Friday, March 27, 2015

Weep, my beloved town

Some weeks ago, we were in Mysore and walking around the Kukkarahalli lake on an evening. There I witnessed something that I can never forget and which refuses to stop troubling me. So writing it down here.

There was a small kid, about 4-5 years old who was running away from his parents, crying. The father was running behind to catch him. The mother stood there indignantly and said, ಬೀದಿ ನಲ್ಲಿ ಮರ್ಯಾದೆ ಕಳಿತಾನೆ, ಎರಡು ಬಾರಸ್ರಿ! (He is shaming us in public, hit him hard a couple of times!)

Gosh!!

Before I could even digest what I just saw, the incident brought me back tons and tons of memories from my own childhood. We were exactly like that kid some 40 years ago, and nothing seems to have changed in the town that prides on staying on in the 19th century in the name of heritage. It is one thing to preserve relics from the past, but yet another thing to live in the mindset of the past. There is a reason why the rest of the world have moved on from those ideas.

It also reminded me why, about 25 years ago, I came back to this town to study and to "get back to my roots," I initially ended up being hospitalized for depression!

The way I see it -- now 66A is gone and I can express my thoughts without fear -- this lady had a slave mentality. For her, public social standing is more important than the fact that her 4-year old son is terribly pained and unhappy and is running away from them. She is willing to beat him down to submission so that her social standing remains unharmed. Of course, this would not be called slavery, but would be called something like teaching him manners, making him into a gentleman, etc.

Nonsense!

Teach him to be truthful and respect everyone including himself, and see how manners and gentlemanhood develop automatically.

What she is doing is basically planting some deep rooted fears and trauma in her son. He will never grow up to be a full-fledged individual, and may lead his entire life full of internal complexes. Much of these actions will show up in unexpected ways when he grows up to be 20 or 25 years old, having to manage for himself in the professional and personal worlds.

If he is repeatedly told that what he feels or wants is of no value in relation to what is expected of him, he might end up feeling (as I was pushed into feeling) that he as a person, is illegitimate, and his biggest crime was to have been born.

By the way, (since for these folks, success likely means relocating to USA -- as it it is likely to result in better ಮರ್ಯಾದೆ  or social standing), such kind of behaviour in the US would be called child abuse, and the parents could be in serious trouble for hitting their child. They better realize what happens to their social standing if they get locked up for hitting children.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

On our academic value system

Whenever a new batch of students join our lab, and whenever we are consolidating our activities and planning forward, we revisit the underlying value system on which our lab runs. I thought it would be a good idea to put these into writing for easy reference and revision. So here is an exposition of the value system on which our lab runs.

There are primarily three goals that we pursue as part of our academic and research activity. They are:
  1. Quality
  2. Quality
  3. Quality
Quality of our academic and research pursuits is our ticket for survival. We remain relevant only as long as our academics and research are relevant and insightful. Quality is not the icing -- it is the core element around which everything else runs.

So, how do we foster academic and research quality? For this, we turn to the following elements:

Objectivity and Rigor 

Objectivity essentially means that we need to separate ideas that are being pursued (object) from the person who is pursuing it (subject). To develop an idea, it will be subject to enormous amounts of scrutiny and criticism. Given this, it is important to keep the focus of our criticisms on the idea and not on the person.

At a personal level, everyone should be respected. But this does not mean that the ideas espoused by them will be accepted without scrutiny. We have to accept an idea only when we are convinced about the objective merit of the idea, and not by the credentials of the person who is advocating it.

Similarly, every idea should be subject to rigor. We may never be able to tie down a complex phenomena into a precise and rigorous mathematical model, and a model may never be able to completely explain the reality. However, attempting to do so will expose hidden complexities behind the issue at hand, and give us critical insights.

So, how do we practice rigor? Here is a saying (paraphrased from a quote from Leslie Lamport):

Writing shows how sloppy our thinking is..
A diagram shows how sloppy our writing is.. and
Mathematics shows how sloppy our diagrams are.

When trying to conceptualize an idea, put your thought into words. That forces an element of rigor into the thought process. Subsequently, when you've written enough and the ideas are getting too wordy, try capturing its essence in a diagram. And finally, when you have a reasonable grasp of what you have developed, tie it down with a mathematical model.

You'll notice that each step above will bring to the fore, hidden complexities that you had never thought of.

Practice rigor in each and every element of the lab activities, not just in your research work. For instance, log all your activities whenever you achieve a milestone, however small it may be. These logs will come in handy every time you feel lost and need to look back on what you have been pursuing. And of course, they come in handy, when arguing for better grades.. :-)

Ownership 

The second element of a good academic environment is shared ownership. It is important to note that as a student, you are not working for the faculty member running the lab -- you are working for the lab. The faculty member is also working for the lab. Both of you are just playing different roles with different expectations. 

Every success of the lab is also your success, and every failure of the lab is also your failure. 

Ownership is not just about privileges, it is about associating a small part of our identity with what we own. Just like we take pride and initiative in caring for what we own (like our cars or homes), we have to take the same pride and initiative to proactively see that the lab is functioning smoothly. 

Note that it does not necessarily mean that every initiative you propose will be implemented. The faculty member may refuse to pursue a research agenda that you propose for the lab. But that does mean that your ownership of the lab has reduced. The responsibility of setting the research agenda for the lab rests with the faculty member, and there are several considerations that go into formulating an agenda, because of which your proposal may get rejected. A rejection of your proposal for implementation, does not necessarily imply rejection of the merit of the idea that is proposed.

Meaningfulness 

The third element of a good academic environment is maintaining a connect with the underlying meaning behind our activities. Your research work has to go way beyond just earning you a degree. It has to be relevant to issues that are bigger than yourself and that you can associate with.

Meaningfulness is important if we have to take initiative on our own. It is easier to take proactive interest in things that are relevant to us or to a larger cause that subsumes us.

To quote former President Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam (and this is a real quote, not an Internet troll): A dream is not something that you see when you are sleeping. A dream is something that does not let you sleep.

When we study something without understanding the meaningfulness of the study, we have to fight against elements like lethargy, ennui, distractions and so on. But when we understand the relevance behind what we are studying, it becomes hard to fall asleep and hard to get distracted.

Another way of enhancing meaningfulness is this quote that we often use in the lab: augment thinking with reading, not reading with thinking. I've explained this maxim in more detail in another post.

Think of it this way, reading provides you with data, information and knowledge, but it is thinking that creates insight, wisdom and establishes relevance. If the former is analogous to fuel, the latter is analogous to an engine. So basically what the above means is: put fuel into engine, not engine into fuel.

Elements like competition are not central to building an environment of meaningfulness. Competition deflects the focus towards social elements like glory and victory and not towards unraveling the underlying meaning.

To quote the tennis champion Martina Navratilova: The moment of victory is too short-lived to live only for that and nothing else.

Victory and glory are all fine, but they are certainly not our drivers. Routine and ordinary activity are as important, if not more, than the glamorous showcasing of research results. Behind every moment of victory, there are long years of rigorous and objective pursuits, which is what is our primary source of gratification and meaning.

A meaningful academic environment needs to be perpetually vigilant against enticing and provocative social traps. As we always say: never underestimate stupidity. It grows inside us and takes over our minds when we can least afford it.

Positivity 

Last, but certainly not the least, a quality academic environment should invest actively in promoting a culture of enthusiasm, compassion and a high morale. Academic and research activity are inherently demotivating endeavors. We usually have to spend years on end, just following a hunch and recuperating from failures after failures.

It is natural in such cases for people to be demotivated, depressed, frustrated, etc.

When you spent 3 years on your idea and wrote a paper, just to see it shredded to pieces by the journal reviewer, trust me, we know exactly how it feels. And do civilians (non-academics) think you are pathetic, nerdy, arrogant, depressive, etc.? We've been there.

It is important to proactively practice compassion and empathy and treat your colleagues as your friends (and not as your competitors).

And this is not as simple as it sounds. When someone is depressed or frustrated, trying to cheer them up may actually end up making them feel belittled.

The practice of "mindfulness" is important to understand in this regard. Mindfulness is a practice that is steadily gaining inroads into mainstream scientific environments to help build such a culture of positivity. Oxford University for instance, has an entire center dedicated to the study of mindfulness, and there is an ever increasing amount of scholarly literature on mindfulness. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

On the orgy of outrage.. sequel

Finally got to see the controversial BBC video from dropbox and can understand the dynamics around it better now.

Firstly about the documentary itself. It is definitely raw and intense. It is not clear what exactly its message is -- but it definitely makes us churn from inside. The events portrayed in the documentary are all well known. The documentary basically provided the raw, graphic details.

Many parts of the documentary appear scripted. For instance, everybody, including the convict who is interviewed, refers to the juvenile convict as "the juvenile." The convict narrates the incident with dialogues, as though he is reciting a drama. Either he is performing to a script, or the fellow is in an eerily unnatural state of mind -- calm, composed, relaxed like he is sharing a laugh with some friends.

In either case, he is certainly not representative of "crores of Indian males" as alleged by the esteemed lyricist. Because, the many many Indians (of all genders) that we routinely interact with on a daily basis, are anything but calm and composed. They are driven by the Great Indian Insecurity that afflicts people from all classes of society, and display all symptoms of insecurity -- hoarding, thrifty, distrustful, etc.

Even the defense lawyers seem to be reciting a script. It is likely that these were the arguments they used in court as part of the defense. It is also possible that they personally believed those arguments -- making them patriarchal douchebags. Neither prospect is particularly surprising.

It is not surprising, but disgusting and frustrating, every time we encounter such douchebags. So I completely understand the revulsion seen on social media.

Secondly, I am not sure why this documentary was banned. The emotions are raw, but there is nothing (from my perspective) inflammatory in its message. Raw emotions are not necessarily inflammatory. In this case, the raw emotions seems to have become inflammatory mainly because they were prevented from expressing themselves.

The documentary was also mostly suggestive in its stereotyping and generalizing to all of India.

But thanks to the ban, public imagination has filled that gap. Once the documentary was banned, its contents were lost and only its emotions remained -- resulting in the orgy of outrage.

These emotions were grabbed and taken to new levels by douchebaggery of a different kind. One generalizes the convict's words to "crores of Indian men", another rejects Indian males from applying for internships, yet another compliments Indians on taking a stance against their "traditional culture of rape" and one more supports a lynch mob for torturing and killing a rape suspect.

I've heard of things like how Indians excel in the fine art of "snatching defeat from the jaws of victory" -- and despite having seen it play out several times over, I marvel at the myriad different ways in which we achieve this feat, every single time.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, let me repeat it again. The root of our problem is deindividuation. Our culture is basically a collection of several tightly-knit subcultures. None of them allow people to develop fully into individuals or respect others' individuality. We mold individuals to conform to society, rather than build the society around individuals.

All those words said by the defense lawyer or the convict, basically reinforces the above.

This problem is well-known and is being addressed in different ways. While self-styled public figures go about painting "crores of Indian men" as convicts, basically crores of Indians of all genders, race and ethnicity are aware of this problem and are silently and diligently working towards eliminating it, every single day.

These cultural issues are so deep-rooted that real change is slow and painful to come by. In addition, real change requires some fundamental rewiring of social dynamics, that aim to make these problems irrelevant rather than tackling them head on.

For instance, to tackle the gender-disparity problem, we should not be looking at making both genders "equal" (whatever that means) -- we have to aim to create a society where gender becomes irrelevant. A society where the gender of a person is not a factor at all for it to function. As long as we keep separating and segregating genders, and as long as we keep viewing this as a male problem or a female problem (and completely forget about the third gender), the disconnect will always be there, and the disparity between them will be filled by existing stereotypes.

A similar issue is that of caste-based reservations. No matter which side of the debate we are on, we will likely end up only stoking strong emotions and creating a controversy. The solution to this problem is to make reservations irrelevant by creating so many economic opportunities that there is no need for reservations at all.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Finally, my main concern with this whole set of dynamics is the impact of a massive emotional contagion on a largely deindividuated population. My stance on this issue has been focused primarily on trying to reduce the impact of the emotional contagion -- despite knowing that this is basically like trying to stop an avalanche. 

Perhaps in some divinely ordained way, as a population, we are destined to be subject to many more mass emotions like this. We will perhaps all be outraged several times over in the future on similar issues. Maybe this mass emotional marination makes us wiser -- or maybe it makes us stupid and vulnerable. Maybe we will collectively mature into a liberal establishment which is my dream, or maybe we will fall back into another round of slavery and subjugation. 

It would be pretentious of me to speculate. So let me just pray and hope for the best and end this post with a note of apology if I've hurt anyone's emotions while trying to get them to calm down.

Monday, March 09, 2015

The accountability certificate

To all government officials and social scientists who read my blog, here is a proposal to introduce an element of accountability to our words online.

What we speak online is definitely in the realm of public speech, whose characteristics are very different from that of personal speech. Public speech should enjoy the same freedom as personal speech, but it is also reasonable to expect an element of accountability for public speech.

Accountability means that we own up our words by substantiate any assertions we are making, base our arguments on verifiable facts and clarify our conclusions if there is any confusion.

Public speech may also have expressive content that are meant to stoke emotions, but I think we should be at least accountable enough to clarify in cases of confusion that, those words are meant to express how we feel, rather than to make a factual statement about something.

It is important to note that accountability is not the opposite of freedom.

There is nothing in this proposal to reduce freedom in any way -- just increase accountability -- that too voluntarily.

The way this can be implemented is as follows:

The government institutes a bureau of online accountability. People who write blogs or long posts on social media, can approach this bureau to certify their specific posts.

This bureau then conducts a review of the post, during which time, it may ask for clarifications from the author, citations of sources on which arguments are based, and/or suitable revisions to the post.

Once this is done, the bureau issues a html fragment, that the author can add to the post which shows that the post is certified to be accountable. Users clicking on the certificate will enter a page maintained by the bureau, that will provide details on what clarifications were asked and what changes were made in response. It may also provide other clarifications on the topic for which this post may be considered useful or authoritative. Links to reviewer profiles will also be attached to the review, so that the reviewers are themselves accountable to their review.

Note that there is no notion of penalty, punishment, compulsion, mandatory certification, moral admonishment, etc.

Certification should be purely voluntary and on a per-post basis. It should be the author that approaches the bureau for certification -- no suo motu actions by the bureau! The bureau itself will not be authorized to instruct an author to take down content -- the existing IT laws and courts are there for that matter.

And if the author fails to clarify or revise the post according to the reviewers' comments, then the only consequence is that the post will not get certified. The post need not have to be removed, for lack of certification. Of course, the bureau website may also publicly host a database of all those posts which failed to get certified, containing the reasons why the certification did not go through.

For a user reading the post, the certificate of accountability is a means of establishing the veracity of the arguments made in the post.

Rather than going behind bad content and trying to shut them down and ending up giving them more legitimacy and portraying the government as a big brother, we should accentuate the good content and give them more legitimacy in the form of these certificates.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

On the orgy of outrage

Make no mistake. Not for a single moment am I contending that issues that have created national outrage in recent times are in any way unimportant. In fact, my own writings on social media or on my blog have often argued how individual integrity is not respected in our culture. It is the lack of respect for the individual that leads to all kinds of horrid problems concerning women's safety, children's safety and even men's safety (See this video about the forgotten gender). Men may be forgotten, but gender-queer folks are not even humans according to popular and legal imagination.

People think and operate in a deindividuated state -- they never fully develop into individuals, which is the root of most of our social problems.

And our response to this problem is cause for even more concern. But hardly surprising. It is just a deindividuated response to the problem of deindividuation.

For instance, one of the news stories that is overshadowed by the orgy of outrage triggered by the BBC documentary, is that of a mob lynching a rape suspect in Nagaland. A murderous mob entered a police station, dragged him out, tortured him for over two hours before killing him. And according to news on CNN-IBN, some law makers actually said they supported such forms of mob justice! While the complainant today was quoted as saying that the victim was her neighbour and that she had not expected such a mob reaction to this case.

Well yes, there may be more to this story than meets the eye and whatever. But the fact remains that the guy was tortured and killed by a mob. The whys and wherefores cannot deny the crime -- just as is the case with women's safety. No matter who did what, who provoked whom, there is no excuse for the crime itself.

But while we are busy focusing on specific events, we are unaware of a larger problem that is slowly engulfing us. The problem of the deadly effects of large-scale emotional contagion over a largely deindividuated population.

Emotion may be what makes us human, but intellect makes us human too. And intellect is what makes human societies more humane than the jungle society. The jungle is driven by emotions and not enough intellect.

Emotions have always been relegated to the realm of the mysterious and is sometimes considered to be beyond the abilities of the intellect; but never before has the intellect got such a pressing need to understand emotions like now.

Emotions are essentially our primal psychophysiological responses to stimuli. What this means is, they are triggered directly by our firmware -- our amygdala, which influences both our cognitive and limbic systems (mind and body, in other words). Our emotional state primes our body and mind to think and act in a particular frame.

For instance, when we experience rage, the body sees an increase in the secretion of hormones like oxytocin and vasopressin. The mind enters into a frame of thinking that is primed for "fight or flight."

If the person is mentally trained to use the frontal lobe for higher levels of semantic thinking the fight-or-flight response can be potentially overridden by more sober responses from the higher levels of semantic processing.

But for that to happen, the person should have matured as an individual and have a strong sense of self and identity (in addition to other skills like critical thinking). Deindividuation basically means that this sense of self has not fully developed. Without a strong sense of self, the semantic processing layers will be incapable of overriding the emotional response.

Emotion also has another property called emotional contagion. Which means that we catch emotions from others even without our cognizance. And without a strong sense of self, we are basically vulnerable to be "infected" by this contagion.

Social networks also have a property of creating strongly-knit clusters. If I have two close friends, chances are the two friends will also know each other.

The clustering property of social networks creates an "echo-chamber" for the diffusing emotions to amplify and feed on itself and quickly reach frenzied proportions.

A strong sense of self will act as a dampener or a resistance for this flow of emotions in the network. In a deindividuated society, this dampener is absent or inadequate -- causing the collective emotion to grow very rapidly.

When we are in a strong emotional state, our body is primed to act. And even if we don't act, the hormones that have been secreted, impact us physically. So, strong emotional states either makes us act and pay for the consequences, or pay for it by way of our health.

Strong emotions may not be morally bad -- but they definitely make us stupid and vulnerable.

*~*~*~*~*~*

In the medieval ages, there were merchants of power, who often played on the emotions of a population, to usurp power. (So, emotions are not as esoteric and mysterious like the artistic folks want us to believe. There are even algebras for emotional manipulation.)

I'm pretty sure, such merchants know the power of collective emotions on a deindividuated population. 

Are we now at the threshold of a new global dark age? 

Enough said. We are still a deindividuated population and I certainly don't look forward to an emotional reaction to that fear.

Monday, March 02, 2015

How we lost the cultural war..

A favourite past time in our society -- be it at home or work or in the government or on social media, is the constant pining and whining about the state of affairs. It comes in several forms, pining for the "good old, bygone days", pining for the idyllic village life, lamenting about how this current generation lacks values and culture, and so on.

We're so full of self-pity. We revel in portraying ourselves as innocent victims, mauled away by the big, bad "other." The "other" takes different forms -- the decadent city, the consumerist West, the evil corporate, etc. etc.

One of my latest avocation online is this Facebook group that puts up photos from the Bangalore of yester-years, to bring back nostalgia of simpler, friendlier and cleaner times that this city has seen. In this group, today someone posted a picture of a family sitting on their terrace, having ಕೈ ತುತ್ತು (kai tuttu). This is a kind of family-bonding dinner, usually had on a full moon night, where one person (usually the grandmother of the house) takes a morsel of food and puts it by turns, into the palms of each member of the family who are seated around.

The picture suddenly brought back several memories among a lot of people, and it was easy to see the lament and pain in the messages posted in response to this picture.

It brought me to this inevitable question. How did we end up losing so many elements of our culture so quickly? My childhood times look so different from our lives today, I can only imagine what kind of a dissonance our parents' and grandparents' generations must be having. For several generations, they lived their lives along some routine, having some expectations about what is "normal", and now suddenly, all those cultural norms are quaint, exotic, creepy, and anything but normal.

What happened? There was no war, no invasion, nothing was coerced. So why did we lose out so much so quickly?

*~*~*~*~*~*~*

I remember the decade of 1990s like it were yesterday. I've still not recovered from it fully.

It was a decade full of exuberance and change. As a fresh graduate, that too in Computer Science, there was only one thing expected of me from the society -- go to USA.

Indeed, at IIT Madras, where I did my Masters' I used to joke that the entire place is like a giant machine, that flung people to USA. If you were a student there, you had to go to the US, else, it meant that you were somehow inadequate -- there was something wrong with you. 

We used to have these couple of "cool" guys in engineering, who knew right from the first semester, what they wanted from their lives -- write GRE and go to the US. They attended classes just enough to pass, and used to be completely mired in their GRE exam guides. 

People used to camp outside the US consulate in Chennai on the footpath for days on end, to get a visa appointment. They spent lots of money and all kinds of tricks to get an allowance to go inside. One of my friend had quipped (sic), "It does not matter how much I spend now, once I start counting in dollars, all these will look like peanuts." 

It was common knowledge that once a desi goes to US (or abroad, in general), the desi remains in US (or abroad). If the desi returns back, then it means there is some serious problem with him. 

But after my PhD abroad, I returned back to India. And got married soon after. At the marriage, I was asked by several folks when was I going back. When I told them that I was not going back, and have got a job here, they gave this understanding look of pity, and an even more piteous look at my wife ("oh you poor thing..")

*~*~*~*~*~*

Clearly, this mass exodus happened by means of opinion diffusion and opinion molding across the population. People of my age used to exaggerate their problems in India, just to find some excuse, and justify to themselves psychologically, about relocating to the US. 

But more importantly, I think there was a much more fundamental factor that fueled this mass exodus. It has got to do with what the respective cultures stood for. 

Indian culture in general, strongly favoured propriety, social order, upholding of tradition, family values, and so on. The collective will was seen to be more superior to individual will, and acting in a socially-acceptable manner was seen as the cornerstone of a good upbringing. Upsetting social norms was (and still is) seen not just as deviant behaviour, but as immoral or even illegal behaviour. 

I remember this conversation from the movie Shankarabharanam, between a Carnatic music Vidhwan and a group of upstarts who were into "decadent" Western music. The youngsters were experimenting with tunes and singing songs in their own way. For which, the music guru explains in a calm, preachy tone that there are specified structures and rules for music, and sounds become music only when they follow these rules. Enjoying what one is doing, and experimenting with it, are strict no-no.. Only "great minds" had the luxury to experiment.

Even much later, as a teacher, I remember this retort by a student, when to a question, I had responded that it depended on our assumptions. He said, "Sir, how can we ordinary people make assumptions about mathematical structures? They are made by great scientists." 

In contrast, the USA of the 1990s was full of memes like freedom, free market, free world, free as in freedom, etc. In other words, freedom. 

There is this quote from Tom Hanks introducing the two kids who are with him to Meg Ryan, from the movie, You've Got Mail that sums it up: "Matthew is my father's son, Annabelle is my grandfather's daughter. We are... an American family."

Such a family, would have been the butt of jokes and condescension in the popular thought that we were brought up in.

In our world, individuals were molded to fit the culture. And out there, the culture was built and fit around individual choices.

So, yes, our cuisine may have been much more complex and intricate than their burgers and fries. But people still lined up for the burgers, even when they were brought here and sold at exorbitant prices. Our "family values" may have been strong, but people still bent norms and reinterpreted values, when they got the chance to go West. Our music may have been much more neat and propah, compared to their pop music, but people still found it cool to be seen in rock concerts and wouldn't want to be seen in a sangeeta katcheri.

Such was the appeal of a culture that respected (or at least appeared to respect) the individual over the collective.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*

At the end of the day, the core issue is quite simple, but which we have not really fathomed. We have no concept of respecting individual integrity in our culture. The collective is always seen as more important than the individual -- be it in homes, offices or any public space. This causes individuals to feel stifled from within, and make them rush out at the first possible opportunity. 

As an example, we don't even have a concept of people with non-standard gender or sexual identities "coming out" of the closet. Much of our society still cannot imagine a hijra (a transgender) working alongside them in an office or studying in college. They are relegated to extorting money from people at traffic lights or dancing for a fee on some occasions like child birth.

I used to have a metaphor to describe the exodus of the '90s. 

I was standing with my friend in front of a beach in Chennai, and was telling him how this exodus is like, "people rushing off into the water, swimming furiously... not knowing where are they going or even how far away is land on the other side.." And I could not see why were they being so hasty and unthinking. 

But today, I have a different metaphor. That exodus was more like the opening of a cage door, or the breaking of the Berlin Wall. All that mattered was that the cage door was open. And all that one did when the cage opened its doors, was to rush out and not stop to think.. lest it close again.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Guilt and liability

We tend to judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions. -- Unknown

Whenever there is an accident or some form of mishap, it is common to see news anchors on TV and the general public scream out that "The guilty must be punished!" It is also quite likely to see statements like, "He was found guilty of having caused the accident."

Such sentences make no sense. It is one thing to say, "He was found liable for the damages caused by the accident" and yet another to say, "He was found guilty of having caused the accident."

An accident, by definition, is an unanticipated event. While someone is "guilty" if they did something bad, and had intended to do so.

Ascertaining liability is a judgement against the action, while guilt is a judgement against the person.

A person who was found liable for something may be careless or negligent.. But a person who was found guilty of something has a far more serious problem in their character.

But it is amazing how we don't realize the difference between the two and often use the latter, where we need to apply the former.

Be it at homes, schools, offices or even in governance, we attack people's character directly, rather than their actions.

A case in point is a recent TV ad anchored by a former movie star known for his "perfectionism" and preaching down the "truth" to the population. The ad meant to spread awareness about cleanliness, shows scenes where people throwing waste and answering nature's call in the open, are "shamed" into realization, by making them wear a dunce cap, while people around them clap with sarcastic grins.

Sure, it is an unclean thing to urinate in the open. But if someone had access to clean toilets at home or in public places, would they still choose to urinate in public? But no, rather than tackle the bigger systemic problem, we find it easier to attack their character and "shame" them to learn about cleanliness.

Also, it is quite likely that the above argument will be construed as criticizing the celebrity actor in question. Because, we simply do not know how to separate the issue from the people involved. The above argument criticizes our inability to separate issues from people.

Earlier, I used to advocate this separation quite passionately. But these days, I'm realizing that as a culture, we are perhaps not capable of understanding or performing this separation.

We see this everywhere. Children and students are often morally admonished for their actions by parents and teachers -- where, a moral admonishment is an admonishment of their character as a person, while an action could be the consequence of several forms of legitimate intentions.

We are aware of our intentions (even that too, not always), but we can only see others' actions -- not their intentions.

It is important to understand the difference between the two. When we ask someone to pay for damages that were a consequences of their unintended actions, it is not the same as punishing them for a crime.