Saturday, November 18, 2023

Imaginary Heroes and Why A Radical Commitment to Truth is the Only Solution to Inequity

In my post about truth and Gandhi, I wrote about how a radical commitment to truth is the missing ingredient in the world today. In this post I will elaborate on that. To do this, I'll first recap what it means, then talk about the "inverted iceberg" model of savarna mediocrity, and finally illustrate what a radical commitment to truth would look like in practice.

Truth: a recap

To know how powerful is truth one just needs to walk the path of a truthful person for a while. It is an incredibly powerful philosophy that's accessible to everyone. A radical commitment to truth as I described with examples earlier, has three components.

1) Being in touch with your emotions and feelings, and showing commitment to try to label them accurately.
2) A commitment to yourself to not invalidate your own feelings. To not act in ways that go against your feelings.
3) A commitment to follow-up on things that you are uncertain of - so that you can arrive at the truth.

This requires conviction and courage. And it provides immense strength.

It is easier to explain why this is "radical" by looking at the society as we have it today. A great example is provided in Ravikant Kisana's article "Saving the World Like a Savarna":

In the first few weeks of my doctoral studies at MICA, Ahmedabad, the professor was teaching us about Paulo Freire and the “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” waxing eloquent about how the modern education system dehumanizes students and erodes their confidence daily. My cohort, though overwhelmingly Savarna, nonetheless had a few scholars from small towns. They didn’t have “good English” or “cultural polish” and struggled to follow the ornate vocabulary of our Brahmin professor. By this point in my life, I had mastered enough of the Savarna culture to pass off as “polished” and wealthy to their casual gaze.

One day, in the privacy of her cabin, the same professor ranted to me about my cohort-mates, saying she could not believe how some of them had been admitted to the program and was counting on me as a “bright light” to get her through the course. I was shocked and struck by the contrast between talking so passionately about marginalized students’ issues in the lecture hall and making mean-spirited jibes at the same students in her office. In an immature move, I told the professor off and walked out. It immediately soured our equation and she, along with her husband who later became the Director of MICA, proceeded to bring the might of institutional hostility upon me for years, the effects of which still follow my career.

This, Ravikant Kisana explains, is what is called "switching". RK defines it as "the social behavior where Savarnas can pose as extremely radical and culturally progressive and then, with the flip of a metaphorical switch, slip back into their privileged family lives without the slightest existential friction". RK further goes on to describe this like this: "Such posturing that borders on social deception is a public role to be played, a curation, a “look,” an outfit of sorts to mask what is fundamentally a conservative social core that is extremely difficult to unlearn"

We could explain this in terms of truth (or the lack of it). The savarnas who do switching are living a lie. They are out of touch with their "inner core". They fail to label their own feelings (1), they fail to act according to their feelings (2), and consequently they have no need to look for the truth(3).

The solution to this would be to invert this lie and switch to truth. Before I illustrate that, let us look at how this "switching" is internalized by the whole society and how that is damaging the way we do anything.

The inverted iceberg model of savarna mediocrity

When we look at an iceberg, what do we see? We see the tip of an iceberg. About 90% of an iceberg is underneath the water. 

Here's the artificial picture of a full iceberg. Created by Uwe Kils (iceberg) and User:Wiska Bodo (sky)., CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. If you actually look at the physics, iceberg wouldn't float this way as the stable orientation would be different.

This iceberg model is applicable to human beings also. When we see a human being, we're only seeing the tip of their unique lived experiences and life stories. Each person is at least 10x times more than what they are able to express. But, as is with icebergs, most people's true worth goes unrecognized. We see the tip of the iceberg and we narrow the person down to that tip. But we can sometimes be reminded about what's hidden behind the surface.

This model accurately captures how most people get viewed by the society.

But in the case of savarnas*, the iceberg is inverted!

 * Please note two things. One, I am using the word savarna as an umbrella to stand for elite selfish people. Two, in many ways I myself am a savarna.

The savarnas are so loud, so much interested in talking, and hog up all the space. When this happens, rational people think "Oh, they must have a lot more to say and that's why they're speaking so much. Perhaps I'm only seeing the tip of the iceberg. I better see what more lies beneath the surface." And this leads to them getting more and more space.

Then, they repeat the obvious, they talk about the clichéd, they keep talking without saying anything.

The savarna icebergs are inverted. What you see is all that is there. There's nothing more than that.

When savarnas do heroic things or give inspiring talk, they are at the end of their wits. When they make "deep" intellectual points, they're talking from the maximum depth they can reach. There's nothing more in them!

But unfortunately we imagine that there is more. We create heroes out of them. We extrapolate their arguments and see them as bastions of hope and justice. We build imaginary heroes.

I don't want to name anyone, but if a savarna hero has ever shattered in front of you, you know who I'm speaking about. We thought they would do something because we built up a larger than life hero based on something they did/said in the past. And turns out we were wrong. We were too kind. Our hero was imaginary.

How does a radical commitment to truth make things better?

In a radical commitment to truth, we call out the mediocre as the mediocre. If there's discrimination going on and ABC speaks against it but the discrimination still continues, we say "ABC spoke against it. Nothing changed.". If there's an organization that has worked 40 years in a sector and all they have managed to achieve is award after award and no justice, then we say "Well, this organization did work on this for 40 years and what they did is this much [only]." If there's a savarna group which does the bare minimum, we say "Well, this group did the bare minimum".

We stop using the words "great work", "admirable", "amazing", "super". Let's reserve the superlatives for the superlative. Let's use mediocre adjectives to describe the mediocre.

When an insanely privileged person does a PhD on something and comes up with a repetition of what's already widely known, we call it "they have used their privilege to get a PhD by working on a topic and discovering nothing new".

When there's a random new technology with no use coming out of an IIT, we say "these people with all the resources spent on them have come up with a technology that benefits nobody".

When a doctor treats their patient like a human being, we say "well, the doctor treated the patient like a human being as they should be"

We start doing this and then we will be reversing a trend that has led to marginalization and oppression of a large majority. We will lead to a society where chasing (often fake) numbers instead of caring about people is questioned. We will challenge the capitalist assumptions of putting "efficiency" (read "profit") above human welfare. We will challenge "merit". We will destabilize the self-centered argument of "compromising for the sake of career". We will put an end to the pragmatism vs idealism debate. (What's preventing the ideal from being pragmatic?)

We will stop being content with arbitrary measures of "impact" and we will settle only for equity and justice. We will stop glorifying the bare minimum. We will start demanding what's right. We will rethink who we fall behind and whose voices we amplify. We will stop hero worship and rediscover the value of every individual in the community.

And in that radical commitment to truth, we can be fully free. We can live our lives to our true selves. Often we will be forced to change. But there's no reaching the truth without change. A radical commitment to truth is a radical commitment to change.


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Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Being Comfortable With the Non-Binary: A Code of Conduct Case Study

Today morning I woke up to this message in FSCI's chat room:

What happens here when a member reveals themselves to be a transphobe in another room? 🤔

I immediately said "COC applies". The FSCI code of conduct, which I have contributed to the making of, is very clear about keeping FSCI an inclusive space. It explicitly recognizes that gender identity and expression can be diverse. And someone gets called a "transphobe" typically when they go against this idea.

But then there was this other question that came up in my mind. Would FSCI's code of conduct apply to another room?

My first instinct was to read through the actual code and look at the sections where it discusses the scope of the code: "all of this community’s spaces, including public channels, private channels and direct messages, both online and off." There could be an argument on technicality as to whether another room could be considered as community's space. There could even be a counter argument that the mere presence of another FSCI member in the other room makes it a private channel thus bringing it under the scope of the code.

But I quickly realized where my "COC applies" comment came from. I wasn't relying on technicality. I was relying on what I've internalized as the way a code of conduct works, and the way we influence others in the social organization.

And that has got a lot to do with being comfortable with the non-binary mess.

I was not like this earlier. I used to be very black and white, all or none about laws. I used to find comfort in the idea that anything human could be codified. Not just facts and information, but also implicit assumptions, emotions, social rules, and so on. So much so that I used to even think about building AGI with just symbolic AI through a comprehensive compilation of all these codified knowledge.

But as I started learning more about the world and interacting with human beings in the "real" world, I started recognizing that many things about human society is much more complicated than what could be codified. I'm not talking about this being quantitatively so large that it is too difficult to codify. It is complexity on a whole different dimension that prevents codification.

This complexity probably comes from free will. But what it practically amounts to is that there is no way to absolutely predict how human beings behave. (I leave it to the readers to draw parallels between this and quantum physics).

This particular understanding manifests in two different ways in my thinking: intersectional and non-binary.

I see the world in a heavily intersectional lens. Intersectionality is a framework that captures the many complexities of the world very well. It allows one to deconstruct (to use a word I used to hate) what's happening without resorting to simplistic/reductionist explanations.

But intersectionality without an understanding of the non-binary is a dangerous pitfall. Often what I see people doing is to think of intersectionality in a binary way, wherein instead of having a yes or no explanation, they would have a yes or no + yes or no + yes or no explanation. They would just superimpose multiple explanations. Easier to explain with an example. I had (more than) once heard a description of how a person who is queer and Dalit and Muslim suffer from "triple oppression". This sounds a lot like someone trying to add up binary bits. That's the antithesis of intersectionality.

It is when you combine intersectional lens with a non-binary lens that you can see things more clearly and in more practical ways. In the non-binary lens not only do you see everything in shades of grey, you even see categories blurring. There's no triple oppression when the very binary bits you are counting (Queer, Dalit, Muslim) cease to exist in well-defined boxes.

Sounds like a mess? It is a mess. Maybe I'm struggling to explain this, and that's okay. But non-binary is when you're comfortable with the mess. (Hat-tip to Swathi who attended the Looking In Looking Out Workshop and gave me the word "mess")

Being comfortable with the non-binary mess is the key

Incomplete information, inadequate resources, limited time. These are three things that make humans humans as opposed to Gods who are omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. We are doomed to live this way. And we might as well be comfortable with it.

The Code of Conduct is a good case study here.

There are some people who feel a code of conduct takes away freedom of speech. There are some who believe that it is best to leave the code of conduct very simple ("Be nice" folks). The FSCI code of conduct is rather long. It is a synthesis of many other similar codes.

What makes me comfortable with a code of conduct like this is that I see it as a non-binary mess. The CoC is an essay on a social contract that we aim to uphold. It codifies certain nuanced understandings of the world and demands people to grow those understandings. That is a certain kind of politics. And that is exactly how the world works. It is a constant negotiation of politics. There's no clear way to categorize what it is. It is a mess.

The rules are rules. The rules aren't rules. The rules apply to everyone equally. The rules don't apply to everyone. The rules are clear. The rules are ambiguous. The rules ought to be respected. The rules can be changed. You can enforce the rules. You can't enforce the rules. All of these things are true to various extent at various time in various contexts and situations. Everything is non-binary!

 So, does the CoC apply? It applies to the whole world!

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