On the hurt pride of vegetarians

Sometimes, after reading some article somewhere I get really irritated. No matter how hard I try to forget and get on with other stuff, the offending words and ideas linger… like a thorn in my side. I have no option but to sit down and write about it to understand why exactly I feel the way I do about it.

This time it was this article that appeared in The Hindu written by one Vamsee Juluri who is a professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco.

(Here is some readily accessible info about the hunger situation in India. Skip it if you have already read about it(very likely).)

I have always been shocked and dismayed by the level of malnutrition, stunting and the generally dismal level of the health and development of children of the oppressed classes. The situation looks even more dismal and desperate for girl children. According to scientists, doctors and social workers there are a combination of factors responsible for the situation. The biggest among them, from what I could understand are

1. The lack of sanitation and clean drinking water. The associated level of childhood morbidity and parasite load massively impacts physical and mental development during the most critical years of growth.

2. The lack of a balanced diet in impoverished agricultural communities which lean heavily on grains for subsistence and tribal communities which have been deprived of their tradition habitats in the forest.

3. Protein malnutrition and absence of essential trace nutrients in the diet

4. Lack of basic medical facilities and simple medicines in communities that most need them

This situation is far more dangerous than most people can imagine. Between 1/3rd and 1/2 of the future of country is growing up with serious mental and physical developmental deficits. This should give any human being with a conscience a massive jolt! The seed of our national well-being is the promise of our children and if we can’t do everything possible to ensure their access to adequate sanitation and food, then we are failing in our duty to our country.

What I have said till now is public knowledge and is widely acknowledged both nationally and internationally. India ranks near the very bottom in Global Hunger Rankings, even below countries like Sudan.

The news

The brunt of this disaster is born by the children of the low-castes and dalits of the country. The dispossessed tribals and the landless. For children from these families the mid-day meal scheme and the egg-a-day schemes are a God-send that provides them with much needed protein, cholesterol, fat and trace minerals and nutrients found only in animal products. Eggs are widely considered to be critical to child-hood nutrition, even ahead of cow-milk. This is because milk is hard to keep unspoiled, is easily diluted or contaminated and is difficult to transport and store. Also, many children, especially the older ones might have difficulty digesting milk in enough quantities to matter because of lactose intolerance.

The MP government’s professed reason for denying its starving children one of the best sources of protein is not scientific. They offer no rational explanations for why it was done. The only reason thrown in the faces of these children and the food-rights activists working on their behalf is that the chief-minister has a “sentimental objection” to serving eggs in school. He is probably supported by the Jain and the other religiously-motivated vegetarian lobbies in the state.

When capacity for subtlety blinds rather than illuminates

In this situation comes along an author writing an article that criticizes the NPR for calling out the “vegetarian elites'” attempts at enforcing their misinformed dietary concepts on people ill-equipped to voice their opinion! He thinks that the article is a mere ploy to perpetuate the myth that vegetarianism is a tool the elite use to starve the poor. I don’t know what kind of a retarded mind would read the head-line(NPR article is here) and think, “Oh! Here they go again, trying to spoil the image of the vegetarians” and not “Why are some people trying to impose their dietary preferences influenced by their privilege and religion on other people who are suffering from these impositions!” It takes a frightening lack of empathy and self-absorption to engage in this kind of abstract nit-picking!

Pretensions to intellect are more dangerous than ignorance

The author thinks that it is ironic that the western media is writing against the massive over-consumption of red-meat in developed countries and the industrial production of meat it necessitates at the same time it writes against the denial of one-egg-a-day to malnourished children from the most deprived sections of an underdeveloped society! He calls himself an intellectual and is unable to understand the simple, overwhelming and almost painfully obvious differences in context between the two sets of articles. An average indian consumes less than 2 kg of meat in a year while an average american consumes more than 120kg!! Anything in excess is probably not good. (Although, the latest research seems to be pointing to the presence of refined sugar and carbs as the cause of problems of diet related morbidity in developed societies. But, I digress!)

And if he is going to argue that eggs should be denied to poor children because american over-consumption of beef causes heart problems and adversely effects the environment then maybe rice too shouldn’t be served to them as there is robust evidence for its role in causing heart-disease, diabetes and obesity in the over-fed Indian upper-class! Maybe, they should not be fed any food at all because there is strong evidence that too much food consumption by his adopted country is wrecking the environment and health of his allegedly hypocritical american friends!

Why don’t these kids care about the fucking chickens!

He writes in a whining tone about how when it comes to writing about the stunted Indian children questions of environment and “animal-ethics”(!!!!) are being ignored. Wow!! How shocking!? How dare these poor starving children not care about the environment and how their consumption of eggs is making chickens sad!! How dare they not pay attention to the sensitivities of the well-fed dog sitting comfortably in San Francisco and thinking deeply about “what diet-issues are really all about!”? Maybe, his vegetarian diet has fucked his nervous system and as seems apparent from the article in question, rendered him incapable of clear thought. That maybe why he had to waste so many words on advertising his ignorance of what diet-issues are all about when it comes to the desperately poor struggling to keep their kids in school. Here it is. In one fucking line. It is a about survival.

It maybe disappointing to his “cultured” intellect brought to maturity in the rarefied atmosphere of scholarship and privilege to discover how little the under-privileged of India care about the rights of animals. How little they appreciate the glorious “Hindu” heritage(which includes the “invention/discovery/tradition” of vegetarianism) they can lay claim to because they had the wonderful luck to be born in this country and into their situation. How little they care about the wounded sensitivities of their privileged, upper-class, Hindu, intellectual compatriots, especially, the ones who are sitting on the other side of the earth and fighting pitched battles to ensure that the western media understands the glory of their deprivation in all its nuanced complexity! But, there goes the truth!

Environmentalism for the poor

I was reading an illuminating and stunningly humane book written by my favorite author, historian and social critic Ramachandra Guha called “How much should we consume?”. It echoed exactly what I used to think about the environment and animal rights.

Environmentalism should be less about restoring some imagined justice or virginity to nature and more about allowing the human beings who depend on our environment for survival to continue living in a sustainable way without depleting the natural capital. People who rail against the poor for not worshiping animals or for eating them are almost invariably the well-fed vegetarian(rarely even non-vegetarian) elites living in protected alcoves who don’t have to countenance the cold, hard and brutal truth of nature and survival in the pits of deprivation which is expressed in the vocabulary of hunger, sudden death and chronic morbidity without hope.

The next paragraph is almost comical when you consider that this person has at least once seen the insides of a university. There is data to prove that that the upper-castes of India who for centuries have overseen the operation of one of the most efficient and ruthless engines of oppression grinding into the dust of humiliation, hunger and loss of dignity the vast and under-privileged low-caste population of India are predominantly vegetarian. The same vile bunch of books that prescribe the system of varnas also pontificate on the relative “purity” of foods and castes! People who depend on the system of caste for privilege will also believe in these insane and unscientific pronouncements on diet. There is both data and possible explanation for it. Now you know what he is going to do, right? Cite a study which shows otherwise? Hahaha no. He tells you a fucking story about what happened when he walked into a fucking mcdonalds! He tells you about what he saw inside fucking malls in AP.

Now, you can throw away all that data and history and just sue NPR for defaming the elites who are on a roll, banning or restricting access to one food item after the other. Who fund and run organizations prepared to slaughter men to protect cows. Prepared to beat woman like dogs for partying and violating Indian Culture. Prepared to expose little children to sudden and painful deaths to give dogs justice and ensure their “right to life”(granted by whom, I sometimes wonder!). Touting yoga as the solution to the problems that are crippling India. While gleefully cutting health budgets and pumping money into promoting quackery and thugs cheating people with snake-oil.

It’s about me me me!

In the next article, he cries about how they have failed to appreciate the saints, gurus and other such holy Hindus who have given up meat because of the “innate violence involved” in it and how NPR has failed to write about the unctuous practices of the meat-consuming Hindu. (As if these practices were patented by the Brahmin and is beyond the grasp of the vegetarians in other societies.) His glorious restraint, his commendable love for the cow and other such fine aspects of “Hindu Culture”. How did they have the gall to write an entire article about starving children being denied eggs and fail to mention all these things. He finds it unbelievable. Unless, it is all part of an elaborate international conspiracy to tar Hinduism and denigrate its ancient glory and mysterious secrets!

In the next paragraph, he feels that the models that show one group as lower than another is simplistic and doesn’t account for the flux in the caste situation in India. Which is funny! Because, news articles which feature stories of caste oppression and violence continue to appear with surprising regularity. Models by necessity are simple. They are only as complex as is required to make predictions about something. Do you want to understand why some people think that the family they are born into makes them superior/inferior to another human being? Do you want to understand why even the inferior ones further perpetuate this stupidity by treating some people as even more lowly than them? Do you want to understand why they believe all this shit? Models can help you. But, if you are the sort of armchair intellectual chasing imaginary pride and glory derived from their country of birth or their ancestors(stuff which they had absolutely no say in picking) then maybe the models won’t be complex enough to salve the self-inflicted wounds of your dying self-esteem.

Vegetarianism as an Indian invention

The author then continues to beg people to make the discussion about removing eggs from mid-day meal schemes into something far more complex and fill it with subtle arguments and erudite observations about the Indian brand of vegetarianism.

It is surprising how an author with cavils against the western media for paying insufficient attention to the complex Indian situation fails to see that there are vegetarians and even vegans in other countries too. That there are communities which depend on plant-based diets in even more sophisticated ways outside India. Maybe, when you accuse people of being simplistic you should be a little more careful about what you pick to be proud about yourself. No body discovered vegetarianism. No body found a particularly superior way of being vegetarian. And refusing to let other people seek nourishment from their animals is not the same as saving the environment or being non-violent. If he thinks that a vegetarian lifestyle is superior to one than includes a reasonable quantity of animal products he is free to argue for it. But, he picked the wrong context for a back-drop.

You can listen and/or read people like Bill Gates(who recently tried vegetarianism) who while working hard to curtail the consumption of animal products in the US, is also at the same time fighting to increase its consumption in Africa and South-Asia. Despite his privilege he understands the reality of undernourishment in poor countries. People who have the widest possible variety in their diets also tend to be the healthiest. One only has to visit the peoples in the East, Europe and other such areas to discover that these people are healthier, fitter and live longer that the typical Indian vegetarian. Even the well-fed ones.

Equating  non-vegetarianism with violence

This is something that pisses me off every single time I read about it. People from the cow-belt, the scripture toting, yoga fans, who live amongst people who kill, starve and take away personal agency from girl children, who support khap-panchayats and masturbate to “ancient Indian Glory” and the village life lecturing others on what does and does not constitute violence. Here is the simple truth!

There is no justice, fairness or kindness in nature. You can’t lecture a lion or a tiger on ahimsa. Right to life and happiness, right to food, right to education and right to justice are all human inventions created for our collective well-being. Human existence is a violent act. The self-superior vegetarian guys sitting inside comfy rooms insulated against the dangers and uncertainty of the wild, pecking away furiously at their keyboards in a frenzy of self-righteous indignation against all those inhuman meat-eaters fail to see the irony of their situation. If they think that human beings are being unjustified in treating other animals as less valuable than members of their own species, then they should go and kill themselves. By lightening the burden of human existence on this planet they will definitely save the habitats of countless animals and trees.

In this vast and frighteningly empty universe there is a filament of human sentience, fragile but beautiful nevertheless floating uncertainly in ultimate futility, creating its own meaning in the strength and complexity of its internal connections. We are the ones who constitute this filament. In this tremendous loneliness the only company we have are our brothers and sisters with whom we should be standing shoulder to shoulder. We don’t owe the earth or nature any more than we owe a rock. But, we need to take care of it and its diversity to the extent that we need it for our survival. That is the only kind of compassionate environmentalism possible. And that is precisely the brand of environmental protection practiced by sections of forest-dwellers and excluded people all over the world.

What constitutes violence?

Female foeticide is violence. Misogyny is violence. Denying people basic rights is violence. Poverty and deprivation is violence!

Torture of animals is wrong. Taking pleasure from their pain is the sign of a psychopath. But, making use of animal meat for food and nourishment of human beings is not evil. That doesn’t make you prone to violence or stupidity. If anything the evidence from India seems to be to the contrary. Kerala, West Bengal and other such non-vegetarian states feature the highest HD Indices while the benighted states of the cow-belt are wallowing in ignorant misogyny, violent masculinity and poisonous superstition. If anyone in the world thinks that meat-eaters are violent people or if they have some complicated theory for why eating animals makes you an environment-hating and violent anti-social(like this other equally irritating article in The Hindu did), there is a wonderful Indian invention for the number of fucks other people give about it. 0.

Quality of commentary in the paper

The quality of the intellectual commentary in The Hindu used to be good. But, over time it is deteriorating. The fall is made even more obvious because of comparisons that people draw with other liberal sources like NYT and NPR. These people never fail to impress. The piece by NPR featured Food Rights Activists from the region in question, even one vegetarian who has never touched an egg in his life arguing for the egg program for malnourished children. But, what did the Hindu do to get comments on it? Went to a privileged professor of media studies who is living and working in the seat of the decadent and hypocritical(according to him) western civilization with obviously zero knowledge of nutrition, subsistence lifestyles and grinding poverty to comment on it! How tragic! If they could find someone, maybe a parent of a child who would have been exposed to the program to comment on why the option of eggs is a bad idea rationally and objectively, that would have served to enlighten people and expand the debate.

Instead of perverting the discussion and confusing people.

Articles like these are becoming more common every day. Maybe it is in keeping in line with the growing sentiment of revanchism infecting the euphoric Hindu upper-class egged on by the administration of the country. Who knows!?

Treading on ice

When I woke up from my short and fitful sleep it was still very early. The Sun had barely risen and it was still very chilly outside. I coaxed myself out of my warm and cosy sleeping bag and out into the open. It was a glorious morning.

I stretched my limbs and breathed in the cold, sharp morning air. I felt the chill spread into my chest and suddenly, I felt very awake.

After breakfast we started on our short trek to the last camp below the pass. It was called Kharo. It is the last campsite below the snow-line and the one from which we would start the next day to cross the pass and descend into Spiti valley.

As we started on our trek, our guide pointed out a distant meandering stream and casually said that we would have to cross it to get to the other side.

I was thinking, “Yeah, so what? We have crossed so many streams”. But, as we started walking towards it I realized that this was one stream that I wouldn’t be hopping and skipping over in a hurry. The waters were flowing rapidly and there seemed to be treacherous gaps and sharp rocks lurking under the rushing planes of water. We walked up and down the stream looking for a place to cross it.

Eventually, our dependable guide found us a stretch where the waters were relatively shallow and spread out. I took off my shoes and waded into the water after him.

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Well, the next couple of minutes were a truly illuminating period for me. The water was ice-melt from a glacier just above us and it was only a few degrees above freezing. As I stepped onto the sharp pebbles and rocks with the water gushing over my feet I suddenly felt a sharp jab of pain in my legs. I desperately rushed to cross the stream behind my guide who somehow seemed to be completely unaffected by the brutal chill of the water made worse by the unsteady rocks and gushing water.

159-IMG_8676 As I stepped out of the water and jumped about a bit to get some feeling in my legs I felt the heat of the Sun soothe my feet and that immediately calmed me down. I sat down to let my legs dry before putting on my shoes.

I waited for some time as one by one all the guys caught up. As I was waiting there at the bend that would take us away from the valley, I turned around and gazed one last time at the magnificent valley that had hosted us the previous day.
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It would be the last time during the trip that I would be able to look upon such verdant beauty made complete by the streams and glaciers with the towering snow-capped peaks watching over it all… it was indeed a magnificent sight.

I turned back and started walking towards the mountains. The grass started growing sparser. The Sun beat down harshly and patches of dirty white ice started appearing along the trail.

After a short trek we reached the campsite.

After putting up the tents I jumped in to escape from the harsh elements. This was the worst of all the places we camped at during the entire trip.

The air was thin, the Sun beat down mercilessly and the air made our noses bleed. Inside the tent it was alternately baking hot and freezing cold as the Sun played hide and seek behind the clouds. Some of the guys came down with pounding headaches. I spent most of that day reading inside the tent and venturing out only to eat and wash myself.

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The next day was the one I had been waiting for all along. For the first time in my life I would get to walk on solid ice and be surrounded by the stuff while trekking across a pass separating a lush green valley and a spectacular dessert.

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As I and KP loaded up, tightened our straps and filled our bottles with electrolyte we discussed what it would be like. We started soon and after a couple of hours of determined climbing we came onto the first big glacier. I looked ahead and saw the guide walk over it as if nothing had really changed.

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So, I too followed suit and stepped onto the ice and walked on confidently. But, immediately I realized that something was not right. My shoes started sliding and slipping as I pushed off with my toes.

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Very soon it had become impossible to walk normally and I was struggling. After a couple of falls the guide turned back and told me to wedge my toes into the ice with every step to prevent my feet from sliding about. I tried it and it worked!

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So, I was again walking smoothly and enjoying the view around me. But, then I came to some rocks and suddenly my leg plunged through some thin ice into a hollow. That shook me up pretty badly.

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Having your feet disappear under you when trekking on ice is not a pleasant experience. My one friend then explained to me that the rocks get heated by the sun and cause the ice surrounding them to become soft and unstable and advised me against walking too close to them.

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So, we went on like that. Through that unreal landscape… through blinding white ice, heading for the gap in the mountains,  breathing hard and taking controlled steps while keeping a wary eye out for rocks sticking out through the ice.

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It was with a sense of relief that I gingerly stepped onto the ice near the edge of a glacier and hopped onto steady land. Each time, hoping that I wouldn’t have to step onto another glacier again. Only to be faced with the next one within a few metres.

It looked like my reluctance to walk on flaky, soft and slippery ice was going to get beaten out of me that day. After a long time spent trudging through the ice the top was finally in sight. After another breathless lunge at the peak we were finally there… and it felt strange to be there.

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One one side was the green Kinnaur valley. Standing on the lip of pass turning to the other side one could see the vast, surreal and intimidating bareness of the Spiti valley. The claw marks that the glaciers had ripped into the mountains on their way down, the mineral patterns, the river flowing through a gorge in the valley, an endless desert speckled with green meadows here and there….

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It was shocking to see two such vastly different ecosystems at the same time. After spending some time at the top we started on our way down.

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Going down steep icy slopes can be either very dignified and difficult or easy and fun depending on the type of guy you are and the chill-resistance-rating of your butt.

Those black specks in the ice are guys sliding down

Those black specks in the ice are guys sliding down

After a long time spent jamming my leg into the ice and gingerly walking behind the guide, I finally gave up and just jumped onto the ice and slid down the rest of the way!

Well, there were few occasions in life that were more fun.

The rest  of the guys followed suit and we had a swell time.

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But, some of them didn’t have waterproof pants like me and their behinds paid the price for it.

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This is how people walk when their behinds are sore

The rest of the way was all big, big boulders and rocks and after that some more rocks interspersed with stretches of ice and ice-melt. The ice-melt was converging into a stream.

A crevasse formed by a fissure in the glacier

A crevasse formed by a fissure in the glacier

We had lunch at a spot somewhere along the way. Most of the other guys were having pounding head-aches. I was feeling nauseated from lack of water and food. I ate something and drank the ice-cold water from the stream with great difficulty and felt better soon.

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The long trek to our campsite

After several more kilometers of trekking we finally came to the campsite and settled in for the night!

What a day it had been! Every bit as exciting as I had hoped it would be. Next day’s adventures in another post!

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His aversion to religion, in the sense usually attached to the term, was of the same kind with that of Lucretius: he regarded it with the feelings due not to a mere mental delusion, but to a great moral evil. He looked upon it as the greatest enemy of morality: first, by setting up factitious excellencies — belief in creeds, devotional feelings, and ceremonies, not connected with the good of human kind — and causing these to be accepted as substitutes for genuine virtue: but above all, by radically vitiating the standard of morals; making it consist in doing the will of a being, on whom it lavishes indeed all the phrases of adulation, but whom in sober truth it depicts as eminently hateful.

John Stuart Mill on his father

Found this quote while randomly reading stuff. It sums up beautifully and succinctly the whole of my last post.

 

Religions and morals

A lot of people harbor a deep suspicion of atheism and atheists. I was recently reminded of this while reading an article on how admitting that one is an atheist would badly effect his/her chances when running for a public office.

This has always struck me as a rather strange phenomenon and I have often wondered why someone would fear/doubt an atheist more than a guy who believes in God. Religious institutions have done a very good job of convincing a lot of people that all the morals required for a person to participate peacefully in the process that society is comes solely from them.

The business of giving advice

It is definitely an easy thing to do. The various institutions which exist in the name of religion and spirituality are more than happy to tell you that everything there is to know and understand about human morality has already been made clear to them through the word of God. Moreover they are willing to interpret these words in the light of the various dogmas they bandy about to tell you what you should do. In return for a sufficient amount of money of course.

But, are they doing a good job of it? I mean, when you pay them to tell you what you should do with your lives you are certainly not acting like an adult. But, at the very least you have the right to expect some value for your money. Right? Maybe a more important and perhaps basic question is whether they really are capable of doing the job they claim belongs to them, well.

Is the business based on a sound product?

I have tried a lot to put aside my very profound disagreement with religion, the kind of philosophy that drives it and the conclusions it arrives at. Most of my problems with it stem from the fact that I have a very strong passion for truth and a belief that it has some intrinsic value which is worth significant sacrifices. Not a lot of people nowadays claim that the religious texts are literally true simply because they look more and more ridiculous with the passage of time. The defense of religion nowadays finds its material in the problem of the source of human morality and the need for psychological comfort and support in times of distress and depression.

If you are going to claim that you already have with you everything required to make an informed decision about such a complex and subtle problem as morals then will you be open to asking deeper questions and critically looking at your own suggestions?

Secondly, given the fact that almost every religious book is full of contradictions, how do you go about choosing which directions to follow, which stories to take in their literal sense, which ones are metaphorical etc. etc.. People in the know say that you have to use your “common sense” or if you feel like you are not up to it leave the questions to the people “qualified” to do it. If it is possible to twist the sometimes incoherent and ambiguous texts into something that YOU THINK sounds right, then what really is the role of the text? Can’t you arrive at the same conclusions by yourself or better still through a wider consultation among people with different perspectives? Going one step further, aren’t these texts of dubious sources and doubtful intentions a force constraining when it comes to reasoning out deep and confusing questions?

Thirdly and this where hints of my problem with religion based philosophy not regarding truth with the value it deserves starts becoming apparent. If you are going to go around saying that somehow you know better than everyone else how everyone should act, then you either be ready to battle the world with your wits or if you are too lazy for that claim the backing of some authority that everyone respects and fears.

You know what everyone fears, respects and bows to!? Yep, you guessed it right! It is the UNKNOWN! Something you are told you cannot understand, control or communicate with yet possesses total and absolute power over you. A lot of people have traced the origins of supernatural thinking to holes in man’s understanding of the world. Though it is an ever shrinking one, it will always be there and it will always have some power over our lives. But, some people have succeeded in assigning an anthropomorphic personality to it and claiming its backing for their actions and words.

The authority

Whatever you say or do has value only as long as people continue to believe in that authority. It is only then you escape from the need to provide clear reasons or results in support of your prescriptions for life decisions. So, it becomes of paramount importance that you first and foremost drive into everyone’s psyche the importance of never doubting that authority. To value faith above all else. To not question you. This is important because this is where it all starts. Built on this foundation of lies the tottering edifice of religious morality rises up in search of answers to the bigger problems. It is only when you start moving away from the stink of the foundation that you get anywhere even close to solving the problems you are interested in.

Where this gets us

Well, what is the end result of it all. More often than not it results in a kind of moral inversion. Instead of starting from the question of what one should do to leave peacefully with others you started with ensuring that whatever you say carries the weight of the truth without any need for experimentation or the difficult test of passing the critical scrutiny of society.

What does this inversion mean? Things that are really important, like honesty, integrity, civic sense, non-violence etc. become somehow less important than making the required contributions to your priests, chastity, credulity, not pissing off your God and ensuring that everyone hears about him or better still believes in him.

It is really when we get to this point that the defense of religion on the grounds that it somehow makes people more moral starts to fall apart. Good people generally speaking find justification for and enough motivation to be good to others. No matter what their religion. The reason for this is that man evolved to be a social animal. That is why the overwhelming majority of people in the world are good. But the bad ones will simply twist things to suit them. Moreover some good people, people of action and strong convictions can simply and easily be prodded into taking their religion too seriously and through that made to do grievous harm to others. The really sad thing is that the firm conviction and absolute trust that unquestioning faith creates in people can act to undermine their own consciences and abate their natural guilt.

An example

There is this funny story I know about a friend of mine. I always used to think that it illustrates the problem of misplaced priorities of faith-based morality pretty well. This friend used to regularly download porn(rather copious quantities of it) on his neighbor’s unsecured Wi-Fi connection. He used to tell us that watching porn was anyway a pretty bad sin that would need some serious confessing to wash away. But, it can’t be helped. He was relieved that at least he didn’t have to pay for his weakness.  This reasoning always used to make me laugh. Watching porn is something people do privately and I can’t think of anything bad that could come out of it. In fact, it might even be helping the mighty American Porn Industry. Not to mention lots of talented young guys and gals who make money from something they are passionate about and enjoy doing!(Hahaha). Plus, in our deeply repressed society it might help douse some fires and improve the collective mood a bit. But, using the neighbor’s Wi-Fi without permission is a pretty bad thing in my book. You are exploiting a guy’s ignorance for your own benefit. It seems even worse, in light of the fact that if the friend ever ran into some trouble that guy wouldn’t mind helping him out.

When things that don’t really matter are blown up into huge crimes it blinds us to the things that actually hurt other people.

I have no problem with people even the ones who are in my life and closely associated with me being religious. But their faith should be a personal matter and it cannot be allowed to influence decisions that affect everyone. On a larger scale, I think, our society needs to consider questions of ethics, law and state powers as completely separate from questions of faith and not allows faith-based bodies to interfere with decision-making in these areas.

Spare the rod and spoil the child… or not

Today, as I was going through The Hindu, I came upon the shocking news of the stabbing of a teacher in Chennai by a 15 yr old boy. Two pages in the paper were devoted to articles about it and reading them made feel very uncomfortable.

Every time something like this happens suddenly there is an outpouring of opinion against a perceived cause. There are reminiscences of a golden period when children used to be beaten up and abused and how they grew up to be such awesome people and all.

Then I came upon this passage,

NEW RULES FOR GENNEXT

Schools have also revised their rules to cater to GenNext. “Spare the rod and spoil the child” has now given way to “Strictly no corporal punishment!” No longer can a teacher scold a student, or lay a finger on him, for fear of damaging the sensitive psyche of the child. Of course, when we were growing up, there was no such thing as a sensitive psyche, which was actually a good thing. For, we grew up well able to handle ourselves and the tough world beyond!

Today psychologists talk about young plants needing protection to grow, and warn that negativity might maim a child’s mind! So words like ‘fail’ and ‘poor’ are taboo, and ranks have been replaced with grades to boost the child’s self-esteem. The latest principle: overprotect a child to the extent that he is scared to death by any challenge — exams, competitions, a strict word, a rebuke before his peers, any kind of failure!

The author lavishes condescension on the psychologists who think they know better and talks with resignation about the situation where a teacher cannot physically punish a child. He laments that this is the reason kids are not strong nowadays and has also in a small article discovered the reason for the murder. It is because, instead of physically punishing the kid in front of the class or verbally abusing him which would have been perfectly fine with him, she took to the “brutal” course of action of writing a comment in his diary. This is what caused the kid to do something so horrible. After reading it I was reeling from the shock delivered by this kind of reasoning to my mind.

Then I came across another article in which the words from the Bible,

“He who spareth the rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him correcteth him betimes,”

were quoted.

Apparently a 1600 yr old document of questionable sources and even more questionable ideas is somehow more authoritative than the findings of modern psychologists and insights gleaned from our experiences.

The essence of these articles

I was thinking about what really the articles were trying to say. It was really hard for me as obviously the topic is so serious and one has to be always careful about not coming off as insensitive or unsympathetic. Plus, the scorn for modernity, glorification of the past and the intensely emotional tone of the articles make it harder to discern the main idea.

I guess, it is OK to express one’s feelings about the incident and try and ask some questions about why this happened. But, that is not what these articles are trying to do. They have already discovered the reason for the murder. It is because of all these modern and fancy ideas on raising children and because the kid was not given the benefit of corporal punishment. The teacher, because of rules and regulations was prevented from doing the right thing, ie, beating up or humiliating the kid and instead decided to resort to writing home. That coupled with today’s “soft” way of raising children is the cause of the whole mess. The tone of all the articles is that somehow students are not being treated roughly enough and that teachers are being victimized by draconian and ill-thought-out rules which are lacking in practicality and clash with our tradition.

I personally think that the teacher at least, did the right thing and her death was in no way the result of her refusal to beat or humiliate anyone in front of others. That is one comfort that I think should not be denied to those close to her.

Corporal punishment

Before I go on any further I have to be very clear about my position on this topic. Almost all advances in the field of child and human psychology point to the dangers and high risk of futility of resorting to violence and humiliation to discipline children. The reasons for this are very similar to the ones given for banning ragging on college campuses.

I nor my closest friends have not had any bad experiences due to ragging. In fact making air dosas, proposing to unknown girls and forced dancing were actually great fun for me.

But, I know of many people who had to undergo brutal beatings and unspeakable humiliation as a result of the practice. When the law banning it was passed I could have written a poisonous and sugary article about the “fun” we had and how ragging strengthens our psyche and how it made me a better person and so on. I could have said that the reason college students commit suicide these days is because they haven’t been ragged or “broken-in” by their seniors who care about them. I could have…, but it would have been a rape of decency and disrespectful to those people who have been scarred by this inhuman practice and in some cases even lost their lives because of it.

Corporal punishment is an offense of gravity similar to ragging. Actually, in my opinion the former is worse than the latter because of the greater degree of asymmetry in power. Any situation in which you are in a position of weakness and are at the mercy of people who cannot be guaranteed to have your best interests at heart is not a desirable situation. But, sometimes such situations are unavoidable and even necessary. In such cases there is a need to absolutely restrain people in charge from using violence. The reasons for this are many.

One, when violence is given a free pass the discretion to exercise its power falls into the hands of people whose standards can never be guaranteed. Whatever small advantage may accrue from using physical punishment to enforce discipline is outweighed by the possibility of abuse resulting from frustration, runaway emotions, lack of training of the mentors or laziness to look for better solutions that such an easy way to silence children encourages.

Two, for every guy or girl who recounts such incidents and laughs at them, there is another who can never forget the fear, humiliation and violence. That feeling of having his/her spirit broken and subdued through force. That feeling of helplessness that comes from not being guaranteed safety of his person. I still now remember in vivid detail every single person who has laid a finger on me apart from my parents. While I may laugh at those incidents I can remember the intensity of my emotions then and would not wish them for any one else.

Three, and this is the one that I can’t believe all those “sensitive” authors missed, is the justification for discouraging violence and promoting discourse and reason through corporal punishment. How is it that a young  mind that is being abused and beaten up supposed to figure out that it is not OK to resort to violence even when we have the power to use it without injury to ourselves? How is the value of reason and logical persuasion supposed to be reinforced through shouting, abuse, humiliation or beatings? How are they going to realize that with power comes greater responsibility and expectation of restraint? How are they going to figure out that physical advantage is supposed to make you tolerant and secure and not vindictive and violent?

What can be expected from a child who has been brought up with the help of a “rod”? What can be expected of him once he marries a woman who is generally speaking going to be physically weaker than him? Is it okay if he is allowed to hand out “negative reinforcement” in physical form at his discretion to “improve” his wife? What can be expected from him once he has kids? What can be expected from him once his parents grow old and weak? Will the fear imprinted in him be enough to prevent him from paying back in the same currency? Will it be enough to create “respect” for others in him?

I know that a lot of people think that fear of something is necessary for good behavior. This is probably also the reason why a lot of people are afraid to let go of religion and notions of a Super-Spy-God. But, what will happen when someone realizes that no one is looking? What will happen when he gets an opportunity to take unfair advantage of something or someone without fear of consequence? Good character should be the result of the realization that it can bring lasting peace and happiness to everyone and not because of fear of anything.

What really drove the boy to commit this heinous crime?

Honestly speaking, I don’t know. But I do know that it is not because of the restraint shown by the teacher. It might have been possible that he was a disturbed kid and people around him failed to notice it and provide him with adequate professional support in the form of counselling, treatment, extra help etc.. Maybe he had not realized with sufficient force that violence is never an answer to anything. Maybe that is why a single movie motivated him to commit murder. I don’t know and I don’t think I am qualified enough to investigate the question.

What advocacy for corporal punishment really means?

Do we really believe in democracy and freedom of expression. Do we really believe in the foundations of our national character? Why don’t we think that a dictatorial leadership can help us? Why is that the world is wary of people being granted unchallenged power no matter how well intentioned or qualified they are? Why is it that the world has decided that a noisy, talkative and inefficient democracy is better than an efficient, decisive and fast-moving dictatorship? Why is it that people think it is important to convince people about what is good for them instead of just forcing them to do whatever it is that authorities think is right? Why is that torture has been banned by almost all the advanced countries despite its potential for providing sometimes life-saving information?

There is a pattern here. No matter what the potential for good is, if there is even a small possibility of irreparable harm or despotic and unchallenged power, that way is not acceptable to us. We have to trust ourselves to find a better way out of the situation.

The need to say no unconditionally to violence

A child is not something lesser than a man or a woman. They too have the same level of sensitivity and emotions. Maybe in a more natural and unpolluted form. The way to mold them is not by de-sensitizing them. But, by tuning them to be sensitive to other’s feelings as well.

Sometimes, I have seen mothers sit down and sob uncontrollably after beating their kids due to guilt and remorse. There is something terribly wrong about inflicting physical and emotional injury on a child and even people who have not studied human behavior in a scientific manner realize that. Sometimes, I wonder whether both children and parents can be saved a lot of emotional distress if physical violence was considered an absolute taboo no matter how grave the provocation…

It is important that this case is studied by experts and recommendations made to prevent re-occurrences. But, the initial emotional outbursts should not be allowed to undermine the painstakingly made gains in the field of child rights and scientific education and their social acceptance.

Sometimes, breaking rules is the only way to ensure justice

Today, I learned that Salman Rushdie has decided to not come for the Jaipur Literary festival after all citing death threats. This is on top of the fact that his book The Satanic Verses is still banned in India. Coming on the heels of the death of the great MF Hussain as a citizen of Quatar in a hospital in London and various other such events this news was very depressing for me. I have always found such incidents to be shameful and every time something like this happens, it is like someone has violated my own sense of security and feeling of freedom.

How is that a bunch of good for nothing bigots who have contributed very little intellectually, culturally, economically or socially apart from serving as dead-weight on the ankle of India who is in a mortal struggle to free herself from debilitating social evils and systemic problems get to decide on what others should or should not do? How is it that they have a right to be outraged when people don’t take their god or gods or prophets or whatever seriously? Why is that their sense of outrage at books being written or words spoken more important in the eyes of society than the outrage of the common man at having his freedom to enjoy what he likes, to travel wherever he wants or his right to personal safety violated?

Anyone can believe in anything. That is up to them and their right to do so is something that is worthy of protection by every member of our society. But, to think that everyone should respect what they respect as a result of their beliefs is a mistake and  if such desires are indulged it can do immeasurable harm to the intellectual and moral fabric of our society. If the government is going to accept that no ideas that can “offend” people can be disseminated then where are we going to find material with which we can evaluate, understand and question ourselves? If intellectuals, artists and activists have to operate under the yoke of religious bigotry and blackmail by pre-modern  organizations, then what hope do we have as a society of progress and enlightenment?

If the government is worried about the hurt caused to people why doesn’t it take into account the outrage that the decent, hard-working moderate majority of India feels on seeing their fellow citizens of talent, ability and erudition threatened? What about their hurt at finding out that the government won’t be willing to side with them in a confrontation with violent bigotry? What about their opinion on books and movies denied to them because it is offensive to someone else?

What is this “offense” or insult anyway!? I have the right to say no to anything that can happen inside my house or be exposed to without my express intent. I shouldn’t be allowed to decide what others should read, what others should write, what should be available on the book-shelves of India, what DVDs and CDs are available for purchase, what audio can be distributed, what can be there on the internet etc. etc.. If there are outright lies being published under the guise of fact, I can challenge them in court with a request for evidence.

There is a silent, faceless enemy among us, stalking our future. It fills the dark deprived recesses of our society and uses the cover afforded it by the ignorance and helplessness of the masses. The authorities think that they are “playing it safe” by forfeiting every challenge thrown its way. They think that they are doing the people a favor by allowing them to be lead by people with a divisive and communal ideology motivated by political aims and personal ambitions. Every time the people in charge, whose responsibility it is to know better and safeguard our values and true legacy take a step back and shy away from confrontation, they are simply setting themselves up for a bigger challenge in the future. The stakes will be higher and giving up might not be a  tenable option then…

The government does not ban every book, movie or painting that offends any number of people. Only when there is a threat of violence does it rush to oblige the demands made of it. What does that tell people who are taught to be intolerant? That if you ask nicely no matter how reasonable you are no one is going to listen to you. But, if you are going to make a lot of noise and threaten to unleash death and violence then whatever you want will be given to you. When civil rights organizations, authors’ guilds and decent people request the government for lawful protection the government has a moral obligation to listen. Else, eventually, the only people left with options will be the ones prepared to kill and once everyone realizes that, we will be only a stone’s throw away from anarchy and bloodshed.

The constitution sadly provides protection(Section 295A of the IPC) against criticism targeted at religious ideas. But, what about injury targeted at more universal ideas like freedom or expression, right to criticize and right to question? Are they not worthy of at least as much protection as old fairy tales? Reading the First Amendment to the US constitution was an instructive experience for me. It cannot be the business of the government to act as the protector of religious dogmas.

It is not enough that the government does not ban anything, it has to step in and use its muscle to protect people when rights are under attack. We have no issue with deploying massive forces against our own people. We don’t mind it when government machinery and money is put to use to maintain and service pilgrimage routes and to help people make pilgrimages. When there is an individual being threatened we must not think in terms of his security. It is our own freedom that is under attack. Nothing can be more precious and worthy of defense than that.

I read today in the morning paper that the authors at JLF read out passages from The Satanic Verses as a gesture of resistance. Individuals showed courage and vision that is worthy of emulation by our country. People like them are the ones who keep the flickering flame of hope for this country burning.

Paranormality by Richard Wiseman

I had spent the Onam holidays at home. Sleeping, eating, watching movies and generally just letting myself redefine the boundaries of laziness. I also read this delightful book that I had bought but did not up until then have time to read.

It was an insightful, light, engaging and exciting book.  I have read similar books before. Like Phantoms in the Brain by Dr.Ramachandran and Dragons of Eden by Carl Sagan. The book was funny in a very subtle way and featured a lot of DIY experiments. It was also a very unique book.

Most books that deal with paranormal phenomena simply give natural reasons and explanations for allegedly supernatural occurrences. But, that is not the main aim of this book. This book instead tries to focus on one of the several reasons that are generally considered to be the reason behind such things. Human fallibility. It tries to look at why our brains mislead us and the possible reasons for the existence of such chinks in our cognitive abilities. So, it is essentially a book more focused on understanding ourselves than anything else.

Our tendency to protect our ego, our beliefs and our self from perceived dangers, our ability to see patterns, to weed out unnecessary information and focus on the essential etc. are abilities that are necessary for our day-to–day life. But these same abilities and gifts can, given a set of conditions mislead and fool us. The book exploits these incidents to try to gain a deeper understanding of the inner workings of the brain.

The  part where the nature of free-will is analyzed was wicked-cool. The idea that one section of our brains is tricking another section into thinking that it is in control was interesting. I was really impressed by the way our brains carefully build up and preserve the illusions of consciousness and sense of agency. The book details how one can muck around with these things by oneself and some of the experiments described were very exciting.

There is one another chapter that really struck me. It dealt with how cults arise and certain personalities manage to gain absolute and total control over a huge number of people. I have witnessed this phenomenon in real life. Almost all of us have. I have always been doubtful of the claim that you can control another person using hypnosis and make him do things that he does not want to do. This book too is deeply critical of that idea. But, it goes on to point out that by studying cults one can learn a far more effective method of controlling other people. The tragic Jonestown incident is described in some detail to describe how such methods work in real life.

Very often we fail to realize that we are surrounded by and soaked with stuff that are so intricate, beautiful and mysterious. We don’t notice these beautiful things and don’t make an effort to understand and appreciate them. The book tries to explain the need for a more critical outlook on things and how it can lead one to a deeper and more meaningful appreciation of the world and it’s workings…