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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