Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Two 'Fulfillment Stories'

“Time” is  one of the main themes in Marcel Proust's novel In Search of Lost Time. The narrator thinks all memories of his youth  have been permanently lost. And then one day, while dipping a piece of madeleine cake into a cup of tea his mother had made him, the memory of his happy childhood days in Combray came unexpectedly flooding back to him. He realized that they had been released by the taste and smell of the tea and madeleine crumbs which had reminded him of the cakes his aunt LĂ©onie used to make for him as a child.

I breathe through a tracheostomy and I rarely have anything through my mouth so taste and smell do not stimulate any memories for me. (It is not that I have lost my sense of smell. I breathe through a tracheotomy so very little air and hence very few odour molecules pass through my nose. An odour has to be particularly strong for it to register.) My Proustian moments come when I read a book. A passage in a book will remind me of some incident in the distant past which might lead to another memory and yet another . . . And as Macbeth said,  “My dull brain was wrought / With things forgotten.” 

In Wanting, Luis Burgis writes about  hearing what he calls 'Fulfilment Stories' - stories about times in your life when you took an action that ended up being deeply fulfilling. According to him, a Fulfilment story has three essential elements: 1. You took some concrete action and you were the main protagonist, 2. You believe you did well for an achievement that matters to you.  3.  Your action brought you a deep sense of fulfilment, maybe even joy and just thinking about it brings some of it back. 

The first incident happened when I was in high school when a cousin had come to Jamshedpur to stay for a while. Once, we were practicing our catching skills with a tennis ball in a room inside the house. The play was proceeding sedately along expected lines when suddenly . . . (Chekov writes in Death of a Government Clerk that 'very often in stories you come upon this word “suddenly,” and this is all very proper, since authors must always concern themselves with the unexpectedness of life.)

Suddenly, my cousin threw the ball somewhat off target and to our misfortune, it hit a clock behind me. The glass on the face of the clock shattered into million pieces with an unseemly noise accentuating our horrified silence. My cousin was very worried about how to break the news to his uncle (my father) when he returned from the office. This was surprising for me because my father was a mild mannered person who was not likely to fly into a rage and shout at us. 

Looking at the worried expression on my cousin's face and listening to his fears, I told him that I will tell my father that I had thrown the ball that had inadvertently hit the clock. 'Really?', he asked with a look of disbelief. I assured him that I would.  When my father came home in the evening, I took the blame for the broken clock as I had promised. As I had expected, nothing much happened, with my father expressing some disapproval and telling me to be more careful in future. My cousin was relieved and I soon forgot about the incident. 

Years later, about a year after my stroke, the cousin visited me. During the visit, he mentioed the incident which was the first time I recalled the incident after the day it had occurred and I felt happy about it. It was an insignificant incident for me but it must have meant something for him if he still remembered it after almost two decades. 

The second incident occurred when I was in Bajaj Auto Ltd. which was my first job. When I got my first salary, I sent some money separately to both my grandparents. (I will be writing only about my maternal grandparents since my father was an orphan and I don't know anything about the authors of his existence.) I don't know why I did it because both lived in the same house, my grandfather had always looked after financial matters and my grandmother was perfectly happy with this arrangement. It must have been a spontaneous action and I promptly forgot all about it. 

After a few months, I got admission in IIMA, resigned from my job and served the mandatory one-month notice period. After this,  there were two weeks to go before joining IIMA and I decided to go to Palakkad, Kerala where my mother and sister were staying along with my grandparents. I had to travel by bus for an hour from Palakkad Junction to reach my village. I reached the bus stop near my house at my usual time of around eight in the morning. 

There was a short walk from the bus stop to my house. On the way a relative called out to me, 'Grandmother died.' Huh? 

- 'Whose grandmother?'

- 'Your grandmother.'

This came as a shock.  For a moment I did not know what to say. I had had no knowledge of any ailment or accident. Then what had happened? I hurried home. My mother and an aunt came out to receive me and from the looks on their faces I knew that what I had heard was true. (Anyway this was not a matter about which somebody will make jokes. Perhaps I was hoping unconsciously that it would be one.) Soon after, when we (my mother, sister, grandfather, an aunt and myself) were settled in a room, I was told what had happened. 

My grandmother had complained of stomach pain and was taken to a hospital in Coimbatore. After examination, the doctors said that they had to perform an operation. During the procedure, they found that she had stomach cancer which had spread to many organs. She had never complained of any pain so nobody had known anything about this. The doctors tried desperately to retrieve the situation but their struggles were in vain and she died on the operating table. Everybody was stunned by what had happened. I had not been informed because everybody knew that I had given notice and couldn't take leave and anyway I will be home in a week. 

Then my mother told me about the money order that I had sent to my grandmother some months ago, something I had forgotten about. (Those days, one way to send  money was by using a money order which was sent through the postal system.) It seemed that nobody had ever sent any money to her. My grandfather looked after financial matters and my grandmother was content to look after the kitchen. When my grandmother heard her name called out by the postman, she was surprised. 

When the postman told her that one Suresh had sent her money, she swelled with pride. She had to sign in order to get the money which was the first time in her life that she had been asked to sign anywhere. She practised her signature gravely for some time and then put her signature at the required place feeling very important. She then took the money and kept it carefully among some clothes in her cupboard. She never spent any of the money but periodically, she would look at it with great joy.  

The story overwhelmed me. What had been an insignificant act that I had forgotten about soon had now become the best act of my life. Both the above acts were ones I had initially thought were minor but later assumed significance. They often remind me of the last stanza of Wordsworth's poem Daffodils

For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude;

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils.


Saturday, January 27, 2024

Typing upgrade

About a year ago, when Jaya and I were celebrating our 27th wedding anniversary, Sujit presented me with an I-Mac. I received it with a mixture of happiness and bewilderment. The bewilderment was because I had never used a Mac before and I didn’t know if all my files would be compatible with the Mac OS. Sujit assured me that it will not be a problem which eased some of my worries. 

He then gave me some tutorials about common Mac commands. For eg. instead of the 'cntrl' key in Windows, I had to use the 'command' key in Mac. So for copying something, I had to click command+c. For Mac, it is Finder, while for Windows PCs, it was File Explorer. Instead of Explorer, there is Safari. I could search podcasts and music more easily. What made Sujit opt for an I-Mac was the Dwell feature in the Accessibility features about which he learned from a friend. When he used it in a showroom, he knew that I would take to it quickly.  

The mouse-pointer is moved using head-tracking technology. The pointer appears over the chosen spot and the dwell time countdown begins (a pointer circle starts to empty). When the countdown is over (which takes a couple of seconds), the chosen action is performed. The default dwell action is set to left click. By clicking on a dropdown menu, I can select a different action like double click, right click etc. The current dwell action will revert to 'left click' after the action is performed.

The Dwell function allows me to do what anyone else can do in a computer including browsing, switching between documents and reading pdf documents directly. Previously, once I had specified a document, I had to type within that document till someone changed it. For reading pdfs, I used to ask somebody to copy it in Word which would result in the images being lost. All such problems are no longer there. 

Another advantage is that there is a text prediction feature in the Accessibility keyboard which makes typing easier. After typing just a few letters, some words are suggested. I can select the word I want, and just click on it for it to get typed. For example, for typing the word 'example', I just had to type 'e' and it was the first word predicted. The software had predicted that after 'For' it was likely to be 'example'. 

Of course, so many advantages have to be accompanied by at least one disadvantage - the curse of distraction. In The Count of Monte Cristo, the protagonist Edmund Dantes reflected upon the enormous degree of intelligence and ability that a fellow prisoner Abbe Faria displayed and said, 'What would you not have accomplished if you had been free?' Abbe Faria replied, 'Possibly nothing at all; the overflow of my brain would probably, in a state of freedom, have evaporated in a thousand follies; misfortune is needed to bring to light the treasures of the human intellect.'

Freedom is great but unrestricted freedom brings its own problems. Now that I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted in a computer, I felt the urge to do things other than what I was currently doing. If a WhatsApp notification came, I wanted to check what it was. I would think of something I wanted to check in Google. This would lead me to a link which would lead me to another link and another. . . I would be reading a book in pdf and I would be tempted to check another book. Previously, I could not do any of these things so I focused on the file I was working on for a couple of hours before I asked somebody to change it. 

At this time, I happened to read a book called Deep Work by Cal Newport. It mentioned a 2012 McKinsey study which found that the average knowledge worker now spends more than 60 percent of the workweek engaged in electronic communication and Internet searching, with close to 30 percent of a worker’s time dedicated to reading and answering e-mail alone. This state of fragmented attention does not allow you to do deep work, which requires long periods of uninterrupted thinking. 

He said that many assume that they can switch between a state of distraction and one of concentration as needed, but this is wishful thinking: Once you’re wired for distraction, you crave it. The constant switching from deep, focused activities to superficial activities at the slightest hint of boredom teaches your mind to never tolerate an absence of novelty. The urge to turn your attention toward something more superficial is always present. People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy.  They just can’t keep on task. 

The key to developing a deep work habit is to  add routines and rituals which help maintain a state of unbroken concentration. Hours of practice is necessary to strengthen one's “mental muscle” to maintain this focus. A lot of advice for the problem of distraction follows the general template of finding occasional time to get away from the noise. Some put aside one or two months a year to escape these temptations, others follow one-day-a-week schedule of avoiding distraction, while others put aside an hour or two every day for the same purpose. 

Instead of following such a schedule, Cal Newport suggests following the opposite strategy of specifying a particular time for giving in to distraction. Regardless of how you schedule these blocks of time, you must keep the time outside these blocks absolutely free from Internet use. The idea behind this strategy is that the use of a distracting service does not, by itself, reduce your brain’s ability to focus. It’s instead the constant switching from focused activities to superficial activities, at the slightest hint of boredom or cognitive challenge, that teaches your mind to never tolerate an absence of novelty. 

This constant switching weakens the 'mental muscles' responsible for focusing your attention. By segregating Internet use you’re minimising the number of times you give in to distraction, and by doing so you let these 'mental muscles' strengthen. A full day of scheduled distraction therefore becomes a full day of similar mental training. Following this advice, I first kept 30 minutes for focused activity during which I resisted any temptation for distraction. Then I would schedule 15 minutes for checking e-mail, Google searches etc. I gradually increased the Internet-free chunks of time to 40 minutes, 50 minutes, one hour, etc. This practice has worked well. 

Friday, January 12, 2024

Social production of moral indifference - 15b

The philosopher George Santayana once said,  ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’  Perhaps it is also important to know what to remember and what to forget. Those who do not remember the extraordinary truces of the World War I trenches, or who do not learn of Gandhi, Mandela, Vaclav Havel, Viljoen, Tutu, the extraordinary statements of many ordinary people in the South African TRC etc., are condemned to be less likely to repeat them.  (Hemmingway  - “As you get older it is harder to have heroes, but it is sort of necessary.”)

After the pogrom against the Sikhs in 1984, Rajiv Gandhi made infamous Newton’ First Law of Motion by justifying the horror with the statement - ‘Every action has an equal and opposite reaction’.  This statement is often made for justifying negative emotions. But what can be done is to use it to justify positive emotions. During his debate with Tilak about the interpretation of the Gita, Gandhi refuted Tilak’s justification of violence by saying: 

The text from the Bhagavad Gita shows to me how the principle of conquering hate by love, untruth by truth, can and must be applied. If it be true that God metes out the same measure to us that we mete out to others, it follows that if we would escape condign punishment, we may not return anger but gentleness even against anger. And this is the law not for the unworldly but essentially for the worldly

A study found that cooperative behaviour is contagious and that it spreads from person to person. And it takes only a handful of individuals to really make a difference. When people benefit from kindness they "pay it forward" by helping others who were not originally involved, and this creates a cascade of cooperation that influences dozens more in a social network. Groups with altruists in them will be more altruistic as a whole and more likely to survive than selfish groups. (Oscar Wilde -  “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.” ) 

I have never seen violence or even been near a scene of violence. I have only read about the horrible acts of violence that people commit on each other and get sickened by it. Probably the same is the case with the majority of people who read this blog. About the only type of violence I have enjoyed is a statement by P G Wodehouse  (I think he put it in the mouth of Bertie Wooster): 'Whenever I get that sad, depressed feeling, I go out and kill a policeman. ' 

In contemporary times, people kidnap girls and sell them into slavery, commit atrocities like slitting a person's throat and, instead of being scared and concealing them, display the evidence online, enjoying the horror  it creates. As the Irish poet William Butler Yeats said, ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.’ To merely accept that this is the kind of world we live in  and  agree with received wisdom about the selfishness of human nature would prove right Goebbels’ perverse prediction: “Even if we lose, we shall win, for our ideals will have penetrated the hearts of our enemies.”

Antonio Gramsci once talked about pessimism of the intellect but optimism of the will. Pessimism of the intellect means accepting nothing at face value, doubting all that we are told, and questioning everything, not in the spirit of cynicism but of scepticism. But always, pessimism of the intellect needs to be balanced by optimism of the will. In other words, see the world as it really is, warts and all, but still forge ahead tenaciously. It is a powerful warning against wishful thinking and simultaneously a cry against resignation. 

Logical analysis of a situation may lead the intellect to despair, but we can’t let anxiety overwhelm and paralyse us. The underlying lack of conviction, the absence of an optimism of the will, influences how we see ourselves and events every day.  P.G. Wodehouse once said, 'I can detach myself from the world. If there is a better world to detach oneself from than the one functioning at the moment I have yet to hear of it.' And if we still wonder how an insignificant individual action can make any difference, Adam Smith has the answer.

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he describes his concept of an invisible hand using a moral example rather than a monetary one showing how individual choices can lead to important social outcomes. We decide what is proper and improper and what is honourable and noble and kind. We give our approval to honourable behaviour and our disapproval to dishonourable behaviour. All these patterns of behaviour around us come from all our actions together thereby setting the norms by which society functions. And few of us realize that we play a role in creating these norms and values.

There’s no way to legislate the virtues of courtesy, kindness, thoughtfulness, compassion, honour and integrity. No statute could be written to enforce them or to punish their opposites. They are best encouraged — and their opposites discouraged — by human interaction. A society of decent behaviour is created through the signals of approval and disapproval we send to each other and through the admonitions we give to our children. We create the understandings of behaviour that we each in turn use to moderate our self-centredness.

Smith is saying that our choices matter. When we honour bad people or avoid good people, we are playing a role in degrading the world around us. When you honour honourable behaviour by others, you play a role in breaking an unvirtuous circle. Being good encourages others to be good.  It’s a small role, almost negligible. But together, our combined actions are decisive. As Goethe said, “When you take a man as he is, you make him worse. When you take a man as he can be, you make him better.” (See How Adam Smith can change your life by Russell Roberts.) Robert M. Sapolsky says in Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst

Eventually it can seem hopeless that you can actually fix something, can make things better. But we have no choice but to try. And if you are reading this, you are probably ideally suited to do so. You’ve amply proven you have intellectual tenacity. 

You probably also have running water, a home, adequate calories, and low odds of festering with a bad parasitic disease. You probably don’t have to worry about Ebola virus, warlords, or being invisible in your world. And you’ve been educated. In other words, you’re one of the lucky humans. So try.

PS: If you are interested in Biology, you can listen to the talks by Robert M. Sapolsky in YouTube especially his Stanford lectures on Human Behavioural Biology.  Robert Sapolsky Rocks.

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 15a

“The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make and could just as easily make differently.” - David Graeber

There was a study of businesses that went public on the New York Stock Exchange. The study showed that five years later, the companies that gave a good deal to their employees, such as profit sharing and human resources survived better than companies that treated their employees as expendable. You would think that if the practices of companies that survive end up spreading, then doing well by employees would simply spread on its own merits. But that’s not what happened. This is because there is a narrative that has become common which emphasises the negative facets of human behaviour.

We unconsciously and automatically learn motivations, preferences, and values from the surrounding culture and these learnings guide our actions. Once we get in the habit of thinking of ourselves in a particular way, we tend to interpret all the evidence we encounter to fit our preconceptions and assumptions. Almost two generations of human beings have been educated to think in terms of universal selfishness. “What’s in it for him/her/us?” is the question we have trained ourselves to ask first. We have convinced ourselves that we are best off designing systems as though we are selfish creatures. 

It seems like it’s always the jerks that are more successful than the “nice guys” in all areas of business, entertainment, and other fields. But being a jerk, or a narcissist is not the personality trait that makes for great success. It should also be remembered that there are a lot of jerks, narcissists and foul-mouthed people who are unsuccessful. There are a lot of very effective, successful people who have none of those maladies. If we want to avoid aggressive, self-centred behaviour, we need to avoid pushing the wrong psychological buttons. 

Most people have heard about placebos in the context of testing new medicines. Depending on a person’s beliefs, desires, and prior experiences, taking a placebo or experiencing any “sham” medical procedure including fake surgery can activate biological pathways in the body making the sham treatment work. However, the action and effectiveness of a placebo often depends entirely on how much faith a patient puts in a particular placebo or medical treatment. The more you believe it will work, the more it may actually work. 

Similarity, culture plays an important role in setting our beliefs and expectations which influence how we behave nd how we expect others to behave towards us. We should add positive emotions like empathy, joy, happiness, gratitude, euphoria, and hope among the cultural cues that are sent out. Hamlet said, 'Assume a virtue, if you have it not.' By 'assume a virtue', Hamlet does not mean 'pretend' but the very opposite: to pretend is to show. What he means is, ‘Adopt a virtue’ and act upon it, order your behaviour by it. It results in what is called the Pygmalion Effect - the phenomenon whereby one person’s expectation for another person’s behaviour comes to serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

 In Cervantes’  novel Don Quixote, there is a tale about two good friends,  Lothario and Anselmo, who discuss the virtues of Anselmo’s wife, Camila. Despite having a wonderful marriage, Anselmo insists that his friend help him “prove” his wife’s chastity and virtue by attempting to seduce her. He says, ‘I can never value one who owes her virtue to lack of opportunity, rather than to a vigorous denial of an aggressive and persistent lover.’A shocked Lothario wisely points out how ridiculous this is, and tells Anselmo to be content. Anselmo insists further and finally convinces Lothario to help him. 

Anselmo then takes an out-of-town business trip in order to provide the opportunity for the plan. Lothario is initially hesitant but eventually falls in love with Camila. Camila is confused and frustrated with Lothario’s advances and tries her hardest to refuse them and convince her husband not to leave her alone with Lothario. However Anselmo doesn’t listen and  she eventually succumbs to Lothario’s advances. They lie to Anselmo and carry on an affair. Finally he wises up and Lothario and Camila are forced to flee together. All come to a bad end, in true Shakespearean fashion.

The three main characters seem to each have a “fatal flaw.” Anselmo, of course, is “recklessly curious” – never satisfied with the good in front of him, but discontented with no reason. It was his plan that started the downward spiral of the story. Lothario starts out with words of wisdom to his friend and attempts to flee the temptation before him. He does not trust his instincts. He does not flee the temptation as he should.  The story illustrates the fact that our thoughts result in actions in the real world that make our thoughts come true. The story is a metaphor that illustrates the fact that  if we view human nature through a negative lens, it might become a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Over the past couple of decades, scientists of many disciplines are uncovering the deep roots of human goodness. This research reveals that the good in us is just as intrinsic to our species as the bad. Empathy, gratitude, compassion, altruism, fairness, trust, and cooperation, once thought to be aberrations from the tooth-and-claw natural order of things, are now being revealed as core features of primate evolution. 

Lots of experimental work has shown that people actually cooperate more than is predicted by commonly held conceptions. In experiments about cooperative behaviour, there is admittedly a large minority of people — about 30% — who behave as though they are selfish. However, 50% consistently behave cooperatively. The remaining 20% are unpredictable, sometimes choosing to cooperate and other times refusing to do so. In no society examined under controlled conditions have the majority of people consistently behaved selfishly.

In one experiment, for the same game, half the players were told that they were playing the Community Game and the other half were told that they were playing the Wall Street Game. The two groups were identical in all other respects. Yet, in the Community Game group, 70% started out playing cooperatively and continued to do so throughout the experiment. In the Wall Street Game group, the proportions were reversed: 70% of the players didn’t cooperate with one another. Thirty percent started out playing cooperatively but stopped when the others didn’t respond.

Thus just changing the framing of the games influenced 40% of the sample. The players who thought they were acting in a context that rewarded self-interest behaved in a manner consistent with that expectation; participants who felt they were in a situation that demanded a prosocial attitude conformed to that scenario. In fact, we are willing to pay a penalty for an opportunity to punish people who appear to be breaking implicit rules of fairness in economic transactions.

Friday, December 15, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 14b

We are like residents of Jorge Luis Borges's Library of Babel — an infinite library whose books contain every possible string of letters. It therefore contains somewhere an explanation of why the library exists and how to use it. But Borges's librarians suspect that they will never find that book amid the miles of nonsense. The story is a metaphor for a problem we face:  the paradox of abundance - quantity dulls us and reduces the quality of our engagement. 

In Moral Blindness: The Loss of Sensitivity in Liquid Modernity by Zygmunt Bauman and Leonidas Donskis, I came across the concept of the adiaphorization of human behaviour. Adiaphoron in Greek means an unimportant thing (pl. adiaphora). Bauman uses it not in the sense of ‘unimportant’ but as ‘irrelevant’ or ‘indifferent’. He means an ability not to react, or, to react as if something were happening not to people but to natural physical objects, to things, or to non-humans. 

We live in an era of sound-bites, not thoughts. A ‘hurried life’ means that we don’t have the chance to ponder over an event and retain it in our memory. Things turn into a routine that  do not turn anybody on – one needs to become a star or a victim to gain any sort of attention from one’s society. Only a celebrity and a famous victim can expect to be noticed by a society overstuffed with sensational, valueless information. Celebrity and stardom means success that leaves the masses with the illusion that they are not too far from it and can reach it. 

When you constantly see crashing planes in the movies, you start looking at them as fictions that can never happen to you in real life. The routinization of violence and killing during war makes people stop responding to war’s horrors. Incessant political scandals similarly diminish or entirely take away people’s social and political sensitivity. This process suppresses the human power to feel sympathy. Bowman  considers the adiaphorization of behaviour to be one of the most sensitive problems of our time with the markets playing a key role in the process. 

When a catastrophe occurs, people at hand are shocked into helpfulness. We rush to help victims of catastrophe but return to the normal routine once a cheque has been mailed. The fast pace of life means that ‘compassion fatigue’ will set in, waiting for another shock to break it, again for only a brief moment.  This means that the horror of the one-off earthquake or flood stands a much better chance of spurring us into action than slowly yet relentlessly rising inequality of income and life chances.

Bowman uses the idea of painkillers as a metaphor to illuminate the problem. Painkillers are used as a temporary measure for the duration of surgery or of a particularly painful organic disorder. It is never meant to make the organism permanently pain-free. Medical professionals would consider such a condition dangerous. If pain did not send a warning in time that something was wrong, the patients would postpone the search for a remedy until their condition became untreatable. Still, the thought of being permanently free of pain  seems to most people a good idea.

This example from physiology gives an important message: freedom from pain is a mixed blessing. It prevents discomfort, and for a short time cuts down potentially severe suffering, but it may well prove a trap. Pain is a corrective, guiding force. When we are acting foolishly and  stray into illness, alienation, loneliness, or despair, it is good to feel anguished. Moral pain serves as a reminder that something is wrong with our way of living. 

Historian Milton Mayer recounts in his seminal book on Hitler’s rise to power, They Thought They Were Free: Germany 1933-45, how easily we can slip into barbarism. Mayer's book is a study of ten Germans and their lives from 1933-45. They had been members of the Nazi party. Mayer wanted to discover how otherwise unremarkable and in many ways reasonable people can be seduced by demagogues and populists.

The full range of coercive power and brutality of the Nazis did not become clear at one stroke. People got accustomed to it, in small steps. Most of his informants remembered the Hitler years as the time of their life. They passed examinations, got a job, got promotions, got married. And the political meetings had been exciting. There were always more of them. “There was so much going on.” Consumed by the ‘virus of adiaphorization’, society was increasingly becoming insensitive. Mayer quotes one German:

Most of us did not want to think about fundamental things and never had. There was no need to. Nazism  . . . kept us so busy with continuous changes and 'crises' and so fascinated, yes, fascinated, by the machinations of the 'national enemies', without and within, that we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us.

Thursday, November 30, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 14a

On this new level you live, you have been living more comfortably every day, with new morals, new principles. You have accepted things you would not have accepted five years ago, a year ago, things that your father, even in Germany, could not have imagined.” - Milton Mayer in 'They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-45'

In Liquid Modernity, the late sociologist Zigmunt Bowman said that in the initial stage of industrialisation, capital, management and labour all had to stay in one another's company. Workers depended on being hired for their livelihood; capital depended on hiring them for its  growth. The dependence was therefore mutual, and the two sides were bound to stay together for a very long time to come. Both sides recognized that there were limits to how far the other side in the conflict of interests could and should be pushed. Thus there were limits to the inequality which capital could survive. 

This was the reason why the state needed to introduce minimum wages or time limits to the working day and week, as well as legal protection for labour unions and other weapons of worker self-defence.  It ensured that the system is protected against the suicidal consequences of leaving unchecked the capitalists’ greed in pursuit of a quick profit. Those factors are now absent and a reversal of this trend is unlikely.

This is because  now labour and capital are no longer interdependent because of technological advances. The ideas of corporate loyalty and rewarding seniority have disappeared. Risk has become a daily necessity shouldered by the masses. Capital, which means power, can move with the speed of the electronic signal  and so it can move its essential ingredients instantaneously. Labour, on the other hand, remains as immobilized as it was in the past. The company is free to move; but the consequences of the move will remain. Whoever is free to run away from the locality, is free to run away from the consequences.

It is the people who cannot move quickly or who cannot leave their place at all, who are ruled. The mobility acquired by ‘people who invest’ has resulted in power being detached from obligations: not only duties towards employees, but also towards the younger and weaker, towards yet unborn generations. This means power has now got freedom from the duty to contribute to daily life and the perpetuation of the community. This freedom implies that capital has to look at only at economic costs; other costs are for the territorially bound to manage.

There are a large number of workers tied to the assembly line or to the computer networks and electronic automated devices like check-out points. Nowadays, they tend to be the most expendable parts of the economic system. Neither particular skills, nor the art of social interaction with clients are required for their jobs - and so they are easiest to replace. Detachment and superficial cooperativeness are better armour for dealing with current realities than behaviour based on values of loyalty and service.

People no longer work at the same company or the same job for long stretches of time. They switch jobs or switch teams or change fields or even become consultants. There’s no predictability, no long-term commitment, no long-term relations with co-workers and bosses, no loyalty, more confusion, etc. “No long term” means keep moving, don’t commit yourself, and don’t sacrifice.  In such an environment, there is no need to look beyond immediate personal satisfaction.  

The uncertainty created by the new realities of the workplace is a powerful individualising force: it makes people think more about themselves and think less about others. It divides instead of uniting, and since there is no telling who will wake up the next day in what division, the idea of 'common interests' loses all pragmatic value. Once the employment of labour has become short-term and precarious there is little chance for mutual loyalty and commitment to develop.  

The mobility of capital has made the modern state powerless. While all the agencies of political life stay within the boundaries of the state, power flows well beyond their reach and thus outside citizens’ control. Capital has acquired enough mobility in most cases to blackmail territory-bound political agencies into submission to its demand. The threat of cutting local ties and moving elsewhere reduces the powers of local agencies to take action. 

A government has little choice but to implore and cajole capital to come in by 'creating better conditions for free  enterprise', which means, using all the regulating power at the government's disposal for deregulation, of dismantling and scrapping the extant 'enterprise constraining' laws and statutes. This means low taxes, fewer or no rules and above all a 'flexible labour market'. More generally, it means a docile population, unable and unwilling to put up an organised resistance to whatever decision the capital might yet take. 

Paradoxically, governments can hope to keep capital in place only by convincing it beyond reasonable doubt that it is free to move away. Governments that don't play ball incur severe costs, generally economic. They may be refused loans or denied reduction of their debts; local currencies would be speculated against and pressed to devalue; local stocks would fall on the global exchanges; the country may face economic sanctions; global investors would withdraw their assets.

Thursday, November 16, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 13b

Humans are quite adept at explaining away their moral failures; it is a great talent of the human mind. Those with rising power and increasing wealth justify their elevated rank, and the abuses that such absolute power brings about, with stories of how extraordinary they are. These narratives of exceptionalism spread the idea that the powerful are above the laws of ordinary people and deserve the bigger slice of the pie that they are so ready to take. In Humankind,  Rutger Bregman writes: 

The better the story you spin about yourself, the bigger your piece of the pie. In fact, you could look at the entire evolution of civilisation as a history of rulers who continually devised new justifications for their privileges. 

Leaders (in modern times, they can be called 'political entrepreneurs') convert practical interests into moral claims to persuade others to do what they say. They will use their police and party organization to persuade their most devoted followers to make speeches to the effect that freedom has finally been assured and democracy has finally been realized. No one would tell others, “risk your life because it is good for me.” They say, “if you are a man, this is what you should do.” The thinking of the leaders will be - how will one course of action or another, whether toward war or toward peace, affect my standing among the people? They will ignore what Proust said,  ' . . . indifference to the sufferings one causes which, whatever other names one gives it, is the most terrible and lasting form of cruelty.'

A decision to go to war might be seen as a form of cost-benefit analysis, where war is justified when the costs of going to war are less than the costs of not going to war. Morality is reduced to a matter of accounting. The hero is rational, but though the villain may be cunning and calculating, he cannot be reasoned with. An Us/Them asymmetry is thus established in the public's mind. The enemy's actions will be reported on in terms of murder, theft and rape. One's own actions will never be discussed in terms of murder, assault, and arson. 

One of the most common consequences of war (if things don't go wrong) is an intensification of control by those in leadership positions. Ask people why we have wars, and many will reply, just like that, that it is in human nature. Very few will say  that it is because of the self-interest of leaders. Leaders are quick to let slip the dogs of war because war benefits them. As George Orwell  said, '“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

We make automatic Us/Them dichotomies, favour the former and rationalize that tendency with ideology. Political ideologues by definition hold narrow views. They are blind to what they don’t wish to see. We are easily manipulated. 'Thems' are made to seem so different that they hardly count as human. Demagogues are skilled at this, framing hated 'Thems' — blacks, Jews, Muslims, Tutsis — as insects, rodents, cancers etc. In order to kill, one must cease to see individual human beings and instead reduce them to an abstraction: “the enemy.” Voltaire said that those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities. 

And how do you make them believe those absurdities? By appealing to their feeling of empathy - empathy that is  sparked by stories told about innocent victims of these hated groups. When people think about atrocities, they typically think of hatred and racial ideology and dehumanization, and they are right to do so. But empathy also plays a role. Many people feel that empathy - a capacity to see the world through others’ eyes, to feel what they feel – is a good attribute for a person to have. The more empathy, the better. 

But in Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, Paul Bloom makes the counter-intuitive point that  if we want to make the world a better place, then we are better off without empathy. Our empathic experience is influenced by what we think about the person we are empathizing with. You’re not going to feel the pain of those whose problems you see as their own fault or those you view as insignificant. We shut off our social understanding when dealing with certain people: We dehumanize them.

Bloom cites a pair of studies which found that there was a greater connection between empathy and aggression in those subjects who had genes that made them more sensitive to vasopressin and oxytocin, hormones that are implicated in compassion, helping, and empathy. It’s not just that certain scenarios elicit empathy and hence trigger aggression. It’s that certain sorts of people are more vulnerable to being triggered in this way.

In 1990,  in the run-up to the Gulf War, a 15-yr-old refugee from Kuwait appeared before a US congressional Human Rights Caucus. The girl had volunteered in a hospital in Kuwait City. She tearfully testified that Iraqi soldiers had stolen incubators to ship home as plunder, leaving over three hundred premature infants to die. The story horrified the public, was cited by seven senators when justifying their support of war (a resolution that passed by five votes), and was cited more than ten times by George H. W. Bush in arguing for U.S. military involvement. The  US went to war with a 92 percent approval rating of the president’s decision. 

Much later it emerged that the incubator story was a lie. The girl was Nayirah al-Sabah, the fifteen-year-old daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States. The incubator story was fabricated by the public relations firm Hill + Knowlton, hired by the Kuwaiti government with the help of co-chair Representative Tom Lantos (D-California). Research by the firm indicated that people would be particularly responsive to stories about atrocities against babies so the incubator tale was concocted, the witness coached. The story of the fiction came out long after the war. Robert Sapolsky writes in Behave:

Be careful when our enemies are made to remind us of maggots and cancer and shit. But also beware when it is our empathic intuitions, rather than our hateful ones, that are manipulated by those who use us for their own goals.

As secularization and modernization have progressed, India has seen more communal violence. Money and politics play a more important role in them than religion. It tends to occur much more in cities. Riots are organised in India in the same way as rallies or strikes and are planned to achieve some specific purpose like discrediting a chief minister or winning an election. Riots have to be organised because it is not easy to make ordinary citizens participate in them. For achieving this one needs detailed planning and hard work. Many parties have skilled 'riot managers' who specelize in organising such violence. In Bonfire of Creeds, Ashis Nandi writes:

It is not difficult today to find out the rate at which riots of various kinds can be bought, how political protection can be obtained for the rioters and how, after a riot, political advantage can be taken of it.

In spite of all the brain-washing, ordinary people do retain some of their humanity. A British infantry soldier serving in World War I said, 'At home one abuses the enemy, and draws insulting caricatures. How tired I am of grotesque Kaisers. Out here, one can respect a brave, skillful, and resourceful enemy. They have people they love at home, they too have to endure mud, rain and steel.' (Quoted in Robert Sapolsky's Behave).