05 November, 2014

Ownership as identity

There are some characteristic differences between the (20th century forms of the) West and the East in the basic approach to interacting with the external world.

The Western worldview places emphasis on taking charge and being in control of our lives by suitably modifying the environment around us, if necessary. The ultimate objective of being in charge of life is self-actualization -- or emancipation of our free will, to express itself.

In contrast, the Eastern worldview, places emphasis on harmony between us and the environment. It advocates a "hands-off" approach towards the environment urging us to not meddle or interfere with anything in the environment unless absolutely necessary to do so for restoring a sense of balance and harmony. The ultimate objective here is the collective harmony that results from prudent interactions between free-willed individuals and the environment.

These differences result in some curious disparities about our understanding of certain normative concepts. One such concept is that of "ownership."

The Western concept of ownership, historically referred to absolute privileges to impose our free will over something that is owned. For instance, kings were overlords of their kingdoms and enjoyed paramount privileges over everything in their kingdom.

Later on, such absolute privileges were diluted at different levels and the ownership itself was set inside a larger framework in which it is deemed valid. In more recent times, ownership (like that of software) is increasingly taking the form of "licenses" that provides certain limited privileges over the property, bounded by a contractual framework.

Despite all these changes, ownership is still about privileges. Owning property is considered a virtue because it provides us the platform for our free will to express itself.

In contrast, we who have been brought up to value a sense of harmony with the environment, have developed a slightly different definition of the concept of ownership.

In this worldview, rather than self-actualization, the collective synergy resulting from several free-willed individuals interacting harmoniously with one another and with the environment, is the final objective. Emancipation of one's free will per se, is not the goal. People are expected to restrain their free-will if necessary, for achieving a larger harmony.

This is not as bad as it sounds. By restraining our free will, we are actually in a disharmonious state ourselves, which in turn contributes to overall disharmony. If everyone were to live in a restrained fashion, there will be no collective harmony either. So, even though the culture emphasizes on collective interest, individual and collective interests are not necessarily at loggerheads with one another.

Only in specific cases where they conflict, an individual is expected to think of the collective interest first and of one's own interest next.

In such a system, the concept of ownership (as privileges) is somewhat sloppy -- on purpose.

In fact, conventionally it is considered distasteful and arrogant to assert one's exclusive rights on one's property. In movies as recent as the 1990s, the villains usually were depicted with an extremely calculating and hair-splitting personality, while the heroes were depicted with a magnanimous personality.

Indeed, possessing something for the sole purpose of imposing one's free will over it, is not called "ownership" at all -- it is called "indulgence." This thinking permeates even today among the young and old alike -- where technology and gadgets are seen not as tools that make us efficient, but as elements of indulgence that promotes laziness and decadence.

There is however, another definition of "ownership" in this worldview that comes with positive connotations. This basically equates ownership to a sense of identity.

If we "own" something, it means that we associate ourselves with it. What we consider as our own, defines who we are.

We "buy" houses but "own" our homes -- because our sense of identity extends beyond us to our homes. Till the time we don't associate our identity with our house, it is just a place where we live, and not a home. In this sense, ownership is not a formal construct, but an emotional construct.

This kind of emotional ownership is evident when we see how celebrities are treated. Often times we see people demanding certain things from celebrities. More than one celebrity have found themselves in the line of fire from their fans, simply because they voiced their opinion on something that was not the popular opinion on the issue. One of them had famously said that in our country, if you are a celebrity, you need to know the "right" answer to every question on every subject, regardless of what you are famous for. Tennis stars should know what is the correct answer when asked about marriage values. Software czars should know what is the right answer to say when asked about a controversy over river water sharing. And so on..

So what makes people make such demands from celebrities whom they actually idolize? In their minds, people actually "own" the celebrities they idolize, because they associate their own sense of identity with the celebrity.

Some time ago, I was seeing this movie where a poor student is supported by a rich joint family who gives him a room to stay and provides him food. As the story proceeds, the family members fight and the family splits. Seeing the grandmother of the family distraught and crying, the student who is staying at the house goes to console her and says, "I've always thought of this as my own home.." and succeeds eventually in pacifying the grandmother.

Of course, the boy does not mean that he was eyeing privileges over the property, which is what it would mean in the legal definition of considering oneself as owning the home.. :)

What he meant was that his sense of identity extended to the family that supported him. Which in turn means that, he would rejoice in their happiness and would feel sad at their sadness. He considers the family's problems as his problems too. Because they are part of his identity, their ups and downs are his own ups and downs too.