Thursday, July 30, 2020

The Freedom to Disagree

It is paradoxical that the information age has become the age of disinformation and mistrust.

Mistrust of courts, the state, big tech, television, documentaries, news sites, opinion writers, experts, ... seems to be increasing by the day.

The reason is of course that they are no longer neutral but are using their power to push their agendas, to punish "wrong-think" and to silence dissent.

The powers think that the cure for disinformation is control. NO! That will lead us back very quickly to the medieval ages where if you disagree with the powerful, you are burned at the stake.

The solution must be, even if it is annoying in the short-term, to relinquish control and let truth win in the free market of ideas.

Neutrality is a noble ideal because it gives "you" the power to decide. It was always hard, but today it is harder than ever to escape the screaming mob if you remain neutral in the exercise of your power. Bias (if it keeps the peace) seems to be valued higher over objectivity.

Democracy must mean safety in disagreement.

As someone said on Twitter: "I remember when the news used to tell us what happened and we had to decide what to think about it. Now the news tells us how to think about something, and then we have to decide if it even happened."

Saturday, December 21, 2019

In Defense of Cognitive Biases

Many books have been written during the last two decades about cognitive biases.  Some of the authors have been awarded Nobel Prizes for their work in this field.  Kahneman's "Thinking Fast, and Slow" is a major work in this category.

During my college years, we undertook a course in Logic which told us that "ad hominem" is a bad argument, and so is "appeal to authority" and so on.

During recent years, "victim blaming" and "whataboutism" have become four-letter words.

In formal journals, the scholar Gigerenzer has been a formidable adversary to Kahneman et al in his defense of such "fallacies" and "biases".  Interested readers can follow his work and read his papers.

In this essay, I will touch upon two modern sins that I listed above, and why they are not the sins that people claim they are.

Victim Blaming

Victim blaming is to hold the victim of a crime or injustice partly responsible for the crime.  It is most vehemently cited when a sexual assault victim is blamed for acting in a reckless manner.  In most cases, however, nobody disagrees that the criminal is wrong and he/she should be punished.  The argument that the incident could have been avoided had the victim taken better precautions is considered blasphemous. 

However, all precaution against criminality is of the same nature.  As long as we live in an imperfect world, it is important to continue to punish the criminals as well as  to take precautions to avoid becoming a victim.  If you put your wallet in the front pocket in a pickpocket-ridden area, if you drive defensively, if you watch your step in an unfamiliar location, you are protecting yourself from harm.  Yes, you may be able to file a police complaint or sue if your pocket gets picked, if you are hit by another car, or if you fall and break a bone in a hotel lobby.  But most reasonable people avoid harm rather than invite harm and then seek damages.

Traditionally, the adage "better safe than sorry" has been a heuristic to follow.  In modern times, unfortunately, the media and the "wise" tell you otherwise.  While they continue to take precautions, they ask you to be flagrant.

Ignore such advice, and be safe.

WhatAboutery

This is a recently coined word which means: To attack a critic with an allegation of a wrongdoing at their end.

Say, politician A says to politician B: "You spend your Sundays at leisure instead of working for the country."  And B replies: "You have no right to lecture me as you go on a two-month vacation every year instead of tending to your constituents."

The first criticism gets deflated by such a response, but the WhatAboutery brigades say: "No, no, answer the allegation on its merits.  Don't accuse the accuser of something else."

The problem is, human activity is acceptable or not depending on the norms prevalent in a setting.  If everybody is breaking rules, you cannot be expected to follow them.  If someone expects you to follow a rule, they must first demonstrate that the rule is followed quite generally, especially by themselves, and that you are an exception.

Traditionally, an allegation of theft coming from a thief was called Hypocrisy.  Whataboutery is calling out the hypocrisy.  Even if the reverse allegation is of a different kind ("you have no right to call me fat when you dropped out of college"), it is still reasonable in the sense that the accuser must first put their house in order before being considered a serious voice of morality or ethics.  If the accuser has multiple failures of their own, traditionally they have little right to criticize others.

Traditionally, the heuristic has been: "Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones at others."  And it is a good heuristic.  Only someone relatively blameless and upright has the moral right to criticize someone else for their failings.  Yes, their criticism stands on its own in a formal sense, and a mature individual would take their admonition at face value and try to determine whether self-improvement is warranted, but in a social sense, their criticism will not be considered worthwhile. 

People expect a moral policeman to be moral himself.  For good reason.  It is hard to be moral and ethical, and if the accuser finds it hard, the accused is saying, in other words, "Fix yourself before you try to fix me."

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The Basic Tenets of Sikhism

Today is the 550th birth anniversary of the first Sikh Guru, Guru Nanak Dev.

As commonly understood, and according to nothing less than Wikipedia, the basic teachings of Guru Nanak can be summarized as:

ਨਾਮ ਸਿਮਰੋ, ਕਿਰਤ ਕਰੋ, ਵੰਡ ਛਕੋ

Loosely translated as: Keep remembering the name, work for your living, and to share one's wealth with the community.

However, it is a myth that these are the three tenets of Sikhism.  Nowhere in the Guru's teachings, except for passing references to the working for one's living and being kind, are the latter two tenets mentioned.  Far be from it that the latter two tenets are "central" to Sikhism.

The first tenet ("remember the name") is indeed mentioned repeatedly in the Guru's teachings.  But as I have written previously, almost universally, Sikhs are either ignorant or confused about what the "name" refers to, and what does it mean to "remember" the name.

Most Sikhs take it to trivially mean just chanting "Satnam Waheguru".  This particular mantra, and this particular practice of chanting is nowhere mentioned in the Sikh gurus' teachings.

I would love to be proven wrong.




Spirituality as Analgesia

"Religion is the opium of the people."  (Karl Marx, 1843)

Of course, as is well-understood now, by this statement, Marx indicated that religion offers a coping mechanism to numb the suffering in one's life.

In his words:
... Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
The new-age corollary to this dictum is:

Spirituality is symptomatic relief for the ills of modernity.

Spirituality offers a feel-good state, a state of "inner" peace or bliss, which is to be achieved by efforts directed solely at modification of one's inner state.

If the circumstances of modernity, and the ills thereof, are unaddressed, then spirituality can be considered a painkiller which does naught for the underlying disease.

Of course, analgesia is an important discipline in medicine, to lessen suffering while the real disease is cured over time, or deemed incurable.

But it is possible to be merely addicted to painkillers, or spiritual practice, without having any insight into the disease (or one's life situation), and efforts to address the cause.

Unless a spiritualist is also engaged in effectively transforming his living situation, spiritual practice is akin to taking an aspirin everyday for a wound that continues to fester.  The need for that aspirin will continue, and may even increase.  Except in the happy circumstance that the wound gets healed on its own.  Which is possible.


Friday, September 27, 2019

A Ghazal by Saleem Kausar

मैं ख़याल हूँ किसी और का (सलीम क़ौसर)

Rendered by Mehdi Hassan


Rendered by Ghulam Ali


Rendered by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan


Rendered by Jagjit Singh



मैं ख़याल हूँ किसी और का, मुझे सोचता कोई और है
सर-ए-आईना मेरा अक्स है, पस-ए-आइना कोई और है
(पस-ए-आइना = behind the mirror)

मैं किसी के दस्त-ऐ-तलब में हूँ, तो किसी के हर्फ़-ऐ-दुआ में हूँ
(दस्त-ए-तलब = outstretched hands, हर्फ़-ऐ-दुआ = words of prayer)
मैं नसीब हूँ किसी और का, मुझे माँगता कोई और है

अजब ऐतबार-ओ-बेइतबारी के दरमियान है ज़िन्दगी
में क़रीब हूँ किसी और के, मुझे जानता कोई और है

मेरी रौशनी तेरे ख़द्द-ओ-खाल से मुख़्तलिफ़ तो नहीं मगर
(रौशनी = sight, ख़द्द-ओ-खाल = features, मुख़्तलिफ़  = unfamiliar)
तू क़रीब आ तुझे देख लूँ, तू वही है या कोई और है

तुझे दुश्मनों की ख़बर न थी मुझे दोस्तों का पता नहीं
तेरी दास्तां कोई और थी मेरा वाक़िया कोई और है

वही मुन्सिफों की रवायतें वही फ़ैसलों की इबारतें
मेरा जुर्म कोई और था पर मेरी सज़ा कोई और है

कभी लौट आएं, तो पूछना नहीं, देखना उन्हें गौर से
जिन्हें रास्ते में खबर हुई कि ये रास्ता कोई और है

जो मेरी रियाज़त-ए-नीम-शब् को 'सलीम' सुबह न मिल सकी
(रियाज़त-ए-नीम-शब् = midnight prayer)
तो फ़िर इस के मानी तो ये हुए कि यहां ख़ुदा कोई और है

(with help from Rekhta, a recitation in the poet's own voice is on this page)