Category Archives: society

Normative foundations of human endeavor

Apologies for the bad sounding title, just came out that way. I had a few queries in the comments section about two things, one was about efficiency and the other about my ‘appraisal’ of the Honey Bee Network. Well, I can hardly consider myself competent to do anything like the latter, but the Honey Bee Network is an excellent example of what I want to put forward here. Thanks to the person who reminded me of it!

Some of you may have heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It is a diagrammatic representation of the way our needs progress, from the crassly utilitarian to ‘higher’ spiritual and moral needs. It is assumed that every person goes through this hierarchy, and most stop at some level where they are satisfied. Correspondingly, your value system gets shaped by the needs that you think are most pressing, or where in the pyramid you lie. Almost all human endeavor has had some normative scaffolding supporting it, and I think it is necessary that we examine these value systems for a clearer understanding of conflict and cooperation: how a Prakash can rationalize the present state of development looking at the Dalits at home, and how a Deepak can speak out against the present development paradigm, which to him is disenfranchising the same Dalits. One has a narrow view, the other a much broader one. One concentrated on the materialist values, another acknowledged the importance of material well-being and went beyond it. Thus, two people who essentially wanted to achieve the same thing go about in different way depending on what values they hold dear. Co-operation, even with similar goals can occur only when we agree on a similar path. Else, an uneasy truce which will eventually break down into conflict will result.

This contradistinction is nowhere as stark as in the role of science and rational thinking which were purported to represent ‘progress’ (by the children of the Enlightenment, like ourselves) vis-a-vis traditional knowledge systems. We have to understand the historical background that the Enlightenment was set in: the Dark Ages preceded it, with a repressive Church which could only maintain its own dominance by curtailing free speech and the right to question authority. In an almost reactionary stance, the great thinkers of the period put forth the ideas of liberalism, scientific method and rejection of all metaphysical and theological stances, and everything else that the Church stood for. (This was followed by a reactionary Romantic movement, followed by an era of logical positivism, followed by postmodernism, i.e, oscillation after oscillation which always resulted from a re-evaluation of value-systems the then dominant paradigm held dear. After the Sokal hoax, postmodernism is quite a bit under attack. Westeners are crazy.) Other highly developed systems of thought, especially in Asian societies have hardly seen the kind of paradigm shift that the Enlightenment (in the form of its torch-bearer, science) has brought forth.

The value systems of science are clear: a mechanistic interpretation of nature, rejection of things that cannot be perceived, dichotomy of natural and normative principles, universal applicability, and a cumulative body of work which progressively controls nature to serve man’s interests. Principles of liberalism take man to be the fundamental unit of analysis, and deal with his freedom and rights.(Women did not figure too much in discussions then). Take the example of certain set of people in India who break stones for a living: They beg the stone’s forgiveness before they break it, since it is the way for them to earn their daily bread. For them, nature is not a set of atoms, but has values that cannot be measured empirically. Logically speaking, there is no reason to accept either conception of nature as correct or incorrect. These are values which cannot be talked of in terms of logic.

At another point in the spectrum lie systems of thought like Ayurveda and Yogasana. From a ‘scientific’ point of view, it is hardly clear how standing on one’s head can lead to good health, but seems like it does. Homoeopathy is another example. Modern medicine ridicules it, but it does work! Now, these systems of knowledge have utmost respect for nature and her ‘healing powers’ , do not differentiate empirical and metaphysical levels of thinking, and tries to harmonise man’s relationship with nature, rather than controlling it. Indian metaphysics hardly gives any importance to an individual as a unit of analysis, and rather opposes all phenomena to the unchanging Brahman. Importance is put on the realisation of the unchangeable than to indulge in the transient material existence. (Ecologically speaking, an individual is part of a huge web of life, and you will never find individuals being taken as a unit of analysis, but populations and their relations with other populations. Thus, one sees more correlation between actuality and philosophy when we take Indian philosophy and Western ecology together.)

We have now reached a point in time where the Western systems of thought, with all their baggage are being accepted uncritically by cultures worldwide. Since it is essentially the doctrines of liberalism and rationalism which have brought such material wealth to Western Europe and the USA, it seems logical that we follow it without questioning. Not that the Enlightenment’s contribution is immoral or invalid (modern science and medicine deserve more respect than being called nonsense), but that it creates a conflict of values, values which are deeply embedded in us. Thus, one cannot be opposed to Brahmin students conducting dissections, but Brahmin students taking up non-vegetarianism because of peer pressure when the West is turning vegetarian is a pathetic sight. Gandhi was deeply troubled by his experiments with meat eating and regretted it thoroughly. Our traditional knowledge systems are losing their value simply because they cannot be quantified and are not ‘valuable’ in the economic sense.

This is where organisations like the Honey Bee Network play such a vital role. HBN is trying to bridge the gap between disparate systems of thinking and trying to find common ground for dialogue. Keeping the western values of systematic enquiry and while not belittling the cultural wisdom of the native is what HBN has been doing successfully for some time now. The results of their untiring work is there for all to see on their website, with traditional wisdom being documented for posterity and rural inventors and entrepreneurs being encouraged. I have run out of my quota to speak about efficiency, will keep that for later. Too much indulgement in philosophy is dangerous, will stop here ;)

Institutions: reflections

The bad thing about constructive work is that it makes it more difficult to do non-constructive things like reading and writing blogs. After a crazy schedule for almost a month and half (including 3 hindi movies):, finally managed to sit down and finish some documentation and other sundry work.

The world has decidedly gone to hell in the past few weeks. Pakistan is going crazy, so is Kenya, the Middle East, as usual is looking doomed, SM Krishna is returning to Karnataka politics, BIAL is opening (with its interesting user fee concept), a world food crisis looks imminent, the stock market is acting like a cranky kid, so are gold prices, privacy concerns are freaking out people. But one can reflect on Walter Benjamin’s words:

“The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism. One reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm. The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge–unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.” (written in 1940)

In other words, business is as usual. Coming back to the topic at hand, we had an interesting discussion in class about the importance of institutions, their design and management. One of the courses this semester is sustainable rural and urban development, both of which can be made into a course themselves. Though development-oriented courses emphasize on ‘how’ rather than ‘why’, this one has so far touched only ‘why’. We had a few case studies on Pani Panchayat, Ralegan Siddhi, Pabal and Tilonia, touching upon their salient features and looking at reasons for their success.

The question that arises first is why institutions after all? By institutions, one can mean anything from religion to marriage to Archie’s comics. Anything that sets up a predictable behavior pattern in individuals that subscribe to it, generation after generation. Any long term advancement of social life is possible only via institutions. Else, individuals make a great impact when they are there, and their influence vanishes after they are gone. Institutions provide a sense of security and stability to people. This is one of the reasons first time mothers almost blindly believe anything that their parents or grandparents or relatives (preferably female) tell them, however ridiculous it may seem. The process of socialization drives certain institutions deep into us, especially the ones most needed to live in society.

The problem with institutions arises when those that subscribe to it are given no choice. The burqa system is a good example. Many women may want to wear one and feel proud to do so, but why it is considered repressive is that the exceptions who do not want it are forced to wear one, for the sake of preserving tradition. This is an important characteristic of any institution: it carries within it rules to preserve itself. Government, caste, education (by means of recognition through educational qualifications) are other examples which strongly show this characteristic. Betty and Veronica are now institutions: there is no way Veronica can become the sweet girl next door anymore. Any attempt to do so(on a long term basis) will destroy the essence of Archie’s. Therefore, institutions tend to become rigid and ossified as time goes by. The reason for this is two-fold: the institution has a better chance of survival when there are no critics, and no competent people man the institution, and its rules become superstition instead of practical pointers to guide daily life. Only competent people who understand the reasons (if any) behind the formation of the rules laid down are in a position to change them. Trenchant critics as outsiders cannot, dullards running the show also cannot.

About their design. Realising that the longer an instituition survives, the more likely it will tend to establish a hegemony, one should make the basic precepts as accessible and open to debate as possible. Modern science no longer can lay claim to this feature. Even incremental changes require large amounts of ‘specialization’. Since not everyone become scientists and are not really bothered what scientists to unless it has a direct impact on them, this is (almost) acceptable. But everybody lives in a society, and must have a say in how they want to live and grow. The major issue now arising in development circles is the insinuation of western institutions into cultures which are neither prepared nor willing (mentally, physically, culturally) to accept them. Like I mentioned, institutions give a sense of stability and wholesale replacement is usually rejected by the majority. Deccan Herald recently ran an article where the author pities the Nandigram villagers because they rejected ‘modernization’ and was very sure they would regret it. He also called the landowners in Orissa greedy for not parting with their land for mining and other ways to rape land. While such attitude may seem shocking, it seems to be the attitude shared by those with power. ‘My way or the highway’ is hardly the perfect path for institutional reform/change.

And such issues in a democracy. Imagine what would be the situation in China or Venezuela or Cuba. The problem with such wholesale change is that the population becomes restive and loses its sense of autonomy, and tends to rely on others for direction. That is why farmers make loans knowing they cannot repay them (since the Government will waive them anyways) and new converts to a religion are the most intense. Technologists trying to put a laptop in every child’s, well, lap will inevitably cause similar problems. While undoubtedly institutions like caste and religion need reform, implementing them at a societal (rather than philosophical, where nobody gets hurt) level should be incremental and build on existing institutions, rather than reject them altogether. While this approach may not seem attractive to hot-blooded idealists, it is the path of least pain, which is most important.

Of harlots and men.

Short post, just a few random thoughts. Been doing the Bangalore-Mysore trip quite a few times in the past few months, and usually reach the station at B’lore late in the evening (Since I don’t believe in political correctness, BengaLuru won’t appear more than this one time). A walk through the subway to the bus station from the railway station transports you quite literally (and metaphorically) to the underbelly of this silicon(e?) valley wannabe.

Women lined up, reclining against the subway walls, which are stained with chewed betel leaves, showing that if these women are comfortable in these surroundings, one can only imagine what their regular surroundings would be like. They bear the lewd looks of passersby and retort with stinging remarks to the equally stinging and demeaning remarks of abhorrent men. Being highly enterprising businesswomen, they answer even cursory glances with a questioning stare : “How about it?”.

Another interesting group of people are beggars. Their methods have become more and more sophisticated (or crude?) as time passes by. The woeful, pained look which appears only when someone passes by (I have actually seen the transition from normal to unhappy happen!), using kids and handicaps as props, and resorting to touching and pawing at people as a last try. Atleast people would give in not to be pawed at. How many times have we not seen people jumping back or warning beggars not to touch them?

The third group is that of the hijras. This group is probably discriminated against the most, you would not find one travelling via public transport even if they are able to afford it. Wearing loud makeup and using equally loud voices and claps to get paid to get away from a certain place is one of the very few options for them to make money. Though they are getting organised to fight against it, how widespread such a movement would be and how it would help change public perception is to be seen.

The thing to be noticed about all the above mentioned groups is that they are highly incapable of earning money in ways which does not have to reduce them to sideshows due to a large number of factors. Also to be noticed is that the only way to keep body and soul together is by feeding off the lust, shaky ethical stands and disgust of the rest of the society respectively. Interestingly also, these are largely urban phenomena: the more affluent the city, the more prevalent are members of these groups. What inferences can one draw from such observations ? Each will have their own views, i’ll leave it at this.