Thursday, November 5, 2015

Polarised optics

Polarisation can be useful in physics, but it's a danger to society. There is widespread discussion in India on this topic these days, but very little attempt to highlight what's so bad about it. So I'd like to contribute my bit to the discussion.

Though we often forget, in fact we all have multiple identities. Within India we have a regional identity, a linguistic identity, a gender identity, a religious identity, a class identity, a caste identity and a professional identity, to list just a bare minimum set. Some may deny having one or other of these identities (e.g. one sometimes hears the pious declaration "I don't believe in caste"), and that's also an available option. We are also free to add other identities, e.g. one's allegiance to a particular soccer team.

Our multiple identities force us to maintain an active thought-process. In principle we may want to uphold all our identities, but usually we focus on some of them and compromise on others. These compromises will vary from day to day and it takes mental work to figure out what is most important at any given time. I believe this is really what keeps human beings going. In contrast a single identity would enable us to be mentally lazy as we can just pick some representative of our group and follow everything they say. Our diverse identities also help us internally: they create interactions between multiple parts of ourselves that result in our becoming more complex, more subtle and more interesting.

Let me offer this thought-experiment: if a marathi female physicist and a kannada male physicist are both given a national award at the same time, they would be most likely to congratulate each other in a friendly spirit and try to set up a collaboration between their labs. The same people might get worked up over language if they live near the contentious border of their two states, or about gender if there is a debate about sexism in academia. And in all these cases they would have completely forgotten their religious identity, if any. As long as their disagreements remain within acceptable limits of behaviour, such a process is a very positive one and leads to a healthy society.

Another example comes from the world of Hindustani Classical Music, one of the greatest surviving art forms in the world and an essential feature in the soundtrack of India. Its evolving history led to repeated intersections between the lives of orthodox hindus and equally orthodox muslims. In those days it was particularly sacrilegious for a member of one community to live inside the house of another but guru-shishya-parampara often required this. It is documented that muslim teachers generously permitted their hindu students to run separate vegetarian kitchens within their houses. Both sides would follow their religions closely but not too closely: many of the muslim vocalists enjoyed a drink or three, and the caste hindus were not above "tasting" a morsel or two of "non-veg" from time to time. Through the slight cracks caused by such violations, a new shared identity seeped out and gave the world the most sublime and creative music.

To digress briefly, there is an amusing corollary. Given two people who have almost all identities in common, they are likely to squabble about the few remaining differences. It has been remarked that no regional hatred comes close to that felt by residents of one Swiss canton towards those of the neighbouring canton. Likewise, for Bengalis the terminal struggle can be between the relative supremacy of prawns or Ilish. But these squabbles dissipate instantly if a Swiss person meets, say, a German (with Bengalis the struggle never dissipates! Joke!!). For the same reason, if Martians decided to invade South Asia then all the fractious neighbours on the subcontinent would instantly make peace.

To return to the main point - what's going on in India, not for the first time, is an attempt to make us forget who or what we are in pursuit of a uniform religious identity. It is an attempt not just to make hindus feel more hindu, but also to make muslims feel more muslim. This is a singularly anti-national and unpatriotic activity, but it's very profitable for religious leaders and the politicians who are loyal to them. The more we assert our religious identities, the more these people can assert power and control over us. It's no secret that Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are frequently quoted in an almost approving tone ("you make fun of our gods? Try doing that in Saudi Arabia"). Similar comments emerge with regularity from the American Bible Belt in pursuit of their fundamentalist brand of christianity. Religious fundamentalists may appear to dispute each other's truth but in reality they depend on each other for sustenance, as nicely highlighted in this article. They are successful in that all too many people are happy to suspend their better judgement and line up alongside.

Fortunately for the nation, even in today's atmosphere other identities continue to trump religion at regular intervals. For an eloquent example, read this recent open letter from a malayali. By itself it may seem a little polarising on regional lines, but when seen as a counterpoint to religious polarisation it serves an important purpose.

It's important to point out that we are not only seeing polarisation in favour of religious conservatism, but also in the opposite direction. One sees some liberals giving up their rational thought process, their commendable breadth and diversity, to stand up against communalism in a unipolar way. The moment a communal argument or statement rears its head, we start up a shouting chorus and link it (often incorrectly) to all previous/future occurrences of everything vaguely similar. Occasionally I see this happening in myself too and it makes me uncomfortable.

So I would like to take a moment to praise all my friends who have shown some diversity in their liberalism. For example I enjoy the noisy arguments about the return of national awards as a form of protest. In my view there really is no "right" or "wrong" about this. Some people have done so and it is their right, others can argue against it and they have valid points to make too. So liberals are divided over this, but united in their disapproval of communal/religious polarisation. This sort of nuanced range of views, much more than a unipolar stand of opposition, is what makes liberalism strong. I would also like to praise those conservatives who still hold shades of opinion rather than just aligning with whatever is going on. I'm not referring to the right-wing politicians who've recently sensed an opportunity to bash their own side, but to those who argue coherently that certain things this government is doing should be supported while other things should be opposed. That is the way many liberals including myself responded to the previous government, and indeed it is the only healthy response to any government in a democracy.

In conclusion let me say that I'm all for Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and would like to facilitate a cleaner India in any way I can. At the same we must build a genuinely modern Indian society based on fraternity amid diversity, and we shouldn't accept anything less than that.

4 comments:

S said...

"The moment a communal argument or statement rears its head, we start up a shouting chorus and link it (often incorrectly) to all previous/future occurrences of everything vaguely similar."

Thanks for pointing this out. I think a big part of such behavior has to do with the artificial tribalism that has been created between "liberals" and "conservatives", categories that do not quite make much sense in the Indian context. To me, it seems that people just use them as shortcuts so that once they have labelled their opponents in a debate as not belonging to their own chosen label, they can simply choose not to engage with the arguments of the "other side".

In this post, we already see why these categories are essentially meaningless. You say "So liberals are divided over this, but united in their disapproval of communal/religious polarisation. This sort of nuanced range of views, much more than a unipolar stand of opposition, is what makes liberalism strong.", and then in the very next sentence you also point out that "I would also like to praise those conservatives who still hold shades of opinion rather than just aligning with whatever is going on."

How is a supposed "conservative" who is willing to be nuanced in their views rather than following a specific ideology any different from a "liberal" who is willing to do the same thing? Why then should we use labels imported from a vastly different cultural and economic context to label them differently?

The problem to me seems to be that far too many of us, whether "liberals" or "conservatives", have decided to give up on the Aristotalian ideal of being able to keep two conflicting ideas in one's minds without accepting any one of them, or the "orthodox" Indian ideal of being able to compose a purva paksha for one's opponents before engaging in a debate against them. We instead try to behave in accordance with our chosen label, neglecting all data that might not fit our tribe's commandments.

Sunil Mukhi said...

Well put, S (whoever you are). But despite nuances, and despite a continuous spectrum of opinions, I feel there are identifiable differences in general outlook between "liberals" and "conservatives". In a more ideal India, we could be arguing over whether to move closer to a free-market model of the economy or retain welfare-state provisions. We could be arguing about the death penalty. We could be arguing about the degree to which religion should be permitted into schools and government offices. In all these important questions, people show a reasonably clear tendency towards one or the other side that for me defines "liberal" and "conservative". But as I said, and perhaps you agree, the division is hardly watertight and there could even be crossovers on specific issues. The important thing is that people should try to think for themselves as much as they can.

dynastycrooks said...

"By itself it may seem a little polarising on regional lines, but when seen as a counterpoint to religious polarisation it serves an important purpose."

Respected sir, would it be wrong to suggest that what you are really saying may be restated briefly as "polarizing is fine as long as its mine"? Would it be particularly unfair to arrive at the conclusion that you are okay with polarization as long as it works to the benefit of your favorite group of political parties?

Don't you think that this kind of statement may be perceived as the wishful thinking of a compromised elite that really wants its favorite parties in power by all means fair and foul? And then turns around to preach moral lessons to the rest of us? How far can this "good polarization" vs "bad polarization" argument stretch?

Recently, for instance, when Girish Karnad was caught on the wrong foot insulting Kempe Gowda and praising Tipu Sultan, he took shelter in the shockingly shameful argument that Tipu Sultan's atrocities shouldn't matter for the only reason that those atrocities happened outside Karnataka. Presumably this would be "good polarization" which serves an "important purpose". There are good reasons to praise and criticize Tipu and I as a Right Winger am very open to both sides. What I object to is the idea that Tipu's atrocities shouldn't matter simply because they happened outside Karnataka! And when this kind of argument comes from the Award Wapsi gang and people who claim to be "liberal", you can imagine why poor illiterates like me begin to feel a certain suspicion for the motives of those who have copyrighted the "idea of India".

Sunil Mukhi said...

Dear "dynastycrooks",

The answers to your questions are (i) yes it would be wrong, (ii) yes it would be unfair, (iii) no I don't think so.

Also, I think "poor illiterate" is an overly modest description of yourself. From your writing, it seems more likely that you are upper-middle-class.