Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Two Sexes, Two Stereotypes

We always stereotype. That's a part of handling the complexity around us. When it benignly serves its intended purpose -- simplification -- we give it good names: abstraction, classification, categorisation. When it has significant side-effects, we call it names: stereotyping, pigeon-holing, generalisation.

I wish to draw your attention to a special kind of stereotyping. One men do about women. And the other which women do about men.

First, let's take on men. I feel the biggest stereotype ruling the male minds is that women are intellectually inferior. All we men suffer to a degree with this stereotype. How many ever women we see passing in front of us demonstrating how well they match us, or even exceed us, in intellectual capabilities, we seem to ignore them all, and fix our gaze on those who seem to strengthen our believe that women are intellectually inferior. I have observed some very intelligent men succumbing to the evil of gender stereotypes. For example, I have seen some very respectable men with respectable thoughts avoiding including women as their collaborators. It never occurs to them that women too can contribute intellectually. On the other hand, I have found many women themselves fostering such stereotypes in various manners. By being opportunistic, unduly ambitious and intellectually dishonest at many crucial points. For example, I have known such girls who have themselves accepted that they used their womanhood to gain academic mileage, be it in the form of shedding tears before a strict professor, or using their charms to gain professional favours.

Now, women. I feel the biggest stereotype ruling the female minds is that men are physically rogues. All women suffer to a degree with this stereotype. How many ever men do they see passing in front of them demonstrating how well they match women, or even exceed them, in emotional advancement, they seem to ignore them all, and fix their gaze on those who seem to strengthen their belief that men are sex-starved beasts always looking for the first chance to pounce on the nearest woman. I have observed some very good-natured women succumbing to the evil of gender stereotypes. For example, I have personally faced situations where I had to prove my gentleness to even those of my lady friends who would profess to know me very well. It never occurs to them that men too have a character, and can be morally upright. On the other hand, I have found many men themselves fostering such stereotypes in various manners. By allowing such jokes to be cracked, by behaving awfully to women, at many crucial points. For example, I have known good men who have never graduated beyond treating women as sex-objects. They would go about bedding women of all sorts before marriage, but would settle for nothing but a demure virgin when it comes to marriage.

It is not my intention to counter any of these stereotypes. I know pretty well that some of my male readers would be biased towards the male stereotypes, and some of my female readers would be agreeing happily with the female one. I don't want to prove them wrong. All I say is: stereotypes are given us by nature. Getting rid of them is a difficult exercise, a fight against our biology.

Men, as males, are designed to notice women who can satisfy their sexual urges which demonstrably exceed those of women in general. Women showing qualities which usually are vehicles of power and combatting capability -- be it physical strength in the stone age, or intellect in the modern age -- mean nothing to a man. They are additional details which only add clutter to the scene from where a man is trying to look for his woman, given the small set of qualities he is equipped to judge them by. Stereotyping is a process by which a man is biologically trained to filter the noise from the scene.

Women, on the other hand, are possibly hardwired to carry the opposite stereotype. The way their biology is trained to look at a group of men is a bunch of suitors from whom she has to choose carefully to ensure a healthy progeny. The instinctive dread of being sexually attacked by an inappropriate suitor is deeply engrained in their biology. The above mentioned stereotype is possibly a direct manifestation of that: Assume them all to be rogues. Be on your guards. A man showing emotional intelligence means nothing to a woman, since paying notice to such attributes takes her eye off from the difficult task of choosing the right man from amongst the wrong ones, all of whom are giving her attention. A woman is perhaps designed to take her pick from a horde of rogues. She'll eventually choose the best rogue.

Human species has evolved to such an extent that its members have an existence apart from that which their basic instincts command. In their world, men and women interact with each other as people. They do more and more such things which succeed due to good qualities like intellect and decency. And for very practical reasons, it doesn't matter to such 'human' projects whether such good qualities are possessed by a woman or a man. If a woman is intelligent, courageous, powerful -- well and good; if a man is decent, empathetic, emotionally sophisticated -- so be it.

I also recognise that we, as a species, might have advanced even to a degree where for some of us, the stereotypes might actually have started breaking. Today, a man may get turned on by a woman's intelligence; a woman may get stricken by the empathetic nature of a man. But I think, it's more of an exception than a rule.

As a man, I take two lessons from the above thought:
- I am a man. I am bound to have some inherent male attributes (higher sex-drive, tendency to seek physical dominance) and stereotyping tendencies. I can't hate myself for what I have got from my biology. But I have to be wary of them.
- I have to learn to accept the presence of stereotype among women, and me being involved in it inadvertently and inappropriately. I get very disturbed when I am treated in any way that smells of that stereotype. I think, I must check that. I must learn to live with that. Women don't always mean it when they fail to recognise or appreciate the authenticity of your gentleness. Their affliction from the tendency to stereotype is as strong as ours. Even if she is honestly fighting it, she may fail to resist it once in a while. It's OK.

I, and many many of my fellows, belong to a portion of the human species, whose interaction with the members of their opposite sex is barely sexual in any way . During such interactions, we aren't looking for a mate, even in a remotely biological sense (I honestly think so). Mostly, we are dealing with them as human-beings. Even our way of finding our mates has now a well-defined social process -- be it a love-affair, or an arranged marriage -- which has hardly any biological elements. Therefore, it should be to everyone's advantage to fight the above natural stereotypes to as great an extent as possible. Men should accept that women, in spite of their niceties and emotional hysteria, are intellectually their equals. Women must accept that men, in spite of their physical propensities and higher sex-drive, are morally their equals.

Jokes can always be made on how women can't keep secrets, how blondes fumble with mathematics, how women get late making themselves up; or about how all men want is sex, how they are dirty creatures, how their emotional intelligence is next to zero. We can always have a good laugh sharing such jokes. But behind that, I feel, we should be conscious that these jokes are possibly the only healthy vent we are allowed to give to our natural instinct of gender stereotyping. Whenever it comes to practical interactions, by fighting our stereotypes honestly, we personally stand to share a much more rewarding and fulfilling relation with our friends in the opposite sex, and our entire species would stand to gain (again, I honestly think so).

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Cricket Craze, Racism, National Inferiority Complex, Corruption of Media and All That

It's now well-known that the the number of bad decisions in the test. OK, Bhajji's ban was revoked. Bucknor was removed. Fine! Just a few points to remember:

- Popular anger at all this is as meaningful or meaningless as our love for cricket -- passive.
- Media is corrupted, and would love the public go berserk.
- It's the call of people directly involved in the matter -- players and umpires. I don't think we figure anywhere here.
- It's sometimes good to take a tough stand. Australian cricketers are quite a spoiled lot. Let's accept they are the best in cricket, and then look eye to eye. It's very easy for them to say that we are fleeing after facing defeat, and that we are trying to hype up other things to takes peoples' eye off from the match results. Let's join them to hype up their victory to whatever extend that it can be. But if something's wrong, then it is. And it should be punished. Let not we fall prey to our age-old docility and national inferiority complex every time.

Hey! I haven't seen a cricket match in the last 12 year. But, I do see how people get affected by it, especially when the media wants them to get affected.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Just Do It!

The Nike tag-line might be seen as something to infuse aggressiveness in a person, possibly causing him to take to running, and buying their footwear. Over many years, I have looked at it in a different light, and have realised that it has got a message for people like me, who don't have any serious plans to do anything aggressive in their life.
I would like to recount a discussion I had with an ME student in CSA department of IISc about 6 years back. We were cycling towards the lab early one morning. Those were the days of doing piles and piles of assignments. I was struggling with three subjects. I was on the verge of giving up. The other guy had taken those three same subjects, and three more, all of them as tough. I put forth a simple and straightforward question: 'I'm getting a heart attack with 3 subjects. How the hell are you managing 6?' His answer was simple: 'Who's managing? I just keep doing what's right next in the queue!'

That discussion had a deep effect on me. And they started showing in increasing instances in my day to day life years afterwards. After that day, I started becoming more and more conscious of how much time and energy I spend in trying to schedule my day/life. Most of the times, the prospect looks daunting when I try to plan meticulously. Almost always, there's too much to do. To make things worse, there's often no real correlation between the importance and interestingness of things. Unwillingness to do boring chores, and the resentment over the lack of the correlation often used to paralyse me into complete inaction.

Slowly, I made certain observations.

First: there's indeed too much to do. So, there's no point in trying too hard to come up with a beautiful schedule.

Second: The amount of time that one has in coming out with a fairly good approximate schedule is also fairly limited. Most probably, with my kind of intelligence, the only scheduling algorithm that would work is first come first serve.

Third: Life is not a hard real-time system. Deadlines can be broken. They will be. It's good to be ready for that.

Fourth: With increasing business, the feeling of enjoyment diminishes and a numbness sets in. There's a point where the numbness starts eating upon the joy of completing a task. That's where, slogging any harder becomes pointless. Moreover, numbness opens the gates towards dying of heart-attack sooner and sooner.

Fifth: Thank your stars when you have too much to do. Having too much to do is far better than having nothing to do.

Sixth: Concentrate. That's the only way you can enjoy what you are doing, and that's the only way things get done. Concentrate even when you are doing the most insignificant work of the world. Concentration also takes your eyes off such questions like what's the use? which more often than not kill the enthusiasm to do most good things. Concentration is the magic potion of enjoyment and often an effective substitute to brute-force discipline.

Whichever scheduling algorithm we use, it is rather important that we do what gets scheduled next. There we could say: Just do it! But there, the name of the game is not aggressiveness, but discipline. As I am not very good at it, I have found a particular reward-system pretty helpful. I use one task as a respite from another. When, while doing the most urgent thing, we get bored and fatigued, we can take up another lower down in the priority, and do it for a while. That has double benefit. It reduces stress caused by monotony and boredom; and it also gives a sense of satisfaction in that we are actually reducing backlog in the future. I have a peculiar dread towards concentrating for a long time. This automatically results in my finding every other work look more interesting than the one I am currently doing. Therefore, the chance to do anything apart from what I am currently engaged in, appears like a reward. So, I reward myself with this indulgence whenever I make a designated progress in the thing I doing. The rewards usually ring this way in my head: 'Get rid of this bug; then go for coffee.' 'Implement this feature, then write a paragraph in the report.' This reward system, which builds upon an essential cowardice I have, helps me in fooling myself into viewing a work as a fun activity, as a reward, or respite. On the other hand, this habit also helps me turn an otherwise frivolous things into some productive. For instance, going for a coffee may get clubbed with catching up with a friend, or having a technical discussion that's been pending for long.

At the end of it, I have found a kind of fatalistic approach towards many things very helpful. As in: Do your best, and leave the rest on God. At most points, I don't find myself in a position to answer the question: How am I doing? We all have a particular style and speed of handling things. It's not easy to bring about drastic changes in these things. If one wants to get a clear estimate about how one is doing, one should look at life in its totality. For example, if I try it, I get both a reassuring and a humbling feeling about myself. I feel, overall, I haven't been doing too badly. The panic that I feel when I fret about my slowness in doing things looks pretty much unnecessary. It's almost surely true that I am slow in most things. But it's just a disadvantage; not an undoing. I keep losing miles due to that. But there are other things which also put me a couple of miles ahead. All in all, it looks like I am a fairly above average person, possibly brilliant, but definitely not a genius. The most rational answer to the question: 'How is the future going to be?' seems to be: 'Most probably not very different from the past.' So, I seem to be safe. But if I am looking for an extra-ordinary life or something, possibly I am not on my way. At least, there's no way to know now. So, why worry?

To conclude, the central point here is not to imitate Dale Carnegie or Steven Covie. It's just trying to document some realisations, and the following advice is not to someone else. It is to me. Here it is. Just keep doing it. Don't make too frequent assessments of yourself. You are probably doing okay. Be disciplined. Sometimes, numbing the sensations for the sake of getting over with some chores is good for health. It lets you defy fatigue which is often laziness in disguise. But don't do it too often. Then, you may get a heart attack. Mostly, it's a good investment of your effort to learn to enjoy the work. That makes your efforts effective as it's easier to concentrate when you like doing something (converse is also true). It saves you from numbness; hences it's good for your heart.

Ah! A predictable preachy preachy post! :)