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Sunday, July 5, 2020

Systemic Discrimination and Nepotism: Are We Victims or Perpetrators?

Photo by Micheile Henderson on Unsplash

The recent suicide of the famous Indian film star, Sushant Singh Rajput, has triggered a massive online debate about nepotism in Bollywood, the biggest (though far from the only) film industry in the country.

Since the late SSR did not leave behind a suicide note, I don’t presume to know the reason behind his actions. But the national outcry against Bollywood nepotism had been – for many years – a time bomb waiting to go off.

And now it has.

So here’s the problem as I see it. The more popular an actor gets, the more directors, producers, and other film stars want to work with them. Hence, they make more and more powerful connections in the industry, while also making a substantial amount of money in the process.

By the time their children are old enough to start their own careers, these yesteryear film stars have the connections and resources to make sure that their offspring, the so-called ‘star kids’, get leading roles in movies from the very start of their careers. Even if their initial movies bomb at the box office, they keep getting new opportunities, because of the friendships their parents have forged in the industry over the years.

After all, how many of us can bring ourselves to tell a close friend that their child is a talentless hack who needs to reconsider his career choices? Even when it’s the truth. Especially when it’s the truth.

These are advantages that most certainly aren’t available to newcomers in the film industry. To those budding actors and entertainers who didn’t have parents who spent decades building up connections, to pave a smoother path to stardom for their kids.

Talented actors and performers go unrecognized and underutilized while the aforementioned ‘hacks’ get overnight fame and success, rewarded handsomely for the achievement of being born with the right surname.

Hence, the long-awaited public outcry against nepotism in Bollywood. Late in the coming, perhaps, but sizzling with suppressed fury and bitterness, now that it’s finally here.

Bollywood – A Microcosm of the Society at Large

It is true that nepotism is entrenched and pervasive in the Hindi film industry. The list of ‘star kids’ who keep getting acting opportunities despite multiple flops in their resume is ridiculously high.

However, Bollywood is not so much an exception, as a symptom of a larger societal problem that we are all a part of. We all participate in nepotism and systemic discrimination – both as victims and as perpetrators. But it’s hard to see when it is a part of our regular, humdrum, everyday life.

Everything’s more glamorous when it happens to a ‘hero’, including discrimination.

While complaining about the advantages the ‘star kids’ get over other actors, how many of us stop to consider that our own career successes are, in fact, the result of educational and career opportunities that people from the lower classes never had access to? People who probably were far more talented than us; who probably could have surpassed us in every way if given half the opportunities we were?

Consider this: how many of your colleagues come from a completely different social class?

When questioning why the children of bank managers so rarely become film stars, how do we never question why the children of domestic servants so rarely become bank managers?

What nepotistic advantages are the kids of white collar professionals getting, that allow them to follow their parents into middle class professions so effortlessly, when it’s nearly impossible for the kids of a slum-dweller to get those same jobs?

We benefit from the same systems of nepotism that we criticize when we are the victims of it.

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. There are famous movie stars who hailed from middle class families and there are middle class professionals who began life as slum dwellers.

But you shouldn’t have to be the exception to the rule, in order to have a shot at a better future.

A big, star-studded launch facilitated by daddy’s connections may be a star-kid’s ticket to instant fame. But so is an expensive professional degree a ticket to instant career upliftment among the middle classes.

Plenty of private colleges offer admissions (and degrees) to anyone willing to pay for them. Naturally, those who aren’t able to pay have to work much harder for that salary hike. As do outside actors in Bollywood.

Which is not to say that you cannot succeed without an expensive degree; or that you will succeed with one. But then, plenty of outsiders succeed in Bollywood and plenty of ‘star kids’ fail. Like I said, exceptions only serve to prove the rule.

How to Deal with Discrimination?

We haven’t even scratched the surface of this nepotistic abyss, so far. Because I’ve just touched upon class discrimination. And that’s by no means the only type of discrimination we live with, day in and day out.

There’s also racial, sexual, caste-based, linguistic, and neurological discrimination left to talk about. And those are just the ones I can think of, off the top of my head. I’m sure there are others you’ll be able to come up with, as you read this.

So, perhaps the most important question in this discussion, is how do we deal with this? There are primarily two schools of thought:

i)             Fight it
ii)           Ignore it

Essentially, this perennial debate rages between two distinct worldviews. The first is that you should always protest discrimination and unfairness whenever and wherever you encounter it. The second is that you should mostly ignore larger societal ills and try, instead, to become that exception to the rule we just spoke about – the actor with no connections who becomes a superstar, the woman who rises to the top of a patriarchal society, or the homeless kid who grows up to become a bank manager. Societal dynamics are entrenched and hard to change, especially over the course of a single lifetime. Far better, then, to try and change your own destiny first.

In my opinion, there’s merit to both arguments. The ideal course of action will vary from one situation to the next. However, to me, the final determinant is whether I’m dealing with the problem on a personal or a societal level.

When dealing with discrimination on a personal level, the second school of thought is often the most effective. Although, ignoring it doesn’t mean you pretend to not see it. Rather, it’s about analyzing it, understanding it, and finding creative ways to work around it. You cannot overcome something you don’t understand. But you can embrace your constraints and find ways to turn them into a springboard for success.

This isn’t easy, nor is it always possible. But if there’s something you want to achieve that’s just beyond your reach because of systemic discrimination, this is the fastest way to get there (without getting murdered on the way). Societal systems are inflexible, deep-rooted, and hard to change on a fundamental level. Bending the rules to get around them, while hard, is still the easiest path to the finish line.

Besides, privilege and discrimination are not unidimensional concepts. Even the most privileged people have faced discrimination and even those discriminated against have certain privileges, whether or not they realize it. Very few people are solely the oppressor or the oppressed. Most of us play both of those roles, in different situations.

From my own experience, it’s hard to get international rates for freelance work when you come from a ‘third-world country’, as many clients tend to have preconceived notions about how much someone should be paid, depending on where they live. But if you live in a rich country and don’t have many specialized skills to distinguish yourself, you’re at constant risk of being replaced by someone in a poorer nation, who’d do your work for half the price and live a comfortable life with that pay.

You don’t get to choose not to have problems, just which ones you’d rather have.

Some advantages, like money, beauty, and social connections are more visible and ostentatious than others. A common complaint on social media these days is that nepotism causes talent to be smothered by financial or social power. This is true. But talent is also a privilege.

Much of what we call a talent – an innate ability or ‘gift’ – is genetic. Of course, it can be developed with practice and dedication, just as inherited money can be enhanced with smart investments. But you need to have some money to invest in the first place. And you need a certain degree of inborn talent to be able to develop it into a world-class skill.

Moreover, you need a talent that corresponds well with your external circumstances. A talent for figure skating won’t do you much good in a South Indian village; and a talent for fashion designing would be hard to leverage in one of the mountainous Bhutanese monasteries.

Intelligence, mental and physical health, and emotional resilience are some of the other advantages that are, at least to some extent, based on luck. Health problems, either mental or physical, can counteract the most profound social and financial advantages. And a stable, charming personality, combined with above-average intelligence, can help individuals overcome many external drawbacks. But these privileges and handicaps are hard to see, so we often don’t understand how to leverage or overcome them, as the case may be.

Some people are luckier than others, but we all have things working for us and against us. On the personal level, instead of bemoaning our lack of privilege, the trick is to objectively analyze the cards we have been dealt. And to then leverage what we have to get what we want.

Would my life have been easier if – all other things being equal – I’d been born in a richer family, a richer country, or even a richer neighborhood? I don’t think there’s anybody who doubts that. But since I don’t spend much time being grateful about the fact that I wasn’t born in a slum or a warzone, there isn’t much point spending that time wondering why I wasn’t born to a tech-billionaire in Silicon Valley.

Building a Better World

When dealing with discrimination on a societal level, however, the approach needs to be the opposite. We need to understand where and how systemic discrimination is being perpetuated, and speak up against it. Not just when we’re the victims of such discrimination, as is the case with Bollywood nepotism, but also when we’re the perpetrators of it.

Many private schools refuse to accept students without conducting an in-depth interview of the parents. I’ve seen people boasting about how their kids’ school grilled them as if they’re the ones seeking admission. Somehow, this is a mark of the ‘quality’ of the institution.

In reality, it’s just another form of nepotistic gatekeeping, keeping first generation learners away even when their parents can pay the school fee (which can be hard enough for many people).

Does a child not deserve quality education because his or her parents were illiterate or semi-literate, even if they’ve managed to scrape together enough money to pay for that education?

To many middle class Indians, the ‘pedigree’ of their child’s school is more important than the education of other, less privileged children. Those of us who have a problem with their kids studying side by side with the children of an illiterate (if prosperous) fishmonger, have no right to complain about the nepotistic practices of Bollywood producers.

It is easy to see discrimination when we’re the victims of it, much harder to notice it when we’re the perpetrators. Which is, in fact, quite often.

This is not an accusation I’m leveling at others, but rather a (disturbingly common) experience of my own. I never fail to notice it when a freelance client asks for my location before disclosing their rates, but it took me years to realize that schools conducting ‘parent interviews’ before granting admissions to students was effectively a ploy to keep first generation learners from poorer (or nouveau middle class) families away.

I have relatives and acquaintances who always complain when they fail to secure government jobs because of affirmative action programs (the much vilified ‘quota system’), but never take a moment to appreciate the fact that they have the resources to continue studying for the civil service exams year after year, while many others in their position have been forced to forget about their professional dreams and take up fulltime employment just to survive.

And I’d be lying if I said I’ve never felt that resentment myself.

I’m a brown woman living in a relatively poor country. I’m also middle class, able-bodied, and part of the linguistic and religious majority in the city where I live. I have advantages that many could only dream of.

But somehow, that first part is always easier to focus on than the last. Comfort is easy to get used to, pain is not.

On a personal level, we can afford to ignore nepotism and discrimination; bend the rules without breaking them to get what we want. You’d be better served filling out the application forms for government colleges than thinking about the fact that your family can’t afford to send you to a private one.

On a societal level, however, discrimination needs to be protested and reforms introduced, because we’re not the only ones being affected. Millions of people currently alive, and millions who will come after we are long gone, will live with the impact of the decisions we make today – whether it is to fight or to remain silent.

There will always be exceptions that the establishment points to. Some street urchins will overcome poverty, some women will break the glass ceiling, and some outside actors will achieve stardom in Bollywood. And on a personal level, it behooves us all to try and be that exception to the rule. 

However, while systemic discrimination may not be able to stop an exceptionally talented, determined, and lucky individual from achieving their goals, it does beggar the society wherein it occurs.

If a lot of children are left without access to quality education because their parents were illiterate, some of them will still grow up to succeed in their chosen field. However, the society as a whole will remain backward, as most of those kids will never reach their full potential, nor be able to contribute to national and global development as much as they could have.

A disproportionate amount of societal resources will be spent on a small group, many of whom might be incapable of making the most of them. While those who could have made the best use of those resources will never have access to them.

Many great movies will languish without a producer and many path-breaking discoveries will remain unmade because we couldn’t give our children a level field to play on.

And that truly is something to be outraged about. 

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Why the Nation is Not United, and Why that is a Good Thing

Photo by Spenser on Unsplash

Boxes. We've demonized them a lot in recent years. And unfairly so, in my opinion.

Nowadays, it's all about thinking outside the box, living outside the box, burning the goddamn box, if at all possible.

But there's nothing wrong with boxes, is there? In fact, they're quite essential. They help us store stuff we don't always use but might occasionally need, label them so they're easy to find when needed, and keep them safe.

The problem arises when we've sealed the box so tightly that, when we have put something in it that doesn't belong, we can no longer take it out and put it somewhere else.

In Defense of Categorization

Categorization – putting things in boxes and labeling them – is a useful tool, essential for our survival. And like most tools, the effect it has on the world depends largely on the wielder. It can be used both badly and well.

When you're feeling unwell, you call a doctor and not a florist. You don't stop to think about it and decide if an individual doctor will be better able to help you than an individual florist. That's categorization.

And when you hear of a violent crime and immediately decide that the person who committed it must belong to a particular ethnicity or class, without considering whether an individual from another group might be responsible, that's categorization too.

One of these could save your life, the other could get someone killed.

Categories aren't bad, but bad people can categorize. And it's these bad categorizations that I want to talk about today.

Something is Rotten in the State of Denmark

Or India. Or America. Or maybe even Britain or Brazil. Journalist and historian Gwynne Dyer said in a recent column:

“‘Homo economicus’ is dead. Long live ‘homo tribuarius’!”

Basically, he was talking about how people around the world are no longer voting for their economic interests, but rather from tribalistic sentiments of loyalty to the in-group and hatred for the out-group.

It doesn't matter what group is in and which one is out. That's cyclical, of course. And there always is a villain to throw stones at. Sometimes it's the rich, sometimes the communists. Sometimes Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, or the moon worshipers. Sometimes it's also the politicians or the police.

Basically, we want something to be angry about, and someone to be angry at. And neat categories help with that. They make it easier to be angry, because of course everything (or everyone) in a single category must be the same, or at least similar. Hence, they must all be deserving of the anger directed at that category.

Why? Because they're all in it together, of course. They're all UNITED. Your enemies always are, somehow. They have the best teamwork ever!

I grew up hearing how India was colonized by Britain because the British were UNITED, whereas India was divided and fought constantly among themselves. Never mind the fact that Britain is smaller than most states of India, which makes that comparison absurd. India cannot be compared to Britain, but it can be compared to Europe, a group of people with a similar culture (with significant differences in language, clothing, etc.) who constantly fought, killed, and married each other.

Not so united after all, were they? In fact, they were kind of just like us. And just like people all around the world. The history of Africa is largely the same, as are the histories of East and West Asia:

Lots of groups, lots of (closely related) languages, and lots of conflict.

I don't know much about the history of the native inhabitants of the Americas (before the arrival of the Europeans), but I'm willing to bet a lot of money it wasn't all that different.

Why? Because the Native Americans of the 12th century had something very important in common with the Africans and the Europeans and the South Asians of the 12th century. They were humans.

And humans behave rather predictably, wherever they go. They form hierarchal groups. And then they break away from those groups and form new groups and sub-groups. And then they cooperate. And fight. And people within the same group also cooperate and fight. And sometimes, they cooperate among themselves to fight a third party.

The Myth of In-Group Unity

There is no grand unity anywhere, and even the most cursory glance at history would prove that. Even within the tiny country of England, many of those who vociferously criticized the Empire were English. And the British weren't special in this regard. The (Muslim) Mughals fought each other like cats and dogs, and often teamed up with Hindu kings to fight members of their own family. These same Hindu kings later teamed up with European colonizers to vanquish their neighbors, and the Europeans in turn spared no effort – up until the 20th century – to drive each other into the ground.

There was no grand unity within (or between) nations, regions, religions, or communities, and there still isn't. Because that is not how human beings behave. And the people of other countries and religions (and even time periods) are, in fact, human. Despite rumors to the contrary.

But it makes for a good story –

Them versus us.

Them – united, ruthless, calculating.

Us – scattered, helpless, innocent.

If only we could be more like them. If only we could get obsessed with one aspect of our identity – nationality, religion, race, sexuality – and become UNITED. Gang up against our enemies, the scary and singular THEM.

Then and only then will we be victorious. And hence, any dissent from within is of course unacceptable. Any member of our group who isn't single-mindedly obsessed with the group, who points out flaws within the group, is an obstacle in the path of that ultimate victory. As dangerous as THEM.

This is why we have been conquered by other countries, the dissenters are told. We're not UNITED. Look at the Chinese. So united. They'd never go against their own countrymen. Look at the Muslims, also united. They would never speak against their own co-religionists.

And yet, more people died in the Great Chinese Famine (1959-61), caused by their own government, than the Bengal Famine (1943-44), caused by the British rulers of India. And most of the people killed by Islamic terrorism are – surprise surprise – Muslims!

And if I'm dying, what does it matter if those killing me are part of the US or the THEM? How is it better to be killed by those who speak my language and worship my God than by those who don't?

But we like simple solutions. Who has the time to study the wide variety of causes, events, and policies that lead to conflict, victory, loss, civilizational progress, and decline? Who has time to understand the geographical, climatic, technological, and cultural factors that allowed the tiny nation states of Western Europe to colonize massive empires on five different continents?

Who has the time to analyze the reasons for the different outcomes of colonization in different places? The Asians were largely subjugated, the Africans frequently enslaved, the original Americans all but wiped out...but why? Why were the nations of Western Europe so much more successful in global conquest than those of Eastern Europe, despite fighting numerous bloody wars among themselves?

Well, the answer is a complex combination of germs, geography, disease, climate, food-habits, technology, culture, and contemporary geopolitics.

Booooorrriinggggg!

Who has time for all that, when we can have a short and simple solution that doesn't tax the mind and provides us with the requisite dose of self-righteous indignation? They were UNITED and we were not. They believed singlemindedly in their Gods and their Kings, and we were doubtful and treacherous.

So now, we must make amends, be more like them. We must define ourselves by our unquestioning devotion to our Kings and our Gods. We must become devoted nationalists, or nationalistic devotees. And if we're not? Well, then we're anti-nationals, of course!

But don't worry, it's all for the greater good. After all, how else will we take back our rightful place at the helm of the world, driving our ever-united enemies to the ground with our UNITY–XXL?

The Problem of Dissent

Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) said Azadi (freedom), and the entire nation went for a tizzy. How could they!! How will India become a superpower, if our students aren't united and nationalistic? If they don't agree with the stance of the central government and the Indian state on contentious issues such as the governance of Kashmir and the North East? Surely, this was the beginning of the end.

Thing is, JNU always was what it is today. In fact, college and university campuses around the world are and have always been variations of JNU – liberal and contrarian. The ideological tilt of JNU and its students isn't much different today than it was thirty years ago, nor has the culture changed in any significant way. If JNU didn't destroy India in the 80s, it's not going to do so now.

But JNU is just a symptom of a larger problem. And that's the problem of dissent. And despite our myths of the UNITED Imperialists and Islamists, dissent is universal, inevitable, and pervasive. Remember the Arab Spring? There has never been a society or a government in the history of the world that didn't face dissent. The difference, really, is in how they dealt with the dissenters.

In some countries, comedians earn their living by making fun of the ruling classes; in others they might be executed for doing so. Imagine a North Korean comedian calling Kim Jong-un the names that American late night comedy show hosts regularly call Trump. And there are many others like them – neither the North Korean nor the American model of governance is particularly unique in this respect.

But guess which of these countries would be more likely to experience a violent revolt wherein the ruler's head ends up on a pike? You don't get to wish away dissent, but you can often choose how you'd like it served. You can either swallow a few insults or a few bullets, but no government has ever successfully avoided both for any length of time. If you don't let your opponents shout, you'll just make them more inclined to shoot.

Ideological Bubbles and the Importance of Opposition

Dissent is not just inevitable, it is extremely important. I've always leaned relatively liberal, but I was perhaps one of the most right-wing people in my college.

Why?

Not because my views had changed in any significant way, but because, like I said before, college campuses often tend to be liberal bubbles. More so in the humanities and social science departments. I hadn't become any more conservative than I'd ever been, I was just surrounded by people who were more liberal than me.

And that's the thing with bubbles. When the loudest voices in your vicinity are saying something, it is human instinct to want to go with the flow, to not oppose the majority even if you don't always agree with what they're saying. In the distant past, our ancestors got killed for opposing their tribes. We're the descendants of the people who managed to keep their heads down and not get lynched for long enough to reproduce, so of course most of us are instinctively reluctant to oppose the majority.

The loudest voices on campus were liberal, so those who agreed with them shouted louder, and those who didn't kept quiet. Just as the loudest voices in the country today are majoritarian and ultra-nationalist. Those who agree with these sentiments are shouting louder than they ever have before, and most of the people who don't find it safer to keep quiet and not draw attention to themselves.

And that's why ideological bubbles are so dangerous, because they lead to rapid escalation and become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And this is true regardless of the ideology.

If you criticized the unfair corporate practices of a particular company at a business conference, you'll get some support and some opposition. At best, you'll get people to agree that that particular company is poorly run. But start this same discussion in a group of devoted communists, and the discourse will soon devolve into the vices of the capitalist system and then the oppressive tendencies of the capitalists/businessmen themselves.

Tell a group of campus liberals that you met an asshole who happened to be Sikh/Muslim/Christian, and at best you'll get your friends to agree that that particular individual was indeed an asshole. Start this same discussion in a right-wing WhatsApp group (we all have those family groups, be honest with yourself), and the discourse will soon devolve into the characteristic demerits of the religion and the universal vices of all its adherents.

Ideological bubbles facilitate escalation, because people are reluctant to stray too far from the group consensus. If you feel like you might encounter opposition, you'll watch what you say and refrain from saying anything extreme that'll be widely opposed. But if you think that everyone in the group already agrees with you, you'd be more likely to air your more extreme views, thus creating a feedback loop of agreement and escalation until you all agree on something that you'd never dream of saying out loud in public.

Such an ideological bubble can exist in a college campus or on a WhatsApp thread, but it can also exist in a community, a city, or an entire country. And when it does, otherwise normal, well-balanced people openly defend the large-scale imprisonment of thousands of innocent people in detention/concentration/filtration camps and the blowing up of public buildings.

People who once held bigoted and extremist views in secret are emboldened to share their ideas in public, causing more people to convert to their way of thinking. On the other hand, those who would normally have opposed such ideas feel pressured to keep quiet, for fear of being rejected and ostracized by the 'tribe'.

This kind of thing has happened over and over again in history, in all places around the world, and it'll probably happen again. No group or ideology is safe from this type of escalation, be it leftist, rightist, or anything in between. When you have too much unity and not enough dissent, systems tend to go haywire and become oppressive, regardless of whether you live in a communist country or a theocratic one. Too much ideological unity is harmful.

And this is why dissent is so important. Not because the dissenters are always right but because they help maintain the balance. They keep the ideological extremists in check.

So if you ever find yourself in the middle of an ideological conflict and don't know which side is right, choose to oppose the majority. If you're wrong, you won't do much damage. After all, most people are against you, ready to oppose you if you go too far. But if you're right, you'll help restore the balance and prevent destructive extremism, at least for the time being.

The Need to Preserve Our Culture

Public opinion is ephemeral and ever-changing. Those who think culture is stagnant and unchanging just need to read books written by people of their own country, who died a few decades before they were born. The calls to protect ‘Indian (or Hindu) culture’ are meaningless for the simple reason that there is no such thing as ‘Indian culture’. There’s only ‘urban Indian culture of 2020’ which is very different from ‘rural Indian culture of 1950’ and still more different from the Indian culture of the 1700s.

Last week, I was chatting with a young Nigerian book reviewer. We talked about our favorite books and TV shows, our experiences at school (which were surprisingly similar), and our mutual love of BBC’s Sherlock. The only differences between our ‘cultures’ were cosmetic and superficial, like her telling me how pretty she thought women looked in sarees. Hell, there is more cultural difference between me and my grandmother than there was between me and my Nigerian reviewer.

So those who fulminate on social media about preserving ‘Indian culture’ – it’s not Indian culture you’re trying to preserve but mid-20th century middle-class culture, which would no doubt have shocked and appalled the inhabitants of 18th century India and will probably shock and appall the inhabitants of  22nd century India as well.

After all, in the India of two hundred years ago, it was perfectly normal (and acceptable) for a 25 year old man to marry a 10 year old girl. If present trends continue, in the India of two hundred years later (or even sooner), it would be perfectly normal (and acceptable) for a 25 year old man to marry another 25 year old man. Indian culture was never in any danger, because as long as there are people living in India, those people will have a culture. And their culture, whatever it may be, will be ‘Indian culture’.

You may well want to preserve some aspects of that culture as it exists today, but it’s silly to expect that the culture of any place will stay the same over any significant period of time. Because people never agree with each other, and there’s as little unity between generations as there is between nations or regions. 

Our descendants a couple of centuries down the line, if they still choose to call themselves Hindus, will follow a brand of Hinduism that’ll seem more alien to us than any religion currently practiced. The same is true of Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Buddhists. And there really isn’t anything that anyone alive today can do to prevent that change. Nor, in my opinion, will it be worth their time to try.

A couple of generations ago, caste was all the rage, and people went through all sorts of trouble to preserve and uphold the purity of their particular sub-caste. Most urban millennials today couldn’t care less about it. And the youth of the 22nd century will probably be as mystified by our obsession with religion as we are by our forefathers’ emotional investment in the intricate subcategories of caste.

In this regard, India is far from being unique. Prince Harry and his American wife recently stepped down from their positions as (senior) British royals. Two hundred years ago, this would have been an important political development with repercussions around the globe. Today, it is fodder for tabloids and gossip websites. The European aristocracies have become as irrelevant as the Indian castes and a Marquess or a Kshatriya, to our children, will probably sound like the names of rare Pokémon.

The mood of the society will shift again, as it has done a thousand times before, and all the categories and subcategories we care so deeply about today will seem ridiculous and meaningless to generations to come.

This has always been true, but that has never stopped people from perpetrating unimaginable suffering in the name of silly social categories that no one will care about a few centuries down the line. Because humans may not care about the same groups and categories for very long, but we absolutely LOVE groups and categories. India was divided on the basis of religion, then Pakistan was divided on the basis of language, and the Sri Lankans fought a civil war spanning decades on the basis of ethno-linguistic differences that outsiders would be as hard-pressed to understand as the complex web of old Hindu sub-castes.

After all, if we can’t categorize people, we can’t stereotype them. And how exhausting would that be – having to see every person as an individual and judge them on the basis of their unique merits and drawbacks? I want to take a nap just thinking about it!

Exploring Universal Themes

The first beta reader I had for my latest novel, ‘The Brightest Fell’, asked me if the story was based on the Tamil/Sinhalese conflict of Sri Lanka. It wasn’t. In fact, until he asked me that question, I’d had a very vague idea about the devastating civil war that had rocked our southern neighbor for more than two decades.

But his question made me curious, and I began researching the war that led to more than fifty thousand deaths. And I can understand, after having read up on it, why he would think my story was based on that conflict – it bore some uncanny similarities with Sri Lanka’s recent history.

Here’s the thing, though. I hadn’t had Sri Lanka in mind while writing that book. I wasn’t trying to write about any particular real-world incident at all, but the closest historical parallel I’d had in mind was the partition of India. The reason why I’d unconsciously incorporated elements of the Sri Lankan civil war in the story, while knowing almost nothing about the Sri Lankan civil war, is because the elements aren’t all that different after all. The human condition doesn’t change much with geography.

Many of my readers have asked me why I don’t write about real-world places, people, and events. Well, this is why. The real world is just repeated iterations of the same universal themes. The players change, but the story remains uncannily similar, if not the same. Sometimes, the characters in the story call themselves Protestants and Catholics, sometimes Hindus and Muslims, sometimes Chechens and Russians, sometimes Tamils and Sinhalese, and sometimes Nigerians and Biafrans.

In my book, they called themselves Zanyars and Birhanis.

There are no actual communities called Zanyar or Birhani; I just made them up. And doing so allowed me to explore the themes that were common among all the above-mentioned groups and their conflicts, without having to worry about anyone feeling misrepresented or taking offense. Without anyone trying to explain to me why their case was unique and different, and how I’d know that if only I read a little more about their history (preferably written by their historians).

That’s because people tend to have blinders on when it comes to the ideology or group of their choice. They can easily spot the things that are going wrong in other countries and cultures. Hence, there was almost universal consensus in India that Trump killing the Iranian General Soleimani was an irresponsible and dangerous thing to do. There were no frantic WhatsApp messages trying to explain, at length, how Iran was part of a centuries-long conspiracy to take America down and how Soleimani was the high-priest of this ancient cult. No doctored videos of Iranians planning to destabilize and attack the US made their way into my social media timelines and inboxes, shared by friends and relatives I haven’t met in years.

Because nobody felt the need to defend the pathological beliefs and actions of a group (country) they do not personally identify with, as they did when a similar controversy broke out at home and the participants were more relatable. Nobody feels the need to defend American slavery or European colonialism but I’ve heard many explanations for why the caste system was a great idea that was later corrupted by Bad PeopleTM.

I write about wars and social conflict set in imaginary countries inhabited by imaginary peoples, so that my readers can judge the actions of each character not through the lens of ideological or national allegiance, but in the context of humanity and their own conscience. My heroes are often accused of being unlikeable and bigoted, and those accusations aren’t incorrect. That’s how humans are – blinded by what is close and dear to them – and they can change, grow, and learn with their experiences.

More importantly, my protagonists are never heroes. Because human beings usually aren’t, despite our penchant for deification and hero-worship. Most individuals – like most ideologies – have their own flaws and do not deserve unqualified support; or unqualified opposition, for that matter. One person (or idea) can be great in one situation and terrible in another. Policies designed to solve one problem can give rise to others, despite the best of intentions.

Support (or criticism) needs to be provided depending on the merits of a given situation and its context, and we don’t need a person or an ideology to be perfect before it can be used to solve an immediate problem. Nor do we need to keep using it (or following them) once that problem has been solved.

Politicians, after all, are just service providers. If a doctor has treated you well during a past illness but fails to diagnose you properly for a new condition, would you think twice before seeking a second opinion? Replace doctor with electrician, plumber, or hairstylist, and I think your answer will be the same. So why do we treat policymakers differently?

Opposition, Dissent, and Balance

So speak out, disagree, debate.

Take a stand, even when most people don’t agree with you. Especially when most people don’t agree with you.

And if you’re not sure what that stand should be, stand against the majority. If you’re wrong, you’ll learn quickly enough; if you’re right you’ll prevent dangerous escalation and ideological myopia.

Most importantly, don’t be united. Because nobody ever really is. Unity without dissent is a myth, and it’s a myth that has cost us dearly, in Nazi Germany and Communist Russia and a thousand other places around the world at a thousand other times in our history.

Going against the majority opinion is never fun. Intense, short-term conflict is painful and uncomfortable (which is why most people, understandably, avoid it). But it’s better than simmering, long-term degeneration. Which is the price of unquestioning unity – be it in a household, community, or country. What you allow, you encourage.

And it’s better to be the villain in a WhatsApp group than the lesson in somebody else’s history book. 

Thursday, September 19, 2019

What Motivates Me to Write?

Currently in the process of editing my first Sci-Fi novel, I’ve been knee-deep in random scientific blogs and trivia for a couple of months. And although my own story leans more towards political biopunk than psycho robotics, one of the topics that immediately grabbed my interest as I was doing my research was artificial intelligence (AI), and the ways in which it can affect the future of humanity.
When we think about AI going wrong, we usually imagine megalomaniac supercomputers with a God complex wanting to enslave (or eliminate) humanity. The idea of an AI trying to take over the world never really made much sense to me, though. I don’t claim to be an expert on AI, so I might well be wrong about this (as with everything else scientific).
But common sense tells me that if I was designing a machine meant to perform domestic cleaning duties, I wouldn’t want to give it a wide enough emotional range that it might one day feel the need to marry my partner and sleep on my bed.
An AI is, at the end of the day, a machine. It must originally have been designed for a particular purpose, like all machines. Why would you design a powerful machine (say for coal mining) that had — or could develop — human desires, such as power, love, validation, etc.? What purpose could that possibly serve?
The Paperclip Maximizer and the Mysteries of Motivation
While wondering about such nitty-gritties of common Sci-Fi tropes, I came upon a theoretical doomsday scenario known as the “Paperclip Maximizer”. For those of you who don’t know what that is, the Paperclip Maximizer is a hypothetical AI that was designed for the purpose of making paperclips and enhancing the efficiency of paperclip-making processes.
Over time, this AI would find ways to make more and more paperclips within shorter and shorter time periods. It would enhance the efficiency of paperclip manufacturing processes and learn/invent more ways to maximize the number of paperclips being made.
The Paperclip Maximizer thought experiment posits the possibility that the AI would eventually turn all matter in its surroundings (including life forms) into paperclips. Eventually, assuming the AI was strong enough, it would turn the entire world (or even the galaxy) into paperclips.
This idea fascinated me. For the first time, I was reading about an AI related doomsday scenario that didn’t rely on a random machine spontaneously developing the motivational structure of a generic movie super-villain.
The Paperclip Maximizer would probably kill us. Not because it hates us or wants to rule over us, but simply because we are made up of atoms and molecules that would be better utilized in the manufacturing of paperclips, which is the only thing that it is motivated to accomplish.
So this got me thinking — what is motivation? Where does it come from? Why are we so motivated to do certain things and not others? Why do some people have more motivation than others, and why would the same person have lots of motivation for one type of activity but very little for others?
Underneath it all, I guess I was really trying to figure out my own motivational patterns — to understand them and hopefully to get a better handle on them.
Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation
I mean, there are of course certain extrinsic things that motivate us, the chief among them being money. We all want money and are willing to work for it, but the extent to which we are willing to do so varies widely.
What is it that we are looking for when we try to earn money, anyway? Not the paper currency, surely.
On a very basic level, money gives us access to other people’s time, energy, and talent. If you have money, you can ask someone else to look after your children, manage your finances, or wash your clothes.
Even when we buy a comb, a video game, or a refrigerator, we’re indirectly paying someone else to design and make those items for us. The more money we have, the more of other people’s time, talent, and energy we can buy, which in turn will make our own life easier and more entertaining.
That’s an understandable desire to have. And yet, we don’t all have it to the same extent. We all know of extraordinary people who serve others for free and even spend their own money to help those in need — with no expectations of reward. But those are not the types of people I’m talking about here.
Everything we do has an opportunity cost. Logically, assuming that money was the primary motivating factor for our actions, we’d plan every step with the goal of maximizing income.
And yet, people write novels in unpopular genres, start YouTube channels on niche subjects that’d never get them a million subscribers, and take up full-time jobs in industries that don’t pay well.
These are not selfless social workers whose only purpose is to serve others. Most of these people are working for some form of monetary reward, so why not work for the highest possible income or reward? Why settle for a genre that’d only allow you to sell a few thousand copies of your book, when you could instead write in one that has a far larger potential market? In fact, why write books at all? Why not use those same writing skills to write copy for brands (a far more lucrative market)?
So maybe extrinsic, reward-based motivation isn’t the only kind we need. After all, the hypothetical Paperclip Maximizer isn’t being paid to turn the entire galaxy into paperclips. So it must have a built-in reward system that makes the creation of paperclips intrinsically rewarding. To use a cliché, it’s something he’d do even if no one paid him to do it. (Yes, the Paperclip Maximizer is a guy now. Deal with it.)
So what internal reward system makes the creation of obscure books and videos, or the performance of low-paid administrative tasks, inherently rewarding for humans — so much so that they’re willing to forgo higher paying opportunities in a different domain?
A Case Study
Well, I’m something of a massive introvert. The last time I had an actual human interaction was in 1997.
So, I can’t speak for you guys. But there’s one case study I do feel comfortable exploring — my own.
I’m a writer. It’s taken me quite a few years to admit that (and that’s a blog post for another time), but now, here we are. I write. And I do so in a variety of ways, for a number of reasons, some more obvious than others.
But what motivates me to write? What do I get out of it? And would I turn the entire galaxy into tropey, angsty fiction if given the opportunity?
Well, that’s exactly what we’re here to discuss today, isn’t it?
I’m a professional copywriter/web content writer by day, freelance writer by night, and a novelist/poet/blogger by midnight. Needless to say, I write A LOT.
Why?
Well, that’s complicated. I have a 9–5 job because it pays the bills, a freelance side-gig because I like the extra money (and hope it’ll replace the 9–5 sometime in the future), and a creative writing hobby/career because I like expressing myself in words and hope to create a source of passive income a few decades down the line.
Realistically, I could earn more from a single job than I do from all the three combined, if I ditched this whole writing thing and got myself an MBA or something. So why don’t I, then? It’s certainly not because I don’t like money. Spoiler alert: I fucking love it!
So, what’s keeping me from ditching this hamster wheel for a “real job”?
Initially, I thought maybe it was because I just loved writing so much! You know, the old cliché about loving your job so much you’d do it for free? Yeah, I wouldn’t.
There are people out there who write high-quality, 100k word fanfics for fun (with no expectation of ever earning a penny out of it). I’m not one of them.
Which brings me to my next point. Writing isn’t always fun for me. Sometimes it is, but most of the time it’s difficult and tedious. It’s WORK. Given a choice, I’d much rather be reading somebody else’s book than writing my own.
I do, of course, have the hope of one day making a living from my fiction. But, at least for now, that’s all it is. A vague hope. I certainly don’t expect to make any significant amount of money from my novels in the near future. The same can be said of my poetry and this blog.
So if it’s not the sheer, intrinsic joy of writing or the guarantee of monetary payoff, what keeps me plugging away at the keyboard, day in and day out?
Well, the answer is that it’s a strange and complex combination of all of the above.
Am I passionate about writing? Yes. Do I want to make money out of it? Yes. Would I do it without one or the other? Maybe. Certainly not to the extent I’m doing it now.
What It Means to be a True Artist
There’s a pervasive myth in the arts (including writing and literature) that if you’re passionate about something, you’ll always like doing it. That if you’re a true artist, you’ll always enjoy the process of making art.
That’s a lie.
The truth is, passion can be a double edged sword. It can put the burden of perfectionism on you, where you get stressed out and anxious — not just about doing good work, but great work.
If I was just writing a diary to pass the time, or writing web copy just to earn a living, I wouldn’t agonize over every line of prose. I wouldn’t spend hours wondering if my message was clear enough, if my language was flawed or my presentation amateurish.
I wouldn’t constantly compare myself to other bloggers, novelists, and poets, only to find myself wanting every step of the way. If this was just a job, I wouldn’t care so much.
But I care with every fiber of my being whether what I write is good or bad. Whether I can connect with readers or not. Whether I can express myself with clarity or not. And this slows down the process of writing.
There was a time when the self-doubt was so overwhelming I couldn’t write a word for days. This is no longer the case, and I have overcome the problem to a great extent. But I daresay a lot of authors would permanently get rid of writer’s block if they could just get their passion (and the associated perfectionism) slightly under control.
I learned this mainly from my day job and freelance copywriting work. The deadlines with these are always tight, and there’s rarely enough time to agonize over the placement of every word and the structure of every sentence. You need to churn out a certain number of words every day and volume is oftentimes more important than perfection.
And yet, there are people reading these articles, typos and all, for the information that they provide and the value that they add. Realizing this gave me the confidence to start approaching my fiction in the same way–
Like I have something to say to my readers, and I’m going to try my best to say it well, but I don’t need to wait until my diction is perfect and my oratory world-class, before I can share my opinion or my story with the world.
The Different Types and Sources of Motivation
But despite all the learning and growing I’ve done over the past two years as a full-time writer, I still like ‘having written’ way more than the actual ‘process’ of writing.
Half the time, when I’m writing a book, I push through the most difficult scenes dreaming about what it’d look like as a finished product — on a bookshelf with a gorgeous cover, sitting next to the works of some of my favorite authors. (A girl can dream, right?)
The point is, motivations are complex and multi-faceted. They don’t spring from a single source, and they’re not always ‘pure’ and unidimensional. I don’t write just for the money, but I don’t write just for the love of it, either. The expectation of future income certainly plays an important part in motivating me to finish my manuscripts, approach publishers, write blog posts, etc.
I was super unmotivated as a student, and always saw myself as an inherently lazy individual. I wrote my first full-length manuscript in high-school. And after I failed to find any traction with it (receiving more than 30 rejections from various publishers), I lost all motivation and didn’t do much creative writing for the next 2–3 years.
Then, I graduated from college and got my first real office job. And BAM! It hit me like a train. This was it. This was my life now. This is what I would be doing for the next 40 years.
And frankly, it was quite underwhelming.
I’d spent the first 23 years of my life as a student. For as long as I could remember, there had always been something to look forward to, to prepare for and focus on. Either it was high-school or college or university or — the grand prize — a real job!
There was always something I was running towards, something just out of my reach that I was trying desperately to catch. Hence, it was easy to forget, to distract myself. To tell myself that there’s something better waiting for me just round the corner, and that this writing thing was just a distraction from the ‘real world’.
And then, real world came and hit me smack in the face. And it wasn’t bad. Just…kind of meh.
And it dawned on me that there was no pot of gold waiting for me at the end of this murky rainbow. I’d arrived at my destination, at the promised land of gainful employment that parents, teachers, and sundry relatives had all lectured me about for all these years.
There was nowhere else to go from here. But “here” wasn’t exactly where I wanted to be, forty years down the line.
The Urge to Escape Irrelevance
And so, I began writing in earnest. Not because I expected greater success than I’d had before, but simply because failing at this was better than staying stuck and unmoving, with little to look forward to other than the once-a-year vacations that rarely lasted more than a week.
Overnight, I went from being an unmotivated student who barely managed to secure a passing grade most of the time, to a highly motivated professional writer (albeit one who was still making very little money)! And exactly why that happened in the way that it did is still, to some degree, a mystery to me.
What I do know, however, is that writing regularly and calling myself a writer (if only in my own head) has changed my life in a way I’d never anticipated. It’s given me something to look forward to and feel excited about in my day-to-day life.
And that’s not because writing is easy (or even fun) most of the time. In fact, the most fun I have is during the brainstorming/outlining process. The actual writing is often stressful and always effing hard!
And yet, I’m happier and more confident than I’ve ever been before. I now have a general sense of satisfaction, purpose, and wellbeing that I’d never experienced in the first 23 years of my life. It’s not that I was particularly unhappy before. Far from it. I had a blast in college and made some fantastic friends; those will always be some of the most memorable years of my life!
A Reason to Get Out of Bed Every Morning
It’s just that, I have something now that I never did before — a reason to wake up and get out of bed every morning. I no longer have to wait for a vacation or a party to feel excited about my day. I always have something awesome or interesting to tell my readers, and that’s the best reason to get out of bed I’ve ever had!
And then, of course, there’s the more immediate monetary reward associated with my day job and freelance work. That’s a different kind of high, knowing that I’d get paid for every word I write. Sometimes, it’s a struggle not to let it eat into my creative writing time.
I suppose it’s not hard to tell where I get the motivation for that!
And the great thing about it? Freelancing as a web copywriter has taught me how to sell my writing — something no writer today can do without, no matter what their genre or format.
Is it easy trying to balance a full-time job with two side-hustles? Lol, no! And it’s not like I’m doing it that well anyway, which you can probably tell by the epic frequency of my blog posts!
But you know what? We’re all hanging out here anyway, creeping along on a tiny dust-ball suspended in space, waiting to die. Might as well throw ourselves against the wall of impossibility and give it everything we’ve got.
After all, what do we have to lose? Not like anyone’s getting out of this alive anyway, is it?
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