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. .

 

 

 

 

“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.

Illusory Agency

These days whenever we  wish to find out anything about anything, we go to Google da, who invariably obliges. We have taken it for granted that Google da knows everything, but somehow we also seem to assume that this “everything” does not include “us”. Thus when we discover that Google da knows everything about “us” also, we feel offended, betrayed, intruded upon and violated.

Our basic stance is that Google da should be able to fulfil all our needs for information/knowledge, but the flow of information from us to Google da should be restricted by our choice. Since Google da is faced by similar requirement, not just from us, but everyone else as well, it has no choice but to “dig deeper” into what ever information each one of us is willing to provide. This exercise in “data mining” enables Google da to meet the various demands being placed on it. However, in the process, we realise that Google da has come to know a lot more about “us” than what we intended. Moreover, we also discover to our horror that in a surreptitious manner Google da has been controlling and deciding for us, what we are exposed to and what remains hidden from us.

In our feelings of outrage, we overlook the basic principle that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. We intended Google da to be our “slave” but in effect, it has become our “master”. By “outsourcing” our need for information and knowledge, we have given enormous power to Google da. It may therefore be worth asking as to what makes us outsource our need for information and knowledge. The obvious answer is that    we need a lot a more information and knowledge than what we can gather by our own efforts. Then the next logical question would be as to why do we need so much information and knowledge?

Perhaps, we believe that Knowledge helps us to enhance our Agency i.e. making informed choices, gaining control over our context, becoming masters of our destiny etc. Thus when we discover that the knowledge provided to us had a hidden agenda behind it, and was actually an attempt to manipulate us, we are left face to face with the illusory nature of our so called Agency. We cope with it by getting angry at the entities who we believe are responsible for it, but rarely recognise that it is only a logical corollary of the process we have set into motion, in our pursuit of ever expanding Agency.

In my younger days, one of my favourite definitions of Progress was “expansion of choice”. The more one progresses, the more choices one will have. For example, our ancestors had limited choices regarding where they lived, what work they did, who they married , how they commuted etc. etc. Isn’t it a sign of progress that today we enjoy many more choices in these area? Similarly, I would argue that a “mature” person would have many  “choices” in dealing with a situation than a less mature person who would react compulsively.

As I have grown older ( like many other people, I guess) I have begun to recognise that much of my so called Agency, was in fact an illusion. Many of these “choices” were in fact a product of forces (both internal and external) of which I was largely unaware. Like in the Google example given earlier, I believed that I was in control whereas in many ways ,I was a captive, who was only seeing what he was meant to see, whose interpretations followed a set pattern and whose choices had already been laid out for him. But most importantly, I have begun to realise that Progress can mean both “expansion of choice” and “living with limited choice”. In other words, not having a choice, has its own virtues.

Over the ages, philosophers have wrestled with the issue of “Free Will”, and no matter how the issue is approached, the final outcome is always the same- a simultaneous affirmation and negation. In other words, what we regard as our “choices” are really not our choices, and what we regard as our compulsions, are in some ways “our choices”. For example, is love a matter of one’s choice? A Ghalib will say ” hai ye woh  aatish Ghalib,  jo legaaye na lage or bujhyaye na bane” ( a spark which can neither be ignited nor extinguished by volition) Just as a Psychoanalyst will show how seemingly involuntary attractions, are in fact a product of complex motives and volitions.

The other day, a friend was narrating to me an exchange which took place between his 90 year old father and 30 year old son. The young man was trying to explain to his grandfather, some very interesting work that he is doing to unravel the mysteries of our universe. After listening to his grandson, the old man asked -Do you believe in God? The grandson responded by saying that he will provided he has sufficient evidence.

What struck me in this conversation was the two fundamentally different positions in respect of human volition and agency. For the young man, believing or not believing in God was a matter of choice which had to be exercised intelligently. For the grandfather, “choice” did not come into the picture at all– after all the only way one can “choose” to believe or not believe in God would be by placing oneself at an even higher plane than God.

Listening to this narrative, I was asking myself, which of the two stances do I resonate with, and I couldn’t find an answer. Earlier, it would have been easier for me to resonate with the grandson, but today I am not so sure. All I can say is that like all human beings, I have no  choice but to believe that I have choices and I must constantly endeavour to expand the range of possibilities. Simultaneously, I recognise that any “compulsion” (including that of expanding choices) can only mean  negation of  Agency.

This perhaps is the paradox which lurks behind all choice making. Nonetheless, To choose or not to choose, remains the basic question- and ironically we don’t seem to have a choice in the matter.

I wonder, how all this figures in your scheme of things.

 

 

 

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.

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.