Wednesday, 21 August 2013

A Clear-Eyed Approach To Tackling Blind Faith

The recent murder of the well-known anti-superstition activist Dr Narendra Dabholkar, was, to my cynical mind, only to be expected. One makes too many enemies when one goes up against superstition, and the mindset of the other side is something I myself carry painful memories of.

The good doctor certainly had a who's-who of enemies.

Over the years, Dr Narendra Dabholkar had campaigned not only for a law against superstition and black magic but also against the practices he wanted it to eradicate, besides challenging astrologers to a rationality test and taking on the BJP and the Shiv Sena over women's right to enter temples.

As Socrates said,

I certainly have many enemies, and this is what will be my destruction if I am destroyed; of that I am certain; - not Meletus, nor yet Anytus [Socrates's accusers in court], but the envy and detraction of the world, which has been the death of many good men, and will probably be the death of many more; there is no danger of my being the last of them.

But Socrates also said,

If you kill such a one as I am, you will injure yourselves more than you will injure me.

How true! Society has lost immeasurably by silencing yet another voice of reason.

One of the aspects of Dr Dabholkar's work that gained publicity with his killing was the "anti-superstition bill" that was his brainchild (officially, "The Maharashtra Eradication of Blind Faith Bill"). The bill was introduced into the Maharashtra state assembly in 1995, but lapsed in 2009. It was debated many times and ran into hair-splitting arguments that stymied it. Some of those arguments are quite amusing, such as concern over the "thin line between faith and blind faith". [Hint to the purely rational: one is good; the other is bad.]

Legislators have debated if this would mean stopping Muharram rituals involving self-inflicted injuries, or a special ritual in Nashik temples where childless couples pray for children.

Although my initial reaction on hearing about the failure of Dr Dabholkar's anti-superstition bill was dismay, I realise with a clearer head that this was probably not a well thought out piece of legislation anyway.

With all due respect to Dr Dabholkar, I think the law is the wrong instrument with which to attack superstition and blind faith. The education system is the right one for that (although, as I wrote earlier, teachers with backward views can subvert the most progressive textbooks). The law is to be reserved to prevent harm and ensure fairness, and that should be that.

Let me explain my thinking with a somewhat lengthy aside on morality.

My favourite guide to morality is not some religious or "spiritual" book but the work of psychologist Steven Pinker, who captures the core of the idea in this unputdownable article.

According to Dr Pinker's analysis, there is no such thing as a universal morality, as might be expected, but the reasons for this are more subtle than most people would think. It's because "morality" consists of 5 different strands, and different cultures place varying degrees of emphasis on some of these strands versus others. The five strands are harm, fairness, community, authority and purity. At the risk of reducing your incentive to read the article itself (which is excellent), here are examples that illustrate what each means in practical terms.

[H]ow much money [would] someone [...] have to pay us to do hypothetical acts like the following:

- Stick a pin into your palm.
- Stick a pin into the palm of a child you don’t know. (Harm.)
(I think sticking a pin into the palm of a child is bad enough, and the question of whether the child is known to you or not is entirely irrelevant!)

- Accept a wide-screen TV from a friend who received it at no charge because of a computer error.
- Accept a wide-screen TV from a friend who received it from a thief who had stolen it from a wealthy family. (Fairness.)

- Say something bad about your nation (which you don’t believe) on a talk-radio show in your nation.
- Say something bad about your nation (which you don’t believe) on a talk-radio show in a foreign nation. (Community.)

- Slap a friend in the face, with his permission, as part of a comedy skit.
- Slap your minister in the face, with his permission, as part of a comedy skit. (Authority.)

- Attend a performance-art piece in which the actors act like idiots for 30 minutes, including flubbing simple problems and falling down on stage.
- Attend a performance-art piece in which the actors act like animals for 30 minutes, including crawling around naked and urinating on stage. (Purity.)

We see these concerns in all cultures, manifested in different forms.

Think of the Japanese fear of nonconformity (community), the holy ablutions and dietary restrictions of Hindus and Orthodox Jews (purity), the outrage at insulting the Prophet among Muslims (authority). In the West, we believe that in business and government, fairness should trump community and try to root out nepotism and cronyism. In other parts of the world this is incomprehensible — what heartless creep would favor a perfect stranger over his own brother?

A lot of the polarising debate in the political sphere could be avoided if we only knew where the other person was coming from. To take a US example,

In a large Web survey, [...] liberals put a lopsided moral weight on harm and fairness while playing down group loyalty, authority and purity. Conservatives instead place a moderately high weight on all five. It’s not surprising that each side thinks it is driven by lofty ethical values and that the other side is base and unprincipled.

I think I'm somewhere between the liberals and the conservatives (perhaps more liberal than conservative) because I would emphasise harm and fairness above the other three (joint number 1), would not consider authority a strand of morality at all (number 5, if at all), and place community and purity at a low-to-medium number 3 and number 4 (provided the term "community" itself is not defined too parochially - parochial definitions deserve the same lack of respect as authority).

Apologies for that lengthy diversion from the main topic.

To my mind, the points debated by the legislators when considering Dr Dabholkar's anti-superstition bill could be readily resolved if the focus was turned onto harm and fairness.

Should the bill stop Muharram rituals involving self-inflicted injuries? No, an adult human being is free to engage in such activity, so long as it does not harm or disadvantage others. (I'm libertarian.) Of course, this would also mean that Indian law has to be dragged into the 21st century by having attempted suicide declassified as a crime.

Should the bill stop a special ritual in Nashik temples where childless couples pray for children? No, it's entirely their business. It may be irrational, but no other party is being harmed or disadvantaged by this.

What about frauds perpetrated by godmen? What about human sacrifice? These are already covered under Indian law, under sections pertaining to fraud and murder. There is no need to specifically target such acts that are born out of superstitious beliefs.

To sum up, I don't believe legislation is the right tool to use to tackle superstition and blind faith. The law already recognises harm and unfairness, and has tools for their redressal. The only thing that could perhaps be done in the legislative sphere is de-recognise faith-based authority, so that concepts such as blasphemy or the "hurting of religious sentiments" become legally meaningless and cannot form the basis for litigation.

[Update 21/08/2013: In a knee-jerk reaction to his murder, the Maharashtra state government has bypassed the legislative process and promulgated Dr Dabholkar's anti-superstition bill as an ordinance. It is said that hard cases make bad law. We will now see bad law making hard cases. I will not be surprised if the Supreme Court overturns some of the cases brought under this ordinance, and the state government's hasty reaction will do more harm than good to the cause of rationalism.]

Ultimately, the only real weapon to tackle superstition and blind faith is education, education, education.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Which Khan Are You? (A Guide For Fans Of Bollywood)

After watching "Chennai Express" and "Dabangg" in quick succession, I had an epiphany. And let me hasten to add, I only watched Dabangg on the advice of a friend, who shall be treated with due suspicion henceforth. (I may still watch "Dabangg 2", but that's only because I hate incomplete sets.)

OK, the epiphany concerns the kind of person the different Khans appeal to.

I've always considered Aamir Khan and Saif Ali Khan to be the better actors by far. Salman Khan is a poseur, and the less said about SRK's acting, the better.

However, SRK is usually the good guy (if you forget his beginnings in Darr, Baazigar and Anjaam). So is Aamir, although "Dhoom 3" may bring a few surprises.

Saif is known for his wonderful portrayal of villains, some grey and some outright black (Ek Hasina Thi, Omkara). You can forgive him his character because it's so brilliantly executed. As for Salman Khan, he jostles for space on the amoral podium with the likes of Govinda. I wouldn't be using his films as the basis for a moral science course for kids.

So here's my simple orientation guide (click to expand).
Confession: I like/can tolerate all of them except Salman Khan

[Update: Friends have pointed out the existence of the excellent Irrfan Khan (The Namesake, Sunday), who places even above Aamir and Saif. And newcomer Imran Khan isn't bad either. However, this grid is restricted to the four "Classic Khans".]

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Threat Or Tweet? How To Sober The Bullying Kids Behind Their Scary Masks

There's a new campaign petition up on (Indeed, there's a new one every few days and I have begun to suffer campaign fatigue. However, this one got me to sit up again.) I'd encourage people to pop over to the site by clicking on the link, and see the kinds of scary messages that are being sent to women. I would be absolutely unnerved if someone sent me such messages.

This campaign is about getting Twitter to adopt a less laissez-faire approach to online bullies threatening female users of the service with rape. Now, I'm a strong supporter of free speech, so I would be uncomfortable asking Twitter to shut down the accounts of those making these offensive tweets or even censoring the offending messages.

Thinking about the problem and my own ideological constraints made me realise that what gives these bullies their courage is their relative anonymity. They can threaten other people from the anonymity of their dens, secure in the knowledge that their right to free speech is protected. Ironically enough, it's free speech that can get them to mind what they say.

I think Twitter should have a simple policy that says anyone making threats of violence against others will have their personal details revealed on a public website along with the details of what they said and when. If law enforcement in their jurisdiction viewed such messages as a crime, then they would have to deal with the consequences of that.

I'd go even further and say that the police should include such a website as a source of rape suspects whenever a rape takes place. All the Twitter offenders in the vicinity should be taken in for questioning as a matter of course. Once someone has threatened rape, they should legitimately be considered a suspect in any future rape case in their vicinity. Hoist them with their own petard.

The sheer inconvenience and social ignominy of being escorted to the local station every time there is a rape should gradually discourage anyone else who thinks this is something they can engage in with impunity.

The police could even offer to stop rounding these people up every time if they would consent to leaving behind a DNA sample. Purely voluntary, of course. The checking would still take place every time a rape occurred, but they wouldn't have to personally visit the station.

In short, society needs to take the same approach to these, er, twits that it takes towards the raising of children. The mature approach is not to forbid behaviour but to acquaint misbehaving children with the consequences of their actions.

The consequences of sending threatening messages can be demonstrated quite effectively while ensuring that all counter-measures are legally justifiable.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Teaching Morality To The Gods

One of the episodes of the Ramayana that has always disturbed me deeply was the infamous banishment of Sita by Rama.

For what crime, one might ask.

Well, she was abducted by the demon Ravana (no fault of hers except misplaced generosity) and spent a few months in captivity in his kingdom. When Rama finally rescued her, he asked her to prove her 'chastity' to all assembled by walking through fire, which was awful in itself. Even the great Rama didn't have the courage of his convictions and was afraid of what other people might think!

Then later, even after they were back in Ayodhya, crowned king and queen and everything seemed hunky-dory, some troglodyte of a subject cast his (presumably unfaithful) wife out of his house, adding for good measure that he wasn't like Rama, who would take back a 'fallen' wife. That incident, when reported to Rama, had the expected effect on the moral coward, who proceeded to evict his by-then-pregnant queen and bundled her off to the forest. The story goes downhill from there for Sita, and this shameful part of the Ramayana is appropriately rarely told, with genteel folk agreeing to end the tale with the couple's triumphant return to Ayodhya.

The earliest memory I have of this is from Amar Chitra Katha's depiction

A scene from the episode "Banishment!" of animator Nina Paley's work "Sita sings the blues"

I was reminded of Rama's conduct when I read this news item about a man who married his girlfriend who had earlier been gang-raped. What's so heroic about this, one might ask. And indeed, it is a shameful commentary on our society that this man's decision should even be considered extraordinary. We live in a society of moral cowards where victims are blamed and shamed, and 'decent' people prove their decency by joining in the stone-throwing. So yes, in such a society, this man is nothing less than a hero.

In a country and a religion where Rama is considered the perfect man and an example to follow, I think the tables have been turned. Lord Rama could take some lessons in morality from this mortal.

As the song goes,
kabhI kabhI bhagwAn ko bhI bhaktO:n sE kAm paDE
jAnA thA gangA pAr prabhU kEvaT kI nAv chaDe

(Sometimes even God needs the help of his devotees
When He wanted to cross the Ganga, Lord (Rama) climbed into the boatman's boat)
Yup, sometimes a human boatman has to help a god navigate those treacherous moral shoals!

Lovely song by Anup Jalota , another mortal who stuck by his wife in sickness and in health
(As philosopher Alain de Botton says in his speech on "Atheism 2.0", atheists should feel free to appreciate the aesthetic beauty of even the religious works they do not believe in!)

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Progress Should Depend On Systems, Not Individuals

This post does not refer to India alone, although that's how I first thought about it. It's actually much more general and applies to any country at any time.

During a discussion on Facebook recently, one of my friends mentioned Narendra Modi, the Indian politician who looks likely to lead his party, the BJP, into the 2014 elections, and who quite probably will be India's next prime minister if the BJP wins.
[Update 13/09/2013: Narendra Modi has been officially named the BJP's prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 election.]

The comment was very interesting, because it offered a different viewpoint from what one normally hears.

I am not a BJP supporter per se. I am a Narendra Modi supporter, and that too because he is a capitalist. I am of the firm opinion [...] that India needs a strong dose of free-market capitalism, and if Modi does not come to power I don't know if anyone will administer the dose. I don't think anyone else has the vision, and I think it is DESPERATELY needed in India. I'd place that above all other priorities for India. To me, the BJP is a vehicle for NaMo to assume power. [...] he can do it. And he will. [...] in my opinion, Modi's economic policies are what India desperately needs.

Now, I share many of my friend's thoughts and ideas. I too believe India needs to unshackle itself from its innumerable rules and restrictions of socialistic vintage and embrace free-market capitalism. [By "free market", I mean neither crony capitalism (the unholy nexus between politicians and business interests) nor laissez-faire capitalism (the complete absence of regulation). My idea of a "free market" is a liquid, or highly competitive market. It is a market from which stifling bureacracy is eliminated but where antitrust legislation is aggressively enforced. See my blog entries on the economic philosophy I call "Liquidism".]

So I actually agreed wholeheartedly with my friend's comment on India's need for a strong dose of free-market capitalism.

However, I didn't agree with the corollary that Modi therefore deserved my support. Where I diverge from my friend's views are in two respects - the particular and the general.

In particular, I am convinced of the complicity of Mr Narendra Modi in the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat. His protestations of innocence and inability to act fast enough are unconvincing. After all, this is the man with an image of hands-on governance, who is said to have shown his dynamism and administrative superpowers when he rescued Gujarati pilgrims who were stranded after floods in the state of Uttarakhand. If he had wanted to stop the riots, he would have done it. The fact that the riots went on for 4 days and resulted in the deaths of over 2000 people strongly suggests that the rioters had his full support. I do not believe that this man should be trusted with the reins of an entire country, when a life term would be more appropriate.

In general, I do not believe in placing the destiny of a country in the hands of a single individual, however capable and promising they may be. The process is fraught with danger. But if every other politician and political party is incapable of ushering in the slew of changes that India badly needs, to whom can we turn?

I'm actually sanguine about the answer. India's move to free-market capitalism is inevitable, although it may not start as early as 2014. It will come about because power has been steadily slipping away from the central government to the states over the last two to three decades, and the process shows no signs of abating. Coalition governments have been the norm since 1989. The names used in political discourse have moved away from those of parties in the 1980s (Congress, Janata Dal) to those of coalitions today (UPA, NDA). Regional parties have become kingmakers and begun to wield disproportionate power. The states have never been stronger vis-à-vis the centre. India today is much more federal than it was at its birth. Indeed, with the creation of smaller states from larger ones (3 in 2000, 1 more due in 2014) and the increasing demand for statehood from minority groups, it looks like India will before very long be a federation of many small and semi-autonomous states.

[From a professional standpoint too, I wholeheartedly approve of India changing from a monolithic polity with a strong centre to a loose federation of small and internally cohesive states. In the IT industry where I work, high cohesion with low coupling is an architectural principle that leads to highly robust and flexible systems. Centralised systems, in contrast, are brittle and costly to maintain.]

I see India becoming stronger and more dynamic with increasing federalism. Smaller states with more cohesive and engaged electorates tend to have governments that are more responsive and focused on delivery. This is not peculiar to India. People everywhere have begun to demand governance and punish governments that don't deliver. Islamist governments that came to power in the wake of the Arab Spring are discovering to their cost that ideology may win elections but does not guarantee lasting power. The people of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt have signalled strongly to their rulers that what they want is good governance, and Islamic ideology is not an acceptable substitute. In India too, the worm has turned. Electorates are no longer docile and can no longer be taken for granted by the elected.

This is why I believe India will inexorably turn to free-market capitalism. It cannot but. States are going to be competing ferociously with each other to attract foreign investment and talent. Their people will demand higher living standards and punish governments that don't deliver. How else can state governments meet such rising expectations? Heavy inflows of investment will be required, and governments will have to work very hard to attract such investment. Providing an environment that is friendly to business will be imperative, because corporations looking to invest in India can shop around looking for the state offering the most favourable terms. [An early foretaste of this inter-state competition was provided when homegrown corporation Tata Motors shifted from an unfriendly West Bengal to a welcoming Gujarat to establish a factory for the world's cheapest car, the Tata Nano.]

I also foresee radical changes to Indian labour law. I have long believed that a "hire and fire" environment, rather paradoxically, offers the best protection to workers by enabling a dynamic job market with plenty of opportunities, because employers don't hesitate to hire when they know they can shed staff at short notice. Labour "protection" laws have in fact stifled economies and reduced employment opportunities where they have been strongest (e.g., the long communist-dominated Kerala and West Bengal).

In sum, while I share my friend's dream for India to become a free-market economy, I do not believe this can only be achieved by one person, much less that that person is Mr Narendra Modi. I am confident that the vehicle for India's progress is India itself.