Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Social Disapproval and Freedom

For many, social disapproval is a paralyzing force.

My experience has been quite different.  In my interactions with other people, they have generally kept their opinions (about me) to themselves.  Sometimes there is a whimper of a protest at the way I am choosing to live my life, but I have rarely had to counter any such disapproval.

It might have something to do with my personality, given that I have always been a heretic and a philosophical enfant terrible. My persona might be intimidating to feeble and consensus-minded people who would therefore rather not engage me in a debate.  But I have, after long observation, concluded that people, society, family, peer groups, etc. can influence and coerce you only insofar as you are bothered about what they think of you.

When I see someone bothered by or complaining  against the entrapment of society, I look a little deeper and see someone who seeks everybody's approval.

It might be said that disapproval is costly.  Hence, it is important to have some financial freedom if you wish to embark on a path which may not meet with society's approval.  In my case, my education and my first job in the US gave me the confidence as well as the cushion to embark on a life of exploration.

I understand others may not be that fortunate.  But I have also seen people much more financially comfortable than me feeling trapped under the weight of others' expectations.  And I have friends who may not have a big bank balance, but there is freedom in their hearts and they follow their own beat.  They and I have the confidence that no matter what happens, we will find a way to survive.  They and I have not gotten used to luxury, even as we can enjoy fine wines and fluffy beds and hot foamy jacuzzis.

What is the origin of that confidence?  I do not know.  Even when I was a young boy, I remember myself being rebellious and heretical.  Not always in a good way, but I did not simply care about what the respectable or good people thought of me.  I considered them unqualified to judge me.

Perhaps it was an early exposure to world literature and philosophy.  Who knows.

We all have, to varying degrees, a desire to live true to ourselves, and without the weight of others' expectations.  Whenever therefore we see someone actually living that way, we feel a bond and an admiration for that person.  It is as if the other person is channeling the collective heart of humanity, which seeks joy and exploration.

After I had returned from the US and decided to take many years off to study philosophy and meditation, almost without exception everybody that I met admired my decision.  And when later I re-entered the job market and explained my sabbatical, without exception my hiring manager(s) admired my conviction and spirit.

It is a real pleasure to meet an authentic person.  And I would like to believe that my authenticity, to whatever extent it exists, is also similarly a pleasure to others.  When others detect the free spirit in me, my experience has mostly been that they are friendly, helpful, loving and kind.  I have occasionally found souls which were hateful and resentful toward me, but it has been easy to ignore them or to even pity them for whatever twists exist in them.  I could see that they were suffering, and I was just the current object of their inner resentment.

There have been no "undue" influences in my life.

I meet many people who complain against their circumstances.  But when offered a way out, they feel hesitant and scared of the uncertainty.  Stagnation, resentment and certainty usually exist together.  Fear of the unknown is real, but it must be embraced.  Exploration and freedom cannot by its nature be predictable or comforting, but the reward is that it won't lead to a life of regret.

If social disapproval bothers you, try this thought experiment:

Imagine yourself thirty or fifty years into the future and only a few years away from your death.  All the people who disapprove of you at present are dead and gone.  What would your old self advise your present self?  What would you regret less at that age?  Follow that path.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Is Sex-Selective Abortion Wrong?

Families in many regions in India, especially in the North, are loath to have a girl-child.

The reasons are complex.  There have been many in-depth studies about this phenomenon.  In essence, it is widely held that to be parents of a girl imposes certain heavy responsibilities and burdens with not enough compensation.  For example:
  • India is largely a patrilocal society.  In non-nuclear families, the wife becomes a part of the husband's family.  Parents invest in bringing up a marriageable woman only to see her leave and become a primary member of another family.
  • The tradition of dowry in which parents of the bride give gifts and money to the groom's family.
  • The daughters now have property rights over their parents' property, but since patrilocality still continues, this means that the illiquid property of a household gets partly owned by the daughter's new family (the in-laws) and thereby gets diluted.  (The tradition of dowry, by many accounts, was a liquid (in cash or gold) compensation to the bride from her family when she did not have property rights.  According to certain other naratives, it was a financial disincentive for the bride in case she ever thought of abandoning her new family.  If she abandoned her husband or her in-laws, the dowry was forfeited.)
  • An environment in which families have to worry about protecting the virginity, modesty and reputation of unmarried women in their homes.
  • Since property inheritance is patrilineal in most of India, to not have a son meant that there was no natural heir and there was a risk of losing control of the ancestral property.
  • The bride's parents are generally in a socially submissive posture relative to the groom's family.  The bride's parents and the bride are expected to be docile, pleasant and generous.  They are afraid of annoying their in-laws and go to great lengths to be amicable.  The fear being that if the groom's family was annoyed for any reason, the bride was going to be subject to taunts, harassment, perhaps even violence, or in extreme cases, she could even be turned out of her conjugal home.  The bride's status in her new home was considered tenuous and fragile, at least till she begot a son of her own (and thereby an eventual heir to her husband's family).
Short of abandonment or murder, there was till recently no solution to the "problem" of the burden of a daughter.  Not till medical advances made prenatal sex-determination possible, and the procedure of abortion become relatively safe.

These advances tempted many families with their promise of delivering a baby boy with 100% confidence.  Yes, there were risks to the pregnant mother's health.  But it is sobering that those risks were generally considered more acceptable than the risk of a daughter being born.

Abortion was legalized in India in 1971 by the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act.  When abortions were illegal, they were still performed, albeit by possibly untrained hands in unsafe conditions.

It is hard to crack down against sex-selective abortions, since people will just specify other reasons for the abortion.  Therefore the Indian state criminzalized the prenatal sex-determination diagnostic procedures.  Even that proved notoriously hard to enforce.  The diagnostic center staff came up with code words or sign language to tell the expecting parents whether it was a male or a female fetus.  There is also, supposedly, now a simple blood test which can determine the gender of the fetus.  In my opinion, it is impossible in today's world to forcibly prohibit parents from knowing the gender of their unborn child.

Having failed there, now again the focus is on abortion clinics, with the widespread assumption that one is guilty of sex-selective abortion until proven innocent. Hence, we are again seeing a spate of illegal abortions, incidents of abandonment, cases of infanticide, etc.

Many who worry about this issue try to induce guilt about the murderous violence done on the "innocent" fetus. But that is an argument against abortion. So, unless we are against abortion per se, let us disregard that argument. If we accept that parents have a right to abort their unborn child because they do not want it to be born, then that right overrides a compassion for the fetus.

So, once abortion has been concluded to be a right of the would-be parents, does the state have a right to restrict that right by listing the only "proper" reasons for such a decision? If the parents only want a daughter (rare, I know), or only a son, or one son and one daughter, or only two sons, or whatever combination they might fancy, does someone else have the right to (and at the point of a gun, no less) tell them to wish otherwise?

It is perhaps better to offer them some counseling before their go in for the abortion, educating them about the health risks, risks to future pregnancies, etc. But in the end, the decision is their own.

What kind of affection and future is a daughter going to have from her parents who were forced against their will to have her? They may develop affection and a bond with her, but it is also likely that every time there is a challenge in bringing her up, they are going to look back at their forced decision and seethe with resentment.

If the argument is made that the mother usually is against abortion, but that she is coerced against her will by her in-laws, then it is a sorry state of affairs and points at the intimidation inherent in family structures in India. But unless she is capable and willing to be on her own and renounce her in-laws, interference by the state can only introduce further suffering into her life. The mother will probably be subjected to an illegal abortion, her girl-child may be murdered, or she herself might abandon it to again be in the good books of her in-laws, or the girl will grow up only to feel an unwanted burden.

The environment in which the girl-child is a huge cost and burden is a reality.  The desire to only have a boy is a symptom of this environment.  To legislate against this desire is not only futile, it might even be considered morally wrong by libertarians, and a way for conservatives to again make abortion difficult.  For example, in the US, the blurb of a book about these laws (such laws exist in the US too, though only in a few states) makes the remark that:
Rather than to combat gender discrimination, the report shows that sex-selective abortion bans are intended to limit access to abortion generally.
The long-term effect of this gender discrimination is to skew the gender ratio in a region, which can lead to social stresses leading to kidnappings and violence and rapes.  Such a situation can lead to either the demise of the society, or a draconian legislation which bans abortions altogether which will again (hopefully) reestablish the gender ratio.

I believe that a wide preference for a particular gender at birth is the symptom of a sick and crippled society.  But this crippling condition cannot be cured by forcing people to walk straight or be sent to jail.

Rich educated parents do not seem to have much of a preference.  For them, bringing up a boy or a girl is more about the boy or the girl than about the ramifications of their gender and property rights.  But that is not a luxury that poorer or more socially dependent people can exercise.

There are no easy responses to this phenomenon.  Affluent and educated cultures do not have this problem, so perhaps education and social security will solve it.  But those cultures have "other" problems: of emotional vacuums, of not wanting children at all, of loneliness and breakdown of family structures.  To want kids to fulfill your expectations introduces one kind of problems, to want them to live their own lives introduces others.

Perhaps it is the wider structures of capital and culture which puts these stresses on families, and given this modern environment of economic insecurity and emotional neuroses, there is no real solution but to just live with this suffering.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Public decency

The KissOfLove protests in India are all over the media. Liberals want to protest against "moral policing". Conservatives talk about cultural corruption.

How would an ethicist or a philosopher respond to this phenomenon?

Let's follow the propositional method. If you disagree with a particular proposition, we can dig deeper into it.

1.  There are always limits on acceptable behavior in public. Defecation, vulgar cursing, shouting, smoking, nakedness, drinking alcohol, gambling are regulated by law.  In private spaces, all these are legal.

2.  There are also limits on what may be purchased or seen or done by non-adults. The reasoning being that they are impressionable, need guidance, and that they lack a developed sense of discrimination and impulse control. Voting, marriage, sexual activity, consumption of intoxicants, exposure to violent imagery or pornography, and so on.

3.  Degrees of public display of skin and affection is culturally dependent.  Bikinis and deep blouses and shirtless city joggers are common in the west but not, for example, in India.  Mouth-to-mouth kissing on the street is uncommon but acceptable, with amused attention, in the west but not so in the east.

4.  Public display of (lustful) affection exposes the sexual side of humans and can cause confusion in the uninitiated (kids) and prurient interest in the criminally inclined. Especially in a conservative society, it expresses the rebellious attitude that the couple does not care what others think about them. The social bullies can then feel justified to teach them a lesson and make them compliant.

5.  Law and order is problematic in conservative and poor countries. Mobs can overwhelm the police machinery and dispense street "justice".  In such environments, it is prudent to act defensively and not annoy the social bullies.

6.  Sexual acts are immersive and therefore generally require privacy. To be on guard against danger and unwanted attention while in the throes of love decreases the enjoyment.

7.  Privacy is expensive in India. And due to the thuggish culture and prevalence of crime, it is dangerous to assume anonymity, safety and privacy in a cheap hotel in India.  Parks are crowded, cinema halls have people on all sides and these days there is a dearth of art movies where the hall may be empty.  The homes have grandparents. The cities have no fields. Where should poor lovebirds go to make out?

8.  Due to class and power structures, public display of affection is a rich person's luxury in India. To not care about reputation is generally possible only when such lack of care does not lead to unaffordable economic or social consequences.  In a way therefore, PDA is a flaunting of one's wealth and power.  It can invite the vengeful ire of socially oppressed.

So what's the conclusion?

Its tough being in love in India. But its more important to be safe than to be smoochy.  I'm with the lovers that they need their space, but that space is not the street.  They need to be more creative than that. Try a cafe restroom or a museum alley.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Let Go, but Keep Going

Yesterday I went to a group meditation event. Toward the end of the event, the facilitator gave a talk on "letting go". The starting point of the talk was the virtue of Nekkhamma (renunciation) in Buddhism.

The speaker softly suggested to the audience to let go of their desires, stresses, identifications, and thereby, their suffering. Though the talk was meant for lay-people who did not have a strong foundation in philosophy or psychology, the speaker did slip in a couple of abstruse concepts: of regarding the body as "not me", of dis-identifying from physical pain, etc.

At the end of the talk, I raised the following question:

"Life in its myriad forms can be considered as directed energy. Lifeless objects do not accumulate and expend energy. They are passive. A definition of life is to be active, to extract something from the environment for one's own benefit. Letting go is essentially relinquishing a personal investment in something. But each directed activity is born of an investment, whether conscious or unconscious. If letting go is taken to its extreme - and there is nothing in Buddhist literature to suggest that one should not - then the end result has to be lifelessness.

If (as the speaker attributed to Ajahn Cha) '... if you let go a lot you will have a lot of peace; if you let go completely you will have complete peace', then that peace is that of lifelessness. Then what directs energy in oneself? Why eat, if one has dis-identified with the pangs of hunger? Why take care of one's ailing child, if one has let go of the desire to see it survive and grow? In the absence of desire and fear, there is an absence of aims to move toward and of situations to move away from.

Buddhists regard life as painful, full of suffering, and their final goal is to escape from what they consider a cycle of birth, aging and death. For them, life, and hence directed energy, is not a state to wish for. If you want to escape this plane of "becoming", they would say: "By all means!""

The speaker responded by saying that one should not worry about what would happen when one would let go completely, but only try to let go of little stresses.

I found her response to be unsatisfactory: "If you are suggesting that wanting is bad, then why only stop at letting go of little wants? Go all the way, be free of all wants. On the other hand, if wanting is not all bad, and if Buddha was fundamentally wrong, then why even let go of little wants? Maybe many of those little wants are normal and healthy."

The speaker also, on a tangent, talked of "one's reputation", and one's attachment to it and that one should let go of that attachment. I did not question her, as it was not after all a philosophical gathering.  It was a group of trusting, impressionable people trying to find some balance in their life.

But, even though it is a well-known cliche in new-age circles, it is extremely bad advice to stop worrying about how one is perceived. The neurosis is when one is overly concerned about one's image. But to develop that discrimination by which one can determine if one's worries, stresses, concerns, attachments are healthy or harmful, within reason or unreasonable, measured or reckless, won't happen in such a meditative group setting.

In such settings, the teaching is: all stresses, all desires, all attachments are to be let go of.

And that absence of discrimination is what makes these gatherings a place for mouthing platitudes, and absolutely useless for a person seeking understanding.

Of course, it might be a tactic. As the joke goes, Johnny applied for the license of a tank so that he might get approved for the license of a handgun. In such settings, nirvana is talked about and monks are held as ideals, so people can at least sleep well at night and not worry about tomorrow's traffic.

I continue to maintain that spirituality is primarily stress-relief. To expect anything more from it is to commit a grave fault of judgment. But like in religion, the power of the message lies in one's trust and surrender to the "sacredness" of the beliefs or ideas.

To tell people to take spiritual teachings with a grain of salt will take away the "power" of the teachings completely.

So what's the lesson from all this? Simply this: leave spiritualists alone, as long as they are using their meditation and prayers as a means to an end. Therefore, it is not only sensible, but the only right approach to pray to God for some material benefit or to ask for his Love, and to meditate in the morning so one can make more money in the stock market with a balanced mind. And if one realizes that a particular path is too stressful, well by all means choose a way of life which is more in tune with one's capacities and values.

But if you see somebody starting to believe in the theology or the spiritual world-view and have only spiritual goals, intervene.

It is a good idea to use the Buddha, but to want to become the Buddha is a really bad idea.