Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Stereotypes, Reifications, Generalizations: The root of evil

I believe corruption starts with the insincerity individuals display. When it is convenient, we choose to ignore and exploit the government. When it comes to a terrorist attack, suddenly there is a fire behind us and we get all worked up.  

Do we do really carry out even simple civic duties, like wait properly at every red-light we encounter in our air-conditioned cars? Do we pay our taxes, the way many people have been claiming ... asking for accountability from the Government? Most of the time, the rich has worked out clever ways to avoid taxes. And that is surely a fact. If we indulged in black money BOTH the giver and receiver are guilty. 

I don't like generalizations and many in the media and elsewhere has made many sweeping generalizations. That is most unfortunate. I don't want to make the same mistake here. I have seen specific individuals who have worked diligently and sincerely and so I will quote some specific examples.

  1. I had gone once to Lucknow municipality and one unknown chap was working away with piles of files under a half-working ceiling fan on a hot day, which also happened to be a holiday. It was regarding some architectural work and he was absolutely to the point, crisp and no-nonsense with no hint of bribery or anything. So much for the stereotype of a 'corrupt' clerk in a municipality.
  2. A person who was working in my office fell off a fast train near Borivili a few years back. His face was completely bashed in and he hung on to his life by a thin thread. He almost did not make it; if it were not for some people at Bhagwati municipal hospital. Once he stabilised he was shifted to Sion Hospital; yet another municipal hospital. A very complicated set of surgeries were performed on him, including plastic surgery... and he survived. So much for the stereotype of a so called "municipal" hospital
  3. I had gone sailing with my friends in the same Mumbai harbour once and the Navy cadets where practising nearby. One of their sailboats was on the path of our boat. The "tandel" (navigator) on our sailboat started blowing his whistle, but possibly the cadet was fresh and his back was to us so he could not hear. Within a split second, a Navy speed boat rushed in from nowhere and came between my sailboat and the cadet's and immediately prevented disaster. It happened so fast. The cadet had a light boat, and it was immediately turned around. I could see the officer in the speed boat giving a dressing down to the cadet. So much for the stereotype of an ineffective navy.
  4. I know of many doctors who have devoted their entire lives giving sincere advice and service without even a murmur. So much for the stereotype of 'careless' doctors.
  5. I know of an architect in Delhi (Pavan Gupta) who goes around the city of Delhi identifying issues and problems where he believes he can contribute as an architect. He works in the reverse way: Most architects wait for a job to be given. Pavan first identifies the problem spot and goes and solves it using his own money. Then he knocks on the doors of the administration and tells them that he has a solution for a problem that they were facing. And by the way, Pavan is an IITian (so am I). So much for the stereotype of what an IITian is (Oh, IITian...they always go abroad! Brain drain!)
I can go on and on with this. But I don't want to generalize anything here. We need to recognize the good things that happen to us and make at least as much a big tamasha about it as much as the so called failures that happens once in a while. If we did, we will have much more time to look back and have faith in ourselves. The Buddhists (a philosophy also developed in India) have a Yin-Yang symbol. It stands for two opposites. Call them good or evil. Call them black or white. Call them action and reaction. Life has a balance of these two. BOTH must be recognized. Not just one. So for every horrible Dawood, one should also recognize the good Pavan. Today, we get affected by corrupt politicians. I do agree that they exist. But we should also get equally affected by those who are not corrupt. Make them stand out, and like the crow who could draw up the water in a vessel by throwing stones into it; we can also make the good surface up. Unfortunately many of us do not do that. We keep talking about this corrupt chap, that corrupt politican etc. If only we were to balance things out, we can me more sure about the judgement that we make regarding our society; and also take corrective actions where it is really needed.

When we point out the corruption in others, many of us never point fingers back at "me".  But we don't realize that we were surely responsible in some way to get the corrupt politicians elected!  Gandhi had once said "Be the change you want to see in the world" and we have forgotten it.

There is an old Indian saying: "We can wake up a person who is sleeping. But we can never wake up a person who is pretending to sleep"  I have seen many individuals who carry stereotypes in their heads and  dance to those stereotypes. They don't dislodge those stereotypes in order to allow the actual reality to come and wake them up. Such individuals are content in their false sleep. So they never really wake up.

How many have ever noticed the individuals I've listed above and woken up?  Let me correct that: I am sure we have all noticed them; but we have probably brushed them aside because we want to hold onto our stereotypes. Lennon once said: "Give peace a chance" and I say "Give people a chance" The nice Indians deserve to be recognized!

Today, many are running scared; plainly venting spleen. Is this because for once the terrorist has specifically attacked the symbols of the rich? Hmmm... let me not fall prey to my own stereotypes. I can understand that this Mumbai incident has cruelly crushed many individuals. Life cannot be discounted either because you are rich or because you are poor. Every individual is valuable and his life is incomparable with every other. We cannot herd ourselves into masses, generalizations and stereotypes. If we do, we are as guilty as the fanatics who even after their death have invaded our thoughts.

Many people have been phoning me, sending messages, emails, etc. saying what a failure that has happened. Hang on!  Don't jump too soon! Failures are what makes us humans. If there is an failure internal to the systems we work in, I can understand the anger and we should take corrective steps immediately. But if a failure is because of external factors, why are we pointing our verbal guns onto ourselves as violently as the fanatics?  No force on earth can stop stupid morons who are determined to carry out terrorist acts. For every system we implement, they will surely find some way to go over that too.  Terrorism is external to the system.

What any govt. has to is do, is to handle failures as and when it happens. To me, (though I am not an expert on terrorism) I believe a lot was already in place and working when the terrorists attacked in Mumbai. I have actually spoken to people who are currently working in disaster response teams in Mumbai and they have told me that was the case. (There were some individual exceptions, like some cowardly cops who were frightened to shoot at the two terrorists at CST station. Those cowardly cops are individual failures. Not generalizations.) 

In India, we have many strengths and I have seen many horribly underestimating those strengths. I've spoken about those in another blog post. Talking about stereotypes about the west: The "famed" homeland security in USA after 9/11 is only recent. Many believe that security became a priority in the US after that event. That is rubbish. A lot of security systems were in place BEFORE 9/11 and yet see what kind of massive failures that country had to face! What about Spain? What about UK? I can go on.  Look at the financial mess that the US set into motion. It screwed up the entire world and nobody has a clue how many years we'll really take to recover. Compared to all that, we are actually quite a good and thriving democracy. In the recent economic disaster, of all countries; India is the one who can really come out strong and leap ahead. And then some stupid terrorists with an axe to grind comes and does this amidst us! And even more stupid, is that we do not realize that maybe the larger game plan was to prevent India from becoming a thriving democracy! The terrorists and whoever is behind them are really grinning at the kind of turmoil this event has caused among the citizens. We are really not getting back to work!

Why on earth do some of us go by the stereotypes we carry with us? My earnest request to each of you who reads this blog to treat each individual as an individual and not part of some kind of generalization. Generalizations are the root cause of evil: That is exactly what the fanatics are doing. They want the world to be understood in simple blacks and whites. 

But that is not what we are: Each of is  an individual: living, breathing "you" and "me". There are only a few attributes that can be given to a generalization (say a community, religion or people from a region) Even the government is an abstract concept. The government becomes real only because of real work by living, breathing individuals. So this should include "you" and "me" doing simple civic duties (to begin with). Do not indulge in reification (i.e. making an abstract concept concrete) 

What could surely be improved is the way the media handled the event and how many of us citizens are just venting spleen about it now. I strongly believe that many of us citizens are giving suggestions when they are really not thought through their recommendations with a calm mind. Such suggestions will provide enough fuel to the same horrible politicians (from any party) who unfortunately are either controlling us or may control us in the future. I can see them grinning away, as they use some of the ideas from the various diatribes all over the net, blogs, media, etc:

"The present government declared to be a failure. People want change! We are the change!" When actually, when they get elected; they will end up doing exactly nothing and the same thing will keep happening. 

People are clamouring and falling over each other to say that "enough is enough" and many quote cute bye-lines. When such people are asked "Okay, now tell me what you recommend" they hesistate and fumble because they have actually not thought through their points. The media is lapping it up as they silently seek their own brownie points. Unfortunately, all this lambasting we are indulging will only serve those interested in generalizations: I am afraid there will be many among us who will be convinced about the negative aspects of India. I've seen far too often people saying "Oh, we Indians; we are just like that only" Sadly that inferiority complex will get reinforced. Or Worse. It can also be replaced by a pseudo-superiority complex.


Unknown said...

Well i am interacting with you after close to 20 yrs, since you taught me in college & i always admired your intellect, cause you have always been focused, pure & honest of what you do. This is the one of the first blog / thought / discussion, etc. which really makes sense & with you permission would like to fwd. it to a few design forums.

Unknown said...

Sure. Go ahead and forward it. Pardon me if I have not been able to recollect you. Hope you are doing good.

Unknown said...

I appreciate that at least some one has put on the thinking hat that is optimistic and who can see the silver lining under all this turmoil. Rightly said, we cannot fall prey to such ‘stereotyping’ and ‘generalization’ which will take us (Indians) back to Stonehenge. We have to rise above all differences especially religion and castes to start identifying ourselves as Indians first and there is no second.

‘Indianism’ is a new religion, a belief that comprises of all the sub-religions like Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Jains, Sikhs, and others. We have to imbibe ‘Indianism’ in our system, that will be a new order in our daily life and everywhere, which in a way emulates America which is formed by peoples of different part of the world, but still identify themselves as Americans. This is the only solution for us to survive.