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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Thursday, July 15, 2021

Hatred Based on Stereotypes Weaken Social Justice Movements

This post talks about stereotypes, emotions, justice, etc from the point of view of a savarna, cis-het male who lives in a metropolitan city. Like the post claims, nobody can eliminate stereotype/bias from their worldview and therefore this post includes some stereotypes/biases too.

Trigger warning: Detached discussion of emotions that makes it sound like I'm judging the emotions.


Let's assume a few things as truth.

One: Individuals cannot completely avoid stereotypes/biases. The human brain is a pattern recognition machine. It thinks through mental models of the world. It thinks through patterns. It thinks through stereotypes. The best an individual can do is to have a fairly nuanced and complicated outlook.

Two: There is a strong component of stereotypes in various kinds of oppression that we see in the society. Stereotypes are reinforced by other cognitive biases and logical fallacies. Human beings are susceptible to all these things. They use anecdotal evidence to "refute" comprehensive statistics. They think through emotions.



I make three arguments in this post.

One: Hatred is sometimes/often used in social justice movements.

Two: Stereotypes and hatred are connected.
Three: Stereotypes that strengthen hatred makes the politics of social justice movements weaker.

In this post, I do not make a judgement on whether the hatred is justified or not (It is almost always justified). I also do not talk about whether hatred is used in oppression (Oppression thrives on hatred).

What I do talk about is how some of the hatred in social justice movements arises from stereotypes and how avoiding this component of stereotype/hatred maybe beneficial to social justice movements.


Hatred in social justice movements

This might be amplified by twitter, but the specific emotions of disgust and hatred is sometimes/often seen used by activists who engage in social justice movements.

It can manifest as angry rants, snap judgement, judgemental comments, monologues, etc.

Activists might be using hatred intentionally as a tool to evoke response/engagement. They might also be using it unintentionally as a result of being psychologically triggered. This can be due to stress, burn-out, and other discomforts. This can be due to the burden of lived experience and/or trauma. But I argue that stereotypes also contribute to this emotion.


Contribution of stereotypes to hatred

Like I posited, stereotypes are unavoidably human. Activists in social justice movements also accumulate stereotypes and biases.
The logical fallacy of false dichotomy also maybe involved. Some activists start seeing people as "either for our cause, or against our cause".

This can contribute to hatred.


When hatred is based majorly on stereotype, the politics is weakened

Hatred based majorly on stereotype is harder to justify than hatred not based majorly on stereotype.

If hatred is based on stereotype, it also opens the opportunity for political opponents to call it as hypocrisy.

Such hatred can evoke reactive emotions from others and cause weakening of the political cause.


Arguments against my arguments

One: This is tone policing.
This is about tone. But I don't intend to make a blanket judgement about whether hatred is justified or not. I am suggesting a sharper use of hatred such that hatred does not become counter-productive.

Two: This ignores the hatred spewed by the opponents.

Yes, my target audience is social justice activists who are already aware of the context of how debates happen in social media, etc.

Three: It is easy for the privileged to say these.

Yes. I acknowledge my privileges in saying these. It is a suggestion for people who have the privilege to consider this.

Four: Read up "righteous indignation"

I have. I am on your side. I'm talking to you about strengthening your own politics. I'm not saying don't use hatred. I'm talking only about a specific instance of hatred that is based on stereotypes. And I'm not saying I'm right. I'm saying, perhaps this can be considered.
Five: This is not empirically tested.
True. I have not tested this empirically. This is just a theory now.
Six: This is sealioning.

Consider whether any friendly, meta-level discussion should be labeled as sealioning.

Seven: This post can be used by our political opponents as fodder to strengthen their politics against us.

I suppose. I'm sorry for posting this. But it's a thought I had.

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Saturday, June 19, 2021

Why Politics isn't for the Honest

This is not a pessimistic post. I'll explain why honest people can't do well in politics. And then I'll also urge honest people to be political.

When I say politics isn't for the honest, I mean that the identity of a politician isn't for the honest. They cannot win elections on their own. They cannot sway votes on their own. They can't do anything in politics on their own.

Why? Because the country is full of human beings who are irrational and we have a first-past-the-vote voting system.

Winston Churchill probably never said that “the best argument against Democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” Nevertheless, that's true. And it doesn't require you to have contempt for others to agree with that statement. You just have to remember that we are all humans and that we are all bound by cognitive biases.

We stereotype, we assume, we guess, we make up, we are swayed by public perception, we change our stances under social pressure, we are biased, and we have cognitive blind spots. We are all irrational human beings.

When it comes to an election we choose a candidate based on our view of the world and our view of the candidates. Both of these are colored by the biases I mentioned above.

Here's where the first-past-the-vote system comes in. The vast majority of people won't vote for a candidate they think do not have any chance to win. "Why waste your vote on a candidate who will anyhow lose?" The elections are therefore already reduced to a two-party (or a three-party) election.

You can still start a new party and enter the three-party race (like AAP did in Delhi). It requires entering the consciousness of voters at large and, mostly, at once. AAP could do this because of the wide media coverage of India Against Corruption. Another way of attaining this kind of prominence is to split off from an existing party. In essence, being in people's minds is the first step to being a potential winner.

Now that is already our cognitive biases in action. And at this point the line between irrationality and reality blurs too. For, how do you do governance if you don't have the trust of the people. Why should people trust a random party based on their manifesto?

Trust. Trust could thus be considered the defining force of winning election. And trust is at the edge of what is called irrational. We make up trust in politics based on the circumstances. If we feel like there is a threat of war, we will trust the person/party which appears like it has the ability to win a war to lead us. If we feel like there is a threat of breakdown of social order, we will trust the person/party which appears like it has the ability to keep the society together to lead us. Our trust depends a lot on how we feel.

This is where politics becomes a game in which honest people have no chance. You can manipulate people's feelings in two ways - you can change their threat perceptions and you can change their perception about the ability of different political candidates to handle those threats.

How you feel about the how big a problem terrorism, war, global warming, fascism, or sedition is depends a lot on what you've been fed by the world and how rational you are. For example, let me take me. I am a person who avoids news. I do so because I believe that news is about sensationalization of the trivial matters because they're newsworthy. For me, matters like terrorism are quantitatively less important than matters like road safety. Whereas it is totally possible that another person looks at road safety as an unavoidable problem but terrorism as unwarranted, avoidable threats to the psyche of our nation. The perception of what the largest threats we face are can be manipulated by manipulating the media that people consume - be it news media or social media.

The next kind of manipulation is one that people routinely employ all around, but is the bread and butter of politicians. Image management. For a politician to succeed they need to project an image of leadership that suits the "largest threats" that we are facing. Image is ridiculously irrational. For example, let us look at very personal things that are all part of the image - clothing, fashion, colors, facial hair, hairstyle, make-up, facial expression, gait, speed of walking, phone, spectacles, ... Everything that you can think of affects the "image" one projects.

Let us take the biggest example in front of us. In 2007, 5 years after Godra, Karan Thapar did an interview of Narendra Modi. Narendra was not so much of an adult at that time and ended the interview at 3 minutes because Karan started with questions about Narendra's murderer image. A lot of people don't know what happened after that. In another video, Karan talks about it. The interesting bit is that Narendra looked at that 3 minute interview many many times afterwards to learn from their mistakes and do better. Maybe Narendra gave up and stopped doing interviews instead. But the fact is that playing to their strengths allows Narendra to project an image of a strong leader.

Every successful politician has done this. They've managed the perception they create in the mind of their voters. Barack Obama has done and wrote about it. It maybe interesting to know about how Michelle Obama in the first few speeches about Barack's presidential campaign was being perceived as an angry person and immediately course corrected with softer speeches (and clothing choices). Rahul Gandhi must be trying really hard to do this after Narendra knocked down Rahul Gandhi's image.

That brings us to another point. It is not just your image that you manage in politics. You also manage others' image. You tell voters how to look at other candidates. You make them look like fools, you win.

Now why does all of this matter for the honest politician? Can't they project an image of their own honesty and succeed? Not as easy. If you are an honest politician and if you believe that terrorism is not as big a problem as global warming or road safety, and you take that idea honestly to a set of voters who believe strongly that terrorism needs to be curbed, that is pretty much the end of your political career.

You will have to bend the truth, if not lie. And bending truth has its limits. There is only so much you can accomplish with bent truths, especially if your opponents are fighting with lies.

But politics is so important that you can't give up just because you don't have a chance to win. What should honest people do about politics?

First, they have to realize how irrationality rules politics. Then they have to use that knowledge to guide how they approach people. They need to turn the irrationality on its head and make it question the lies. 

They might have avenues other than politics to reach powerful and influential positions where it is easier for them to sway people's perceptions. 

Maybe they can be excellent researchers and use research as a political tool. Maybe they can be good artists. Or programmers. Or doctors. Or teachers. Or anything! Anyone who does their thing well gets some power and influence. And they can use those to sway irrational voters to things that matter.

Politics is for everyone. And honest people have their own options.

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Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Giving up Ideological Purism

I used to be a purist. I would think that socialism is better than capitalism and therefore I should myself shun everything to do about capitalism. I would think that free software is better than proprietary software and use only free software everywhere. And so many other "principled" positions. Then a couple of things happened.

First, life became unlivable. There was nothing worth doing because everything broke some or the other ideology I had. I can't start a business because it is not socialism. I can't put tweets and try to get followers because I am against the concept of popularity and getting more followers. I wouldn't make videos to upload to YouTube because Google owns YouTube. I can't build an app because it wouldn't solve a pressing real world problem. I wouldn't get a vaccine till all people would get it. I can't do this, I can't do that. I couldn't do anything.

It is not that I didn't see contradictions then. I am living in a comfortable house in Bangalore. Where's the equity in that? By my logic I had to give up all my savings and live like the poorest person. But I wouldn't do that.

In some way or the other I was thinking pragmatically. I realized that free software puts software above humans and rethought it. Even came up with feminist software. I had been thinking about putting privilege to use. I had just about figured out that good capitalism and good socialism are almost indistinguishable.

But the straw that broke the camel's back is the vaccine issue. There were many reasons I was against getting myself vaccinated - the undemocratic institution of CoWIN, the lack of transparency in approving vaccine for usage, and most important of all the fact that lots of people were not getting vaccine. There were many compelling reasons to get vaccinated too - that there is good science for vaccines in general and these vaccines specifically, that I could be putting others' life in danger, that I would be of no use to anyone if I'm dead.

But ideological purism works in mysterious ways. I had chosen that the morally right way was to avoid the vaccine. And my brain would come up with various reasons on why I was right.

But on one fine day it clicked in my head. I was indeed being stupid. I told Swathi that I'll start looking for places where vaccine was available. And by the purest of coincidence, a friend from a private company asked me the next day whether I needed a jab in their company's private drive.

That's when it all came together for me. Ideological purism is an unsustainable and self-contradicting position. The only way human beings can live life in the real world is through pragmatism. And pragmatism doesn't have to be lazy and directionless. Pragmatism is the way of figuring out the good and bad of capitalism, the good and bad of socialism, and the good and bad of all the ways to organize economic activity and to figure out a way to work it out in your life towards your goals of a better world. Pragmatism is the way of figuring out how to use proprietary software, free software, and all kinds of software for making things happen.

I also figured out I was being lazy. By doing all of these fights against twitter, CoWIN, proprietary software, health inequity, authoritarianism, meritocracy, and so on in my small world, I was not doing anything. I was just sitting in a corner of the world complaining about all this. Sure I was a member of Indian Pirates, Free Software Community of India, etc. I was doing things like organizing calls and camps. I was mentoring people, etc. But all this felt like running away. I was not engaging in a powerful way.

One of the reasons was the idea that lasting change requires converting people this way from the outside. That we can't live in the existing systems and change them.

I still don't have an answer to that. I don't have an answer to how I can change the system from within.

But I'm tired of being outside the dominant systems in all fields. I'm tired of swimming the other way. Let me try swimming this way.

It is selfish. But hey, we are all stardust anyhow. Let's see what happens?

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Is Science The Only Way of Knowing?

 This is continuation of a debate from YouTube.

The statement that "Science is the only way of knowing" is correct. But it is also arrogant.

The definition of knowledge that we are working with is "justified belief of independent rational observers". What I argue in the video is that independent rational observers can come to different justified beliefs when it comes to social science where the observations are made about human behavior. I gave the examples of economics, politics. That when two independent rational observers look at the "market" one comes up with socialism and the other with capitalism. That there is no way for science to figure out which of them is the "truth". And that this lack of convergence on one justified belief is what makes the argument "science is the only way of knowing" break down.

But using "logic" (which can also be called scientific method) is the only way for humans to know anything, and that's right. Those who defy the commonly accepted "logic"s are considered psychotic by human beings.

Where is the arrogance? The arrogance is in claiming that "science is the only way of knowing" when it is clear that there are very severe limitations for science when it comes to the field of social science. A society cannot be subjected to controlled experiments. What science requires to arrive at the truth, to "know" how a human society will function is a set of observations from which one can draw conclusions. It is impossible for human beings to perform this set of observations in the way that's required to correctly draw such conclusions and "know" the human society. And that is the fundamental limitation of science.

To claim that theoretically it is possible to isolate all the variables and test a hypothesis about human beings - that's useless at best, and politically inappropriate at the worst.

In the video I try to keep physics, chemistry, etc from the uncertainty about truth that I introduce. But in response to the video Pirate Bady brought up the argument that 'single' truth does not exist in even physics. That quantum mechanics, for example, has infinite truths with different probabilities.

I don't know quantum physics. I have no perfect idea how exactly Schrödinger's cat is a paradox. Which is why I omitted talking about this in the video.

But if physics is also observer dependent, then that's another argument which weakens the idea that "science is the only way of knowing". That multiple truths can exist and we won't be able to come to a single truth translates to the idea that - "we cannot know certain things". 

From that it can be argued that if there is a way to know it is only through science and consequently, "science is the only way of knowing". And that's a big if clause.

If there is a way to know, science is the only way

I can stand by that statement.

Because it admits that there are times where we cannot "know". Be it quantum physics, be it politics or public policy. That's a humble statement. That's a statement which accepts the limits of science. That is a statement which gives space for "other" ways of "knowing".

The only argument against giving space to these "other" ways is that it can lead to irrational thinking in human beings. And I think that's the argument Dr Viswanathan makes too. And I think that's also the reason why science has not been able to win people over despite so many accomplishments it has had. That science fails to acknowledge what is fundamentally human. That science, in its ivory tower, arrogantly believes that all that the world needs is science. 

If only more rational thinkers admitted that there are times when humans can't know and that science has no role in such times, we can then start negotiating with irrational people and push them to use science in all the places that matters.

Yes, that means that we will have to tell them that science cannot tell them whether there exists a God or not. But that's okay. By accepting a humble position like that, you make science more welcoming to all humans. It is by being arrogant that you drive them away.

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Saturday, May 22, 2021

Why Researchers Who Care About Equity Should Use Zotero (and Not Mendeley)

If you are a researcher, chances are that you write papers. And if you write papers there is a good reason for you to use a reference manager (also called citation manager?). If you use a reference manager and you care about equity, there is a good reason why you should use Zotero.

Why use reference managers?

Because the publication systems used by most of your journals are (intentionally) ancient. The internet allows usage of hyperlinks on any word in your article. But the academic society is still worried about putting references in an order at the end of the article. And every journal has their own citation "style" (as if the font style of the journal name matters in the quality of the reference). While all of this is part of a system that wants to continue making creation of knowledge the exclusive privilege of an elite circle, sometimes you might have to be a part of that system. And you're better off handing to a software the tedious (and useless) effort of keeping track of your references and arranging them in an order and in the right "style".

Also because when you're doing literature review you might want to keep track of a *lot* of references and you might want to tag them, group them, share with others, etc.

So, use a reference manager and never copy paste references manually.

Why not Mendeley?

You might look at the options and you might see this software called "Mendeley". And you might think, "Ah, this looks like a good fit for my use case."

But did you know Mendeley is owned by Elsevier? Do you know how in the age of the internet Elsevier and many other publishers continue to charge people for publishing and for reading? Do you think that these are reasonable charges levied in return of some great effort from their part? If you think so, you have literally no idea how the internet works. 

See you are reading this blog. It took me zero money to publish this post. And that cost would not have changed a bit if I had a 100 references at the end of this post. This gets published under a creative commons license and that didn't change the cost from zero either. Once I publish it, I will share the link to it in social media and other places. And people can add comment under it. Remember that most journals don't pay peer reviewers anything for reviewing posts either.

So that should really make you wonder what the process of publication in journals are about. My philosophy about journals are simple. Journals give you credentials and privilege. So you publish on them. And the academic society considers publication in journals as the yardstick to measure your merit. And that vicious cycle perpetuates.

But I understand your plight. Just because the system is horrible you can't avoid the system. And you're condemned to the life of a 20th century academician. Fine. Publish. But don't support Elsevier, Wiley, American Chemical Society, etc. 

And don't use Mendeley which is proprietary and owned by Elsevier.

Use Zotero.

Zotero is free and open source software. I use free to mean "freedom" as in "free speech". Zotero is released in a GNU Affero General Public License. Which means that all the source code of Zotero is available to anyone who wants to modify it, add new features, etc. 

Newton said "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants". If knowledge was like proprietary software, Newton would have said "I couldn't have seen further because the Giants had a license agreement that said that I should close my eyes if I were to stand on their shoulders" and we wouldn't have heard about Newton either.

Open knowledge lets everyone stand on the shoulders of each other and see farther. Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) lets new programmers write better software by standing on older software. Zotero is that.

If you care for equity, you should start from where you are.  If you use and encourage Mendeley, nVivo, and so on, you are ceding control to a proprietary ecosystem where the rules are laid down by the software "owners". If you use FOSS like Zotero, Taguette, R, PSPP, etc you are strengthening software that is collectively owned by human kind. And you are making life better for everyone.

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Wednesday, May 19, 2021

How To Stay Sane Online in 7 Simple Steps

The sheer vastness of information online can disorient some people. Fake news and hate makes it even harder for them. These techniques are what I personally use to keep my mind "blissful" despite what is going around me. And yet I get to enjoy all the goodness of internet too.

#1: Be ruthless in cutting down

You simply cannot let everything in. The internet is almost a billion people creating content every single day. And you are but one tiny human. It is impossible to follow everyone, it is impossible to subscribe to every channel. Cut down ruthlessly. Curate your life to exactly what you need and nothing more. Make your garden your own.

#2: Use mute and block liberally

Muting and blocking are tools designed to protect you. Use them! Block people who push unwanted things on to your face. Block them if they amplify hate. Block them if they give attention to attention seekers. Block them if they don't understand how fake news spreads and are complicit. Block them if they are lying. Block them if they're pushing their own image. Block them if their politics is that of selling fear. Block them if they sensationalize. If blocking is impossible (due to reasons), use mute. Prune weed from your garden.

#3: Unfollow, unsubscribe

There are so many platforms and so many content creators. You probably started following someone years ago when you were a different person. Don't let your past hold you back. If you are subscribed to someone whom you wouldn't subscribe to today, unsubscribe! You have grown, but the people you're listening to haven't? Stop listening to them and start listening to new people. Don't stay connected with someone just because you went to school with them. Break connections. Create new connections.

#4: Deactivate

Some platforms simply are not for you. There are a thousand reasons not to have a Facebook account. TikTok exists only because most human beings are interested in sex. Deactivate and delete what doesn't help you.

#5: Avoid news

There is a superb essay by Rolf Dobelli about news. Read it. News is like sugar. Unhealthy, toxic, and unnecessary. If you are using platforms to keep abreast with news, you're doing it wrong in two ways - platforms aren't the best way to listen to news, and listening to news isn't the best way to spend your time.

#6: Read books

Books are serious. Books take time and effort. Books take research. Read books.

#7: Use tools that give you control

There are technologies like web feeds that put you in control. Use them. Take control.

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