Friday, March 29, 2013

Opinions, bias and independent thinking

This is a post I wrote last year but had not published.

I must confess that I have gotten into a habit online over the last several years, one that has both benefited and harmed me.
I have been a news junkie, an imdb junkie, a Wikipedia junkie of people and, well, a person obsessed with lots of stuff periodically. Therefore, I silently prowl Yahoo, MSN and many other websites. These days, I only do it occasionally to keep things under control.
I can't resist reading the comments either. Yahoo and some other websites have comments that fall in the range of thousands.

Do you have time to kill that you can't seem to know what to do with?
All you have to read is a couple or more articles and before long, your entire afternoon of 3-4 hours is completely wasted on reading hundreds of comments which are mostly different versions of the same recipe of soup.

Why am I so attracted to op-eds and commentary? Maybe it is the avid student speaker/debater in me. Maybe it is because I have had family members in the legal profession or who are intelligent and opinionated with concern for social and political issues. Anyway, this tendency is a double-edged sword.

If you are trying to improve your reading speed or comprehension abilities, this is an excellent choice of activity.

The most fun are those comments that are replies and counter replies. Some are downright rude, some are clever retorts and some are, well, deleted or hidden due to their poor quality or extremely profane language. Sometimes, these hidden comments may have a valid point.

These days, you can give a thumbs up or down on someone else's opinion, just the way you like something on Facebook. I often wonder why some perfectly good replies get thumbs downs. Say, there is an article about religion. You post something to the effect that you don't believe in God and don't get why people believe in some of the irrational ideas that some religious book tells you to. I can bet on this - you will most certainly get a few thumbs downs. Depending on which country the site hails from and the political/religious bent of the majority of its readers, you can get more thumbs ups or thumbs downs.
The same goes if you post something to the effect that God controls everything and that the Bible/Koran/Gita/x-religious-book is the absolute and unquestionable word of God.

If you want to develop a thick skin and a spine, a.k.a. the courage of your convictions, try posting something that you truly believe in that is not exactly mainstream thought yet and get ready for the thumbs downs and worse.

All said and done, the quality of a website's comments does reflect on it. Personally, I have seen some blogs and websites such as MSN Slate where the comments are very articulate and intelligent. One can actually learn something from reading other people's opinions or about their experiences.

Participating in an online discussion is also good practice for developing your debating and overall communication skills, abilities that could come in very handy if you are in any position that requires verbal negotiation.
I remember going in for interviews when I was straight out of college. I have also heard this from my friends who attempted to get into MBA programs. There is a round called Group Discussion or GD for short, after the initial written screening in which you have proved your analytical abilities to the point where you can be considered competent enough to code or understand spreadsheets or pie charts or whatever else your job is all about.
In this round, one has to be able to discuss a topic with people without shouting out the competition or antagonizing them to the point where they corner you later in a dark alley:). Being a timid mouse won't do either. One has to be able to get one's point across eloquently to the rest of the group while weighing the pros and cons of other people's opinions.
Online discussions are good preparation for developing such discussion and negotiating skills.

For me, online forums are a way of sampling the society that I live in. People tend to be more politically incorrect and brash online, maybe because of the anonymity that the Internet offers. When I came to the United States, it was a great way to check out people's opinions on everything ranging from politics and religion to their personal relationships. I also got to know Indians better that way:).
Do you want to get a feel for people in a certain region of the world? Check out their major news outlets and the comments section. Of course, the readers of any publication only represent a small minority in that country so one has to be careful not to generalize.
To be better informed, check out both the conservative and the liberal ones ( know, I have too much time on my hands).

After the Colorado gun shooting incident, I checked out news sites in the US and the Guardian from UK. It is enlightening to see how vastly gun control ideas differ on both sides of the Atlantic.


Now, for the downside. How many of you watch a movie or read a book without checking out the reviews first? Well, most of us do because we simply do not have the time or energy to plod through an inane movie or lackluster book even if it were given to us for free.
However, we might entirely dismiss a work of art purely because it did not rank high enough on the critics/popular opinion scale. Ditto for restaurants.

Guess what, many artists who are today's legends were yesterday's great-but-not-the-greatest. For something to become a classic, it has to be tested by time. I was reading about William Shakespeare on Wikipedia the other day and learnt that he became even more famous well after his death. This does not mean that he was considered substandard in his times, he had certainly made a name for himself.
The spread of the English language around the world and the popularity of his plays on the stage led to further acclaim over the ages.

Another case in point - the tragic romantic Indian novel, "Devdas" by the famous Bengali author, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, that has been adapted into movies more than once, one of the most famous recent adaptations being the one that had Bollywood stars Shahrukh KhanAishwarya Rai and Madhuri Dixit in it.
"Devdas" was published many years after it was written and has achieved an astounding level of popularity in posterity. To its credit, the author did live to see its success with film adaptations even during his lifetime.

A few years ago, I was reading the preface to Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights". It is amusing to read contemporary critiques of her work. Many thought that the novel transgressed accepted social standards of morality and propriety. After so many years, we know that it stands in a league of its own.

I wonder though how many more legendary playwrights/authors existed whose work we do not read much these days? If you consider all the languages of the world, there must be a staggering amount of literature that falls under the category of 'timeless classic'. Yet, we may know nothing about it.

It is easy to get biased and praise a work just because it is a classic while overlooking its flaws. As an exercise, take any great classic author or artist and objectively look at their work. What did you feel was lacking as compared to say the work of a lesser known artist that you admire?

This tendency to be part of the crowd is precisely what Nassim Nicholas Taleb talks about in his thought-provoking and ground-breaking book, "The Black Swan". He also warns us of "silent evidence", the great people or works that never made it to the podium of public acknowledgement but are nevertheless priceless in their own right.

This bias extends to virtually any sphere of life. Thanks to the "Please gimme a  break" cynics on the Internet comment boards, the media cannot get away that easily with "Sexiest Man in the World", "Most Beautiful Woman in the World", "Greatest Movie of All Times" and other superlative lists.

They say that a lie when told repeatedly, starts to sound like the truth. If we are not aware, we could be easily swayed by the images and words that we are constantly bombarded with.


Once, I picked up a novel without reading a preface or looking it up online. That was "The Citadel" by A. J. Cronin. It tells the story of an idealistic young English doctor who starts his practice in impoverished villages in Wales, his marriage and the slow corruption of his ideals with the passage of time. When I borrowed this book from my former local library, it was a plain hardcover edition with no pictures or jacket with a synopsis. I decided to read it with an open mind.
Although I must admit I skimmed through some portions or even entirely skipped them, I still enjoyed it. It is a story that is very relevant to every day and age and every society in the world.
The loss of our ideals and the compromises that we make at every stage in our life is a universal human experience.

Summing up, do try to watch a movie or read a book if you like the synopsis of the story. Watch a lesser known play. Go hear a local band play in your bar. See an art exhibition even if you know little about the artist. If you have some free time and if it doesn't cost much money, it is always worthwhile to expand one's horizons and develop critical thinking of one's own, not moulded by the opinions of others.
Admire the natural beauty of your friends and family, even though none of them may ever make it to any popular list. Take pleasure in and compliment them on their talents and accomplishments, be it a painting they made for you, a poem they wrote or a melody that they played proficiently.

While you are at all this, have fun!


Friday, March 22, 2013

India Musings - I

In my last post, I mentioned my long trip to India.

What can I say? Going back to your home country dredges up deep emotions that you either never knew existed or just suppressed as you went about your daily life in a foreign country, slaving away at your job and socializing, having fun in general.
This time, the emotions were far more raw.

India, my home of several years, is growing and changing. Just like all other changing places and people, some changes are lovely and others are quite ugly.

On one hand, you see swanky new malls and multiplexes and fast food joints. There is also an aspirational youth, taking up all kinds of study and launching business ventures, making movies, music and art, participating in plays and competitions and all kinds of performances.

On the other hand, there is the ugly side of rising crime and cities that are pushed to the brink with overcrowding and pollution. The crime is truly worrying. The level of trust among people seems to be eroding with attacks on senior citizens right in their homes to the abduction, rape and murder of young children.

A few days ago, as the world celebrated International Women's Day, I was reminded of the braveheart whom a section of the Indian media had named "Nirbhaya" (Sanskrit for 'fearless') - the 23 year old gang rape victim in Delhi who shook the consciousness of the nation. There are countless other victims, some who are far younger and whose cases probably never get the coverage that this got.
While I was in Mumbai, within a span of a month, I read about two major assaults on young women, one of them was a foreigner who was raped in her own flat and the second one ended up losing her life.

Despite the outrage, the protests and some judicial reforms taking place, crimes still continue. There seems to be a tinderbox of anger and frustration that is resulting in crimes even in domestic environments. All the while, as my family members, friends and acquaintances lament the general state of affairs, we all ask the question - Why.

What is it that turns entire groups of men into gangs of rapists who show absolutely no mercy on their hapless victims? Every nation has its fair share of perverts and pedophiles but there are some places where sexual crimes have crossed the realm of explanation from mental illness to a form of social cancer. Social activists, media and politicians, joined by the general public, have all come up with explanations, the most common being the patriarchal culture that has long treated women as sub par.

All this in a country that worships Mother Goddesses, reveres mothers, whose religious epics exhort people to treat all women who are not your wife as your own mothers and sisters.

What is even more alarming is that we hear of more cases of acid attacks and other assaults on young women in the media, perpetuated by rowdies and jilted suitors.  In the past, such cases were heard of quite rarely, but somehow, these days, I see more of them spanning newspaper pages and grabbing headlines on primetime television.
Is it because the media is more aggressive in highlighting these incidents or is it the fallout of the increasing gap between the old India where women stayed home and wore traditional outfits and the new India where females are venturing out, making a statement of their own in every possible way?

Nirbhaya's ordeal and death and some other cases have truly left us deeply affected, searching for answers and solutions, and there has been a rise in anger, anger of the right kind that brings about fundamental change in society.

I was recently watching the wonderful movie, "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel", a hopeful comedy about a group of British expats in their golden years, who get a new lease of life and hope after they spend some time in Rajasthan, India. In the movie, the characters talk about all the "colors, light and joy" around and Tom Wilkinson's character makes a memorable statement along the lines of "how people here treat life as a privilege, not as a right".

Alas, in real news, you hear about stories such as these. I feel terrible for these victims. Foreigners who come to India with innocence and hopes of discovering an ancient, mystical, diverse land have not just their dreams shattered, but their psyche, too.

The Indian Paradox -

As I said before,  India has been a land of Goddess worshippers. Indian epics consecrate womanhood, motherhood and all things feminine.
However, Indian epics also extol the chastity and fidelity of a woman. Thus, the faithful and beautiful Sita of the Ramayana is made to undergo an 'agnipariksha' (literally translating to "fire test") to prove her chastity after being abducted by Ravana.
Draupadi of the Mahabharata is disrobed publicly as part of a wager and is saved by the grace of Krishna. In the end, her humiliation and violation are avenged by her husbands (yes, husbands - she was in a polyandrous marriage because of the word of her mother-in-law - read more on Wikipedia here).

The Indian Constitution gave equal rights to women from the day of its institution, including the right to vote.
Indian women have held the office of Prime Minister, Chief Minister, Chief Justice, Speaker of the House and even the President.
There are women CEOs, school principals, professors, doctors, lawyers, film directors, singers, actresses and artists.

Yet, many have experienced molestation and violence, particularly the underprivileged sections. Many of the problems that any society faces have their root causes in culture; legislation usually falls in step with the prevailing mindset of the times.
Even with legislation that protects the life and dignity of every individual, there is the gap between the ideals that a society aspires to and the ground reality.

Indians have long lived with their troubles, making do with their own maneuvers and little getting-around tricks, never really challenging the status quo legally or culturally.
True, India had laws punishing rape and molestation and harassment of women was portrayed in cinema and protested against, but matters were only taken into the legal sphere when there was actual rape or severe molestation. Added to the already vitiated atmosphere was the notion that the woman had been "spoilt". In fact, this is the word for "raped" in some Indian languages. English has words like "deflowered", too, for a loss of virginity. Rape is one of the rare crimes where the victim is also blamed.

Girls dressed fashionably, but only after looking around to check the overall culture of the city or village they were in. Eve-teasers (guys who passed comments at girls, sometimes harassing or following them) were generally ignored unless the matter got serious. College authorities, parents and others usually kept an eye on the day-to-day happenings and had things under control.

Groping strangers in public transportation vehicles were usually dealt with loud words, slaps or protests, or instinctive maneuvering to avoid perverts (I now think many women are armed with invisible antennae, a kind of sixth sense that they use to protect themselves in crowds). Other right-minded passengers would usually rally for the victim and help her out.

Harassment was severe in some parts of India, not so much in certain liberal city neighborhoods where girls freely roamed around in jeans or skirts, sometimes even in shorts. Mumbai and Bangalore are typically considered open and relatively "safe" though crimes against women are on the rise there, too. There is no absolutely safe place in India, or for that matter, anywhere in the world.

I have heard stories of young girls whose education has suffered because they were being stalked by some random dude on the street. Girls are often advised to cover up, wear traditional Indian outfits so as to not attract unwanted attention, to not chat much with the opposite sex and stick to their books and classes, be good girls and get married to a suitable guy that their parents approved of, once they completed graduation. Woe unto the poor girl if she was blessed with uncommon good looks!

Even today, dumb politicians make dumb comments such as this - girls wearing skirts attract trouble.

However, I have rarely heard of any of the stalkers being reprimanded.
Can you imagine such things being tolerated in any developed country? Stalking and harassing someone can easily get you a prison term in those places.

As some newspaper columnists have noted, Indian movies openly glorified heroes chasing their objects of affection until they said, "Yes". Real life wannabe Romeos went about whistling and leering at girls and passing lewd comments, without any thought for their feelings and reactions. While I am not saying that movies and television cause people to behave in a certain manner, they do add to the white noise of the culture that silently shapes people's minds.
Note: There is a huge difference at attracting some stares on the street for your voluptuous figure decked in tight clothing and people just ogling, sometimes just because you are dressed differently.
There is a difference between a harmless sexual look and threatening lechery and almost every girl understands that on a deep level.

Today, many Indians blame Bollywood for its vulgarity and item numbers featuring skimpily clad dancers. They feel it is contributing to fueling passions that endanger women. However, most Indians recognize that it is the woefully slow law and order mechanism and corruption in government that have led to this state of affairs. Added to it is the deeply patriarchal culture where women are worshipped on one hand and made to pay dowry on the other hand, preserve their chastity and hold up the honor of the family.

Unlike common myths, all Indians do not abort female fetuses or pay hefty dowries or, gasp, burn widows. India has a multitude of ethnicities based on language and within those are castes and communities. Different groups have differing customs and some are more patriarchal than others.
What is probably a common thread running through all of them is a conservatism - no-sex-before-marriage, respect-for-one's-elders and following the traditions of the family.

Somehow, in walking the tightrope between preserving its unique cultural identity and embracing external ideas, India is facing the loss of compassion within. There is a lot of work to be done, by every family and every individual, to cultivate respect for another human's life and dignity.
Most Indians do a sterling job of parenting and imparting values to their children but many families struggle with alcoholism, abuse, poverty or simply neglect from parents who may not be that poor.

What is a sign of hope is that Indians are standing up and fighting for their country, their future and the safety and life of everyone who sets foot on this ancient land.
New laws are being framed against child abuse and assault, questions are being asked very publicly and people are taking matters to the police and the courts.
One day, I dream of an India where people can just be who they are, without being brutalized or violated, where children and women can move about freely without their innocence being robbed and where compassion rules the day.

To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., we all have a dream...