Wednesday, January 31, 2024

How the World Should Be and How the World Is

There are two modes of thinking in society and social work. "How The World Should Be" mode, and "How The World Is" mode. There is a constant friction between these two. This friction explains hundreds of debates I've been in and many of my own moral dilemmas. Understanding this friction and being able to categorize arguments/politics into these categories helps in navigating the human world.

Let's start with simple examples.


Example 1

Situation: Let's say you're driving on the road. You drive at a reasonable speed using indicators and avoiding sudden movements of your vehicle. Suddenly someone cuts lanes and jumps in front of you forcing you to break and swerve to a side. Another vehicle behind you hits your back.

How the world should be: "Nobody should be cutting lanes all of a sudden. That's dangerous. People who do that should face consequences."

How the world is: "People cut lanes. People drive unsafe. You can try to drive defensively, yet you can get involved in an accident. And you will face some or the other consequences."

Example 2

Situation: You're taking a sick patient to a hospital. You dialed 108 emergency ambulance service which is supposed to be free. After reaching the hospital, the ambulance team wants ₹₹₹ from you.

How the world should be: "Ambulance service should be free. Healthcare should be free. People shouldn't have to suffer from lack of money in accessing healthcare"

How the world is: "There is a lot of corruption. People demand bribe in healthcare in many different ways."

Example 3

Situation: It is election time. Politicians are using religion to swing votes. Issues like healthcare, education are being neglected.

How the world should be: "People should hold politicians accountable and not let them get away with corrupted politics"

How the world is: "People are voting for the corrupt politicians (for whatever reasons they may have)."


As might be obvious from the examples, there are several differences between how the world should be and how the world is.

It is easy to see how the world is. One just has to live in it. Every day is a lesson in "the world as it is". It doesn't take much effort to understand and study it. It is accessible to everyone at all times. It is, in fact, unavoidable.

The world that should be is an imaginary world. It requires us to think of something that doesn't exist already.  It is set in the future. It is described using values, morality, and philosophy. It is harder to envision.

The world that should be is controversial too. Different people believe in different futures. There is often mutually exclusive worlds that come up. You can't have hyper-industrialized cities and clean air together. You can't have an authoritarian state and a democratic state together. You can't have religion and science together. Sometimes the imaginations aren't that starkly different, but they're still different in nuanced ways. It is those nuanced differences that leads to very many debates and fights within progressive groups.


The differences between the two ways of looking at the world immediately leads to the following important points.

There is a vast amount of things to know about how the world is

What's happening in the world? How do human beings behave? What guides their actions? Is there any predictability? Why is there corruption? Why is there caste? Why is there religion? Why are people violent? Why is there inequity? Why is there gender? Why is there sickness? Why is there hate? Why is there love? Why is there harmony? Why is there peace? What is it that makes human beings tick? How do humans survive? What is the human spirit?

There is a vast amount of things to know about how the world should be

How might the world be? How would it be organized? What will be the weaknesses of that world? What would the strengths be? What challenges will we face? What human potential will we unlock in that world?

There is a vast amount of things to know about how we can reach the world that should be from the world that is

Knowing how the world should be is one thing. Knowing how to get from here to there is another thing. Any action we need to take towards the world that should be should start from the world that is. Firstly because that is the only world we have access to (by the laws of physics). But more importantly because it is the same people we are talking about. It is the same human beings. It is the same world that we want to transform.

We need theories of change. We need experiments and examples. We need strategies, intermediary states/goals, milestones, checkpoints, and so on.

Many dilemmas are manifestation of the friction between these stages of change

I have struggled thinking about power. I hate hierarchy. And I see power as the core of hierarchy. In my "how the world should be" thinking, I used to constantly do things to give up power. But then, I discovered that without power it is very hard to do anything useful. This was very hard to accept though. I found even more reasons to not gain power. I said "Love is Enough". But love wasn't enough. "Love without power is sentimental and anemic" says Martin Luther King. 

Here's how the above framework helps in my dilemma.

How the world is: Power centered and hierarchic.
How the world should be: Love centered and anarchic/anti-hierarchy.
How do we go from here to there: Power and love applied as needed for the change.

There is another dilemma that's been with me since my childhood. That of religion. I am a rationalist. I do not even use the word "atheist" to describe myself because I don't want to discuss the idea of god even for saying that there is no such thing. For a long time I stayed with the idea that religions should be rejected en masse. Then I realized that a very huge number of human beings are deeply religious. So as per the framework this is how it should be resolved.

How the world is: Religious and intolerant.
How the world should be: Rational and secular.
How do we go from here to there: Infuse rationalism into and through religion.

This is very much in line of how Gandhi uses Gita and Rama to make Hindus become better. Or how Ambedkar uses Buddha to make life better for many people. Religion has been used by them creatively. They infused modernity into religion.


If you find yourself in the middle of a heated debate with people who are politically aligned, or with yourself (dilemmas), see if you can categorize the sides into "How the World Is" and "How the World Should Be". Then think about how you would strategize for going from here to there.

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