There is a Donald Trump in all of us

This post is not about Donald Trump the person, but about Donald Trump the symbol. Human beings are complex and multi-faceted, but symbols are stereotypical, monochromatic and uni-dimensional. When an individual becomes a symbol, this monolithic picture becomes so overpowering that even the individual concerned becomes its captive. His/her own multiplicity gets lost in this all embracing picture. In such a situation, it is reasonable to assume that the individual is carrying this picture “on behalf of” the collective. In other words, it is the collective’s difficulty in engaging with a certain part of its own psyche which is carried by the person who gets symbolised.

Let us first look at the nature of this symbol in case of Donald Trump and then examine why it is becoming problematic in the present day world. For many people, Donald Trump has come to symbolise all that is antithetical to our notions of civilised decent behaviour. He is seen as a crude, domineering, intolerant, opinionated, self-centred creature with insatiable appetites and one who  generates considerable repulsion and disgust in us. However, there must be something attractive about his raw energy and indomitable spirit which has propelled so many people to place him in arguably the most powerful position in the world. In fact,It has often been suggested that it is his “bull in the china shop” image which has made the electorate prefer him over the more sober, suave, articulate and reasonable Clinton, who would merely preserve the status-quo. In many ways, one can see the presidential election as a contest between our primal and civilised selves.

There is a part in each of us which neither listens to the voice of reason, nor easily submits to social and moral conventions. It carries the seeds of both our heroic potential and our destructive villainy. Through the process of socialisation we learn to tame and control this part, but rarely do we learn how to integrate it with the rest of us and how to actualise its heroic potential. In my book, Child Man, I had speculated that the prevalent conditions of human existence are such that this part of ourselves is being simultaneously awakened and suppressed. The end result is that we encounter only its negative side and hence push it  into our psycho-social underbelly.

Through Donald Trump, our primal and primitive side seems to have moved out of the dungeons and occupied the centre stage. Sadly, what we are seeing is only the negative and ugly side of this primal self. I believe this is so because we have never graced our primal self and only scoffed at it in the name of being mature and civilised. Take for example, our notion of being a “global citizen”. It is primarily based on the notion of a liberal, inclusive, broad minded, secular individual who is primarily governed by what Ayn Rand would call “enlightened self interest”. Any thing which does not fit into this is dismissed as narrow, communal, parochial, reactionary and host of such invectives.

The question which needs to be asked is, what are we doing with those parts of ourselves which do not fit into this pretty but sanitised picture? Where does the anxiety of living in a world with increasingly fluid boundaries go? What happens to our need to feel protected in a safe haven? What happens to our need to belong to a community of familiar people who are not just faceless/nameless entities? It is sometimes assumed that these needs belong only to the relatively backward and lower/middle strata of the society. It is further assumed that people like Donald Trump are able to manipulate the “masses” by pandering to these sentiments. Perhaps the reality is more complex than that. Perhaps the elite are able to take care of their “clannish” needs as also anxieties  in a more subtle manner and are hence able to maintain the facade of being open and liberal. It is for this reason that people like Clinton come through as pretty but fake, which in turn leaves the space open for likes of Donald Trump to take the counter location of being ugly but real.

Perhaps both  Clinton and Trump are products of this split between “pretty but fake” and “ugly but real”. It is not that Trump is any more real and authentic than Clinton, but it is the certainty of Clinton’s falsity that enables Trump to claim authenticity for himself. Similarly it is the certainty of Trump’s ugliness which entitles Clinton to claim the tag of being nice and pretty.

If this split is to be healed, we will need to revisit some of our notions around being backward and progressive. So long as we hold certain aspects of being human (e.g. need for community) with disdain, we will continue to awaken and simultaneously suppress Donald Trump within us both individually and collectively. Sometimes he will break free from the chains which shackle  him and ruthlessly destroy everything which comes in his way and leave us wondering as to how could we have let this happen.

The healing of this split will also entail rediscovering the virtues of  the “householder” whose reach is bounded, whose vision is limited, whose concerns are petty and who is content in his small world pursuing his small wishes, desires and dreams. The more we look down upon the ordinary and the mundane, the more we will be engulfed by the megalomania of the grandiose . Not knowing what to do with the energy which has got unleashed within us, we will then look for an external symbol like Donald Trump to act on our behalf.

 

 

 

Handling Individual Greatness- from Sachin to Kohli

In the last few years,the cricket world in India has gone through a significant transition – from the Sachin era to a Kohli era. Even die hard Sachin fans (like yours truly) have to admit that in all likelihood,Virat Kohli will surpass Sachin Tendulkar, not merely in terms of individual achievements, but more importantly, in terms of contribution to team’s success. Even as fans go crazy with chants of “Kohli  Kohli”, there is a palpable difference in the kind of adulation and reverence which was given to Sachin as compared to what is offered to Kohli. During the Sachin era, it was not unusual for people to lose all interest in the game, once he was gone, but that does not seem to be the case now. I have as yet not seen Kohli being elevated to “Godhood” as was the case with Sachin. Is it only a matter of time or has something shifted in our handling of “Individual Greatness”? I hope it is the later, but it may be too early to say.

To begin with, let me state the difference, as I see it. During the Sachin era, our collective focus was much more on his personal achievements than on team performance. For many people, his scoring a hundred was more important than India winning the match. Surely, people still enjoy  a Kohli century, but I don’t think his records are being followed as zealously as was the case with Sachin. At that time, people came to see Sachin bat (or bowl or field, for that matter). Today Kohli is a big draw, but the game does not begin or end with him.

How this collective obsession about Sachin Tendulkar affected his teammates can not be said with any certainty, but it is rather unlikely that they would have been oblivious to it. In fact, some of them have talked about being extra careful in ensuring that they don’t run him out and become targets of public wrath. It has also been suggested that the huge gap between Sachin and the rest of team was one of the factors which contributed to his failure as a captain. Contrast that with Kohli, where even relative newcomers like Karun Nair and Kedar Jadhav feel free to express themselves without much inhibition. Thus it would seem that rather than feeling dwarfed in his presence, Kohli’s teammates feel more inspired and empowered by his greatness.

What we are witnessing with Kohli, is perhaps the logical extension of a process which began with several other contemporary greats of Indian cricket, particularly, Dravid, Kumble and Dhoni. Each of them a colossus in his own right, and yet never became larger than the game as seemed to have happened with Sachin. When that happens,  the greatness of an individual becomes more of a  liability than an asset both for the individual and the total collectivity. This is equally applicable to all areas of human endeavour not just cricket and sports.

In any field, there will always be individuals with exceptional talent and capability. How their greatness is handled, depends not merely on them but also on the context to which they belong. In a context of low self-worth, such individuals are either deified or crucified. In either case they are dehumanised and left to carry the burden of their greatness. I suspect, something akin to this happened in case of Sachin. He became a compensation for our low self-worth. He was a “special gift” from the almighty sent to deliver us from our gloom and through him we could feel good about ourselves.

To a much lesser extent, we did the same with Dhoni, but so far at least we have spared Kohli from it. Surely, there are huge expectations from him, but we do not feel as delirious with his successes and as devastated with his failures as we did in case of Sachin. There is a much lesser sense of “everything depends upon him”. And this in spite of the fact that in the current test team, there is no one other than R. Ashwin who comes any where close to his capability and stature. Perhaps we are learning to pin our hopes on collective effort, rather than on brilliance of one individual.

Ironical as it may seen, it is “self-belief” at the collective level, which enables individual greatness to flourish. Take away the self belief from the collective, and the individual greatness becomes more of a liability than an asset. Such collectives can at best revere but not admire, appreciate and assimilate.The real challenge lies in ensuring that the individual greatness becomes a source of inspiration for the collective rather than a source/compensation for its feelings of smallness.

 

Religion Vs. Religiosity

Some time back, a friend had asked me whether I considered myself a religious person. In my younger days I would have responded with a clear and emphatic No. Today, I am not so sure.  In a conventional sense, I still don’t regard myself as religious. However, it is equally true that places of worship (gurudwaras, temples, dargahs, churches mosques etc.) fill me with a sense of serenity and some of my most favourite songs have a distinct devotional flavour. This apparent contradiction in myself, forced me to think about what it means to be religious?

As a theological construct, religion deals with issues of cosmology /metaphysics such as existence of God, life after death, relationship between body and soul etc. I have no definite opinion on any of these and nor do these questions hold much interest for me. In this sense, I can regard myself as non-religious.

Religion is also a moral/social construct. It lays down ethical values, social obligations, codes of conducts, rituals and ceremonies etc. While I recognise the need for all these, I am extremely uncomfortable when they are made “absolute” through references to “sacred texts” and “religious diktats”. The sociological/ethical sides of human existence have to be governed by prevalent life conditions and hence must be dynamic. The less they are linked to theology (which tends to be absolutistic) the better. In this sense also I have to regard myself as non- religious.

Finally, there is an emotive and psychological side to religion which corresponds to certain imperatives of being human. In order to distinguish it from the theological/sociological side, I will call it Religiosity. Religiosity is a medium (and by no means, the only medium) through which certain imperatives of being human (for example, the need to find meaning  for one’s life, the need to merge and become a part of a larger entity etc.) find expression. The most significant of these imperatives is the need to have faith.

Faith is perhaps one of the most misunderstood and misused concepts. It is often confused with dogma, irrational belief and even confidence. In fact, in many ways it is the exact opposite . Notions such as dogma and confidence rest on the plank of “certainty” whereas, faith rests on the plank of “uncertainty”. A dogmatic person “knows for sure” that his/her beliefs are absolutely true. A person with faith accepts the limitations of his/her knowledge and does not feel destabilised by this lack of knowledge. Similarly, a confident person believes that through competence and effort one can gain mastery over one’s destiny. In contrast the person with faith does not feel a compelling need to control his/her destiny. The person is quite content to give his/her best shot and simultaneously accept that the ultimate outcome will be determined by a host of factors, most of which are beyond his/her control. Competence and effort are necessary prerequisites for success but by no means sufficient. What matters is one’s willingness to embrace the outcome with humility and grace.

For me, Faith is essentially an antidote to Anxiety which is an inevitable consequence of  human limitations. There is no way that human beings can have complete knowledge/control over their own lives. Thus living with the anxiety of having to deal with the unknown and uncontrollable is an integral part of human existence. However, there is a marked difference between Religion and Religiosity in how this anxiety is dealt with.  Religions  deal with this anxiety through providing certainty, either through positing an omniscient and omnipotent God figure or through a definite and absolute theology/unquestionable sacred text. Religiosity on the other hand accepts and graces the uncertainty and limitations of knowledge/control inherent in human existence.Each  religion has its own brand of   theology, morality, social norms etc. but as mediums for expression of emotive/ existential imperatives ,their essence remains the same. Consequently, religions tend to be divisive whereas Religiosity can be inclusive and has the potential of being a unifying force. The beauty of religiosity is that it is so inclusive that it does not even require you to believe in any god or divine order.

It is for this reason that I regard inclusive religiosity as a much more meaningful and potent concept than secularism. In secularism, there is very little space for the emotive imperatives which find expression through religion. The end result is a huge vacuum which is often exploited by the fundamentalist forces to propagate their own theological and sociological certainties. This is particularly applicable in the Indian context.

For various reasons, the Indian psyche is more religiosity centric than religion centric. Further, it has a huge appetite for religiosity. It is not uncommon to find people  in this country flock around a god man irrespective of religious affiliations. It does not matter whether it is a christian saint or  a muslim pir or a budhist monk or a hindu gurumata or a jain muni or a sikh guru, they all act as magnets for virtually all people. In fact so insatiable is our appetite for religiosity that we can make gods out of anything-trees, animals, rivers, planets or anything else that one can think of. There are very few objects/creatures that one can think of, which are not worshipped in some form or another in some part of India.

This almost insatiable appetite for religiosity accompanied by its “open-ended” nature is a huge potential resource which unfortunately is becoming more of a liability. While it is important to be watchful against the divisive forces which are unleashed by religion, it is equally important to ensure that in the process we don’t end up saying good bye to religiosity. In fact, the more we turn away from religiosity, the more divisive religions will become. I suspect, no one understood this better than Gandhi and hence he always emphasised inclusive religiosity rather than secularism. I believe this was also a significant factor which enabled him to mobilise people across the length and breadth of this huge country.

 

 

 

 

Intoxicating Invincibility

Let me stick my neck out and make some predictions about how the political scene in the country  is likely to unfold. My guess is that it will be something along the following lines-

  1. By end Dec/ Mid Jan. things will settle down and the demonetisation move will be hailed as a masterstroke.
  2. Mr.Modi and Co. will become even more convinced of their invincibility and the dependence of BJP on Mr.Modi will increase further.
  3. The support for brand Modi and demonetisation may somewhat help BJP in its electoral performance in the forthcoming Assembly polls but will fall significantly short of its expectations.
  4. This trend will continue leading to internal rumblings within BJP.  However, Modi &Co will not be directly challenged.
  5. Just as Congress men never hold Sonia/Rahul accountable for below par performance, similarly Modi will be shielded lest it erodes the value of brand Modi.
  6. Modi& Co will hear only what they wish to hear and will gradually get totally disconnected from the ground reality.
  7. Brand Modi will gradually start losing its sheen which will put BJP into a quandary. It will neither be able to dump Modi nor be able to carry on with him.
  8. In short, this could be BJP’s first significant step on the path of self-destruction.

Needless to say, I could be completely wrong and the events may take a very different course. The main point that I wish to make through this scenario is that assumption of invincibility is a time tested recipe for self-destruction. Yet ,the belief in one’s invincibility is so heady that very few of us can resist it. This is particularly so, when the entire collectivity ( be it a family, an organisation or a country) colludes in thrusting invincibility on some one.

This process is by no means confined to the realm of politics. In virtually all spheres of life, one finds people being made symbols of invincibility. This could be a charismatic leader  or a maverick individual performer. The worst consequence of this process is that the individual is shielded from all potentially bad news and hence gets completely cut-off from the ground reality. In effect, the individual starts living in a “make-belief” and even when confronted with “reality” finds it too bizarre to be true. The person does not even have to be a megalomaniac for this to happen. The collective process which is unleashed has a momentum of its own and knowingly or unknowingly, with good or bad intentions, almost everyone gets engulfed by it.

I sometimes wonder as to what lies beneath this process? Is it a projection of our own need for invincibility on to a “hero” OR is it our unconscious resentment and hatred of a hero which gets expressed in a seemingly harmless way but none the less ensure in killing the “hero”. What do you think?

 

 

 

 

Honest beneficiaries of a Corrupt System

Over the last two weeks, we have seen a significant shift in the opinions of “experts” on demonetisation. In the first few days, virtually every newspaper, T.V. commentator, financial expert  was busy  hailing it  as a “bold and courageous” step which will usher a new era of economic progress and social justice. This was followed by the phase of “good move but not well planned/properly implemented”. We are now moving towards the phase where the wisdom and effectiveness of the move is being strongly questioned and several people are calling it a whimsical decision of a dictator.

So what has happened ? The most obvious explanation is that initial euphoria is invariably met with disappointment and the pendulum swings the other way. This perhaps is largely true but why the initial euphoria to begin with ? Why not shock and anger ? The answer perhaps lies in the fallacious belief that it is only the “dishonest” which reap the benefits of a corrupt system. Hence when the move is seen as an attack on the dishonest, the premise is that it will not affect the rest of us who are honest . As the reality begins to sink in that it is the fundamental structure which is being shaken, the euphoria begins to turn into a rude shock.

Most of us regard ourselves as honest and  and perhaps are seen as such by others. . We may admit to paying an occasional bribe, trade a few favours,  make purchases without taking a cash-memo, or even inflate some of our expenses in our I.T. returns etc., but none of it shakes our basic idea that “I am an honest person who is forced to indulge in a few questionable activities because of systemic deficiencies” In fact, I have even heard some politicians claim that they are forced to use illegitimate cash because if they don’t ,they will be at a definite disadvantage vis. a vis. their rivals. Thus our basic stance is that of a victim, or a saviour but never the perpetrator . The reality is perhaps a lot more complex and each one of us is simultaneously all three.

This simultaneity of the victim,saviour and perpetrator was brilliantly portrayed by Vijay Tendulkar in his famous play “Kamla”. The protagonist of the play Jaisingh Jadhav is a ambitious journalist who buys a woman Kamla and presents her in a press conference in order to expose the human trafficking racket. Not merely is Jaisingh totally insensitive to Kamla’s discomfiture and humiliation but his relationship with his own wife is akin to a “master-slave” relationship. Eventually, Jaisingh is fired by the owners of the paper presumably because he dared to take on powerful vested interests.

In Jaisingh we have a very interesting character . He is not a bad or dishonest person. He does not indulge in any wrong-doing, he neither mistreats his wife nor Kamla, who he actually rescues. His only folly is his utter self-absorption and insensitivity to everyone else. He starts off trying to be a saviour, becomes a perpetrator and finally a victim. This perhaps is the bitter reality of all  systemic oppressions- they make every constituent into all three, thereby ensuring that everyone has a stake in the preservation of the system and its prevalent inequities. Thus whenever the basic foundation is destabilised it is met with ambivalence.What we are witnessing today is a very mammoth shake up, but the ambivalence can be witnessed in almost all instance of fundamental departures including changes in families, communities and work organisations.

Generally, this ambivalence is polarised creating a split between those who are “for” the change and those who are “against ” it.  Inevitably both sides lay claim to the victim/ saviour location for themselves and attribute the perpetrator location to the other side. This is quite evident in the present situation, where everyone is talking “on behalf” of the “common man” , who by common consensus is the victim with each side looking at the other side as the perpetrator.

This creates interesting double-binds for both sides. For example, in the present situation, any one expressing doubts about the government’s decision runs the risk of being branded as a “defender of black-money”. Similarly, any one who supports the move runs the risk of being branded as “insensitive to the sufferings of the underprivileged “. Thus all expression becomes guarded, making it very difficult to assess as to how people are actually feeling and what do they really think. Bereft of any real connect with the ground reality, people at the helm of affairs are forced to pretend that they are completely “in-control”, and what ever is unfolding  is as per the plan. If they course-correct, they can be charged with unpreparedness and inconsistency; and if they don’t ,they can  be charged with insensitivity and being stubborn.

This of course is a massive exercise, but anyone who has handled change at even much smaller scale will know that once a process is set into motion, it acquires its own momentum. No matter how well prepared one is, the unforeseen will always have to be contended with. The only thing that one can do is to engage with the “emergent reality” in as authentic a way as possible. In order to do this, the first step has to be give  up the victim-perpetrator game, which makes any meaningful dialogue and engagement an impossibility.

To conclude, issues of personal honesty and dishonesty become irrelevant when one is focussed on systemic transformation. Invariably,a focus on personal honesty/dishonesty   ends up with musical chairs between Victim, Perpetrator and Saviour. It may be more meaningful to look at systemic issues which are heavily loaded in favour of certain class/categories of people and where by even the honest and respectable become beneficiaries of systemic corruption.

 

 

 

Indian Resilience- Paradox of Dharma

It is debatable as to who will win the ideological and political battle being currently fought in the country but one clear winner which has emerged is the average Indian, who has demonstrated, yet again his/her grit and resilience in dealing with hardship. Over the past few days, many common Indians have been walking long distances, standing in serpentine long queues and that too with no certainty that their efforts will bear fruit. They have felt frustrated, anxious, angry and wondered how they will meet their immediate day to day needs. In spite of all this, at least so far, there have been very few instances requiring intervention from law enforcement agencies. In fact, one could even spot a few smiling faces, some friendly banter, and quite a few expressing their support for the decision which has caused them so much hardship. “It is a problem right now but it will be alright soon and in any case it is for the overall good of the country” is the sentiment expressed by at least a sizeable section if not the majority. This optimism may be misplaced and may not last too long but there is little denying the fact that it is playing a crucial role in sustaining their resilience.

Simultaneously, there are thousands of bank employees, working tirelessly in a a highly demanding and stressful situation. They do not have adequate infrastructure and more importantly adequate cash to meet the requirements of those who have been waiting in front of them for hours. They often have to absorb the ire of the angry and anxious crowds for no fault of theirs. Yet from whatever I have experienced and heard from others, they have handled the situation with exemplary equanimity, maturity and sensitivity. Many of them have gone out of their way to extend help and support particularly to senior citizens like yours truly. And then there are the invisible ones, the ones who are working behind the scenes – printing currency, transporting it to many outlets, crunching numbers, responding to emergencies, devising ways and means to minimise the hardship to different segments etc. etc. The sheer size of the exercise is mind boggling and one can not help but wonder as to where are these people finding their energy from and what is keeping their spirit alive?

Of course, this is not the first time that Indians have shown this spirit. It has been seen on several such occasions like the Chennai floods last year. What is perhaps not appreciated is that  resilience in face of hardship is part of everyday life in India. We may notice it only in moments like this but it is ever present. A couple of years back I had seen a research study which ranked Indians amongst the highest in terms of sense of well being/satisfaction/happiness etc. in spite of the hardships of everyday life in India. Sudhir and Katharina Kakar have talked about the “pervasive presence of hope, even in the most dismal of life circumstances” in their book “The Indians” It appears that resilience in face of hardship is an integral part of the Indian psyche.

What makes the present situation even more striking is the fact that the hardship has not resulted from a natural calamity (like the Chennai floods) or enemy action (like Bombay blasts). The present hardship is a direct consequence of a somewhat controversial decision taken by their own government. While politicians, media persons, activists, financial experts, have screamed and shouted at each other on behalf of the “common person”, the so called “common person” who is at the receiving end of it, has gone about his/her business with minimum of fuss. He/She has expressed helplessness and/or satisfaction with all the commotion around but has simultaneously found ways and means to sustain “life as usual” with the stoic stance of “this too shall pass”Interestingly, no political party has so far succeeded in organising any sort of public action and/or mass protest. On the contrary, most of them have been rather diplomatic in their criticism focussing more on issues of implementation and integrity of intent rather than the step per se. The obvious hypothesis is that they believe that in the eyes of people (rightly or wrongly) “dharma” lies on the side of the government and hence it would be suicidal to make too much noise till such time that people run out of patience or can be convinced of the adharmic nature of the government’s action. A mere appeal to hardship may not suffice.

This brings me to the centrality of dharma in the Indian consciousness and its relationship with faith in cosmic benevolence and resilience to deal with ups and downs of life. Needless to say, I am not using the term dharma in a religious sense but as a perspective and way of life. The core belief on which this perspective is built is that Cosmos/Universe is  orderly, fair and benevolent. All that a person needs to do is to focus on his/her role obligations and not worry about the fruits of his/her endeavour. The cosmic order ensures that in the ultimate analysis each person receives his/her “karmon ka phal” i.e. legitimate due in accordance with one’s actions.

This may sound like Hindu philosophy ,but perhaps is a perspective shared by most Indians irrespective of their religious affiliation. Most Indians believe that the short term vicissitudes of life are beyond human comprehension and hence it is best to accept them with the spirit of “whatever happens, happens for the good and hence the seeming adversity is perhaps also a blessing in disguise”. Recently, I heard a lady talk about a near fatal accident of her husband which has left him with serious disabilities. What was amazing in the tonality of her narration was the complete lack of bitterness and complaint.Instead she seemed full of gratitude and feeling very lucky because “it could have been a lot worse”. One can not help but marvel at this tremendous ability to extract what ever little positive that one can from any situation- an ability which I have sensed in many Indians and which I believe has something to do with the centrality of dharma in their lives.

This leads us to the obvious question- If Indians are such dharmic or virtuous people, then how does one explain the widespread corruption, nepotism, insensitivity, oppression of the weak etc.? It is tempting to attribute these ills to a handful of evil people, but perhaps, the reality is a lot more complex. I think, the root of this paradox lies in the notion of dharma in the Indian consciousness. To the Indian mind, dharma is not an absolute but only contextual. The same act performed by one person in a certain situation can be regarded as dharmic , but becomes undharmic in another situation and by a different person. I suspect that Indians must rank as the most frequent users of the term “it depends”. As the famous poet and scholar A.K. Ramanujan suggested, Indians have a distinct preference for “context- sensitivity” rather than “context-free” ways of thinking. For us virtually everything is contextualised be it morality, arts, health, day to day living,relationships or any thing else.

Our propensity to be context-sensitive provides us great amount of flexibility, adaptability and resilience. Simultaneously it creates many ethical ambiguities. Take for example, the fact that many shopkeepers and small traders are continuing to accept the old currency notes despite the ban. Their only precondition is that you should not place too much burden on them to return change. Thus they are not willing to accept a 500 rupee note for a 50 rupee purchase but will happily do so for a 400 rupee purchase. Technically speaking their act is “illegal”, but would they regard it as immoral or undharmic? I do not think so. From their point of view, there is a world of difference between laundering large quantities of unaccounted money through purchase of gold and striking an honest business deal by stretching the rules a bit. The issue here is not whether what they are doing is right or not, but only that it is perfectly possible for an Indian to regard his/her act as virtuous and dharmic even if it violates some other standards of legality and morality.

The absence of absolutes in our notion of dharma is both a curse and a blessing. We are all too familiar with its downside viz. our double standards, our “chalta hai” attitude, our insensitivity to oppression of the weak, our lack of systemic discipline etc. etc. While it is important to take cognisance of these and address them, it is equally important to celebrate the positive side of our “context-sensitivity” which enables us to be flexible, adapt to the imperatives of a situation, respect diversity, peacefully co-exist with differences and deal with vicissitudes of life with resilience and equanimity. In other words, learn to celebrate ourselves for “who we are”. Perhaps for far too long, we have searched for our national pride in either our glorious heritage and/or aspirations to become a super-power. It may be more meaningful and productive to look for it in the smiling face of an average Indian who refuses to give up his/her cheerful optimism in spite of all the adversities which life throws at him/her.

 

 

 

Prejudice is not a dirty word

Prejudice as a phenomena, and not as a problem

Most of us are prejudiced against prejudice. We tend to regard prejudice as something undesirable and a problem to be eliminated. Thus a large part of developmental initiatives in the area of diversity, focus on dealing with unconscious bias and prejudice. Ironically, this way of looking at prejudice only creates guilt and shame and usually leads to politically right stances without dealing with underlying beliefs and predispositions. The end result is that  prejudice is only denied or suppressed and often turns even  more vicious. Perhaps we will be better off, if we try to understand and befriend our prejudice rather than regarding it as an enemy and fighting it. This will require looking at prejudice as a “phenomenon” rather than as a problem to be eliminated.

As a phenomenon, prejudice can be seen as “an unintended consequence of a  natural and essentially healthy mental process of making associations and categorisation”. No matter what our epistemological beliefs, we can hardly deny the importance of association and categorisation to our learning and effective living.

Associations and Categories

Virtually all our learning comes from making associations. We associate food with nourishment, fire with danger, air with breathing, visual appearances with identities of people and so on. These associations are placed into different categories which are extremely helpful in making sense of the world around us. Thus when we meet a stranger, several categories are “at play”. Based on the complexion, body structure, features, clothes, mannerisms etc. we make inferences about the person’s gender, race, age, socio-economic status and even personality traits. These inferences are made on the basis of mental categories that we have in respect of these features. The inferences are not always valid, but it would be impossible to live without them. In such instances, where the society believes that the there should be no ambiguity, care is taken to make the association explicit, for example, through assigning uniforms to cops. Even such cases are not hundred percent “error-proof”. After all, one can always run into someone who is wearing the uniform of a cop and masquerading as one.

Thus, the process of association and categorisation always carries the risk of error. These erroneous inferences can be quite harmful both for the individual concerned and others,particularly the people who are at the receiving end of these inferences. However,more often than not, the individual concerned is not even aware of this harm because from his/her point of view the inferences are valid and reasonable. The person usually remains blissfully unaware of the associations which are at the root of the  erroneous inferences and attributes his/her beliefs and judgement to a very different set of factors. Thus a person may carry the association of untrustworthiness with people of a certain community but may remain totally unaware as to how his/her judgement of a person from that community is being impacted by this association.To complicate matters, a large number of associations that we carry in our heads have nothing to do with our direct personal experience and have been handed down to us either genetically or through process of socialisation/acculturation.

There is considerable research evidence to suggest that almost all of us are a lot more prejudiced than we realise. What this means is that while at a conscious level we may regard ourselves as egalitarian and free of prejudice in respect of race, gender,age, sexual orientation etc., our actual predispositions are being determined by a host of “associations in our minds” that we are blissfully unaware of. However, condemning these associations  as unconscious bias and prejudice does not help anyone. It is only likely to make us feel misunderstood/wrongly accused/defensive or guilty and ashamed. It is for this reason that interventions for making people “prejudice-free” are rarely effective. Instead, it makes more sense to focus on how these association lead to erroneous inferences and how best to avoid them.

Pitfalls of assocations/categorisations

As stated earlier, the process of making associations, putting them into different categories and then applying them to specific situations, has many potential pit-falls. There are several sources of error,which can derail the process. Some of the most common ones particularly in respect of prejudice are as follows-

  1. Universalisation of a category association                                                                          Associations in respect of a category may have some validity but are not equally applicable to all members of the category. Thus association of a certain body structure with gender (e.g. men are taller, stronger etc.) may have an overall validity but is certainly not applicable to each and every man and woman. There are many women who are taller/stronger than most men. In case of a tangible factor like physical attribute, it is easy to spot the error and correct it but when it comes to intangibles like psychological attributes ,the situation is a lot more complex. Firstly, their validity can not be determined in an objective manner and secondly when they are being applied universally, the error is not so obvious. Thus a person may associate aggression with north indians and then assume that it is applicable to all north indians and their individual differences may not even become visible to him/her.
  2. Over magnifying a category                                                                                                                Every phenomenon can be related to multiple categories. However when we choose to focus only on one or two categories, we run into problems. Imagine the plight of a person who associates fire with only danger and overlooks the other categories to which it belongs like light, warmth, transformation etc. This is a major source of erroneous inferences in respect of other people.                                                                                                                                                          In relating to others, there are always multiple categories at play. Thus our response to a colleague is being influenced by several factors e.g.  gender, age, profession, role status,ethnicity etc. The associations in respect of these categories may converge or diverge. Thus if one associates softness, sensitivity and compassion with the category “woman”, then one may experience some difficulty in coming to terms with a demanding and aggressive female boss,  even if such behaviour is consistent with other categories associated with her role.                                                                                      While most of us try to focus only on contextually relevant categories, the pull of some of the categories may be so strong that it may not be easy for us to ignore them. Invariably, each one of us has a a propensity to pay greater attention to some categories and underplay others. Some of us may magnify the gender category whereas others may pay greater attention to age or ethnicity or professional affiliation. Consequently, one or two categories end up clouding the rest of the person and the person becomes only a symbol of these over-magnified categories. In such a situation it becomes extremely difficult to draw meaningful inferences about the person.
  3. Frozen associations                                                                                                                                        All associations are made in a certain context. However over a period of time, these associations become frozen and tend to acquire an absolute character irrespective of the context. The saying “once bitten twice shy” captures this process whereby an association arising from one bad experience becomes a determinant of all future engagements.                                                                                                                                       At a macro level, the impact of these frozen associations is clearly visible in the area of gender relations. Our associations in respect of gender identity and dynamics belong to an era of human context (largely agrarian patriarchy) which no longer exists but the associations continue to influence us even though we may consciously resist them. Such associations can not be discarded like a piece of old clothing. Whether we like them or not, they are sitting right within us and by pretending that they do not exist we only make them more virulent. Perhaps the best we can do is to be mindful of them and not let them lead us astray to the erroneous inferences which may be detrimental both for ourselves and for others.
  4. Emotional valency of associations                                                                                                            All associations come with a feeling tonality. If darkness is associated with danger, then for most people it will have a negative feeling tonality. Similarly if brightness is associated with hope, then most people are likely to hold it in a positive tonality. This attribution of feeling tonality is much more applicable to associations in respect of people categories. Thus if one associates untrustworthiness with people of a certain community then it is likely to influence how one feels towards the people of that community. More importantly, this negative feeling is likely to impact all other associations in respect of that community i.e. one is more likely to associate other negative features with that community (for example, that they are also selfish,mean, uncaring etc.) and generally ignore and dismiss any evidence that shows them in positive light. In other words, the emotional valency of associations makes them self-selective and self-reinforcing.

This perhaps is the biggest source of “erroneous inferences”  because

a)  it  can completely blind us to  those features of a category which carry the opposite valency and

b) it makes the grip of the associations that much stronger on us.

In many ways, the earlier three pitfalls can be seen as derivatives of this. Thus the higher the emotional valency of associations with a category the more it is likely to be magnified, frozen and universally applied. For instance, if a woman has strong negative and emotionally loaded associations about men (e.g. they are uncouth, selfish, aggressive etc.) then it is highly likely that these associations will be applied indiscriminately, become frozen and the category “man” will supersede all other categories.

Hence recognising the emotional valency of the associations with any category is the doorway to dealing with all other pitfalls leading to erroneous inferences.