Sunday, September 18, 2022

Intersectionality, Queering Science, Lived Experience, and Rationality

Plenty gets written about intersectionality. I have a feeling that my repeated use of the word might be giving some of my readers nausea by now. Yet I feel like there's plenty that's not written about intersectionality. Questions like the following: What's the relationship between intersectionality and science? How does intersectionality validate lived experience? And what's the role of rationality in an intersectional world?

Queering science

Firstly, if you have not heard Sayantan Datta speak about this topic, you should first do so. YouTube search for "queering science sayantan". Watch 4-5 topics Sayantan has already delivered on this topic.

There's an (unsettled?) debate in cognitive science about whether human beings can think without language. Can we think about things if we don't have words for it? If I didn't know the word "chair" in any language, would I be able to think about chair?

There probably are several instances in our lives where we had a concept that we had in our mind and on a random day we find a term for what it is called. The name for that concept. Let's take the word "intersectionality" itself. One can see the concept addressed in Ambedkar's pre-dated work on caste. But perhaps Ambedkar would have felt like "ah, that's what I am talking about" when/if Ambedkar came across the word intersectionality. One might argue that these are instances of us thinking without words.

Yet, we can also probably argue that words help us think clearer. Having a word for a concept makes it possible to refer to that concept more frequently. It allows us to give that concept its own dedicated space and examine its *cough* intersection with other concepts. When we have a word for something, we are able to think about that concept more concretely than when it was an amorphous, ambiguous, vague undertone to our thoughts. Perhaps if Ambedkar had a word like "intersectionality", Ambedkar could have written a couple of volumes about it.

A closely related concept is "reification". I don't fully understand it. So I'll rely on others' definition of it. "Reification is when you think of or treat something abstract as a physical thing." Now in Marxist terms there is probably a different meaning also for reification. But in the book "The Social Science Jargon-Buster" Zina O'Leary gives this example: 

Consider the following statement: ‘Mother Nature cares about all her creatures.’ Here we’re reifying Mother Nature by treating an idea as a real
thing... with a name (note the capitalization), a gender (her), a relationship
(mother) and a human characteristic (caring). The same is true when we say
something like, ‘Religion tries to repress sexuality’.
In some sense, coining a word for a concept similarly reifies it, gives it a certain concreteness. And that concreteness which words provide is the way in which human beings communicate with each other things that are far more complex than what other animals can communicate.

Footnote/aside: This also makes words very powerful. Words, especially the ones we coin from existing words, can have strong associations. Which is why many opposing movements coin different terms for the "same" concept. Aside on aside: If you haven't read this elaborate, gripping article called "Hiding Behind Language" by Vijeta Kumar, you should.

Words also categorize things. By giving something a label, you're creating a box. There are some things which will fit inside that box and some which are not allowed inside. These categories are often very helpful for human beings because it allows them to think through things. Is this "kind", "cruel", or "neutral"? Is this "lavish", "minimal", or "thrifty"? Is this "love", "hate", or "indifference"?

And such categories form the basis of most of science too. The whole of biology is one big categorization exercise. Kingdom, phylum, genus, species, blah blah blah blah. Chemistry has the periodic table and element groups. Even sociology divides people into cultures and groups and classes and so on. Categories make it easier to observe things and make useful predictions about the world. Categories are abstractions that allow humanity to function.

But categories (and classification of entities into categories) have as much limitations as powers. Categories tend to be binary. Rigid and "all or none". And categories tend to create a pressure of conformity. To see everything through the lens of those categories. To label things that don't fit as "exceptions".

Binary is not intersectional. Binary is reductionist. Binary tends to erase differences and falsify conclusions. Binary forces us to see a lesser truth where reality could be far more grander and complicated.

That's why science needs to be queered. To queer is to question categories. To queer is to mix and match. To queer is to think intersectional. To queer is to see truth as it is without being colored by labels and labelled expectations.

Science is indeed picking up intersectionality here and there. Not necessarily expensive stuff like individualized medicine or precision medicine. It is also simple things like viewing sex as a spectrum.

The book x + y by Eugenia Cheng is a brilliant exposition of the role of mathematics (category theory specifically) in all of this. That book connects society, science, and intersectionality all together in a way that truly forms a manifesto of our work forwards.

Intersectionality and the lived experience

If intersectionality doesn't do so well with categories, what does intersectionality rely on to draw inferences and make decisions about human life and society? When you apply an intersectional lens, what do you look at?

Lived experience is one of the main things that you look at. Lived experience is the sum of all realities that pertain to one individual or entity. With an intersectional lens, one doesn't try to categorize and draw causal inferences. One doesn't jump to reductionist conclusions like, "Ha, this person is so because of their childhood trauma", "Ha, this person is poor and that's why they're unable to attain healthiness".

Instead an intersectional approach forces one to think about how different life experiences have contributed to a particular situation in a particular individual (or anything) in that particular point in time with respect to their surroundings. It is a complicated causal web that intersectionality is interested in.

Footnote/Aside: Realist evaluation is one of the few "scientific" methods that I see closely related to all of this. (Coincidentally, there's a realist evaluation workshop being hosted by IPH, Bengaluru this month).

Rationality

How does rationality fit into all of these? Does rationality become unnecessary when intersectionality enters the scene? Does it become obsolete? Is rationality a thing of the "categorical" sciences? Is there any utility for rationality in the intersectional scene?

Before we answer any of this, there's one important article about reasoning that I would like my readers to read, if they haven't. It is called the "Unraveling the Enigma of Reason", written by Scott Young. It tells us - similar to Thinking, Fast and Slow - how our brain makes decisions and then justifies them with a reason rather than the other way round. It is something that truly underlies all of what I'm saying.

The brain is the ultimate intersectional equipment. It computes millions of lived experiences and inferences (which get encoded as biases) every moment when we're interacting with the world - to come up with decisions. On what to wear, what to eat, how to respond to traffic, and what to do in the presence of someone who looks a bit different from the people who the brain is used to seeing.

A lot of that power is unused in routine situations though. We tend to drift to extremes. Binary thinking is easier for us. All or nothing. And we slip into such patterns. 

We can avoid such binary stereotypes and biases by being actively aware of our biases and stereotypes. When we're constantly reflecting on our actions and evaluating the reasons for our behaviour, we tend to see the patterns that we're used to. And once we see the patterns, our brain autocorrects some of those. And then we see some new patterns. And then we autocorrect some more (sometimes in the opposite direction). And so on.

When we start thinking at extreme levels of intersectionality, life becomes unlivable too. If we need decisions, choices to be made; we will need a way to discard irrelevant lines of thought, prioritize one thing over the other based on arbitrary and normative moral principles, and arrive at some actionable path forward.

And that's where rationality comes in. Rationality is what demystifies things and allows us to focus on what's important. Rationality is a tool to connect the infinite possibilities of intersectionality with the pragmatic needs of the real world.

Rationality is what allows you to call a spade, a spade. To call out bullshit. To cut the crap. And to focus on praxis. On stuff that matters.


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Saturday, August 6, 2022

Love is Enough

"You need power only when you want to do something harmful. Otherwise love is enough to get everything done." ~Charlie Chaplin

Judah (JP) sent me that quote in response to a question that I had posed JP. The question was something like this: "You need power to do things and attain change. But power is the root cause of all the wrong that you're trying to change. How do we reconcile between these?"

In hindsight, it is the conceptualization of power that was the problem. I was thinking about hard power earlier. It is perhaps enough to have soft power. Power to "shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction".

Love is an excellent framework. There are many contradictions that the power framework gives rise to. Love makes those contradictions disappear.

Take redistribution of power, for example. When we try to gain power, we have to grab power from someone else. Sharing power weakens power. Yet if our aim is to redistribute power for a more equal society, we can't keep on grabbing power forever. When do we start redistributing power? That's a contradiction which the power framework cannot solve.

Another issue is that of collaboration. The power framework forces you to think of others as your competitors. Every meeting becomes a negotiation. The stress of holding on to power forces one to sabotage collaborations. Only equal powers can collaborate without fear.

A third contradiction is with respect to "the means to an end". Using power to change the world feels like using an illegitimate force to pressurize the world into change. It doesn't feel like the change will sustain.

And what are the practical ways to gain power in today's world? It seems to me like the path to power is riddled with compromises far greater than an altruistic pragmatist would be willing to make.

In all, power is riddled with contradictions. And love makes them disappear.

Sharing is built into love. Love doesn't shrink when shared. There's enough to give everyone love.

Collaboration is how love operates. Love encourages sincere engagement. Love assumes good faith.

Love is a lovely means to a lovely end. Love does not feel illegitimate.

When you operate through love, you can remain rooted in your principles. There is no compromise required because you have nothing to gain by making compromises. You love your enemies just as you love your friends. And you stand by your values while you explain to them with love why they should embrace those values.


There are several advantages that the love framework has.

It is low on emotional overhead. Because you respond to hate with love, you turn anger into love, you tackle resistance with love, you push inertia with love, you find energy in love. Everything becomes love. Simple. Of course, all the other emotions are valid too. That's where self-love comes in :D

It sets up opportunities for engagement. Because you don't have enemies anymore, the number of people you can work with becomes very very high and the number of things you can do becomes uncountable. (Of course, that's what I wrote in "giving up ideological purism" too. Seems like love is a framework to regain the certainty of ideological purity).

When it comes to changing individuals, love has a pretty disarming charm. Love makes calculations easier in making complex decisions. It is overall more productive.

There could be disadvantages too. I'll probably come across them when I've explored this path more. I'll write about those then.


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Sunday, May 8, 2022

The First Feminist in My Life

As usual on mothers' day, my WhatsApp is filled with images that romanticize the systemic oppression of people who become mothers. Photos of mothers who are at work with children, of "caring", "loving", and "sacrificing" mothers, of mothers carrying children on their back (including photos from animal kingdom), and so on.

While I find it fair to thank those people for such forced "selfless service", I find it arrogant and violent to continue stereotyping and socially enforcing such gendered and oppressive practices.

I often think of the privileges I must have had to enable me to see systemic oppression as it is. And one of the greatest privileges I've had is to have a feminist mother.

I've never heard the word "feminism" from my mother. And that's probably why it took me forever to realize she is a feminist. Fortunately for me though, the lessons of feminism did come through all my childhood albeit without the label.

To begin with, my mother is a teacher. And she puts work at par with, if not higher than, family. She has a very clear idea of her role as a teacher and very meticulously carries it out. She has withstood social pressure to ignore her profession or to ignore becoming better at it.

The way she deals with my father is more illustrative of her feminism. She never backs down in an argument. And there are plenty of arguments that she has with dad. When I was younger, I didn't really understand who was right in those arguments. And because I was closer to dad, he would often convince me that he was right. But today I realize that my mom was right and continues to be so in many of the arguments that she has with the dad and with society. She still speaks up, unweathered.

She has always demanded better and just treatment from others. Because she sees the injustices that are being meted out to her. But more importantly, she never waits for anyone to treat her better. She is independent and continues her own life with not much regard to all that. She does not let people develop a savior complex.

There are far too many details in my childhood. But to summarize, there are many privileges of being male in a patriarchal society and my mother "exposed" many of them to me all throughout my childhood. 

That's why I call my mother the first feminist in my life. And I've got to thank her for that every day.


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Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Finding Direction When Being Pragmatic

You remember how I embraced pragmatism and started chasing power? There was one problem. When you start chasing power with the idea of wielding it for social justice, when and where do you stop chasing power and start wielding it?

Take Praveen's comment for example

Screenshot of text chat. Pirate ‍ Praveen (he/him) quotes asd's message "Context: https://blog.learnlearn.in/2021/09/power-is-useful.html" and comments "Though this is a slippery slope and one which usually results in concentration of power eventually in most cases, there are exceptions though. When you start making compromises, where do you draw the line? That is not easy." asd: "Hmm. I know that is a valid criticism."  Pirate ‍ Praveen (he/him): "Usually the short term power and sustaining becomes the primary goal and everyone forgets the initial goals. Look at any political parties." 

One possible answer can be that you start wielding power while you start chasing power - and you chase less and wield more as you go forward.

Graph that shows on y axis time, x axis "amount of effort in". As time goes forward "chasing power pragmatically" decreases and "using power to reach ideals" increases.

But going by this, today I should spend lesser effort in chasing power than I spent yesterday. And tomorrow, even lesser than today. That doesn't quite fit with the idea of chasing power first. Perhaps there is a threshold of power which I should reach before I start using power. Perhaps the graph is more like:

Similar graph as above. X axis is time. Y axis is amount of effort spent. Towards the beginning on the X-axis of time, the Y axis is completely occupied by chasing power pragmatically for a while. At one point using power to reach ideals starts and then correspondingly chasing power decreases.

Perhaps that threshold is what is called "the line". The line that determines when you stop (or decrease effort in) chasing power and start using that power to reach ideals. Drawing the line becomes important once again.

Let us then try drawing that line.

How much power is enough power? Is a PhD enough academic power? Is a 20 person company that operates in profit enough entrepreneurial power?

Read my poem (?) about career advice. Any goal you accomplish will be dwarfed by a bigger goal. No matter how much power you gain, there will be someone more powerful than you.

Which means that there is no clear way to draw the line on when to stop chasing power.

But there maybe an alternative that requires us to not draw a line. One in which we can chase power and use power simultaneously with the same effort. That alternative requires us to reconcile pragmatism and idealism. 

You find a hack to chase power through your ideals.

That is extremely slow though. Slow and excruciatingly boring.

Which is why it has to be extremely personal. You have to be very selfish in what you are doing and craft the journey to your likes and desires. Only that can sustain the boredom of that chase.

(It was Varsha who told me first about entrepreneurship being a very personal journey. This maps on to that. Life is a very personal journey.)

That also solves a long-running question in my mind. How do you find what direction to go in when you are being pragmatic? What's the principle with which you make pragmatic decisions?

The answer is to listen to yourself. To do what feels the most right to you. I know that sounds like profound bullshit (something that internet gurus would say). But it is based on neuroscience and philosophy of knowledge.

The brain is a rather complicated organ. We can process many more signals than we are conscious about. Even when we think we make decisions rationally, we make decisions based on very many things that we haven't consciously considered. Read Scott Young's Unraveling the Enigma of Reason to read more about how our reasons are always post-facto rationalizations.

And this is tied in the external world to intersectionality. There is no decision on earth that lies on a single dimension. Everything affects everything else and nothing is clear-cut.

And thankfully these are complementary. It is only a decision making machine vastly complicated like our brain that can consider all the thousand factors that intersect on a decision in the human world. (I express similar thoughts in the earlier post on living with opposition)

It also means it is difficult to rationalize some of these decisions and generalize them into principles. Pragmatism is the acceptance of this fundamental difficulty and the decision to live within that framework of uncertainty.

Of course, one has to be widely reading and learning to offset the risks of trusting an uninformed brain. One must be open to unlearning and relearning, criticisms, etc as well. These are the things that will protect the pragmatic person from going in the wrong directions.

tl;dr? Trust your gut.


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Sunday, November 21, 2021

Why I am Back on WhatsApp

Long time readers of this blog knows that I have a very strained relationship with WhatsApp. When I deleted my WhatsApp account a couple of years ago, I was at a place where personal productivity was the most important to me. For example, I wrote this:

Thirdly, and most importantly, people are unable to work on hard problems with their mind into it because that requires focus and peaceful mind. I have a very big hunch that this is the biggest reason why economies world over are failing - because people simply aren't productive any more.

I am in a very different space now. Embracing pragmatism has come to mean more important than sticking to ideals. And gathering useful power is also a priority. All of this helps in bringing action to words.

In that context, in the space of primary healthcare, WhatsApp is a very useful communication tool.

It allows me to collaborate with a very diverse group of people. It allows quick and effective communication especially in socially tricky situations. Just today I could effectively use WhatsApp to organize two meetings. The most important feature, perhaps, is the ability to forward messages quickly.

In all, I still value productivity. But productivity, now, for me is not just about me, but about the teams that I lead or am part of. Like in the case of shaving beard, WhatsApp has become important to me now.

And that's why I am back on WhatsApp.


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Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Asking For Help

Many days ago, in a discussion with some of my colleagues, I realized two things. I trust less on others (compared to how much I trust on me - even in things I have no clue about) and I rarely ask for help. It probably is also true that the latter is because of the former.

I had made a resolution that I would start asking people for help thereby building trust in the process of trusting others.

Life sent me a reminder in the form of a tweet.

I had to do something. I did make a start this week.

Okay, maybe it doesn't really count as "asking for help" because I've still framed it in a way where I am in control. Nevertheless, I believe it is a good start.

I got four people responding to that. I got on a phone call with three of them. One of them helped me finish a project that was pending for 9 months and I could also connect them to two other opportunities. Another person has very many shared interests and we're looking at several academic collaborations.

One of the myths I had in my mind was that I am selfless and everyone else is selfish. That people won't respond to my call for help - unless I can give them something of great monetary value.

There are many things wrong with those thoughts. One, people are inclined to help rather than reject requests for help. It's in human nature to help others in need. Two, many people find many things other than money valuable.

Note to self: I should give the world a chance before judging the world.

Considering I know very little about the subject of using help to advance causes, I decided to get a bit more scientific about this. I did a YouTube search for "entrepreneurship". The second video was this wonderful talk by a person named Ankur Warikoo.

 

The 3 rules of life Warikoo mentions are:

  1. Spend time with people who are nothing like you
  2. Don't feel entitled at any moment of your life
  3. Don't get comfortable

I understand all 3 of them. I think I'm good at #2. I'm trying to make a difference in #1. I suck at #3.

And that's where "asking for help" comes in.

Asking for help is uncomfortable for me at the moment. It helps me break out of comfort zone, and it also increases my chances of finding new people with different stories and experience ("diversity" as RK Prasad puts it).

I went ahead and started listening to Warikoo's podcast. He puts immense stress on "cold emails". Connecting to people and asking for help is very powerful indeed, even if the person whom you're asking help from does not know you. In one of the episodes titled "How May I Help You" he talks about how information, advice, and help are three different things. I highly recommend you listen to that episode.

It is a similar aspect of asking for help that Derek Sivers pointed out which makes it such a powerful instrument. When you ask for help, you are forced to think clearly. You put an effort into finding what exactly it is that you need. Sometimes, all you need is information and you're able to find it on your own. At other times, the act of asking for help advances your thinking to a large extent. And often, you end up receiving help which is useful on its own too. 

Help will always be given at Hogwarts on this planet to those who ask for it.

PS: I track the project opportunities that people can engage with in the opportunities gitlab repository. If you feel particularly kind, feel free to check out some of those ideas and offer help. (I know, this doesn't count as asking for help)


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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Be Irreplaceable Workers And Replaceable Leaders

A good worker is someone who produces so much value that they become irreplaceable.

 

As Cal Newport writes in the book "So Good They Can't Ignore You" knowledge workers who have the most satisfying careers don't just "follow their passion". Instead, they build rare and valuable skills that they leverage to negotiate better career positions.

If you want a satisfying career, become so good at what you do that they cannot ignore you and they cannot replace you. Become irreplaceable.

But when you are a leader, you need to think differently. Leaders do whatever it takes to achieve their vision and make an impact. And one of the things that they have to necessarily do is to make more leaders and make themselves replaceable. If a movement has a single leader - a single point of failure, a bus factor of 1 - that movement is poised to fail when that leader falls. And like all humans, leaders fall.

Good leaders don't wait for their own end to think about replacing themselves. Good leaders think about replacing themselves from day 1. Because that's the most sustainable way forward. That's the way things scale out of control.

If you want a successful movement, become replaceable and replace yourself as soon as you can.

PS: I've deliberately not talked about the intersection between leaders and workers. I believe good leaders have to necessarily be good workers. That's an implementation detail I will cover in a future blog post.


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