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'.)