Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Religion and free speech - II

I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it. -Voltaire 

Religion, far from being a unifying force, has become a dividing force with each group shutting down views that don't accord with its own. There was the row over Ramanujan's 300 Ramayanas, Sanal Edamarku's run-in with church leaders, Narendra Dabholkar's murder, controversy over a textbook, the controversy over the Zubin Mehta concert, threatening an all-girl band in Kashmir....The last one brings to mind H. L. Mencken 's comment about the characteristic of Puritans everywhere: 'The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.' And those who say that Kashmir has more important things to do than listening to music concerts should read Karl Paulnack Welcome Address at The Boston Conservatory.

There is often the conflation of Indian culture with Hindu culture. There is always a Hindu structure beneath a Muslim structure. In a civilization as old as India, everything is built on top of something else. There may be a Buddhist stupa beneath the Hindu structure, a tribal place of worship beneath the stupa...where to stop? Who decides where to stop? As John Stewart Mill says in On Liberty, "..."the tyranny of the majority" is now generally included among the evils against which society requires to be on its guard."

It is disturbing to find majoritarian sentiments among the educated middle class section of the population. I am appalled when I hear liberal Hindus say that Hindus should follow the violent methods of radical Islam. (I am no Hindu apologist. The idea of India becoming a Hindu Pakistan is terrible. I think all these cults are, as Chritopher  Hitchens said, 'equivalent glimpses of the untrue'.) I keep getting confirmations of the observation by Avital Ronell, the second philosopher to talk in this documentary about conversations with various philosophers, who says that people who act with  a good conscience are the immoral ones.

So many concessions have been made to fundamentalist groups of all hues who engage in what Rushdie calls 'a competition of offendedness' in this discussion that that they can indulge in 'whataboutery' forever. This has increased the difficulty of putting the genie back in the bottle. In India, fundamentalists decide the limits of freedom of speech not informed, well-read citizens who are wise in the ways of the world. What happened recently in the UK is even more true in India: the abusers have freedom of speech, the abused don't. Rushdie writes in Joseph Anton:
At the heart of the dispute over The Satanic Verses...behind all the accusations and abuse, was a question of profound importance: Who shall have control over the story? Who has, who should have, the power not only to tell the stories with  which, and within which, we all lived, but also to say in what manner those stories may be told? For everyone lived by and inside stories, the so-called grand narratives. The nation was a story, and the family was another, and religion was a third.  As a creative artist he knew that the only answer to that question was: Everyone and anyone has, or should have that power. We should all be free to take the grand narratives to task, to argue with them, satirise them, and insist that they change to reflect the changing times.We should speak of them reverently, irreverently, passionately, caustically,or however we chose. That was our right as members of an open society. In fact, one could say that our ability to retell and remake the story of our culture was the best proof that our societies were indeed free. In a free society the argument over the grand narratives never ceased. It was the argument itself that mattered. The argument was freedom. But in a closed society those who processed political or ideological power invariably tried to shut down these debates. We will tell you the story, they said, and we will tell you what it means. We will tell you how the story is to be told and we forbid you to tel it in any other way. If you do not like the way we tell the story then you are an enemy of the state or traitor to the faith. You have no rights. Woe betide you! We will come after you and teach you the meaning of your refusal.
While religion is the elephant in the room, the intolerant streak in India has kept growing in other spheres too. Witness the furor over the Ambeddkar cartoon, Ashish Nandy's comments, Shoba de's tweet,  Aseem Trivedi's cartoons... Humourless politicians who take themselves too seriously are always a problem. Talking of humourless politicians, Rushdie relates an incident that took place when he attended a get-together at 10 Downing Street after Tony Blair was elected PM. There was a teddy bear in the room which had no name and Rushdie suggested that it be called Tony Bear. Blair was not amused.

Ratan Tata had once said that India was becoming a banana republic. I had thought that he was exaggerating. I would have been more in agreement if he had said that this was because successive governments have kept giving in to the shrill voices of extremists. India is passing through what Rushdie calls a 'cultural emergency'. Freedom of expression is tested only on views that don't agree with your own. Of course you will allow the expression of views that you agree with.

A citizenry dulled by religion easily accepts arguments like:  'it is for the public good', 'to maintain law and order', 'to avoid hurting religious sentiments', etc. As Christopher Hitchens says about the nature of censorship in this debate, 'It will all be done in the name of niceness. It will all be benign. Will you bear it?' Yes, if your main priority is next week's Bollywood  flick. In this humorous and thought provoking speech, Rushdie makes a key point: You keep the freedoms that you fight for. You lose the freedoms that you neglect.

PS: Salman Rushdie Bozar 13-11-2012 Complete Meeting

PPS: Christopher Hitchens, Deepa Mehta and Salman Rushdie - Love was everywhere 

Friday, October 18, 2013

Religion and free speech - I

Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.- Heinrich Heine

Joseph Anton is the riveting account of the fatwa years of Salman Rushdie which he spent hiding from the fanatics of the "Religion of Peace"which is deemed to be beyond criticism. (Is there a better example of an Orwellian term?) Here is Christopher Hitchens' recollections of the fatwa years. The name of the book is the name he had assumed during those years and is a combination of the first names of Conrad and Chekhov. It is an autobiography written in third person. I must say that I was intimidated by his easy familiarity with writers from across the globe and their works. I felt illiterate.

In this talk, Christopher Hitchens says that freedom of speech includes the  freedom to offend. All religions try to fence off criticism but none goes as ballistic as the "Religion of Peace". And Rushdie bore the brunt of it. As Rushdie says (quoting from memory): "There is something strange about a club that makes membership compulsory. The best clubs make membership difficult in order to keep the riff raff out."

Like a character in a Kafka novel who wakes up to find himself in a nightmare, Rushdie found that his life had changed after the fatwa. Trying to hide from the rest of the world is a disorienting, schizophrenic experience. You don't know what a new day will bring and you begin to yearn for the quotidian periods of yesteryear which you had tried hard to avoid. In Rushdie's words, he was "cursed with an interesting life". He was among the first to see the gathering birds.

I had thought that I knew something about psychological pressure but what Rushdie had to go through was orders of magnitude greater. Scuttling from house to house to keep his location a secret, fearing  for his life as well as for the lives of family and friends, keeping quiet for fear that his statements may endanger the lives of hostages, lies about him in the media, public pressure about the money being spent on his protection, pressure to compromise with (read "give in to") fanatics ...It was enough to make a person crumble psychologically as Rushdie did for a brief while before he regained his sanity. He writes:
Compromise destroyed the compromiser and did not placate the uncompromising foe. You did not become a blackbird by painting your wings black, but like an oil-slicked gull you  lost the power of flight. The greatest danger of the growing menace was that good men will commit intellectual suicide and call it peace. Good men would give in to fear and call it respect.
The saddest thing about the whole sorry episode was that India was the first country to ban the book (which has still not been lifted) even before a single copy had reached the country's shores and anybody had had a chance to read it. It became a football in vote bank politics. Religion, culture and patriotism are sentiments which drive large numbers of people into a frenzy on somebody's say-so although they won't have much idea what it is all about. When these are the issues, "The windiest militant trash/ Important Persons shout", as W.H.Auden wrote in his poem, September 1, 1939. Rushdie writes:
In spite of India's much-trumpeted secularism, Indian governments from the mid-seventies  onwards - ever since the time of Indira and Sanjay Gandhi - had often given in to pressure from religious interest groups, especially those claiming to control large blocks of votes. By 1988, Rajiv Gandhi's weak government, with elections due in November, cravenly surrendered to threats from two opposition Muslim MPs who were in no position to 'deliver' the Muslim electorate's votes to the Congress Party. The book was not examined by any properly authorised body, nor was there any semblance of judicial  process. The ban came, improbably enough, from the Finance Ministry, under Section 11 of the Customs Act, which prevented the book from being imported. Weirdly, the Finance Ministry stated that the ban 'did not detract from the literary and artistic merit' of his work. Thanks a lot, he thought.

Strangely -innocently, naively, even ignorantly - he hadn't expected it. In the years that followed, attacks on artistic freedom would multiply in India, and not even the most  eminent would be spared: the painter Maqbool Fida Hussain, the novelist Rohinton Mistry, the film-maker Deepa Mehta would would all be targeted, amoung many others. But in 1988 it was still possible to believe in India as a free country in which artistic expression was respected and defended. He had believed it. Book banning was something that happened all too frequently across the border in Pakistan. It wasn't the Indian way. Jawaharlal Nehru had written in 1929,  'It is a dangerous power in the hands of a government; the right to determine what can be read and what shall not... In India, the power is likely to be misused.'  The young Nehru was writing , at that time, against the censorship of books by India's British overlords. It was sad to think that his words could be used, almost sixty years later, as a critique of India itself.
Rushdie wrote a fiery letter to Rajiv Gandhi protesting the ban which he later admitted was arrogant in some respects. I think the arrogance was ok. Lord Reith,the first head of the BBC said, "Offend people? . . . There are people it is one's duty to offend". I will change the quote slightly to say that there are circumstances when it is one's duty to be offensive. To the government defense that the ban was a preventive measure, he wrote, 'This really is astounding. It is as though, having identified an innocent person as a likely target for assault by muggers or rapists, you were to put that person in jail for protection. This is no way, Mr Gandhi, for a free society to behave.'

PS: Salman Rushdie spoke at Dominican University: Joseph Anton: A Memoir

PPS: Salman Rushdie spoke to NDTV and CNN IBN soon after the publication of Joseph Anton.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Limits of markets - IV

Dan Ariely says that people operate simultaneously in two realms: one where market norms operate and another in which social norms operate. If you mix the signals from the two realms, you will get sub-optimal results. For eg. ,if you give a gift to a friend and say it cost you five hundred rupees, the perceived value of the gift drops. Once such a mistake has been committed, mending a social relationship is difficult.

If a social norm has been replaced by a market norm, it is not necessary that  the social norm will return when the market norm is removed. In the Israeli day care center example, when the fine was removed, the parents'  behaviour did not change. The guilt feeling that had kept them in line many times earlier did not return. Actually,  now that both the social norms and the fine had been removed, there was a slight increase in late pickups.

Companies have tried to establish social relationships with their employees, recognising that this makes them willingly go the extra mile. But when times are tough, they revert to market norms. This has risks. Dan Ariely writes in Predictably Irrational:
In treating their employees - ... - companies must understand their implied long-term commitment. If employees promise to work harder to meet an important deadline (even cancelling family obligations for it), if they are asked to get on an airplane at a moment's notice to attend a meeting, then they must get something similar in return - something like support when they are sick, or a chance to hold on to their jobs when the market threatens to take their jobs away.
Although some companies have been successful in creating social norms with their workers, the current obsession with short-term profits, outsourcing, and draconian cost cutting threatens to undermine it all.In a social exchange, after all, people believe that if something goes awry the other party will be there for them, to protect and help them. These beliefs are not spelled out in a contract, but they are general obligations to provide care and help in times of need. 
Again, companies cannot have it both ways. In particular, I am worried the recent cuts we see in employees' benefits - child care, pensions, flexitime, exercise rooms, the cafeteria, family picnics, etc. - are likely to come at the expense of the social exchange and thus affect workers' productivity. I am particularly worried that cuts and changes in medical benefits are likely to transform much of the employer-employee social relationship into a market relationship. 
If companies want to benefit from the advantages of social norms, they need to do  a better job of cultivating those norms. Medical benefits, and in particular comprehensive medical coverage, are among the best ways a company can express its side of the social exchange. But what are many companies doing? They are demanding high deductibles in their insurance plans, and at the same time are reducing the scope of the benefits. Simply put, they are undermining the social contract between the companies and the employees and replacing it with market norms. As companies tilt the board, and employees slide from social norms to the realm of market norms, can we blame them for jumping ship when a better offer appears ? It's really no surprise that "corporate loyalty", in terms of loyalty of employees to their companies, has become an oxymoron. 
I lived in Jamshedpur till I was nineteen years old since my father was working in TELCO (now Tata Motors). At that time Tatas used to spend a lot on the social sector and employee welfare. I hardly ever heard of anyone wanting to leave. Most of the people I knew as a child were the same people I knew as a teenager. TELCO Colony, where I used to live was a well-maintained township with good amenities and schools. Many of the expenses of the school I studied in was paid by TELCO hence my school fee was low.

I have heard and read since then that Tatas have reduced their social sector spending in order to improve their bottom line. Presumably the salaries have also gone up in the meantime. I wonder how the resultant of these two changes have impacted employee loyalty. And as the example of the Israely day-care center shows,  if loyalty has reduced, it may be difficult to get it back.

Blind application of market principles in every situation is not a panacea for all ills. As one wag put it, 'Socialism is the exploitation of man by man. Capitalism is the reverse.' Both are operated by human beings and so will get corrupted in the long run. Human beings are subject to many influences from the variables in the diversity wheel and are thus victims of many irrationalities and biases, contrary to the assumption of Homo economicus. Market norms generally work well for material goods (see this Radiolab episode on 'emergence' - a lot of units that are individually stupid giving rise to group intelligence) but when social norms are involved, applying market logic often confounds expectations.Economics is about trade-offs and the trade-off between market and social norms is often ignored.

PS:  In the introduction to his course on Human Behavioral Biology, Robert Sapolsky talks of the pitfalls while studying human behavior.