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).

Saturday, November 4, 2023

A Narrow Escape - II

After the firemen had put out the main blaze, they found a couple of small fires in the room. They decided to pour water  in the whole room and told Jaya to remove any valuable objects from the room. Sujit removed the i-Mac, printer and Uma's phone while Jaya removed my wheelchair accessories. A fireman helped Jaya remove a wooden cot and a mattress from the room and then water was poured everywhere. 

The next morning (actually the same morning, since the incident had occurred just past midnight), Uma went to my room and took a video of many affected parts. I was shocked by the scenes of damage. It was a scene from a war-zone - a picture from Ukraine. I was told that setting right the whole house may take about two months and we must stay somewhere else for that time. 

But the damage was not as bad as had been initially feared. When the electrician who had originally done the wiring for the apartment checked the wiring, he found them to be in perfect condition. The fault had been with the AC. There was no need for complete rewiring as had been feared. When the initial cleaning had been done and most of the soot had been removed from the house, the scenario looked a little brighter. 

Except for my room, the rest of the house looked reasonably ok except that it needed a fresh coat of paint. Even in my room, things could have been a lot worse. Miraculously, a curtain near the AC had not caught fire. If it had, then a curtain next to it would have caught fire, then the TV next to it . . . plenty more inflammable material were in line and the result would have been far worse. Amazingly, none of this happened. 

One of Jaya's cousins has a house around 3km. from our house. He comes there for about one day a month but it is otherwise unoccupied. He told us to stay there till our house was ready which we now estimated to take around a month. It is from this house that I am typing these ramblings (on the few occasions that I manage to sit)  on the i-Mac that had been retrieved from my room and is in fine condition. 

Jaya and her brother, Unni, were slogging all day to get our house back to good condition. Jaya was leaving our temporary house at ten in the morning and returning after ten in the night while Unni slept overnight at our house. Uma held the fort at our temporary accommodation while Sujit went to our house after office and returned with Jaya. Meanwhile, most of of the time, I was lying peacefully on the bed listening to podcasts using the i-Mac and AirPods. I had many podcasts to catch up on and this was as good a time as any to do so. The only 'work' I had to do regarding our house was to get an executive summary of the work done during the day and give my expert comments.  Life is very unfair, if you didn’t already know it. 

We were lucky that the incident happened at the time it did (past midnight), when all three - Jaya, Sujit and Uma were at home and could distribute the tasks among themselves and act on them quickly. If it had happened in the morning, there was a very high probability that I would have been trapped. Sujit would have gone to the office and Jaya may have gone to buy something or gone to the post office/bank etc. If Uma had to go out, Jaya would be at home. These are common situations that cannot be avoided. 

It is impossible for only one person to shift me to the wheelchair. The only other people who might have been in the house - Jaya's parents or my mother - are too old to help shift me. (Of course, people are capable of doing incredible things in life or death situations so the possibility of them helping to shift me cannot be ruled out). The problem need not always be caused by the AC thus increasing he situations of possible danger. A friend told us some days after the incident that a refrigerator had exploded killing one person - not the kind of news that soothes jangling nerves. 

P. G. Wodehouse said in Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest, “I'm not absolutely certain of the facts, but I rather fancy it's Shakespeare who says that it's always just when a fellow is feeling particularly braced with things in general that Fate sneaks up behind him with the bit of lead piping.” Basically Fate has a pretty wide range of possible scenarios in which to spoil your best laid plans. If you keep thinking about them you won’t be able to cross the road. 

Our house was finally ready in just over three weeks, much earlier than the initial estimate of two months. Some pujas were performed and I was back in my familiar haunt on 31st October. Some works are still pending but they can be done while we are staying here.  My room looks better than before with a bookshelf added, a new AC and a fresh coat of paint. 

If everything goes smoothly and I settle into my regular routine, you can expect the resumption of my series on 'Social production of moral indifference'. A key learning from this incident is that 'boring is good'. 'Breaking news' is often bad news. (Except on Indian TV news channels where it will often be no news. Eg. 'Breaking news: PM inaugurates CII meet'.)

Friday, October 13, 2023

A Narrow Escape - I

“Unseen in the background, Fate was quietly slipping lead into the boxing-glove.” ― P.G. Wodehouse, Very Good, Jeeves!

A few minutes past the midnight hour, when the world slept, we awoke and ran for our lives. Our tryst with destiny was too hot for comfort. 'Whew', I believe is the mot juste

At 12:30AM on 5th October. I woke up from sleep with a start due to a loud sound like the bursting of a firecracker. For some reason, my eyes went to the AC and I could see some sort of glow near it. I made aa sound to call Uma (about whom I had written earlier) who got up immediately. She switched on the light and asked, 'Was there some sound?' 

She had been woken up by the sound and was wondering whether it was from inside the house or outside it. She was confused by the fact that there is a transformer in the street outside which makes a similar sound when it develops a short circuit. When I called, she suspected that the sound may have been from inside the house. 

The fact that the sound had woken her up helped me to call her easily. If she had been fast asleep, I would have had to put more effort to produce a louder sound and call a few more times. After waking her up, I would have had to dictate to her letter by letter  what I thought had happened. All this would have taken a few minutes. In the ultimate analysis, saving these few minutes may have proved important in the story that followed. 

Uma saw me looking at the AC and she also looked at it and saw some smoke coming out of it. She switched off the AC, opened the windows and doors and ran to call Jaya who was sleeping in the adjoining room with her father and Sujit. When Jaya got the information, she woke up Sujit and came to my room. By now the smoke in my room had thickened, there were sparks coming from the AC and there was the acrid smell of burnt wire. 

She quickly woke up her mother (who was sleeping in my room) and told her to leave immediately. She told Sujit to shift me and ran to wake up her father. She also called up her brother in Chennai to ask him about safety precautions to be taken. He told her to switch off the mains. She then turned off the gas.

Meanwhile, Uma pulled the head-end of my cot away from the AC and got my wheelchair ready. She fixed one footrest to the wheelchair but before she could fix the other, Sujit said that I have to be shifted immediately; the fire was looking too menacing. She and Sujit shifted me to the wheelchair and I was rushed out of the room sitting awkwardly and covered only with a bedspread.

When I reached the front hall, I saw that some neighbours had woken up and had come to enquire what had happened. By now Jaya realised that the situation was beyond our control and she told Sujit to call the police and the fire brigade. She then told Uma to take me to a neighbour's house where my position on the wheelchair was corrected. Then I heard that the fire brigade had arrived.

Jaya then decided that I should go to another neighbour's house two floors below. Here I saw more neighbours, some of whom I have never met before. They must have been tenants who keep to themselves. There was nothing to do now but wait. I was afraid of getting  a lot of cough which would make my body stiff. This would make it difficult for others to control me since I didn't have on me all my wheelchair accessories.

After what seemed like an eternity (but what in reality was about an hour), I was told that the firemen had left. I heard that the house was totally wet and there was no question of going back that night. Our next door neighbour had given us their house keys before going to Bangalore. They got to know of the incident, rang up Jaya and told us to use their house till they came back.

Some time after the firemen had left, Jaya came to the house where many of us were sitting and gave a laugh of relief and everyone joined in. When a family friend called after a couple of days, she said, 'Uncle, we had a big, early Diwali celebration in Suresh's room.' What causes a potentially disastrous situation to be viewed with humour? 

I remember reading something about this by the neuroscientist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran. If your friend slips on a banana skin and falls in an ungainly heap on the floor, you start laughing but if you see that he has broken a leg, your laughter will cease. So if a situation ends without anyone getting hurt, you will laugh, else you will be glum. It was a miracle that all of us escaped unharmed, hence the laughter of relief inspite of the material damage. 

It was past 3 AM before we turned in for the night.  Obviously, none of us had much sleep that night. I snoozed for all of about ten minutes.

Friday, September 29, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 13a

Oftentimes these ministers of darkness tell us truths in little things, to betray us into deeds of greatest consequence. - Charles Lamb  

There’s one group which can easily keep the enemy at a distance: the leaders. While soldiers tend to be ordinary people, their leaders are a different story. We seem to be societies of altruists led by sociopaths. In his autobiography I. Asimov: A Memoir, Isaac Asimov tells of his  decision to major in zoology in graduate school which he calls an '"incredible mistake'. He says that he had to dissect various creatures, an activity that he disliked intensely but grew used to. Once he had to kill a cat.

 Like a fool, I did it. After all, I was only following the orders of my superior, like any Nazi functionary in the death camps. But I never recovered. That killed cat lives with me, and to this day, over half a century later, when I think of it, I double up in misery. I dropped zoology at the completion of the year.

Leaders seem to be able to get rid of the killed cat from their memories much more easily than the rest of us can. Four percent of us are born sociopaths, though they are over-represented among criminals, bankers, lawyers and politicians. (I’m not joking.) ‘The abuse of greatness is when it disjoins remorse from power,’ said Brutus in William Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar. The commanders of armies and of terrorist organisations who hand down orders don’t have to stifle feelings of empathy for their opponent. Many leaders have been manipulative and egocentric, rarely troubled by feelings of compassion or doubt. 

An example was seen during the Christmas truce during WWII Among the units which observed the cease-fire, not all men approved of the decision. An obscure corporal named Adolf Hitler, who, as a dispatch runner for regimental headquarters, rarely went as far as the forward trenches, sharply criticized the behaviour of men in his regiment who had opted to join the British in No Man’s Land. “Such a thing should not happen in wartime,” he is reported to have said. “Have you no German sense of honour?”

In the days following Christmas, violence returned to the Western Front after officers’ threats of court-martial. While the truce could not have succeeded without the endorsement of junior officers on both sides, British and German generals quickly took steps to prevent any further episodes of fraternization between their men. Still, there were no courts-martial or punishments linked to the events of the Christmas Truce; senior commanders likely recognized the disastrous effect that such a move would have on morale in the trenches. It never happened again, as even brief Christmas truces to retrieve the dead led to court-martials.

Even for normal people, power poses a challenge. Having power feels good but enjoying the delights of power too much lead to impulsive, unethical action and delusional thought. The power paradox is always close by. Machiavelli’s saying “It is better to be feared than loved” is the most widely known maxim about power, Lord Acton’s “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is a close second. Experiments have shown that first is largely untrue while second is very much operational. 

We have a deep cultural intuition that nice guys finish last, that one must step on others to rise in the ranks, and that acquiring power requires the cold-blooded removal of rivals and even allies. But nothing could be further from the truth. Social psychologists have studied who rises in power in different arenas like financial firms, hospitals, and manufacturing plants. The strongest predictor of those who acquired power were enthusiasm, kindness, focus, calmness, and openness. Then how come we have so many disagreeable leaders?

The problem seems to be that the experience of having power sows the seeds of destruction. Power makes us feel less dependent upon others thus making us shift our focus away from others to our own goals and desires. As our empathy wanes, so does our capacity for moral sentiments that depend on empathy — concern for others’ suffering (compassion), reverence for what others give (gratitude), and inspiration experienced in appreciating others’ goodness (elevation). This makes us distance ourselves from those  we believe to be below us and tell stories that divide and demean. 

There is a kind of brain trauma that goes by the name “acquired sociopathy” caused by damage to the frontal parts of the brain due to an accident. Such accidents can transform upstanding, kind people into sociopaths, prone to expressing self-serving impulses like shouting profanities at their kids, shoplift, go on spending sprees etc. (The most famous of such patients in neurological history was Phineas Gage.)

Experiences of power and privilege are like a form of brain damage, leading us to self-serving, impulsive behaviour. Experiments show that the powerful feel entitled to take more than their fair share, to endorse more impulsive, unethical behaviour, apparently neglecting the effects of their actions upon others.  People feeling powerful were more likely to say it’s okay to not pay taxes, and that there’s nothing wrong with over-reporting travel expenses or speeding on highways. 

Michael Lewis addressed Princeton students by describing an experiment conducted by psychologists at the University of California at Berkeley. The researchers sent volunteer subjects into small rooms in same-sex groups of three and gave them a complex moral problem to resolve, such as what to do about an episode of cheating on an exam. Arbitrarily, they assigned one member of each group as its leader. Thirty minutes into each team’s deliberations, a researcher entered the room with a plate bearing four cookies for the three volunteers.

Who ate the extra cookie? In each case, it was the leader of the group, even though, as Lewis notes, “He had no special virtue. He’d been chosen at random, 30 minutes earlier. His status was nothing but luck. But it still left him with the sense that the cookie should be his.' As Dacher Keltner writes in The Power Paradox: How We Ge Gain and Lose Influence:

Lord Acton’s thesis prevails. People who enjoy elevated power are more likely to eat impulsively and have sexual affairs, to violate the rules of the road, to lie and cheat, to shoplift, to take candy from children, and to communicate in rude, profane, and disrespectful ways. 

Absolute power does indeed corrupt absolutely. The experience of power destroys the skills that gained us power in the first place.

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 12b

'War doesn’t determine who is right, it decides who is left', said Bertrand Russell. But the process of overcoming human aversion to killing has gone on throughout human history. In combat, soldiers find it hard to kill at close range. Analysis of various battles showed that the majority of soldiers never fired their guns. There’s something that holds people back, making us incapable of pulling the trigger. Those who would not fire did not run or hide—in many cases, they were willing to risk greater danger to rescue comrades, get ammunition, or run messages. Military historians have discovered that stabbing a fellow human being is even harder than shooting at close range. 

The observation of low firing rates till World War II resulted in the US army, and subsequently other armies, initiating certain changes in their training methods designed to enable killing in the modern soldier. It initiated an era of psychological warfare, conducted not upon the enemy, but upon one’s own troops. The philosopher-psychologist Peter Marin says the lack of discussion about the topic is "a massive unconscious cover-up" in which society hides itself from the true nature of combat.

Training techniques of modern soldiers try to develop a reflexive "quick shoot" ability. If men reflect too deeply upon the enemy's common humanity, then they risk being unable to proceed with the task of killing the enemy. Instead of shooting at bull's-eye targets, the modern soldier spends many hours with full combat gear shooting at  man-shaped targets at varying ranges. The soldier must instantly aim and shoot at the target(s). Soldiers are highly rewarded and recognised for success in this skill of accurately "engaging" the targets — a standard euphemism for "kill." 

There is the development of boot-camp glorification of killing. It was almost unheard of in World War I, rare in World War II, increasingly present in Korea, and thoroughly institutionalized in Vietnam. For eg., Vietnam recruits were immersed in boot camps that exalted not only a sense of brotherhood, but also the most brutal violence, forcing the men to scream ‘KILL! KILL! KILL!’ until they were hoarse. The language used in training camps to describe the joys of killing people helps desensitize soldiers to the suffering of an enemy.

An article by an Army major (Pierson, 1999) in Military Review advised commanders to identify the less than 4% of troops who are psycho or sociopathic because they are the ones who can be counted on to willingly kill. (“[A] controlled psychopath is an asset on the killing fields”.) The resistance to killing can be psychologically modified. It’s easier to kill when you aren’t targeting an identified individual — so throwing a grenade into a group is easier than shooting at one person. The intensity of the trauma suffered by an individual who kills another is proportional to the distance between the two. 

Most of the time, wartime killing is something you do from far away so that you don't see the enemy. The development of the rifle greatly increased the distance and speed of killing. From the mid-nineteenth century on, technological innovations made it possible to kill ever-increasing numbers of non-combatants at greater distances with heavy cannon, far beyond the direct perception of the artillerists who manned them and who hardly noticed the suffering they inflicted. This long-distance killing peaked with the firebombings of Tokyo and the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

Most people are killed by someone who pushed a button, dropped a bomb, or planted a mine. The mechanical distance provided by the unreality of killing through a TV screen, a thermal sight, a sniper sight, or some other kind of mechanical buffer makes killing easier. You could even describe the whole evolution of military technology as a process in which the psychological distance between the combatants is progressively increased. A very modern way of increasing the ease of killing is what the US military does today using armed drones. You can also drug your soldiers to dull their natural empathy and antipathy towards violence. 

Killing becomes easier when guilt is diffused. It allows the shooter to think that even if he hadn’t done it, it still would have happened. This idea is used in modern execution technology in the US. Lethal injection machines used in prison executions come with a dual control system — two syringes, each filled with a lethal dose, two separate delivery systems, two buttons pressed simultaneously by two different people. Then  a random binary generator would secretly determine which syringe was emptied into a bucket and which into a human. And then the record would be erased, allowing each person to think, “Hey, I may not even have given him any drug.” 

Aside from long-range weapons, armies also pursue means to increase psychological distance to the enemy. If you can dehumanise the other – say, by portraying them as vermin – it makes it easier to treat the other as if they are indeed inhuman. If depersonalization is stretched into hatred, the restraints on human behaviour in war are easily swept aside. Without the creation of abstract images of the enemy, and without the depersonalization of the enemy during training, battle would become impossible to sustain.  

But increasing the 'kill-rate' comes with a cost. Many soldiers returned after the Vietnam war with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This had been framed as a result of the sheer terror of being under attack, of someone trying to kill you and those around you. But psychologists eventually realized that this was a simplistic explanation. During World War II there were low rates of psychiatric breakdowns among sailors and medics — people who were just as endangered as infantrymen but killed either impersonally or not at all. Militaries train soldiers to override their inhibitions against killing, and something inside them had died, too.

Consider drone pilots — soldiers who sit in the United States, directing drones on the other side of the planet. They are not in danger. Yet their rates of PTSD are just as high as those of soldiers actually “in” war. Why? Drone pilots kill from thousands of miles away using imaging technology of extraordinary quality. A target is identified, and a drone operator might watch him for weeks. He would watch the target coming and going, eating dinner, taking a nap on his deck, playing with his kids. And then comes the command to fire. No personal danger, killing is a day job for them. Yet they suffer from PTSD.

The study of killing gives us good reason to feel optimistic about human nature, for it reveals that almost all of us are overwhelmingly reluctant to kill a member of our own species under just about any circumstance.  Armies have had to develop sophisticated methods for overcoming our innate aversion to killing, It challenges the popular myth that human beings are “natural-born killers.” Popular culture has done much to perpetuate the myth of easy killing..

Thursday, August 31, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 12a

The basic aim of a nation at war is establishing an image of the enemy in order to distinguish as sharply as possible the act of killing from the act of murder. — Glenn Gray 

Virtually every aspect of our normal speech uses hidden metaphors to communicate abstract ideas and concepts. The metaphors cultures use become so fixed in thought that people  forget they are metaphors and begin to believe them as fact. As George Lakoff puts it, 'Metaphorical concepts . . .  structure our present reality. New metaphors have the power to create a new reality.” People in power get to impose their metaphors on us - political, business and religious leaders, media, advertisers, etc. War metaphors are in common use with everything conceived as a battle, as a zero-sum game with winners and losers. 

We talk of various things in terms of a war because we conceive of them that way, and we act according to how we conceive of things. And as George Lakoff wrote in his paper 'Metaphor and War , '...metaphors backed up by bombs can kill.' James Childress describes the use of war as a metaphor as a dilemma: "In debating social policy through the language of war, we often forget the moral reality of war." Their widespread use dulls the realisation that the brutality of war dehumanises us all. Childress observes, 'We are tempted by seedy realism, with its doctrine that might makes right, or we are tempted by an equally dangerous mentality of crusade or holy war, with its doctrine that right makes might of any kind acceptable.' 

When you remove all the fancy verbiage, you get the reality of war which would be considered serious crime in any other situation. The metaphor system promotes what psychologists call isolation: the dissociation of actions and feelings which allows actions to be pursued without being burdened by feelings. There is a dichotomy in the use of this metaphor system: it is used only to describe the enemy; when it comes to one's own side, the real horror is described. Lakof writes: 'Reality exists. So does the unconscious system of metaphors that we use without awareness to comprehend reality. What metaphor does is limit what we notice . . . '

This makes it important to distinguish what is metaphorical from what is not. Pain, dismemberment, death, starvation, and the death and injury of loved ones are not metaphorical. They are real and they could afflict hundreds of thousands of real human beings. War is violent crime: murder, assault, kidnapping, arson, rape, and theft. To hide this reality, a fairy tale with an asymmetry built into it is sold to the public. The hero (one's own country) is moral and courageous, while the villain (enemy) is amoral and vicious. 

In The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi, Raghavan Iyer writes about Mr. Rae, a schoolmaster at Harrow, who deplored the fact that even children have been so indoctrinated  by the idea of inevitable killing that they have no vision of a world, no desire for a world in which killing is as uncivilized as cannibalism. He mentions three dangerous myths - 1) that violence is not only justifiable but also laudable; 2) that war is fun, a great game; 3) that physical courage is the finest virtue and the moral courage shown by the conscientious objector is contemptible. He writes:

These myths were not, of course, created and spread by those who were doing the fighting; no one who has looked war in the face could describe it as a game. These myths were an essential part of the home front, offspring of official propaganda and human blindness.

Mr. Rae believes that wars are made possible not by megalomaniac dictators or religious fanatics or foolish politicians or blind patriots, but because the majority of people in the world have been brought up to accept war and violence as a normal part of life.

Fraternising between enemy soldiers is quite frequent in war (when they are enlisted men rather than officers.) This has been recorded in the Spanish Civil War, Crimean War, the American Civil War etc. One of most famous of such instances was the Christmas truce during WWII.

On December 7, 1914, Pope Benedict XV suggested a temporary hiatus of the war for the celebration of Christmas. Benedict’s hope was that a truce would allow the warring powers to negotiate a fair and lasting peace, but there was little interest from leaders on either side. This did not stop soldiers at the front from seizing the initiative, however, when outside events seemed to provide a path to the truce that their leaders had rejected. The warring countries refused to create any official cease-fire, but on Christmas the soldiers in the trenches declared their own unofficial truce.

Many lower ranking German and British troops exchanged presents of cigarettes and plum puddings and sang carols and songs. Some Germans lit Christmas trees around their trenches, and there was even a documented case of soldiers from opposing sides laying a good-natured game of soccer. This policy came to be known as “live and let live,” and it would be adopted on an ad hoc basis throughout the war, particularly in less active sectors. It was never repeated — future attempts at holiday ceasefires were quashed by officers’ threats of disciplinary action.

Most psychologists used to believe that an army’s fighting power was determined by ideology, love of one’s country, or faith in one’s chosen party. The widely accepted view was that the soldiers who were most thoroughly convinced they stood on the right side of history and that theirs was the legitimate worldview would put up the best fight. During WWII, most experts agreed that this theory explained why the Germans had a desertion rate that approached zero, and why they fought harder than the Americans and the British. 

A psychologist interviewed one German captive after another and found that this explanation was wrong. The real reason why the German army was capable of putting forth an almost superhuman fight was friendship. All those German men who had resisted the Allied advance tooth and nail had taken up arms for one another. They weren’t fighting for a Thousand-Year Riech but because they didn’t want to let down their mates. ‘Nazism begins ten miles behind the front line,’ scoffed one German prisoner, whereas friendship was right there in every bunker and trench.

Later historians discovered that the military commanders were well aware of this thinking of the soldiers and used it to their advantage. Nazi generals went to great lengths to keep comrades together, even withdrawing whole divisions for as long as it took new recruits to form friendships, and only then sent everyone back into the fray. 

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 11b

William Golding’s widely read book, The Lord of the Flies, is supposed to be the unwitting inspiration behind a popular entertainment genre on television today: reality TV. The premise of so-called reality shows, is that human beings, when left to their own devices, behave like beasts. ‘I read and re-read Lord of the Flies,’ divulged the creator of hit series Survivor in an interview. ‘I read it first when I was about twelve, again when I was about twenty and again when I was thirty and since we did the programme as well.’

Apparently, reality shows help us to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real. And 'getting  real' means to behave nastily towards each other. But behind the scenes of programmes like these, candidates are maipulated in subtle ways to bring out the worst in them. In the article, 5 Ways You Don't Realize Reality Shows Lie, one kid who paticipated in a reality show called 'Kid Nation' describes his experience.

The idea in the show was that these children would be left alone to run an abandoned town in the New Mexico desert, to hopefully disastrous results. Everyone who showed up fit into some archetype -- there were kids there who looked like they'd come from the inner city, kids with cowboy hats. 'Everybody had a broad, stereotypical role to play, and once the cameras rolled, the kids were all happy to go along with it. . . . even children know to self-censor and come up with their own bits to make themselves more interesting. We all want attention . . .'

Periodically the TV bosses would find that the kids were getting along too well, and they'd have to induce something for them to fight over. But things often did not pan out the way the makers of the show wanted despite all of the attempts at manipulation. Where most reality shows like to boil everything down to just the worst of the worst behavior, that wasn't true of the smallest children on the show who actually came off much better than the reality. Where they couldn't manufacture real conflict among the group, they would try fudge things so the 'What Happens and What Airs Are Very Different'.

You could say: What does it really matter? We all know it’s just entertainment. Stories are not something you watch and forget. When you keep watching such stories, you might forget their specifics but their basic premise of disageable humans seeps into your mind. Studies have shown that such television shows can make people more aggressive. In children, the correlation between seeing violent images and aggression in adulthood is stronger than the correlation between asbestos and cancer, or between calcium intake and bone mass.

There are two opposing forces inside us: one good and one evil. What plays a pivotal role in making us see greed and selfishness everywhere is the daily news, soaps and reality shows on TV which so many of us are addicted to. Cynical stories have a marked effect on the way we look at the world. In Britain, another study demonstrated that girls who watch more reality TV also more often say that being mean and telling lies are necessary to get ahead in life. As the journalist and documentary film maker Richard Curtis says:

‘If you make a film about a man kidnapping a woman and chaining her to a radiator for five years – something that has happened probably once in history – it’s called searingly realistic analysis of society. 

If I make a film like Love Actually, which is about people falling in love, and there are about a million people falling in love in Britain today, it’s called a sentimental presentation of an unrealistic world.

’At the heart of Lord of the Flies is a thought experiment: What are people like if you put them in a context in which civilization is stripped away, leaving them to behave in their natural state? Absent, in Golding’s terms, “the protection of parents and school and policemen and the law,” what do people do? For many, answers to such thought experiments reveal Machiavellian assumptions about human nature: that free of the structures and strictures of society, our base and violent tendencies spring forth. This is the view that T.V. programs promote. 

The real Lord of the Flies happened when six boys were shipwrecked for 15 months on a deserted island near Tonga in 1965 with few resources and no adult supervision. It turned out very differently from William Golding’s bestseller, Lord of the Flies. It a tale of friendship and loyalty; one that illustrates how much stronger we are if we can lean on each other. But the real-life story is forgotten while the fiction is widely read and hailed as an accurate depiction of reality.

George Orwell said, 'All the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting.' And where do they get their ideas from? In On killing : the psychological cost of learning to kill in war and society, Dave Grossman also blames the media for perpetuating the myth of easy killing and have thereby become ‘part of society's unspoken conspiracy of deception that glorifies killing and war’. It gives very superficial insights concerning the nature of killing and war. 

Grossman points out that young people see on television or at the movies detailed, horrible suffering and killings. They are learning to associate this violence with their favorite soft drink, candy bar, and the close contact of their date. Firing ranges with pop-up targets and immediate feedback, just like those used to train soldiers, are found in interactive video games. Grossman argues that this is responsible in part for the rising rate of murder and violence, especially among the young. He writes:

We are reaching that stage of desensitization at which the infliction of pain and suffering has become a source of entertainment: vicarious pleasure rather than revulsion. We are learning to kill, and we are learning to like it.'

There is a Native American parable about a debate between two wolves that takes place inside everybody. One is evil, representing  annger, envy, greed, arrogance, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good,  representing love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth and compassion. Which wolf will win? The one you feed. The media - especially visual and social media - feed the evil wolf. By cutting off his food supply, you will use your energy and resources on thoughts, feelings, and emotions that serve you in healthy ways. 

Thursday, August 3, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 11a

‘[He] who tells the stories of a culture really governs human behaviour.’ - Media scientist George Gerbner

Somebody once wrote on the idea of innate aggressiveness and war in humans, “you can’t kill a bad idea.” He was probably right. The common public perception of Darwinian evolution is as a process that is always “red in tooth and claw”. This view is often promoted by mass media hype which concentrates on our battles and the negativity. Occasional reports about our goodness and kindness usually comes at the end of news broadcasts. Watching the news regularly will give you the impression that humans were born to be destructive, violent, and antagonistic. 

Aggression and violence are emotions that easily attract attention and stay in the brain. Positive experiences and emotions rarely stick to the brain to the same extent nor do they receive the same attention in the popular media. We should remember, however, that cheating, corruption, and murder make the news because they are relatively rare. As the phrase “common decency,” suggests, prosocial behaviour is so common we tend not to notice it. We should not forget that Adam Smith argued that just as important as self-interest is the human passion of sympathy, what he called “fellow-feeling.”

Many think that an engaged citizen should follow the news closely. They think that keeping a close eye on diverse  news outlets and following the tweets and Facebook posts of many political figures is a sign of intelligence. I think it is the opposite. The news, according to many studies, is a mental health hazard. Too much of the news is filled with PR-inserted nonsense. Its obsession with the criminal and the deviant makes us less trusting people. People who follow the news regularly are more likely to agree with statements such as ‘Most people care only about themselves.’ Its obsession with the hurry of the day-to-day makes us less reflective thinkers. 

We overestimate our own capacity for truly independent thought. In most areas of life, we necessarily rely on others for the presentation of facts and ultimately choose between manufactured alternatives. The only communications truly without influence are those that one learns to ignore or never hears at all; this is why Jacques Ellul, a French philosopher,  argued that it is only the disconnected — rural dwellers or the urban poor — who are truly immune to propaganda, while intellectuals, who read everything, insist on having opinions, and think themselves immune to propaganda are, in fact, easy to manipulate. He wrote of the individual: 

If he is a propagandee, it is because he wants to be, for he is ready to buy a paper, go to the movies, pay for a radio or TV set. Of course, he does not buy these in order to be propagandized — his motivations are more complex. But in doing these things he must know that he opens the door to propaganda. 

There is a persistent myth that by their very nature humans are selfish, aggressive and quick to panic. But, contrary to what we normally see in the movies, there’s never total mayhem when a disaster hits a city.  Whether it is cities being bombed or struck by natural disasters, people don’t go into shock, they stay calm and spring into action. There is often a marked fall in crime and other forms of antisocial behaviour. The picture we’re fed by the media is consistently the opposite of what happens when disaster strikes. Rutger Bregman writes in Humankind: A Hopeful History:

‘My own impression,’ writes Rebecca Solnit, whose book A Paradise Built in Hell (2009) gives a masterful account of Katrina’s aftermath, ‘is that elite panic comes from powerful people who see all humanity in their own image.’ Dictators and despots, governors and generals – they all too often resort to brute force to prevent scenarios that exist only in their own heads, on the assumption that the average Joe is ruled by self-interest, just like them.

We tend to think that when people take decisions after discussing an issue in a group, an 'average' of the group view emerges. But this is not what happens. People take more extreme views when in a group rather than when they are alone, a phenomenon known as group polarization. Many studies from different parts of the world have shown the phenomenon of group polarization in action. For example, after a group discussion, people already supportive of a war become more supportive, people with an initial tendency towards racism become more racist. 

This phenomenon also occurs in online discussion. Algorithm driven programs popularize more extreme views. People with more extreme views are more likely to express their feelings through clicks, likes and postings than moderates. Over time, the algorithm figures out which box you fit into and tailors suitable results towards you. (It will be called 'enhancing user experience'.) Moderates will give a lot fewer data points for the algorithm to work with and so the targeting will be less precise.

The people behind Facebook, Twitter and Google know what shocks and horrifies you and that this is what makes you click. They know how to grab your attention and hold it so they can serve you the most lucrative helping of personalised ads. ‘Nice’ doesn’t sell ads. And so they keep offering us ever more sensational clickbait, knowing full well, as a Swiss novelist once quipped, that ‘News is to the mind what sugar is to the body.’ Umberto Eco criticised social networks, saying for example that 

"Social media gives legions of idiots the right to speak when they once only spoke at a bar after a glass of wine, without harming the community ... but now they have the same right to speak as a Nobel Prize winner. It's the invasion of the idiots."

Google ranks pages according to the number of links they get and they proclaim that their search results show that ‘democracy on the web works’. But some have the resources to generate more links, perhaps by paying influential sites  to link to them. As Google learns more about our search histories, and customizes the search results through its estimation of our interests, we will increasingly find ourselves in a bubble. You will never encounter the unexpected, the different, the ‘Other’. You will only get information that fits your prior beliefs. So although information has been made available to everyone in theory, walls get built up in practice.

We need to be extremely vigilant about the influence of the media,  Most of us have very little idea how easily the words and images of television, film, and popular music drop into the depths of the mind. We have grown so accustomed to the illusions of film and television that we forget just how powerful they are. They hold us spellbound in a kind of willing suspension of the world in which we really live.

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 10b

In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis says that by denying that values are real or that sentiments can be reasonable, modern education saps moral motivation and robs people of the ability to respond emotionally to experiences of real goodness. He holds that  the true purpose of education is higher than work or skill: it is wisdom. He believed that unless students were shown how to understand the proper way to feel toward virtue and vice, we risk committing cultural and societal suicide.

If we prevent children from ever feeling shame over wrongdoing, we encourage shamelessness. Indeed, the logical end of a world in which negative emotions are not allowed to signal error is a world in which error is excused, permitted, and expansive — in other words: chaos. 

Rather than education seeking to improve young people by both increasing their stock of facts and improving the sensitivity of their sentiments, students began to be tutored in facts alone. This shift was thought to benefit youth, protecting them from the emotional sway of propaganda. But Lewis argues that not only did dropping an education in and emphasis on sentiment fail to provide this protective effect (and in fact made students more susceptible to hype and disinformation), it deadened their capacity for virtue and human excellence.

The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. . . a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.

What Lewis is saying is that young people have a tendency to be apathetic or cynical or complacent anyway. You only magnify this cynicism by telling them that all value and emotion is subjective and that absolute truths do not exist. Being subjected to the endless rubbishing of ideals imparts to young people a smug “pleasure in their own knowingness”. By doing this, you create a vacuum that is actually more vulnerable to being filled by advertising and propaganda. A man with a well developed sentiment for an ideal, a real love for something, does not fall prey to the enticements of advertising. 

Emotional sentiment not only functions as a defence against negative propaganda, but acts as a catalyst for “offensive” activity. As Lewis argues, dry rationality alone can never be a sufficient spur to positive action. It is not recognized that pursuing the simple virtues may not be welcomed by authority and power. Mainstream schooling is designed to make us all conformists and harmless  citizens.  Courage doesn’t have to look dramatic or fearless. Sometimes it looks more like quiet perseverance.

Gandhi said that education had made a 'fetish' of the knowledge of letters and ignored completely the ethical dimension, cultivating instead 'the pretension of learning many sciences'. One recent article, for example, proclaimed in true MBA style,  “Whether we like it or not, colleges and universities are a business. They sell education to customers….While the typical for-profit firm tries to maximize its profit, non-profit universities generally try to maximize their endowments or operating revenue…”.

In Small is Beautiful, E. F. Schumacher writes about the terms 'divergent' and 'convergent' to distinguish between problems which cannot be solved by logical reasoning from those that can. Life consists of solving divergent problems which have to be 'lived'. The true problems of living - in politics, economics, education, marriage, etc. - are always problems of overcoming or reconciling opposites. They are divergent problems and have no solution in the ordinary sense of the word. 

They force people to bring love, beauty,  goodness, and truth into their lives. It is only with the help of these higher forces that the opposites,  that are an inevitable part of divergent problems,  can be reconciled in real life situations. These are problems that cannot be soled by employing reason alone. To have to grapple with divergent problems tends to be exhausting, worrying, and wearisome. Hence people try to avoid them and to run away from them. 

Convergent problems on the other hand do not exist in reality but are created by a process of abstraction. The solution can be written down and passed on to others, who can apply them without needing to reproduce the mental effort necessary to find them. Convergent problems may even require difficult brainwork, but they do not call for straining to a higher level which is the specific challenge of a divergent problem.  Modern education deals mostly with convergent solutions which comes with a big price - the loss of all higher forces to ennoble human Life.

Allen Shawn said, ‘Indeed the presence of outstanding strengths presupposes that energy needed in other areas has been channeled away from them.' Conversion of divergent problems into convergent problems results in the degradation not only of the emotional part of our nature, but also of our intellect and moral character. Schumacher shows this tendency with an extract from Darwin's Autobiography:

'Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it', wrote Charles Darwin in his autobiography, 'poetry of many kinds ... gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare, especially in the historical plays. I have also said that formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great, delight. 

But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also lost almost any taste for pictures or music.... My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of fact, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive. ... 

The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.'

Schumacher gives an example of this phenomenon which has had negative consequences in the modern world. Keynes said, 'For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to every one that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still.' When great and brilliant men talk like this we cannot be surprised if people are losing the ability to distinguish between fair and foul. Schumacher writes:

That avarice, usury, and precaution (i.e. economic security) should be our gods was merely a bright idea for Keynes: he surely had nobler gods. But ideas are the most powerful things on earth, and it is hardly an exaggeration to say that by now the gods he recommended have been enthroned.

Tuesday, July 4, 2023

Social production of moral indifference - 10a

‘School is the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need the society as it is.’ - Ivan Illich 

Much reliance is today being placed in the power of education to enable ordinary people to cope with the problems thrown up by scientific and technological progress. The modern way of life is becoming ever more complex: this means that everybody must become more highly educated.  But subjects like science and engineering produce only 'know-how'; 'know-how' is nothing by itself; it is a means without an end.  Education should mean something more than mere training, something more than mere knowledge of facts. As Daniel Kahneman says in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow

Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore the extent of our ignorance. 

Many people believe that education makes people more enlightened, accepting and more humane. It’s almost like they believe that education is the saviour of the human race. If only we could learn this or that, or teach this or that, THEN all will be well in the world.  This is a fallacy. Modern education only enables wicked people to be more cunning in their wickedness. But the idea that education is what wicked people need to make them better is surprisingly common.

Educated people have caused untold miseries to large numbers of people through their fancy ideas like social Darwinism or medical procedures like frontal lobotomy. Many of the vicious, misogynist, jingoistic comments by trolls on Twitter are by college-going students. More than 95% of the causalities in riots in India have been in cities, where the majority of the educated live, and not in the villages, where the majority of the population lives. These riots are orchestrated and  directed by the educated. 

A Lancet study pointed out the disturbing possibility that recent increases in literacy and Indian per-person income might have contributed to increased selective abortion of girls. I heard in a talk by the Dalai Lama that over 200 million people were killed by violence in the last century and most of these were at the hands of educated people. Educated people seem to be more likely to drool over terrible weapons that cause immense destruction somewhere far away and over the costly ceremonials of state power. 

Many of the vicious Nazis were Germany's educated upper class, and their education did not make them more moral. In fact it was the uneducated soldiers who more often objected to the horrific orders handed down to them. Being more educated and advanced enabled us to split the atom, which was great, but it also illustrates the fact that education gives people power to magnify what they would otherwise have done: hurt (e.g. nuclear warfare) or help (e.g. nuclear energy and medical application). In The Educationist as Painkiller (pdf) ,  Neil Postman writes: 

The teaching profession, it grieves me to say, has generated dozens of . . . superstitions — for example, the belief that people with college degrees are educated, . . . For me, the most  perilous of all these superstitions is the belief, expressed in a variety of ways, that the study of literature and other humanistic subjects will result in one’s becoming a more decent, liberal, tolerant, and civilized human being. 

Whenever someone alludes to this balderdash in my presence, I try to remind myself that during the last two decades men with Ph.D.s in the humanities and social sciences, many of them working for the Pentagon, have been responsible for killing more people in any given week than the Mafia has managed since its inception.

On average, the educated and uneducated don't seem to be very different when it comes to basic human values. Knowing more about protons or perfect markets doesn't seem to help in this regard. Education merely enables people to be more resourceful in doing whatever they wanted to do anyway. People with a genuine desire to do the things that we think are  good, caring and helpful are able to do so all the more thanks to a good education. C S Lewis says in  The Abolition of Man, “Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.” 

The first task of education should be the transmission of ideas of values. It is foolish to put great powers into the hands of people without making sure that they have a reasonable idea of what to do with them. Our mind is already filled with all sorts of ideas and this makes us  think that we know what to do with the immense power that science gives us. Thinking is generally the application of pre-existing ideas to a given situation. In modern times no importance  has been given to the study of the ideas which are used to interpret facts. In Small is Beautiful, E. F. Schumacher writes: 

Economics is being taught without any awareness of the view of human nature that underlies present-day economic theory. In fact, many economists are themselves unaware of the fact that such a view is implicit in their teaching and that nearly all their theories would have to change if that view changed.