August 07, 2012

The Sheep and the Outliers

Is it okay if I feel inclined to pass judgment on the newly elected president of India? Am I allowed to call him a sycophant and a donkey -- or a sycophantic donkey?

Perhaps some will feel I am 'demeaning' the office of the President? Why is that? What is wrong with expressing my opinion openly that I fear his long history in the strum and drang of Indian politics likely means that he is probably corrupt?

He may not be as steeped in corruption as some of his illustrious peers who have long experience of being visitors to Tihar.

I sense a desire of people to attach a bit of godliness or demi-godliness to people. Why this desire?

I was asked by a college girl relation if I didn't feel a 'divine' presence or some such thing when I visited the 'holiest' temple in Odisha in Puri. What I felt was the sense of awkwardness at the odd behavior of the crazy believers who were throwing themselves at the statues of the lords ... meaning stretching their body entirely on the ground and doing similar crazy stuff.




Perhaps these poor people are in some sort of personal trouble and come to the temple to seek divine intervention to solve those troubles. Pathetic. I of course do not feel an iota of religiosity anywhere.

This desire to worship gods and to attach godliness to ordinary mortals is deeply built into us as we have been ruled for centuries and millenia by kings and emperors of all sorts and stripes.

We are taught to 'respect' tradition -- we seem to have invested heavily in not upsetting the applecart. Why is that?

Societies seem to possess such extraordinary inertia as it were. They are loath to change. You take developed nations of Europe such as Britain. They still shamelessly cling on to the absurdity of kings and queens and his majesties and her majesties.

The whole business of hereditary monarchy is so asinine and yet it endures.

In America, the founding fathers took some decisive steps at the time of the framing of the constitution to make a definitive break with the Empire.

They were smart. Yet America too is a society that has as much inertia as any other. It too has its blind spot. The recent mass shooting in Aurora, which is just the latest episode of a long and tragic soap opera, is an excellent demonstration of this societal inertia.

People are happily clinging on to 18th century ideas and justifications of gun ownership. The abortion debate brings out another aspect of how people's thinking can get weirdly distorted by centuries-old asinine ideas handed down to us by religious texts and beliefs.

Some things do change. Like slavery. The business of buying and selling people is extinct now. It took some amount of spirited civil war fighting and loss of lives to end the major part of it. Then another struggle a century later to reach a level of true equality in the eyes of the law.

I still think that people's racial identities are quite intact. They have not become truly color blind. It's just that the egregious discrimination is over and done with.

I would be convinced that race has stopped becoming an issue when people marry across racial identities as a matter of course. I think we have some distance to cover before that becomes an unremarkable everyday fact.

Then there are the other atrocities happening across the world. We see people assigning different weights to tragedies in different parts of the world.

If a train accident in Europe kills 10 people or 100 -- or if one of those now-rare air crashes happens in the developed world -- the media will give it wall-to-wall coverage. If similar numbers of people are killed in the poor parts of the world, the coverage is nowhere as dramatic.

Overloaded boats capsize all the time in Bangladesh or India and tens if not hundreds of people die. It hardly makes any news. Train accidents also happen frequently in India. There's hardly any international coverage.

So we happily live with the fact that we do indeed assign differing values to the lives of human beings in different countries. We are agreed that the worth of a human life is more if that person lives a rich, advanced nation. The worth of the person goes down if he or she is a resident of poor Africa or Asia.

Let's not focus on Europe and America and forget Japan completely. They are a curious case as well of an obsession with tradition. Japanese society is clearly less diverse than most of the nations of Europe. The United States, in this respect, remains the shining contrast and beacon -- the true land of immigrants that welcomes people from every corner of the world. People go to America from Japan and England and Germany and Spain and France and Africa and Mexico and China and India.

This is an altogether vast topic and I am inclined to focus on my experience of growing up and living in India.

In India, we are told from the time we are kids to RESPECT one and all -- respect your parents, respect the uncles, respect the grandparents, respect the aunts, respect that guy because he has produced three little two-legged bipedal mammalian homonid homo sapiens, respect all the 129 relations in the extended clan, etc.

We are told as kids to fear the 'police' and the various gods.

Where is the cynicism? Where is the critical thinking? Clearly that is not a quality which is promoted among kids in India. Kids are not taught to be curious about nature and themselves and the universe and everything.

I think this deplorable lack of curiosity and skepticism stays with us as we grow up and become adults.

As adults, we go on showing respect to our superiors at the workplace and do not question them nearly enough thus preventing 'disruptive innovation'.

In the political sphere, our inclination to respect elders translates to a situation where we have a bunch of doddering old men (and women too) leading India.

We have a judiciary which considers itself above criticism and considers it 'contempt of court' if its decisions are criticized. Why do we let this happen? Are we a democracy? Do we not have the right to criticize any and all institutions that we have given ourselves as citizens of a republic that functions according to our agreed constitution?

Surely the people manning (or womanning as the case may be) the various branches of the government are mere fallible human beings and whether they're cabinet ministers of the President or the Prime Minister, they are not demi-gods.

So why do we want to keep the President above criticism? The sitting President can't be prosecuted in India. Well from just the recent past, I can recall cases filed against former French presidents and Israeli prime ministers.

I think the Indian PM and President should similarly be subject to the law of the land. Narasimha Rao was indeed prosecuted or prosecution was initiated against him after his term as prime minister ended but the slow pace of work of the judicial system in India meant that he was dead before the cases reached a conclusion. That is a tragedy as well.

We will do well to change our mindsets regarding respect and skepticism.
 
Once we do that, we'll learn to question the dross that is peddled to us in the name of religion. We will learn to make better choices about who our leaders should be.

We will be better citizens and human beings if we are skeptical.
 
And we should try to impart these same qualities of skepticism to our kids from their childhoods.
 
Parents should not shy away from telling their kids: look kid, you do not have to accept what I say blindly but think for yourself and you can challenge me too if you find my logic doesn't make sense to you.


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