Monday, January 21, 2019

Is the psychological distance between people shrinking or growing? - II

I once heard an interview with Salman Rushdie in which he said that he drove across many nations while coming to India in his youth. I think the route included countries like Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Such a journey would no longer be possible today not only because some places along the route are war-torn but also because the border controls have become much more rigid. Most likely, the traveler would find himself being charged with being a spy and thrown in jail somewhere. George Orwell wrote in  You and the Atomic Bomb:
We were once told that the aeroplane had ‘abolished frontiers’; actually it is only since the aeroplane became a serious weapon that frontiers have become definitely impassable. The radio was once expected to promote international understanding and co-operation; it has turned out to be a means of insulating one nation from another. 
A survey in the 1980s showed that about 1/6 of the communities in India could not be classified into the conventional religions. A more recent survey showed the fraction of communities with such interleaved pieties has reduced to 1/9. The census contains a certain number of specified boxes and you can tick only one of them. A nation-state thus over time makes the fuzzy boundaries between communities more rigid. This sharpens the 'us' vs 'them' feelings thus making these communities more susceptible to the ploys of modern 'riot specialists' who engineer communal tensions for political gains. (See Creating a Nationality.)

It is said that various crude social barriers have broken down before the march of modernity and more rational, secular values have improved relationships. But this may not always produce good results. For instance, inter-dinning between Hindus and Muslims was frowned upon a century ago but now this taboo has largely disappeared. A Muslim riot victim commented, 'Previously, we didn't dine together but our hearts met; now we dine together but our hearts don't meet.' (Quoted in Regimes of Narcissism, Regimes of Despair by Ashis Nandy.)

The various online sites that  have come up ask many intricate caste details. I happened to see a couple of these sites where a couple of relatives had registered. They had a caste menu which mentioned many castes and sub-castes that I had never heard of. I am told that educated NRIs take care to specify caste requirements in their matrimonial ads. The numerous T.V. serials portray only upper-caste life-styles.

It has been found that in survivors of partition riots, even among those who had to undergo terrible sufferings, there exists a residue of fellow feeling towards the other community. One would have expected the younger generation, who didn't live through partition, to be more tolerant of the other community but the reality is the opposite. This is because the older generation still has some memories of the time before partition when the two communities had learned to live together in spite of their differences. The younger generation doesn't have such memories but has just heard stories about the partition horrors and are prisoners of the rhetoric of the nation-states of India and Pakistan.

In the current process of development, all the costs are borne by one section of the population and benefits go to another section so inequalities will keep increasing in the guise of 'national interests'. Ashis Nandy once said that there is a difference between the poverty in olden times and the poverty of today. In olden times the desires of the rich and the poor did not intersect but today they have the same expectations on drastically different levels of income. This kind of 'development' will not further national interests as the state claims but will intensify social tensions.

The sociologist Robert Merton had expressed this idea by his "Strain Theory" by which he sought to explain the phenomenon of social deviance. He said that criminality was not caused by sudden social change but by a social structure that holds out the same goals (wealth, power, status, enlightenment) to all its members without giving them equal access to the legitimate means (well-paid jobs, good education) to achieve them. Merton suggested that high levels of such maladaptive behaviour were evidence of an unhealthy cultural imbalance between goals and means and an unequal distribution of opportunities to achieve wealth legitimately. Deviance, including criminal behaviour, is therefore a normal adjustment to an unequal society.

It is often said that modern forms of travel like aeroplanes have made people more mobile and hence even people who live far away meet frequently. But actually, the increased speed of travel has made interactions more superficial. For example, a person travelling from London to Mumbai for a business meeting will stay in a five star hotel, have meetings in plush rooms, visit malls and fly home after a week thinking that he has had a glimpse of India.

There was an extensive maritime trade network operating in the Indian Ocean region for over a millennium till the 15th  century. The various peoples of the subcontinent, southern China, eastern Africa, etc. had established strong maritime trade with each other. When these people took items like spices, silk , rice, etc. to  other countries in the Indian Ocean region, they had to remain there for months waiting for favorable winds to return home. This resulted in their developing deep ties with the local communities.

The peaceful tradition came to an end with the arrival of the Portuguese who demanded the expulsion of Muslim traders from Calicut. This took the rulers of the region by surprise since nobody had ever tried to compel anybody by force of arms. They tried hard to reach an understanding with the Europeans but found that their choice was ‘between resistance and submission; co-operation was not offered’. As is to be expected, the superior armed might of the Europeans won the day and since then, for the last 500 years, the Indian Ocean region has remained a contested area. Amitav Ghosh writes in In an Antique Land:
Within the Western historiographical record the unarmed character of the Indian Ocean trade is often represented as a lack, or failure, one that invited the intervention of Europe, with its increasing proficiency in war. When a defeat is as complete as was that of the trading cultures of the Indian Ocean, it is hard to allow the vanquished the dignity of nuances of choice and preference. Yet it is worth allowing for the possibility that the peaceful tradition of the oceanic trade may have been, in a quiet and inarticulate way, the product of a rare cultural choice…

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Is the psychological distance between people shrinking or growing? - I

It is said that we live in an interconnected world. Due to globalization the nations of the world trade more with each other and their welfare depends on the welfare of other nations. People travel more and the Internet has made communications easier. But there are forces in the modern world which push in the opposite direction.

The world today faces a rising tide of nationalism.  Nationalist and populist leaders have emerged around the world, ranging from nations as different as the affluent United States, poverty-stricken Philippines and ‘the rising giant’ India. The Internet has helped fuel nationalistic feelings. Revisionist historical literature spewing ethnic and religious hatreds, that would have been difficult to get earlier, are now easy to find online. People in the diaspora give spirited support to various regressive, nationalistic groups. Secure in the knowledge that they themselves will not feel the effects of any increase in violence, they can afford to be more nationalist, bloodthirsty, and irresponsible.

At first glance, the insistence of leaders on always putting their own country first seems good and the obvious thing to do. Nationalism has always been a seductive ideology, not just among us Indians, but for people across the world. But what nationalism does best is to create a sense of “Us vs Them” in nearly every case. The dangers of nationalism are well documented in history and well explained by George Orwell in Notes on Nationalism. His main observations are:
  • By ‘nationalism’ I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’. But secondly — and this is much more important — I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests. 
  • Nationalism…is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.
  • A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige. ...his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations. He sees history, especially contemporary history, as the endless rise and decline of great power units, and every event that happens seems to him a demonstration that his own side is on the upgrade and some hated rival is on the downgrade. ...[He]is able to stick to his belief even when the facts are overwhelmingly against him. Nationalism is power-hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also — since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself — unshakably certain of being in the right.
  • All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. ...Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side. 
  • Every nationalist is haunted by the belief that the past can be altered. He spends part of his time in a fantasy world in which things happen as they should …and he will transfer fragments of this world to the history books whenever possible. ...Material facts are suppressed, dates altered, quotations removed from their context and doctored so as to change their meaning. Events which it is felt ought not to have happened are left unmentioned and ultimately denied….
  • Indifference to objective truth is encouraged by the sealing-off of one part of the world from another, which makes it harder and harder to discover what is actually happening. ...The general uncertainty as to what is really happening makes it easier to cling to lunatic beliefs. ...All nationalist controversy is at the debating-society level. It is always entirely inconclusive, since each contestant invariably believes himself to have won the victory. Some nationalists are not far from schizophrenia, living quite happily amid dreams of power and conquest which have no connection with the physical world.
  • All the way through I have said, ‘the nationalist does this’ or ‘the nationalist does that’.…but we deceive ourselves if we do not realize that we can all resemble them in unguarded moments. …and the most fair-minded and sweet-tempered person may suddenly be transformed into a vicious partisan, anxious only to ‘score’ over his adversary and indifferent as to how many lies he tells or how many logical errors he commits in doing so. …One prod to the nerve of nationalism, and the intellectual decencies can vanish, the past can be altered, and the plainest facts can be denied.
  • There is no crime, absolutely none, that cannot be condoned when ‘our’ side commits it. Even if one does not deny that the crime has happened, even if one knows that it is exactly the same crime as one has condemned in some other case, even if one admits in an intellectual sense that it is unjustified — still one cannot feel that it is wrong. Loyalty is involved, and so pity ceases to function.
  • Whether it is possible to get rid of them I do not know, but I do believe that it is possible to struggle against them, and that this is essentially a moral effort. It is a question first of all of discovering what one really is, what one's own feelings really are, and then of making allowance for the inevitable bias. ...The emotional urges which are inescapable, and are perhaps even necessary to political action, should be able to exist side by side with an acceptance of reality. But this, I repeat, needs a moral effort, and contemporary English literature, so far as it is alive at all to the major issues of our time, shows how few of us are prepared to make it.
Once nationalism spreads past a certain point, it will tend to degrade the overall quality of political debate, and therefore of political thought. In Nineteen Eighty-four, Orwell produced a whole vocabulary to describe this process of thought: blackwhite, crimestop, doublethink, goodthink. Nationalism often transforms into racism and xenophobia. Gandhi had no qualms in saying that nationalism was another word for imperialism. We ought to rethink our attitude towards nationalism and curb much of the enthusiasm that goes with it.