale record”

Similarly, there was another colleague who had a ritual of greeting anyone who he was meeting after a lapse of some time with ” I was just thinking about you” This worked wonderfully well in establishing and rekindling a link till the other person discovered that there was no genuine feeling or concern behind the gesture.

We can also have a situation where there is caring but no empathy. A domineering parent is  a typical example of this phenomenon- the parent cares for the well being of the offspring even when he/she has no awareness of what is important for the offspring- how he/she feels, desires, values etc. In both cases the biggest casualty is Trust. In the first case one is left wondering ” Does any one really care?” and in the second “Does anyone really understand? ”

However, in the times that we live  in, Empathy sans Caring is a more prevalent phenomenon than the other way round. The main reason for this is the increasing emphasis on looking at ourselves as “autonomous beings” rather than as “relational beings”. It is true that in the ultimate analysis each of is alone and responsible for our lives. It is equally true that each of us is connected and part of a context.

When we look at ourselves only as atomized autonomous entities, our entire focus goes on enhancing our skills and competencies, ability to understand and manage others, and have greater control over ourselves and our context. It is therefore not surprising that Daniel Goleman’s  notion of Emotional intelligence talks of Empathy and Social Skills but not of Caring. Similarly it recognizes the need for Self Awareness and Self Regulation but not  authentic self-expression.

Intense sense of loneliness, anxiety  and cynicism are inevitable consequences.  It is this loneliness, anxiety  and cynicism which  often the client brings to the coaching setting. While coaching is essentially a learning space, it entails engagement with feelings and emotions. Hence a certain degree of catharsis and emotional nourishment are an integral part of the coaching process.

There has been a significant increase in the demand for interventions which can provide space for this catharsis and emotional nourishment. It is therefore not surprising  that the coaching industry is flourishing. It is often suggested that this is due to the need to keep pace with the VUCA world. This may not be the whole story.

It is worth asking whether the degree of uncertainty  has increased or whether our ability to live with it has decreased ? Are we really living with more uncertainty than what our ancestors did ? Often they had to deal with vagaries of nature, be ready for sudden attacks and did not have a stable infrastructure to fall back upon. Perhaps what they did have was a more stable social infrastructure and anchors of emotional nourishment. It is the sharp decline in this which has taken a toll on our  ability to deal with uncertainty. Every change creates anxiety because the belief is that we have no one else to fall back upon except our own skills and competencies.

The irony is that the more we try to become “self-reliant”, the more we isolate ourselves, the more lonely and anxious we feel , and more VUCA the world appears. This in turn increases our anxiety levels and we become even more hyper. The process is akin to a dog chasing its own tail.

In this context, it is in fitness of things that we should  turn to a machine for emotional support and empathy. The less we need other people the better. Indeed Huxley’s brave new world has arrived. .

 

 

 

 

The New India Project

Last few days, we have been hearing a lot about New India. Opinions differ about what exactly does it mean as also the hopes and fears that it generates. But what everyone seems to agree upon is that we are at a crucial inflection point and the next few years are going to see a significant transformation not just in the political space but also in other aspects of the Indian society. Personally, I am not too sure about the extent and depth of this transformation but I will not get into that debate. For the present, I will accept that we are likely to see some shifts, though they may not be as dramatic as some people expect.

There are two broad pictures of New India, which people are talking about- depending upon personal orientation and political ideology, most people subscribe to one or another. The feelings that they have towards the New India project, is a direct consequence of which picture they are looking at.

The first picture of New India is of a young, strong,  united, confident, meritocratic, aspirational society striving to claim its legitimate space under the Sun. In this picture, the emphasis is on your merit, performance and delivery – your lineage etc. are of no concern.  In this picture, everyone is ( or hopefully will be) on the same page. While different groups may  have different affiliations (e.g. of caste, creed, language, region, religion etc.) they are all aligned to same goals, values and nationalistic fervor. It is a picture which supporters of the New India project find extremely inspiring and even the detractors find it difficult to argue against.

The second picture which the detractors find very frightening is of a majoritarian, jingoistic, intolerant, insensitive, boorish society run by an autocratic regime. In this picture, there is no space for dissent and there is an insistence that everyone must adhere to the same ideology. Goals, values and behaviors which do not conform to those propagated by the majority have to be strictly regulated and any potential disruption weeded out.  Whether the ideology is called Hindutva or Bhartiyta or Indianness, is irrelevant. It is the monolith of the ideology which frightens the detractors.

The supporters of the New India project try to allay these fears by arguing that the ideology which they are propagating is inherently open, flexible, tolerant and diversity friendly. Acts of intolerance are attributed to “fringes”, but the failure to regulate the fringes( and often extending implicit support to them), brings into question the intent and motives of the powers that be.

Not surprisingly, often the discourse turns into an examination of intent and motive.  The detractors argue that the New India project is nothing but a sham and the real purpose is to gain power at any cost. On the other hand, the supporters argue that the detractors are blowing things out of proportion so that they can protect their vested interest in the “status quo” After all, the feudalistic and corrupt  politicians, the elite in various other fields (the so called Lutyens and the Khan market gang) have much to lose if the New India project becomes a reality.

In this bitter exchange of attributions of motives, the real issue gets lost viz. the inherent tensions and contradictions in the New India project.  It is easy to see that the two pictures of the New India project ( as portrayed by its supporters and detractors respectively) are intimately connected. In many ways, they can be seen as two sides of the same coin.

A monolithic ideology and an authoritarian regime are more pronounced in the second picture, but are an implicit part of the first picture also. A simple example of this is the PM’s speech to the MP’s of NDA.

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Take for example, his preference for “efficiency” over “effectiveness”. Efficiency requires adherence to a laid drown process in a disciplined and rigorous manner.  Thus, authoritarian regimes are best suited for efficiency ( recall  that  running of trains on times was touted as the biggest achievement of Emergency) Effectiveness is a more messy affair, it entails juggling with several variables in order to achieve the desired result.

In a soft and gentle manner, the PM kept reminding his MP’s to stick to their ” maryada” – refrain from speaking out of turn, ensure that they do not misuse (or let others misuse) their power and status, dedicate themselves to their duty in a selfless manner. The message was loud and clear- ” you are to be dedicated soldiers of my army- yours is not to question WHY but to DO and DIE. However, the message was delivered in such a suave and self effacing manner that the underlying authoritarian streak did not become “in your face”.  My suspicion is that perhaps he looks at himself also as a dedicated soldier who is fulfilling the task which destiny has bestowed upon him.

The simple point that I wish to make is that there is no way you can pursue the first picture of New India project, and stay clear of the second picture. Nationalistic fervor is a necessary ingredient of the New India project, without which it loses its emotive appeal and inspirational value. Similarly an authoritarian streak ( even if it be of a soft benevolent variety) is necessary to enforce the “selfless disciplined effort” which lies at the heart of the New India project. The similarity  between the New India project and protestant work ethic is quite stark and its aims seem to be inspired by the western concepts of progress and development. In this sense it is closer to Calvinism than Hinduism.

This is a significant difficulty which the New India project is likely to encounter. Its success depends upon its ability to manage the tension between Indian cultural identity and western notions of progress and development. Not surprisingly, the path chosen by the New India Project is far removed from both Gandhi and Deendayal Upadhayay, though it claims to be inspired by them. Significantly, both rejected the western notions of progress and development.  Both were great champions of Indian cultural identity though they defined it in very different ways. Similarly, the differences between Gandhi and Ambedkar were not just tactical but fundamental. They conceived of an ideal society in very very different ways. If the New India project claims to draw inspirations from these conflicting sources, then it has to address the tensions between them. Without that it is unlikely to go beyond well intended homilies.

Indeed, the vision which underlies the New India project is problematic and full of internal contradictions. However, with all its limitations, at least the supporters of the New India Project have a vision, which is much more than what can be said about the detractors. Every time, the detractors are asked for a vision, they have very little to offer except homilies like pluralism and social justice. This is essentially a fall back on the Nehruvian vision, which I believe has already run its course.

The Nehruvian vision was a source of great inspiration for people like me who grew up in the fifties. There were several reasons for its losing steam after the first decade post independence. One of the significant reasons was that it was a culture agnostic vision. It side stepped the question of what does it mean to be Indian, beyond citizenship of the geo -political entity called India. Unity in Diversity was a great slogan – it  urged us to transcend our sectoral identities( based on caste, creed, language, region etc.) and embrace a national identity. However, the national identity remained an abstract construct with no cultural anchors. Not surprisingly, people either remained caught with their sectoral identities of caste, creed, language, region etc. or embraced soulless, rootless notions of national identity and/or global citizenship.

It is great to talk about diversity and pluralism, but simultaneously one needs to ask as to what holds this diversity together. Does India have a heart and soul or is it a mere geo- political convenience to hold together disparate, disjointed clusters ? Thus at  the core is the issue of our Identity – Who are we and what do we wish to become ?

The supporters of the New India project have defined it in a certain way, which is both problematic and full of internal contradictions. On the other hand, the detractors do not wish to engage with it at all. They either dismiss it as irrelevant ( let us only focus on issues of development, social justice and individual liberties) OR respond to it with negation ( we are not Hindu Rashtra).

I find it rather disturbing that  terms such as cultural identity or  Indic have been virtually usurped by the right wing. I am sometimes invited to participate in discourse around Indianness, and invariably it is by bodies and institutions which lean towards the right side of the political divide. It is another matter, that very soon they discover that what I have to offer does not suit their agenda and promptly drop me like a hot potato. I have rarely come across initiatives from the other side ( generally referred to as left liberals )  to explore this issue. At times I feel that they are allergic to terms like cultural identity  and see it only as a reactionary, regressive endeavor which will support oppressive monoliths.

I believe, it is high time the detractors of the New India project give up their aversion to notions such as cultural identity and Indic. Mere denial or defiance will keep them perpetually on the back foot. It is time that they start defining Indianness in their own way. Their fears are very real but the only way to deal with them is to actively participate in the New India project rather than scoffing at it or fighting it. Whether they like it or not, a New India is emerging and will continue to emerge.  In this transformation process, we can ill afford to ignore the issue of cultural identity. A culture agnostic rhetoric of Pluralism, Inclusion, Development, Social justice etc. is just not enough. It must take into account the salient predispositions of the Indian people and their cultural identity, otherwise it will not have any emotive force.

In other words, if we do not wish to get trapped in a narrow, restrictive definition of what it means to be Indian, we have no choice but to participate in defining it.

 

“Not to Deny, Not to Defy, but to Define”

gully-boy_1547029867140The title of this piece is a quote from late Professor Pulin K. Garg (of IIM Ahmadabad) and refers to possible responses to systemic rigidity and oppression. I was reminded of it while watching “Gully Boy,” where I found the response of the protagonist as very refreshing- neither rooted in denial nor in defiance. Instead the protagonist chooses to pursue his own path.

I believe both denial and defiance are counterproductive.  Denial(non-recognition/engagement) leads to collusion and perpetuation of systemic inequities, and ironically, defiance leads to the same result- it can be easily dismissed as aberration or suppressed as disruptive. Meaningful transformation requires defining a new vision, a new path, which is not just a reactive response but embodies the hopes and dreams of the individual/collective.

The journey from denial to defiance to defining is complex and entails engagement with multiple aspects, particularly in respect of power and authority relations. Some of the shifts in the popular Hindi cinema can give us some clues to this process.

Till the emergence of the Angry Young Man in the 1970’s, most protagonists were in the denial mode- they were good sons and daughters, excelled in studies, did well in sports/extra curricular activities, chose respectable professions and generally stuck to the “straight and narrow”. If any of their deviations (e.g. falling in love) met with parental disapproval, they either gave in meekly (e.g. “Dhool ka phool”) or became self-destructive (e.g. “Devdas”). They rarely challenged the rigidity and oppression of the System. A few of them rebelled (e.g.”Birju” of “Mother India”), but these were exceptions not the rule.

Willing to defy the straight and narrow!

The 1970’s changed this and defiance became the norm. The Angry Young Man refused to be confined to the “straight and narrow” and was willing to confront systemic oppression head on. Often the trigger was injury to the father, who was invariably in the denial mode – either on account of naive idealism or due to lack of courage (e.g. “Deewar”). Sometimes the father was the perpetrator(e.g. Trishool) and the protagonist’s main agenda was to settle score with him. In either case, the protagonist remains tied to the father, irrespective of whether the father was seen as a victim or a perpetrator. While the Angry Young Man evoked our sympathy, he also left us with a sense of futility.

For the “Gully Boy”, the father is both a victim and a perpetrator, but he is not hooked to either. He neither yields to his father’s helpless resignation to the situation, nor does he fight the father’s tyranny. Instead he chooses to stand firm and pursue his own path. His angst towards the systemic oppression is expressed through his music. In this respect he reminds us of “Vijay” of “Pyaasa”, but there is one major difference.

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Unlike “Vijay,” “Gully boy “does not deny his own ambitions and aspirations. Thus he does not turn away from the System but works towards carving out a meaningful space for himself. Similarly, he does not break away from his personal context, but remains integrated with it even after achieving success.

In this sense, Gully boy is a new response to systemic oppression, coercive power, authority relations and systemic membership. What the Gully boy seems to be saying is that ” Yes I know, I am a product of an unjust system, there are several injuries that I carry both in my personal space and the larger context to which I belong. I would neither Deny, nor Defy, instead I choose to Define a new world which is meaningful both for me and my context.”

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Standing firm without rebelling against the father!

The Gully boy is only a dramatic representation of a change which is taking place all around us. It is much more pronounced in relatively smaller towns and lower socioeconomic strata. I find many young men and women in this segment (sons and daughters of domestic help, drivers, semi skilled workers) who are working as company executives, I.T specialists, doctors, engineers etc. The most interesting thing about these young men and women is that they remain deeply rooted in their context, without getting limited by it. For many of them their parents (usually one of them) are their role models. Even when they have grouse against their parents or family, their affiliative links remain strong. What they seem to be saying is ” I am part of a context, which I know is limiting. However, I do no wish to break free. Instead, I will anchor myself in my context and stretch its limits”.

This is particularly significant in the Indian context. The tussle between personal needs, desires and ambitions on one hand, and responsibility towards one’s family and community has often been difficult to negotiate for many Indians. If the individual rebels and break free, he/she has to live with the resultant guilt. On the other hand, a meek surrender to the diktats of the context, is suffocating and saps the vitality of the individual. This is a very real double bind in which many Indians find themselves and are forced to make a choice between Self or System. Several Hindi films have been made on this theme (e.g.”Do Raaste”) and almost all of them glorified the stance of “System before Self”

The stance of the Gully boy shows a third alternative which can be very liberating. It does not place the individual in classic binaries such as selfish vs altruistic, ambitious vs caring or modern vs. traditional. It enables the individual to find her agency/individuality without losing connection with the context.It is this simultaneity of self and system, which gives me a lot of hope.

Aggression Vs. Punitiveness

Virat Kohli’s aggressive behaviour on the cricket field evokes both admiration and revulsion in us. Recently, the famous actor Nasseruddin Shah described Kohli as the “worst behaved player”. Needless to say, this created its own chain reaction against Mr. Shah. While Mr. Shah may have been more direct and upfront, the unease about Kohli’s aggression has also been expressed by several others.

A couple of months back, when Kohli had reacted to a fan by asking him to leave the country, it created quite an uproar. This was widely interpreted as jingoistic and intolerance towards a fan’s preference for a foreign player. Kohli did clarify that he was not objecting to the fan’s preference for a foreign player, but reacting to the disdain in the expression “these Indian players”. However, Kohli’s clarification was generally ignored.

I have no idea as to what kind of person is Virat Kohli. What seems reasonably apparent is that he is passionate, ambitious, intense, competitive and expressive. Beyond that it is difficult to say anything about him. To best of my knowledge, he has never resorted to physical/verbal abuse or been involved in drunken brawls or been accused of unfair practices like ball tampering etc. He has rarely been a “bad loser”(blaming others) and has often been generous in his praise of his opponents. Thus it is difficult to associate punitiveness with his aggression.

Aggression and Punitiveness may look alike but they are quite different from each other. The most important difference of course is, that in Punitiveness, there is a clear INTENT to harm/hurt the other. The motive for causing the hurt/harm may vary ( e.g. teaching a lesson or settling a score etc.) but Punitiveness is a MOTIVATED ACT.

As against this Aggression is an EXPRESSIVE ACT. Here, the other is incidental or in a sense irrelevant. It is essentially a release of one’s own aggressive impulses, which may have got triggered from fear, insecurity, frustration or even a sense of relief and achievement. This may cause harm/hurt to the other, but it arises from the insensitivity/callousness of the aggressor rather than an active intent.

Aggression is often deployed in the service of Punitiveness, but not always so. Seemingly non-aggressive behaviours (e.g. sarcasm, mockery, slight, disdain, dismissal etc.) can be equally effective in punishing the other. In fact, they carry an additional advantage as they are very difficult to counter. One often comes across instances when people justify their insults and ridicules as “just joking”. Thus non-aggressive act of punishment, allow the perpetrator to get away without taking any responsibility in the matter.

Aggression and Punitiveness may overlap with each other, but not all Aggression is punitive, and not all Punitiveness is blatantly aggressive. The distinction between the two is particularly important in the Indian context.There is plenty of evidence to suggest that we Indians have a very uneasy relationship with Aggression. We either tend to deny/suppress our aggressive impulses OR discharge them indiscriminately. Consequently-

a) It becomes extremely difficult for us to harness the positive potential of aggression.

b) Whenever we are faced with aggression ( either in ourselves or in others), we become punitive(towards self and/or other) and

c) Much of our punitiveness gets expressed through seemingly non-aggressive ways.

Thus when some one like Virat Kohli comes along, who is able to deploy his aggressive impulses to his advantage (I have rarely seen him play a shot in anger) without becoming punitive towards himself or others, we experience strong ambivalence. On one hand, he becomes a symbol through which our own aggressive impulses are finding expression, and on the other, all our demons about aggression begin to haunt us. We want to both admire him as also punish him for doing what we are unable to do ourselves. Just as people who do not know how to stand up for themselves feel both elated and upset, when they see someone else doing it, so do we when we see a Virat Kohli showing his raw aggression without getting consumed by it. We want to admire him, emulate him and also punish him.

Strange as it may seem, there is perhaps an inverse relationship between Aggression and Punitiveness. The more discomfort that we have with our aggressive impulses, the more punitive we are likely to become. And the more we grace our aggression, the less punitive we are likely to be.

I have often come across people who are extremely aggressive but not punitive, just as I have come across people who seem non-aggressive, but are extremely punitive. I have also found that generally we are a lot more tolerant of the non-aggressive punitive people, and a lot more critical of the aggressive ones, even if they are non-punitive. What has been your experience?

Strong Leaders- Weak Leadership

More than two years back, in a blog post “Intoxicating Invincibility”, I had speculated about the rise and fall of brand Modi and how it may impact BJP. So far, the events have unfolded, more or less in line with what I had anticipated. Whether or not, they continue to follow the same script is yet to be seen.

I am not a political analyst, nor am I very well informed in such matters. Essentially, I am a student of human behaviour and dynamics of human collectives such as organisation, families, communities etc. My speculations were based upon my understanding of the interesting relationship between systems(human collectives) with charismatic leaders, particularly of the alpha male variety. The script that unfolds has an eerie commonality across different individual narratives. It goes something like this-

1. An individual with some outstanding capabilities emerges,often from sections which are not central but peripheral in the system. He/she has a meteoric rise and becomes the most significant and powerful person in the system.

2. Under the leadership of this person, the system experiences some early successes, which enables the individual to consolidate his/her position as also the grip over the system.

3. Very soon, the person gains almost complete control over the system. All significant role holders are handpicked by the leader, with loyalty to the leader being a major criteria.

4. While a facade of openness and accessibility is maintained, the operating norms are-
a) The judgement of the leader is never to be challenged, and
b) No “bad news”should be allowed to reach the leader i.e. he/she should only hear what he/she wants to hear.

5. Over a period, the gulf between the “grass roots” and centres of power begins to widen and consequently, the performance of the system begins to slip. This is often attributed to individual failures and sought to be corrected through scapegoating and/or enhanced controls. The end result is further alienation of Leadership from the people at large.

6. At this stage, the disillusionment with the Leader begins to simmer and his/her sheen starts eroding.However, often the disgruntlement is not directly acknowledged or engaged with.

7. In a sense the System is now caught in a double bind.It is far too heavily invested into the belief that leader is invincible and hence can not release itself from the stronghold which the Leader has over it.Simultaneously, the Leader who till now was its greatest asset, now starts appearing like a liability. Simply put, the System can neither get rid of the Leader nor go on with it.The problem is further accentuated by the TINA factor, as usually under such leaders there are very few alternatives.

8. Most Systems at this stage go into a “free for all” state of drift and start waiting for the next Messiah to arrive, who invariably meets the same fate.

The only way that Systems can break this double bind is through unclogging the channels of upward communication which have got blocked. This is easier said than done, particularly in “high power distance” cultures like ours, where a high power distance between the leader and the follower is taken for granted. In case of strong charismatic leaders the problem is even more acute.

In relatively smaller systems, strong leaders take care of this problem through direct personalised connect. Thus one often hears of great leaders who knew each and every one of their employees by name. This is clearly not feasible in large complex systems, where one needs institutionalised processes to facilitate upward communication.

It is therefore not surprising that exercises such as “employee surveys” are being increasingly used by several organisations. While such exercises have their utility, they rarely go beyond identifying what people are feeling “good” about and what they are feeling “unhappy” about.

The feelings of “happiness” and “unhappiness” are mere symptoms- they may have little connection with what the real issues are. This is so, because all collectives have both “wisdom” and “noise” and what the surveys throw up is a peculiar mix of the two. To take an example from the socio-political sphere, a survey may well reveal that a large number of people are unhappy about “minority appeasement”. On this basis, it would be downright foolish to conclude that “minority appeasement” is either factually correct or is indeed the “real” problem.

In a way, such surveys are attempts to “by pass” the intermediary levels and connect the “top” with the “bottom” directly. This would be akin to a political boss who believes that he/she is directly in touch with the “masses”, even when, people who are directly working with him/her are scared to open their mouths in his/her presence.

The problem of clogged channels of upward communication can not be addressed through structural arrangements and introduction of systems like employee surveys. It requires us to revisit our basic notions about leadership. So long as we see leadership as vested in a person, we will continue to create the same double bind.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that leadership is a process to which all members of the system contribute. The so called “leader” is only a medium through which a collectivity expresses itself. How this leader is created, how he/she functions, how he/she is dethroned, has much more to do with collective (its myths, its aspirations, its anxieties, its mythology etc.) than with the individual concerned. This is not to suggest that the individual is of no consequence, but only to emphasise that over-emphasis on the individual blinds us to the forces which create and destroy leaders.

Efficacy of leadership process in a system is hugely dependent upon the quality of communication and state of communication channels, particularly of upward communication. If these channels get clogged ( which they often do, in case of strong leaders) the efficacy of leadership is bound to suffer. Ironical as it may sound, Strong Leaders often mean Weak leadership. Thus perhaps we need to let go of our obsession with Leaders and pay more attention to Leadership.