Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 9c

The popularity of violence is due to several reasons. Violence tempts us because it activates and nurtures our egos and an inflated ego is often celebrated as a hyper-masculine attribute of bravery. It does not demand the honest labour of self-reflection. Instead, we are led to believe that the problem lies necessarily always outside, and hence the annihilation of the ‘enemy’ out there is seen to be the only way to our redemption. Violence satisfies the urge to find quick ‘solutions’ and it encourages one’s sadistic thrill of being seen as ‘superior’ to others. 

Gandhi recognized that good and evil cannot be neatly separated as was commonly assumed and that good turned into evil when pressed beyond a certain point. Mankind therefore could not be divided into two neat classes with one so privileged that it had a right to punish the rest. In his view almost every revolution so far had led to terror, devoured its children, and failed to create a better society. Once people resort to violence to settle a conflict, they keep trying to increase their power and reduce their opponent's power. 

Gandhi thinks that once violence becomes institutionalized, it will be readily used against former friends and allies. It becomes an 'easy step from employing violence on foreign rulers to using it on our own people whom we consider obstructing the country's progress.' Violence soon becomes the normal way to settle conflicts and ensure compliance. Soon what were once morally objectionable actions become acceptable. He fears that 'once the custom of effecting reforms by force gets established, the people tend to become dull and lifeless.' Raghavan Iyer writes in The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi:

Gandhi's view of the connection between satya and ahimsa was based upon the belief that truth and non-violence are both unifying forces, while error and violence are divisive factors, in human society. Truth needs no violence for its diffusion and is, in fact, obscured by violence. 

Violence is not only a sign of insecurity and incomplete conviction but it also makes victory more important than truth, distorts the truth and renders its free acceptance more difficult. 

It is assumed that in certain situations violence is the only possible solution but it is not always so. But what is required, as Gandhi recognized, is tremendous courage, far more than what is required for violence. For softening passions and producing an atmosphere in which compromise was possible, Gandhi insisted that the struggle it involves cannot be sustained in an atmosphere of violence and fear. The ethical contest Gandhi invites all sides to enter forbids the use of fear: Arousing it is as bad as becoming its victim. The victor must prove moral superiority to the satisfaction of the loser. 

For Gandhi, ahimsa was much more than being merely civil to your opponents. Civility can arise out of a feeling of social obligation or a recognition of the cost of violence. Ahimsa, in addition, also has a positive faith that active non-violence can move the opponent towards seeing the justice of your resistance and in protecting the weak against the strong. Where reason fails, love might, but violence cannot, solve the problem. Gandhi is belittled because he had the guts to ignore Holderlin's maxim, 'If you have understanding and a heart, show only one. Both they will damn, if both you show together.'

At the root of all of Gandhi’s efforts was a focus on self-improvement. When riots broke out in Calcutta just before independence, Gandhi refused to write them off as simply a manifestation of goondaism. He asserted that all citizens of Calcutta were responsible for the violence; all must ‘turn the searchlight inwards’ and see that ‘wide open goondaism was a reflection of the subtle goondaism they were harboring within.’ 

How could they claim to enjoy their rights in a free India when they had failed in their responsibility to maintain civil peace and order? (He didn’t say this from the safety of a far-of place but in Calcutta during the riots.)  When he proposed a fast to quell the riots, Rajaji asked him, ‘Can one fast against the goondas?’ Gandhi replied, ‘I want to touch the hearts of those who are behind the goondas.’  It was enough for him if society at large had no sympathy with the goondas. 

For years Indians had blamed criminal elements in society for communal conflict as well as other urban violence. Gandhi replied: "Goondas do not drop from the sky, nor do they spring from the earth like evil spirits. They are the product of social disorganization, and society is therefore responsible for their existence. In other words, they should be looked upon as a symptom of corruption in our body politic." That was in 1940.

When in 1946 he was confronted with the Bihar riots, he again unequivocally placed the responsibility where it belonged by deploring "the habit of procuring a moral alibi for ourselves by blaming it all on the goondas. We always put the blame on the goondas. But it is we who are responsible for their creation as well as encouragement." The argument that goondas were distinct from ordinary law-abiding citizens had never appealed to Gandhi. 

His non-violent methods of protest were based on the principle that “to kill for freedom will legitimize killing after freedom.” A Western style of parliamentary government he would accept as Swaraj for the time being only. While in the ideal society there is no room for the military and the police, yet in the actual State there is provision for it according to the moral level of its citizens. Whatever political institutions Gandhi accepted, he did so only as a transitional device, to be transcended by better ones. No institutional device is final. They must evolve with the evolution of individuals. 

Gandhi was no philosopher in the dogmatic sense of the term. He did not cut himself adrift from the daily problems and struggles of the people and take refuge in a solitary physical and mental corner to formulate his philosophy of non-violence. His was the unique technique of taking active role in the process of the solution of the everyday problems of people. Though he had supreme confidence in the ideal of non-violence, Gandhi remained, to the end, a seeker — striving towards an ideal rather than claiming to have arrived at a goal. 

Friday, November 19, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 9b

Propagation of non-violence was no novel or unprecedented act of Gandhi. As he himself has rightly said, "I have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and non-violence are as old as the hills. All I have done is to try experiments in both on as vast a scale as I could." To say that this is not the kind of world we live in  and fall victim to the paranoid panic that the power-hungry seek to promote would prove right Goebbels’ perverse prediction :“Even if we lose, we shall win, for our ideals will have penetrated the hearts of our enemies.”

Gandhi repudiated the idea that morality is simply an individual affair. Gandhi objected to violence because when it appears to do good, the good it does is temporary, the evil it does is more lasting. He was not interested in semantics to explain away violence. 'What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?' This is also why he adhered throughout to the view that a technology-centered socio-economic system could not but be exploitative and violence-prone. 

In Gandhi’s view, violence ‘oozed from every pore’ of modern society and had so much become a way of life that the modern man could not cope with his relations with himself or other men without translating them into the military language of conflict, struggle, mastery, subjugation, domination, victory and defeat. He asserted that the cruelties committed in the name of sectarian religion cannot compare with the endless victims destroyed in the fire of civilization.  As Lewis Mumford said, 'War is the supreme drama of a completely mechanized society.'

Arguably, ideology has been the greatest killer in mass violence in the 20th century. Religious war might have been so in earlier centuries, but the records of many secular ideologies like nationalism, Leninist and Maoist Marxism have been much worse in our times. The Nazis described themselves as the most masculine of movements and the result was unimaginable cruelty. Gandhi said in Hind Swaraj long before the bloodlust of secular ideologies became apparent, 'I am prepared to maintain that humbugs in worldly matters are far worse than the humbugs in religion.' 

He realized that some of the worst crimes in history arise out of actions performed with good intentions. Everyone remembers that 9/11 is the date on which the towers in New York was brought down which prompted the US President to declare a 'war on terror'. 9/11 was also the date on which satyagraha or militant nonviolence was born at Johannesburg in 1906. Does this coincidence of dates and their vastly uneven occurrence in public me memory tell us something?

Albert Camus once said that “through a curious transposition peculiar to our times, it is innocence that is called upon to justify itself.” Despite the pretense in global diplomacy, it is non-violence not violence that has to be justified. In A Promised Land, Barrack Obama's account of the early years of his presidency, he describes the hunt for Osama bin Laden. There was a lot of focus and determination in the efforts to locate his whereabouts and an eruption of joy and patriotic fervor in the population when they got news of his death. Obama writes:

. . .Was that unity of effort, that sense of common purpose, possible only when the goal involved killing a terrorist? The question nagged at me. For all the pride and satisfaction I took in the success of our mission in Abbottabad, the truth was that I hadn’t felt the same exuberance as I had on the night the healthcare bill passed. 

We have too many men of science, too few men of God,' General Omar N. Bradley, Chief of Staff, United States Army, said in Boston on November 10, 1948. 'We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount... The world has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living.'

Gandhi held that non-killing was the least expression of ahimsa. Sometimes killing was the cleanest part of violence. The continuous harassment of an opponent can be worse than killing him outright. Gandhi opposed different standards of non-violence for saints and ordinary people. Ahimsa for Gandhi was not denial of power as influence, persuasion or pressure but only of power in its violent form. A votary of ahimsa must recognize that it is more difficult to live for non-violence than to die for it and must therefore strive to apply it in all conflicts and against all coercion. 

As Gandhi recognized, 'It has always been easier to destroy than to create". I was shocked by this report that there is brisk sales of Mein Kampf in Delhi with some management students seeing it as "a kind of success story where one man can have a vision, work out a plan on how to implement it and then successfully complete it".  Young people seem to crave success (whatever it means) without bothering about the means employed to achieve it. Apparently in Russia, Hitler is more popular than Harry Potter. Hannah Arendt writes in Eichmann in Jerusalem:

It is in the very nature of things human that every act that has once made its appearance and has been recorded in the history of mankind stays with mankind as a potentiality long after its actuality has become a thing of the past. No punishment has ever possessed enough power of deterrence to prevent the commission of crimes. 

On the contrary, whatever the punishment, once a specific crime has appeared for the first time, its reappearance is more likely than its initial emergence could ever have been. The particular reasons that speak for the possibility of a repetition of the crimes committed by the Nazis are even more plausible. 

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 9a

Arundhati Roy confuses between the ideal and the actual in Gandhi’s philosophy especially regarding his views on non-violence and his idea of the village. Not being an academic philosopher, he did not set this out in explicit terms but it can be gleaned from his writings and speeches. The failure to appreciate this has led his critics either to misrepresent him or to call him inconsistent and full of contradictions. It would be incorrect to say that Gandhi was blind about the gulf between moral ideals and social facts or that he was a dogmatic moralist who had a na├»ve understanding of the nature of social and political conflicts. 

As a social and political reformer, Gandhi spoke from different levels at different times. But three levels mainly dominate his writings: first, that of the perfect ideal (unrealizable); second, that of his own personal point of view (admitting himself to be far from perfect, yet sufficiently advanced to practice his ideals); third, that of the point of view of the Indian masses. Under certain circumstances, nonviolence may be only a matter of policy, as it was with the Indian National Congress. But this cannot be identified with the level of nonviolence which Gandhi personally was capable of. There is not a uniform pattern of application of nonviolence for all individuals and societies. 

He said that men like him ‘cling to their faith in human nature’ notwithstanding all appearances to the contrary.  For Gandhi, to profess nonviolence with sincerity or even to write a book about it was not adequate. He said, ‘I believe in what Max Muller said years ago, namely that truth needed to be repeated as long as there were men who disbelieved it.” As a discipline, a "code of conduct," true nonviolence demands endless vigilance over one's entire way of life because it includes words and thought as well as actions. "If one does not practice nonviolence in his personal relationships with others, he is vastly mistaken. Nonviolence, like charity, must begin at home." 

According to him, there must always be an unbridgeable gulf between the ideal and its practice. The practice of nonviolence is by no means a simple matter, and Gandhi never said that it was. Human life is a series  of compromises but these do not justify lowering the theoretical ideal of human development. 'Let us be sure of our ideal. We shall ever fail to realize it, but we shall never cease to strive for it.’ 

The ideal will cease to be one if it becomes possible to realize it. Striving after the ideal is the very essence of practicing Gandhi’s philosophy. To the extent we make this effort, to that extent we realize the ideal. Perfect nonviolence cannot be practiced by human beings. Being a part of society, man cannot but participate in some amount of “himsa” that is necessary for survival. He held that “taking life may be a duty.”  

We destroy plant life to sustain our bodies; in the interest of health we kill mosquitoes; and for the benefit of the species we destroy carnivorous beasts, yet we do not think we are being unethical. Gandhi would consider a person true to his faith if “there is an effort to avoid the violence that is inevitable in life”. In essence, it consists “in allowing others the maximum of convenience at the maximum inconvenience to us, even at the risk of life. Everyone has to determine for himself the amount of inconvenience he is capable of putting up with. No third party can determine it for him.” 

Having decided upon the rightness of a situation, Gandhi would not like one to be a passive spectator to evil. That would be participation in the evil itself. If one does not have sufficient nonviolence to die without killing, one should not shamefully flee from the danger in the name of nonviolence. Rather, Gandhi would advise killing and being killed. For himself he did not believe in the use of arms at all ("There are many causes that I am prepared to die for but no causes that I am prepared to kill for".) 

But he would not hesitate to advise their use by those who had no faith in non-violence. “If there was a national government, whilst I should not take any direct part in any war, I can conceive occasions when it would be my duty to vote for the military training of those who wish to take it. For I know that all its members do not believe in nonviolence to the extent I do. It is not possible to make a person or a society nonviolent by compulsion.” 

According to Gandhi, violence has its roots in fear and suspicion. He feels that such people are fighting ‘an imagined enemy without’ and neglecting ‘the enemy within’. The violent person pretends to possess the truth about good and evil and who should be punished and who should be spared. This is contrary to Gandhi’s view that a person can have access to only partial truth. Also the violent person claims a dangerous omnipotence for himself in deciding the limits to violence regardless of its effect on others. In this way the violent person treats other human beings as means to an end. 'Pride is a monster that swallows' ahimsa because it fails to acknowledge the worth and dignity of other people.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 8j

Gandhi held that the negative effects of modernization like new forms of inequality and the trampling of the basic rights of people are not unfortunate side effects but it's basic features. This observation holds true even today. The threats of nuclear and ecological disasters, mass migrations, technological innovations that dehumanized man and created a civilization of human robots,  etc. are symptoms of modern civilization's tendency to gloat over short-term gains while ignoring the long-term costs.  As they say in the IT world, they are features not bugs of the system and tinkering with better technology will not solve them. Then why are these ideas so dominant? Gandhi provides the answer in Hind Swaraj:

The answer is very simple. We rarely find people arguing against themselves. Those who are intoxicated by modern civilization are not likely to write against it. Their care will be to find out facts and arguments in support of it, and this they do unconsciously, believing it to be true. A man whilst he is dreaming, believes in his dream; he is undeceived only when he is awakened from his sleep. 

A man laboring under the bane of civilization is like a dreaming man. What we usually read are the works of defenders of modern civilization, which undoubtedly claims among its votaries very brilliant and even some very good men. Their writings hypnotize us. And so, one by one, we are drawn into the vortex.

 The developing world is convinced that its future is the present of the developed world. By the time they arrive at this promised future, they find that the developed world has moved on. It arrives to find that the world it had been promised is no longer in fashion, that many aspects of industrialization and development that it had tried to copy (eg. dams, coal fired power plants) are now criticized as wasteful, environmentally destructive and socially unsound. The developed nations seem to be saying to developing nations, "The world cannot afford your modernization; ours has wrung it dry!" So international climate negotiations have become arguments between early polluters and late polluters without the realization that it is a shared predicament. 

H.L. Mencken said, "It is the nature of the human species to reject what is true but unpleasant and to embrace what is obviously false but comforting". Gandhi succeeded, along with the efforts of many others, to throw the British out of India. But he failed in the project that was closer to his heart - that of preventing India from emulating the all-devouring economic model of the modern West. In The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh says that Asia has played the role of a simpleton who has performed an empirical test that lays bare the secret of the modern project. He writes: 

. . . the results are counter-intuitive and they contradict all the tenets on which our lives, thoughts and actions have been based for almost a century. What we have learned from the experiment is that the pattern of life that  modernity engenders can only be practiced by a small minority of the world's population. 

I have no hesitation in saying that whenever economics is taught, if there is no discussion of why Gandhi had reservations about industrial civilization and unbridled consumerism, it is being economical with the truth. It privileges one view of the truth and peddles this partial truth as the full truth (which makes MBA a dishonest course). As the British conservative Michael Joseph Oakeshott said, 'Education is ... the invitation to disentangle oneself, for a time, from the urgencies of the here and now and to listen to the conversation in which human beings forever seek to understand themselves.' Gandhi, it is safe too say, was far more perceptive than the politicians, economists, businessmen, and technologists who run the world today. 

They are apologists for the status quo and many of their decisions seem, what Amitav Ghosh indicates in the above-mentioned book, complete derangement. They seem to be trapped in a losing game from which they can't escape like Abhimanyu trapped in the Chakravyuha. Many of the problems which accompany industrial modernization are intimately connected with an arrogant disregard for nature and the illusion that the costs of unlimited growth can be ignored or magically evaded. Many treat religion as an irrelevant hangover from the past which will disappear in the course of social progress. 

Economists seem to be the perfect examples of what Peter Drucker said, 'Far too many people — especially those with great expertise in one area — are contemptuous of knowledge in other areas, or believe that being bright is a substitute for knowledge.' Gandhi urged us to remain conscious of the dark side of modernity; one that was all about consumerism, racism, competitive nationalism and imperialism. The seductions of the market and technology (the aspirations and false needs it creates) make people unconsciously play to their tunes creating an anxious and angry population. As Eric Fromm said, 'the fact that millions of people share the same forms of mental pathology does not make these people sane.'

Commenting on the future of poetry and art in a democratic society, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that he was not worried about a lapse into safe realism so much as a flight into unanchored fantasy. "I fear that the productions of democratic poets may often be surcharged with immense and incoherent imagery, with exaggerated descriptions and strange creations; and that the fantastic beings of their brain may sometimes make us regret the world of reality." We are surrounded now by the realization of Tocqueville's predictions. And this ‘deep longing for the seductions of fake' as Naomi Klien calls them is promoted by those who run the world today - economists, engineers, businessmen and politicians. 

Eric Fromm compares the plight of the modern man to a chess game. At the beginning of the game, both players have equal chances of going for a win. After a few moves, one player is already at a disadvantage but he still has enough freedom to plot a win. After a few more moves, one player is definitely trapped although the game has not formally ended. At this point, a good player, being able to see a few moves into the future and knowing that he cannot escape, will resign. A bad player will continue to play till his king is captured. Human beings now are now in the position of the bad player. Moral delusion is institutionalized in the structures of society.

There have been extraordinary strides in human well-being over the past 60 years as shown by various developmental data.  Meanwhile, the world has become extraordinarily unequal along with an impending climate disaster that will affect most badly those who have degraded the planet the least. A Chinese politician said in the 1970s when asked about the effects of the French Revolution of 1789. ‘It’s a little too soon to say. Maybe the same applies to industrial civilization. Is it a good idea? Too soon to say? In its current mode, I don't think so.

Western nations got rich by being irresponsible and they have convinced the rest of the world to act in the same way. A race has thus been set up whereby competitive irresponsibility is the only route to success. It is a recipe for collective suicide. The global economy seems like a giant Ponzi scheme in comparison to which Bernie Madoff's fraud seems like chicken feed. Lewis Mumford, whose views were similar to that of Eric Fromm, once said in an interview, 'I would die happy if I knew that on my tombstone could be written these words, "This man was an absolute fool. None of the disastrous things that he reluctantly predicted ever came to pass!" I would be happy too. Hope remains in Pandora’s box, but how do you reenclose the bad guys?

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 8i

Gandhi thinks that the history written in the modern world is a narrative about continuing progress carrying the ring of objective truth. Their stories are organized around 'great' events - inventors, explorers and heroes who bring enlightenment to places of ignorance. It gives readers the impression that what is recorded is important and what is omitted is irrelevant. When they look back in time readers get a sense of uninterrupted progress which blinds them to the costs of this change. They mistake power over nature for wisdom.  

He sees modernity presenting itself as the highest form of historical development belittling other ways of living. But, as Neil Postman says in an article Science and the Story that We Need about the technology-god that rules us today: ‘. . . each day receive confirmation of it, that this is a false god. It is a god that speaks to us of power, not limits; speaks to us of ownership, not stewardship; speaks to us only of rights, not responsibilities; speaks to us of self-aggrandizement, not humility.’

Another implication of Gandhi’s thought concerns ecology and the preservation of the earth and the life on it. Gandhi has emphasized opposite values to those of the consumer society: the reduction of individual wants, the return to direct production of foodstuffs and clothing, and self-sufficiency rather than growing dependency. As the limits of growth and the inherent scarcity of resources broke upon the world in the 1960’s, the Gandhian idea of restraint suddenly made sense. E.F. Schumacher, author of the influential Small Is Beautiful, regarded Gandhi as the great pioneer in insisting that the rampant growth of capitalist industrialism is incompatible with a sustainable world ecosystem. He was a meticulous practitioner of recycling long before the idea came to the West. 

It is increasingly clear that the world’s dominant economic model is profoundly dangerous: not only is it corroding our political processes it is also altering the planet’s atmosphere in catastrophic ways. Corporations make big profits by looting natural capital and hiding the costs. But the bill is coming, and we won’t be able to pay. We have to accept that the fundamental premise of modernity – that everything will always get better and better – is no longer credible. In building the new industrial machine, man became trapped inside it.

The most wide-ranging document on fighting climate change was produced not by scientists, technocrats or economists but by a religious leader - Pope Francis’s climate-change encyclical, “Laudato Si’. If anything, he has underestimated how willing people are to maintain a charade. His critique is Gandhian in spirit, pointing out the mindsets in modernity that have led to the problems - rampant individualism, self-centered culture of instant gratification, a politics concerned with immediate results which is supported by consumerist sectors of the population which results in biodiversity being considered as at most a deposit of economic resources available for exploitation.

Pope Francis insists that politics must not be subject to the economy, nor should the economy be subject to the dictates of an efficiency-driven paradigm of technocracy.  But the twenty-first century, while maintaining systems of governance inherited from the past, is witnessing a weakening of the power of nation states, chiefly because the economic and financial sectors, being transnational, tends to prevail over the political. He notes that ‘the social and environmental responsibility of businesses often gets reduced to a series of marketing and image-enhancing measures’. He says that ‘the post-industrial period may well be remembered as one of the most irresponsible in history’. 

There is ‘a Promethean vision of mastery over the world’ without an appreciation of limits. When human beings give absolute priority to immediate convenience then, in conjunction with the omnipresent technocratic paradigm, people begin to see everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interests. When the human person is considered as simply the product of chance or physical determinism, then “our overall sense of responsibility wanes”. ‘Never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely.’ Pope Francis writes:

It is remarkable how weak international political responses have been. The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected . . . 

The alliance between the economy and technology ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests. Consequently the most one can expect is superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy and perfunctory expressions of concern for the environment, whereas any genuine attempt by groups within society to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions or an obstacle to be circumvented.

The Pope’s critique illustrates Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle, a book written in 1967, which is a critique of contemporary consumer culture and commodity fetishism. Debord traces the development of a modern society in which authentic social life has been replaced with its representation. The spectacle is the image of society in which relations between commodities have supplanted relations between people, in which "passive identification with the spectacle supplants genuine activity". 

Debord says that the spectator has been drugged by spectacular images. The Spectacle embraces economics as the only form of instrumental – indeed "scientific" – knowledge worth possessing; hence ritual obeisance is made before the gods who will confer growth. In a consumer society, social life is not about living, but about having; the spectacle uses the image to convey what people need and must have. Our social formations and political practices are constructed and sustained by the logics of spectacle and render us as homo spectaculum or 'beings of the spectacle'.  

The Spectacle is "affirmation of all human life, namely social life, as mere appearance". The purpose of advertisements is to make us dissatisfied with what we already have. Advertisements don’t tell about the products, they tell about the people who buy those products. Each new lie of the advertising industry is an admission of its previous lie. Debord says, ‘Waves of enthusiasm for particular products are propagated by all the communications media. A film sparks a fashion craze; a magazine publicizes night spots, which in turn spin off different lines of products. . . . All this is useful for only one purpose: producing habitual submission.’

Since the market tends to promote extreme consumerism in an effort to sell its products, people can easily get caught up in a whirlwind of needless buying and spending. Getting used to this pattern of life, they convince themselves that conformity is both reasonable and just and that they are free as long as they have the supposed freedom to consume. You are encouraged to ignore the philosopher John Stuart Mill’s dictum: ‘Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.’ People become blind to the fact that the really free are the minority who wield economic and financial power. Rutger Bregman writes in Utopia for Realists

Our fear of moralizing in any form has made morality a taboo in the public debate. The public arena should be “neutral,” after all – yet never before has it been so paternalistic. On every street corner we’re baited to booze, binge, borrow, buy, toil, stress, and swindle. Whatever we may tell ourselves about freedom of speech, our values are suspiciously close to those touted by precisely the companies that can pay for prime-time advertising.


The food industry supplies us with cheap garbage loaded with salt, sugar, and fat, putting us on the fast track to the doctor and dietitian. Advancing technologies are laying waste to ever more jobs, sending us back again to the job coach. And the ad industry encourages us to spend money we don’t have on junk we don’t need in order to impress people we can’t stand. Then we can go cry on our therapist’s shoulder. That’s the dystopia we are living in today.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 8h

Gandhi is often described as being against science. And, no doubt, his own rhetoric sometimes suggests this. But that is most misleading. If Gandhi’s life is studied in entirety, a nuanced picture emerges of a man who was not anti-science. Nowhere, for instance, did Gandhi dispute Newton’s laws and other such claims and propositions of science. He would have thought it impertinent to do so and, more relevantly, quite unnecessary. 

Gradually, Gandhi’s opinion evolved and sharpened into a criticism of what he thought were the misplaced priorities of science, rather than science itself. What he opposed was the elevation of science to a kind of centrality in culture that science in the modern period, especially after Newton, came to have in the modern West. There was also the practice of linking of science to profit and worldly gain and hierarchy that Gandhi opposed. 

He thought that science had a tendency to move beyond the articulation of its laws to generating a ‘mentality’ of treating all things as resources and commodities, including nature and humanity itself. He had similar – and related – things to say about its mentality towards the law, the body and medicine, transportation, the feeding of agricultural surpluses into the creation of cities, the centralizing of power in a new form of state, and so on.

Gandhi's critique of science emanates from his dissatisfaction with the divorce of science and progress from morality. He often quoted the scientist Alfred Wallace to argue that people's moral sense had in no way improved as a result of scientific discoveries. Gandhi remained aware that one could not live without science, provided that it was kept in its right place. He had seen the misuse of science in his travels round the world and believed that there were limitations even to scientific search. 

The practice of vivisection for Gandhi was a shining example of the need for limitation in modern scientific research. Based on a mechanistic notion of the body and the universe, it enabled the justification of the subjugation of the inferior non-human creation by and for the human. This to Gandhi was ethically unacceptable. (Gandhi did not adopt an obstinate intolerance of dissection. When a follower, who was a biology teacher, wanted to dissect a frog, he listened to both sides of the argument and ruled that the dissection could continue as it had scientific value.) 

Gandhi's fears materialized years later as vivisectory practice was carried out in the concentration camps of Hitler and the bombing of Hiroshima during the second world war. The bombings were not required to defeat Japan but to send a message to the Soviet Union. If colossal death, destruction and suffering was the price to be paid, it was considered ok. The scholarship that provided the ideas and justified the Nazi slaughters were by university professors, as detailed by Robert Procter in Racial Hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis (giving the lie to the liberal shibboleth that education helps you to distinguish between right and wrong).

Physicians claimed that if they disobeyed orders under the Nazi regime, they would be victimized but the few who refused don’t seem to have suffered. Various medical experiments were carried out in concentration camps which were carried out by trained medical professionals, the results presented at prestigious conferences and scientific academies. Results were published in scientific books and articles. German industry also profited from these experiments. For eg. Bayer used concentration camp prisoners and performed experiments on this ‘captive population’. Medical journals used the expression 'life not worth living' to describe those who were sterilized or those killed in concentration camps. 

Gandhi also sought to reconstitute the relations between fact and value, science and religion in his method. He made it clear that he was not interested in mere technical solutions to a problem. Unlike many reformers and secular scientists, Gandhi did not see science as outside of religion. On the contrary, he tried updating religion to include science and science too to include faith. But unlike the Vedantists, for Gandhi to be scientific was to practice one's dharma. Ronald Terchek says in Gandhi: Struggling for Autonomy:

Gandhi rejects the premise that science and ethics are separate, that ethics only has something to say when something goes wrong. He fears that such reasoning assigns science the superior position, and absolves people of responsibility. For Gandhi, the primary issue is not how we 'take charge of the world' but how we live with nature and take control of ourselves. 

The objective impersonal pursuit of knowledge about nature and society that science encourages produces  a psychological process called ‘isolation’. This is the dangerous ability of people to separate ideas from feelings and to pursue ideas without being burdened by feelings. It is a psychological defense mechanism that enables scientists to avoid taking responsibility for the consequences of their inventions. According to the psychologist Otto Fenichel ‘. . . the process of logical thinking . . . actually consists of the continued elimination of affective association in the interest of objectivity’. This quote is in Bonfire of Creeds by Ashis Nandy. 

We need sometimes to think whether we should even develop a particular line in research. But scientists rarely accept limits to their research on the grounds that it might have dangerous or immoral outcomes. In the 16th century, Leonardo da Vinci suppressed research into inventing the submarine because he thought we humans were too devilish to be trusted with such a dangerous invention. In the 20th century Enrico Fermi, one of the scientists who set out on the atomic bomb project, said, “Don’t bother me with your conscientious scruples. After all the thing is beautiful physics.”

Despite his radical criticism of the anthropomorphism of modern medicine inherent in the practice of vivisection, Gandhi was deeply appreciative of modern scientists' humility and spirit of inquiry, a spirit that he felt traditional people lacked. Traditional medicines like Ayurveda and Unani, Gandhi felt, had unlike western science, maintained a relation between science and religion, body and soul, but had not inculcated the spirit of research that fired modern science and gave it contemporary relevance. 

But the praise was qualified. In 1921, inaugurating the Tibbia College at Delhi, Gandhi said, 'I would like to pay my humble tribute to the spirit of research that fires the modern scientists. My quarrel is not against that spirit. My complaint is against the direction that the spirit had taken. It has chiefly concerned itself with the exploration of laws and methods conducing to the merely material advancement of its clientele.'  Yuval Noah Harari says in Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind about the huge advances in science and the prevailing feeling that too many opportunities are opening too quickly and that our ability to modify genes is outpacing our capacity for making wise choices:

We are more powerful than ever before, but have very little idea what to do with all that power. Worse still, humans seem to be more irresponsible than ever. Self-made gods with only the laws of physics to keep us company, we are accountable to no one. 

We are consequently wreaking havoc on our fellow animals and on the surrounding ecosystem, seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction. Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Arundhati Roy on Gandhi - 8g

It is said that modern civilization is a rational civilization and this is the most important aspect of the modern scientific society.  In modernity, reason is taken as the basis of knowledge and the rational self is taken as the final arbiter of truth. For Gandhi, truth was moral and could only be found in the experience of one's life. It could never be correctly expressed by rational theoretical discourse. Day by day the importance of rationality has become so prominent that it is over-shadowing all other aspects of life. Gandhi had a problem with this domineering rational tendency of modernity. He said in 1939 (quoted in Gandhi: Struggling for Autonomy by Ronald Terchek): 

Rationalism is a hideous monster when it claims for itself omnipotence. Attribution of omnipotence to reason is as bad a piece of idolatry as is worship of rock and stone believing it to be God. I plead not for the suppression of reason but [an appreciation of its inherent limits].

In some areas of human experience such as morality and politics, reason was inherently inadequate and needed to be guided by wisdom, tradition, conscience, intuition, and moral insight. He argued that the relation between reason and violence is much closer than we realize. For him, love, generosity, trust etc. do not flow from reason (for some rationalists, such feelings are unnecessary complications that spoil their beautiful equations). He sees these dispositions and actions that flow from outside reason embodying the best in human beings. He knew that the opposite of these feelings is not always reason. When love and trust is involved, the choice is not invariably between them and reason but between love and hate or trust and suspicion. 

To assume that reason should always be the arbiter is to misunderstand both its strengths and limitations. Reason can speak to an impulse to love, for example, but after a while reason is exhausted and has nothing more to say. Gandhi would constantly critique faith to ascertain whether it was meaningful and reasonable in terms of basic human values. He demands of reason adherence to these values as well. Gandhi was not against reason or rationality at all but his was a critique of the domineering nature of modern instrumental rationality. 

Rationalism also valued only one form of knowledge, namely the scientific, and only one form of life, namely the secular, individualist, and competitive, based on the mastery of nature. Further, for the rationalist, human life was transparent, fully knowable if not today then tomorrow, and whatever could not be scientifically known either did not exist or was not worth knowing. Rationalism therefore bred the arrogant and irrational belief that human beings could shape the world in whatever way they liked. 

For Gandhi, a watertight compartmentalization is not at all possible between the mind and heart, rationality and morality. In fact, an individual’s comprehensive personality depends on both rationality and intuition. Thus, we should not accept only one aspect as a whole, as that would be a partial perspective. In Gandhi’s words, 'I have come to the conclusion that if you want something really important to be done, you not merely satisfy the reason, you must move the heart also. The appeal of reason is more important to the head.' He realized that truth can be reached through a complex dialogue in which reason alone is not sufficient; therefore, he suggested that the arguments need to be reinforced with "emotional and political pressure." In Gandhi in the 21st Century, Prof. Bhikhu Parekh writes:

Like the rationalists, he stressed the importance of rational discussion; unlike them, however, he realized that what passed as rational discussion was often little more than alternative monologues or a public relations exercise, and that sticking to it under such circumstances was an act of irrationality. 

Even as Gandhi was aware of the limits of rationality, he was acutely conscious of the dangers of violence. He knew that narrow rationalism and violence tended to feed off each other, and that the failure of rationality rendered violence morally respectable. 

Ayn Rand’s philosophy is linked to the basic tenets of capitalism and her popularity supposedly keeps growing. She conceived of rationality as man’s basic virtue, the source of all other virtues. The virtue of rationality means the recognition and acceptance of reason as one’s only source of knowledge, one’s only judge of values and one’s only guide to action. She argues for a conception of self-interest grounded not in desires (or emotions) but in facts and reason. We are often told that the reason is the area of the mind, working at its peak, most purely logical level. Emotions are found in the lowly area of the body, busy with its chaotic, irrational passions. 

Antonio Damasio shows in his acclaimed book, Descartes' Error, that the brain, the body, reason, as well as emotions are inseparably connected together into a seamless whole. Pure reason, reason uninfluenced by emotion, seems to occur only in pathological states that are characterized by impairment of day-to-day decision-making and social interaction. Says Damasio, “Certain aspects of the process of emotion and feeling are indispensable for rationality.” To think otherwise was Descartes’ error. 

Damasio writes of patients with damage to the frontal regions of the brain which leaves them incapable of feeling emotions that a normal person would. When such patients are presented with a slide show that includes graphic pictures of sex or violence, for instance, they can identify them and describe their horrible details normally, but they show none of the emotional responses that are always present in normal people. As Damasio points out, these patients are the very epitome of the cool-headed, passionless thinkers philosophy has typically encouraged as the ideal, and yet that very lack of emotional reactions renders them incapable of real world time-pressured decision-making.

Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University Stern School of Business, says that we were never designed to listen to reason. When you ask people moral questions, time their responses and scan their brains, their answers and brain activation patterns indicate that they reach conclusions quickly and produce reasons later only to justify what they’ve decided. The problem isn’t that people don’t reason. They do reason. But their arguments aim to support their conclusions, not yours. Reason doesn’t work like a judge or teacher, impartially weighing evidence or guiding us to wisdom. It works more like a lawyer or press secretary, justifying our acts and judgments to others. 

Haidt views morality as driven by two separate mental systems, one ancient and one modern. The ancient system, which he calls moral intuition, is based on the emotion-laden moral behaviors that evolved before the development of language. Moral intuition occur instantaneously — they are primitive gut reactions that evolved to generate split-second decisions and enhance survival in a dangerous world. The modern system — he calls it moral judgment — came after language, when people became able to articulate why something was right or wrong. Moral judgment comes later, as the conscious mind develops a plausible rationalization for the decision already arrived at through moral intuition. 

He likens the mind’s subterranean moral machinery to an elephant, and conscious moral reasoning to a small rider on the elephant’s back. The rational rider tries his damnedest to make the emotional elephant go in the direction he wants but ultimately the huge elephant will have its way. Psychologists and philosophers have long taken a far too narrow view of morality, he believes, because they have focused on the rider and largely ignored the elephant. In Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, Robert M . Sapolsky writes:

The synergistic advantages of combining reasoning with intuition raise an important point. If you’re a fan of moral intuitions, you’d frame them as being foundational and primordial. If you don’t like them, you’d present them as simplistic, reflexive, and primitive. 

But as emphasized by Woodward and Allman, our moral intuitions are neither primordial nor reflexively primitive. They are the end products of learning; they are cognitive conclusions to which we have been exposed so often that they have become automatic, as implicit as riding a bicycle or reciting the days of the week forward rather than backward. 

In the West we nearly all have strong moral intuitions about the wrongness of slavery, child labor, or animal cruelty. But that sure didn’t used to be the case. Their wrongness has become an implicit moral intuition, a gut instinct concerning moral truth, only because of the fierce moral reasoning (and activism) of those who came before us, when the average person’s moral intuitions were unrecognizably different. Our guts learn their intuitions.