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).


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:" 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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