Saturday, September 4, 2021

Power is Useful

In my post about giving up ideological purism, I talked about how it felt like activism was weak resistance, and not something powerful. I still hadn't discovered an answer as to how to engage with and change the system powerfully. I have an answer now.


To make powerful change, one has to have power. Thinking about power as an anathema is not helpful.

The first place I saw this articulated unambiguously is in a tweet thread by Jonathan Smucker. Jonathan talks in no uncertain terms about how "Knowledge of what is wrong with a social system and knowledge of how to change the system are two completely different categories of knowledge."

That's true. And that's where I was wrong too.

What's wrong with the system (from my perspective) is concentration of power in the hands of a few. My naive solution to this was to fight power itself. To not pick up power. To disown and discredit power. But it was indeed naive. One can't defeat power structures by shying away from power.

The rest of Jonathan's thread is about how to organize politically and gain power. There was an article linked by someone else in reply about how to use words like "Power" and "Money" with transformational meaning.

From the little I know, Ambedkar also was a proponent of this method. Ambedkar asked people to "educate, agitate, organize". Ambedkar was essentially laying down the blueprint on how to change the system.

Today I had a chat with Prashanth on these same topics. Through many examples, daktre articulated the same idea, although daktre used the words "legitimacy" and spoke through the field of academics and the power that academic work lends you.

Daktre could also identify what was holding me back. The ambition of wanting to make large impact AND be perfect at the same time. The desire to make huge changes to the world (savior complex, but in an extreme scale) is fine. But the desire to be perfect while doing so is what causes problems. What if one is willing to let go of the want to be perfect? What if one is ready to make compromises in return of accomplishing a larger goal? One might personally become "blemished", might get called out for being a hypocrite. But in the larger picture, one might be able to accomplish more.

Yesterday Swathi and I were having a conversation over our lives and Swathi mentioned how it is screwed up to think that we can make large impact, that we can accomplish all we want. I was resisting by saying that we can indeed make large impact, we just have to find a way.

I think the path in front of me is clear. Embrace pragmatism. Gain power. Wield it carefully. Be willing to make compromises (and be called out by others for it). Helpful to keep a group of close friends who can call out quickly. Don't think of myself as the complete and perfect solution. Think of myself only as a piece of a larger solution.

Now I know why Anivar was asking me to get a PhD. I think I won't take the academic route to power. I'm looking towards the entrepreneurial route. Let us see where we reach.

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Sunday, August 15, 2021

Merit is Entitlement, not Privilege

In debates around reservation and merit, there is a recurring pattern.

First, someone will say "There is no level playing field. Someone starts from privilege, someone starts from lack of it. Therefore, merit is just privilege."

Then, the opponent will say "What makes you think I'm privileged? My parents struggled to make their ends meet. I burned the midnight oil."

The first person says "Do you know what inter-generational trauma that people from X background goes through?"

Then the opponent will say "Well, but the beneficiaries of reservation are from well off families"

This debate goes circularly with both sides saying they're being unreasonable.

That's when someone else will come in and say "Reservation is not a poverty alleviation measure, it is about representation"

That particular argument has a lot going on in it, which I'll try to unpack here.


Is merit a result of privilege?

This is complicated by two things - we don't know how to objectively define merit, and we don't know how to objectively measure privileges.

What is merit? Is merit the ability to score very high marks in an exam with multiple choice questions? Is merit the ability to use language very fluently? Is merit the ability to impress an interviewer? Is merit the ability to get a job done in real world? Merit could be defined as any of these. Who should define this? That's a tough question.

What about privilege? Is privilege one's economic status? Is privilege one's social capital? Gender? Caste? Ability? Skin-tone? Body shape? Which of the countless things that gives a person an advantage in the society should be counted towards one's total privilege? And how should their influence be added up? Which ones should be given more weight and which ones less? This is probably the subject of what is called Oppression Olympics.

Both of these questions can be answered definitively in very subjective ways. But, it is next to impossible to arrive at a public consensus on such answers. Nevertheless, the discussions around these are very educational and thought-provoking. And discussions can happen even if consensus cannot be reached.


What's the importance of the statement "Reservation is not a poverty alleviation measure, it is about representation"?

It shifts the perspective from the subjective field of defining merit and measuring privilege into the objective field of representative democracy and distributive justice.

Not that that comes without questions. The questions shift to "What is democracy?", "What is justice?"

What is democracy? The naive answer to this is that democracy is rule of the majority. But that's not democracy. That's an elective monarchy - where the majority elects a monarch and the monarch rules over the subjects in an authoritarian fashion. Democracies stand in contrast to such monarchies. Democracies are founded on values - equality, justice, liberty, fraternity, etc. That there are elections in democracies is just a side effect of these founding principles.

That's where the value "justice" comes in. What is justice? Justice is possibly a subjective matter as well. But it can be (circularly) defined as "fairness". What is fairness? It is easy to jump from here to the earlier point and say "Someone who has struggled should be rewarded - is fairness". But that's a very individualistic view of fairness. The questions around reservation are not about individuals. It is about the democracy. For a democracy to be fair, it has to distribute power and resources among its citizens in a way that is "fair". And at the level of the nation, that involves distributing power to socially marginalized sections of the society. That is justice.


See how switching from the discussion on individual privileges to that of democratic justice gives lesser loopholes for people to endlessly argue on?

In that perspective, when you look at merit, you don't see merit as privilege. You don't say that "What we call merit is just accumulated privilege." Instead, you see it as entitlement. You say "What entitles you to claim that your "merit" should be considered above the values of our democracy?"

That, arguably, is a stronger way to make the case for justice.

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Saturday, August 14, 2021

Why Would Conservatives Change when Liberals Don't?

In the debates around "merit", the conservatives have a very straightforward view - "hierarchy is natural, one should only care about oneself and getting ahead in one's life". The liberals, on the other hand, are the confused bunch. They have a hatred for hierarchy, but they live and breathe hierarchy too. They hate that people get ahead of others without caring for others, but they are compelled to do the same too.

And conservatives are quick to spot this. They will ask the liberal who talks about equity - "Why do you hold on to your privileges and ask others to give up theirs?"

I think they have a point. Why do liberals hold on to their privileges and ask others to give up theirs?

In x + y, Eugenia Cheng talks about how the world is set up for competition. That the world rewards those who do not care about others and in turn those who don't care for others "succeed". And Eugenia Cheng also urges us to look for solutions all around us, to try and convert competitions into collaborations.

But how many liberals are actually able to do that?

Aren't liberals using their accumulated privileges to accumulate more privileges?

Aren't liberals continuing in power hierarchies without destroying the hierarchy?

Aren't liberals legitimizing the very structures they hold responsible for the problems?

Aren't liberals trying to get ahead of others? Aren't they competing? Aren't they reinforcing the very notions of merit that they oppose?

If liberals don't change how they live their life, why would conservatives do?

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Friday, August 6, 2021

The Academic Publication Industry is Modern Day Feudalism

Even if the cost of journals were low and affordable, open access to scientific knowledge is the ethically correct and practically useful position for humankind.

Internet has made publishing costs near zero.

Why do journals still continue to exist? And why are they so expensive to society?

A common defense of journals is that "peer review" is important to ensure scientific integrity. We know from Retraction Watch and Pubpeer that peer review is not perfect. We also know how peer review can reinforce social inequities

We have an alternate model too - post-publication peer review. After all, what is peer review if not the entire world reviewing an article and weighing it for its pros and cons? Can reviewer 1 and reviewer 2 do better than that?

In the editorial ‘Open’ relationships: reflections on the role of the journal in the contemporary scholarly publishing landscape the authors state that there are a few more reasons why journals exist:

"One could optimistically assert that a journal can be multiple: both a brand, with a value indicated by the impact factor and the level of income it can generate for a corporate publisher on the one hand, and on the other, the home of a community of scholars with a history and (we hope) a future of pushing the frontiers of scholarship in public health."

It goes without saying that there is a conflict of interest here because it is an editorial. And therefore let us critically examine the reasons the editors propose to justify their own existence.

Are journals a brand with a value indicated by impact factor and income? Absolutely. Yes. Journals are blogs. But they are decades old. Sure, in "blogs", peer review is rare. But platforms like, and do allow private publication that can be reviewed by others. If peer review is a genuine need for which authors publish in journals, there are countless ways to achieve that through the internet using blogs, etc (combining with post-publication peer review as described earlier).

Peer review is just a facade. It is the "impact factor" and the "brand" that authors use journals for.

The reason why we should end the meritocracy of impact factor is the subject of a recent editorial (irony intended): The merit privilege: examining dubious claims of merit in public health and public policy

Now, let us come to the only remaining argument for journals. 

Are journals a community of scholars with a history, who push the frontiers of scholarship?

First I'll make the assertion that the editorial doesn't include any citations on this claim. They use their belief and self-selected appreciation from readers to base this claim on. But I will take their word for it. Let us assume that people do appreciate this specific journal. But the editorial starts with the question "What are academic journals for?" We cannot generalize the experience of the editorial team of one journal to all academic journals. Therefore let us examine this claim more objectively.

First, we will examine whether it is reasonable for a community of scholars who share a history to work together.

We do know that human beings are very social. Shared history gives a shared sense of purpose and shared sense of identity. But it can also come with disadvantages. Identity as a group has the tendency to create conflicts with people outside the group. There is also chance for nepotism and favoritism. While scrutiny and skepticism is good for academic rigor, nepotism and favoritism are not good. So, shared history can be advantageous and problematic.

The next question is whether frontiers of scholarship is pushed by communities. Communities reinforce the beliefs of each other and help people go to extremes. And it is at the extremes that scholarship needs to be pushed. But communities can also reinforce falsehoods and false methodologies. We know in psychological experiments that humans tend to conform rather than stand out. Communities could cause this effect too. It can make people take less risks for the fear of being ousted from communities. Again, pushing frontier through communities has disadvantages and advantages.

Now let us come to the most important question. Are journals communities?

My answer is that they aren't.

Wikipedia says that a community "is a social unit (a group of living things) with commonality such as norms, religion, values, customs, or identity."

What is the commonality among groups around journals?

One might be tempted to say that the group has a common vision - the vision that the journal articulates.

But in my experience, most journals have a broad vision that makes them non-unique.

For example, let us take the journal from which the editorial is quoted:

Critical Public Health (CPH) is an international peer reviewed journal publishing critically engaged research in public health, health promotion and related fields.

Critical Public Health provides a dedicated forum for innovative analyses of theory and practice and to explore new ways of thinking about public health, bringing together international scholarship from social scientists and health researchers.

The journal explores issues of equity, power, social justice and oppression in health and covers contemporary empirical and theoretical work from a wide range of disciplines including anthropology, sociology, politics, cultural studies, health studies, medicine, psychology and nursing.

Now, this is a broad vision that I subjectively think most journals in public health will have. So I went to google and search "public health journal" and came up with the aims & scopes of some other journals.

Here are some.

European Journal of Public Health

The European Journal of Public Health is a multidisciplinary journal in the field of public health, publishing contributions from social medicine, epidemiology, health services research, management, ethics and law, health economics, social sciences, and environmental health.

The journal provides a forum for discussion and debate of current international public health issues with a focus on the European region
Global Public Health

 Global Public Health is an international journal that publishes research on public health including the social and cultural aspects of global health issues.

Global Public Health addresses public health issues that come to the fore in the global environment, such as epidemics of newly emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases, the globalization of trade and the increase in chronic illnesses.

The journal is characterized by a global and multidisciplinary focus, its emphasis on significant global health issues and its concern to understand resource-poor and resource-rich countries including the public health challenges they face as part of a single, interacting and global system.
Journal of Community Health

The Journal of Community Health, a peer-reviewed publication, offers original articles on the practice, teaching, and research of community health. Coverage includes preventive medicine, new forms of health manpower, analysis of environmental factors, delivery of health care services, and the study of health maintenance and health insurance programs. Serving as a forum for the exchange of ideas and clarification, the journal features articles on projects that make a significant impact on the education of health personnel.
BMC Public Health

BMC Public Health is an open access, peer-reviewed journal that considers articles on the epidemiology of disease and the understanding of all aspects of public health. The journal has a special focus on the social determinants of health, the environmental, behavioral, and occupational correlates of health and disease, and the impact of health policies, practices and interventions on the community. BMC Public Health does not publish clinical research: this should be submitted to the relevant BMC Series medical journal.
Of course you wouldn't find an article about public health in the Nature journal or a paper about cellular pathways in a public health journal. But within each broad field of "public health", "life science", "medicine" there are many journals with similar aims & scope. So, I do not think the aims & scope of a journal are unique to a journal.

Nevertheless, as the editorial claims, it might be possible to build a shared history around a particular journal's aims & scopes.

In fact, I know a few such journals. The Indian Journal of Medical Ethics, for example has a very vibrant community with people who have a shared history in the public health movement of India. But here is a very important thing about IJME:

 As a policy, since its inception, the IJME has never charged authors for publication of their writings, and all material available on the website of the journal is free and offers open access to all
How is IJME possible to publish all articles as open access through just donations? My answer is that they have a real community behind them.

In essence, it is indeed possible to build a community with shared history through a journal - through a democratic spirit of openness and accessibility.

But is this generalizable across all academic journals? My hunch is that it is not. My hunch is that most academic journals have a group of editors who care for the chance to build a community like that, but cannot do so by design.

If journals could truly form communities, they wouldn't struggle with the problem of underrepresentation.

If journals could truly form communities, they wouldn't have to make meritocratic excuses like "the underrepresented are underrepresented because they do not have the privilege to volunteer time or because they do not fulfill the prerequisite of a broad network"

Journals are part of a feudalistic system. One where the title of the journal is owned by a publisher (the feudal lord), who give powers to a set of editors (vassals) in return of profit (fief), and the authors have no choice other than writing articles in these journals (serfs). The only difference, one might say, is that serfs in the academic publication industry have the mobility to change journals. But wherever they go, they are serfs indeed.

If this is true, this also gives us a way out of this feudalistic system. Here's a paragraph from a law library article:

Predictably, the relationship between lord and vassal became a struggle for a reduction in the services required by the fief. Lords, as vassals of the king, joined their own vassals in revolt against the high cost of the feudal arrangement. In England, this struggle culminated in the MAGNA CHARTA, a constitutional document sealed by King John (1199–1216) in 1215 that signaled the beginning of the end for feudalism. The Magna Charta, forced on King John by his lords, contained 38 chapters outlining demands for liberty from the Crown, including limitations on the rights of the Crown over land.

As seen in the CPH editorial, there is already tension between publishers and editorials. Publishers are also in a strained relationship with the King (through initiatives like Plan-S). The logical conclusion is that within a few years, there will be a revolution where the right to own knowledge will be taken away from the academic industry and be given back to the producers of knowledge themselves.

Until then, the current generation of journals will try to justify their existence.

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Thursday, August 5, 2021

The Difference Between a Politician and an Academic in Politics

If academics and politics seem like separate fields to you, that's because your definition of academics has been corrupted by the academicians you have seen and their self-centredness.

Academicians can be of two types. The ones who "care only about science (or "truth")". The ones who care about society in addition to science.

Those who "care only about science" also care for something besides science. They care for themselves. They care for their own intellectual satisfactions or humane curiosities.

So, academicians can be of two types. Those who care only about themselves, and those who care about society too. (Of course, it is a fluid spectrum. At any point one can care x% about themselves and y% about the society. I'm using a strict binary for convenience.)

The academicians who care predominantly about society automatically engage in politics. Because that's the only way to change the society. Like I wrote about earlier, politics isn't just party politics. Politics also includes advocacy, activism. Academicians, by asking the right questions and "generating evidence", influence policy making and politics. They can give legitimacy to certain questions that go unasked. They can strengthen or weaken anyone's politics.

So what's the difference between a politician and an academic in politics?

Their willingness to lie.

An academic who is willing to lie for their politics is a politician. No matter how much they are in politics, an academic who will not lie for their politics is still an academic.

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Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Anger is a Valid Emotion; Conflicts Bring Real Peace

I have seen "triggered" being used as an insult at social justice activists when they become angry. People hold anger itself as an invalid or incorrect emotional state to be in. That is not very smart.

Anger is a perfectly valid emotion. Anger is a reaction to a provocation, hurt, or threat. Anger is a form of expression. It means that one has been triggered. 

The problem is not anger. The problem is the original violence.

The violence that triggers someone is the one that needs to be corrected. Not the anger that follows.

This is where conflict becomes important. Conflict is a situation where two parties who have two versions of "truth" negotiate and try to arrive at a common version of "truth".

Whether a conflict gets resolved quickly or not depends on both sides wanting to and being able to find a common ground.

Emotions like anger are commonplace in conflicts. And that makes people averse to conflicts. More than the outcome, they are scared of the emotions.

It might be evolutionary. Anger could have been a sign of imminent danger in the past.

But, we are not monkeys anymore. We are humans.

Being scared of anger is not necessary anymore. On the other hand, expressing it and getting into conflicts are very much necessary.

Because only through conflict can there be a negotiation. Only conflict can change someone's "truth". And only when that happens will there be real peace.

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Monday, July 19, 2021

x + y by Eugenia Cheng - a Roadmap to Collaboration Between Social Justice Movements

Spoiler alert: I discuss the central theme of the book x + y by Eugenia Cheng in this post. In the book, this theme isn't revealed till the middle. In the first chapters, the author explains the context from which the book is written so as to eliminate bias from those who believe in social justice and those who oppose it. If you are a person who makes quick conclusions, you are better off skipping this post and directly reading the book.



It sometimes happens that feminists are accused of casteism, anti-caste activists are accused of sexism, etc. How can that be? Can someone who understands the oppressive ways in which patriarchy works not understand the same oppression in caste system? Or vice versa?

What is the lowest common denominator of various schemes of oppression?

Why do scientists lie? How can we replace competition with collaboration?

Why does capitalism seem to be the "natural" state of society?

Why are hierarchies so hard to get rid of? And how to get rid of them?

These are some of the questions that are answered in x + y: A Mathematician's Manifesto for Rethinking Gender by Eugenia Cheng.

Imagine a bus stop where 100 people are waiting for a bus with 50 empty seats. What happens when the bus comes to the stop? In some places you see almost all of the people rushing towards the bus door in a tiny stampede with some folks staying back for the rush to settle down. 50 among those who rush do get a seat. All of the folks who stay back get no seat. If you don't rush, you don't get a seat.

At this point, the debate can be about whether it is ethical to rush or not. There can be nuanced statements made about who should be given priority in seat. Whether the physically stronger should be made to wait while those who are vulnerable gets a seat. Whether those who have been waiting the longest should get the seats first. Whether those who have the most urgent things to attend to should get the seats. And so on. These are all valid ways to analyze this situation.

But one can also discuss the reasons why there are only 50 seats. The reasons that force people to rush. And the possibilities of changing the system altogether such that there are no advantages to being selfish. Such that people can stop worrying about individuals and start thinking about everyone.

That's the central theme of Eugenia Cheng's book. The individual centered (selfish) character traits are called "ingressive" characters and the society centered character traits are called "congressive" traits. And Eugenia Cheng is eager to ensure that readers look at this as a different dimension of looking at the problem and not as a way to replace the existing dialogues.

Eugenia Cheng thereby introduces two very valuable words to discuss problems in the society. These words are not connected to the background from which people come. Gender/race/caste doesn't directly lead to ingressive traits or congressive traits. There are indirect correlations. But the point of the book is to avoid looking at the correlations and start looking at the traits in each individual in an intersectional way. x + y is a classic in intersectional thinking.

More importantly, x + y is an extremely practical guide on what to do about the deeper problems. Awareness of the problem doesn't equate to solving the problem. x + y introduces a framework of thinking through which we can systematically destroy the oppressive notions ingrained in our societies. It is a tool of liberation for all victims of the system, irrespective of their privileges. It is an effective way of changing the "system".

It is a must-read for everyone who cares about social justice movements and equity.

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