Monday, November 21, 2011

Men, Women and Discussions

Note: This discussion happened over Google Buzz. I reproduce it simply because I feel it deserves something less ephemeral than a buzz conversations. The reproduction is pretty much honest (through effective use of copy-paste). I have removed the timestamps, hyperlinks, and 'da' suffix to my name wherever they appeared.

Acknowledgement: I thank Pritesh, Ananth, Ayan, Hasan and Shipra for participating in the discussion.

You will find men often talking about women not being able to take part in serious discussions. Many impediments have been reported. They range from lack of originality, lack of breadth/depth of thought, taking things personally, not gracefully accepting it if their contribution to the discussion happens to be minor, getting too aggressive (as in turning a discussion into an argument) etc. 
I feel there are people like that. But they aren't necessarily women. I have met many women with whom it is a pleasure to discuss on a wide variety of things. They don't just make good listeners, but have such valuable inputs as is suggestive of wide knowledge and piercing intellect. On the other hand, there are men with whom it's a pain to talk anything beyond meaningless pleasantries. 

But more importantly, what we should realise is that such people who aren't good performers in discussions aren't necessarily intellectually inferior. Handling a discussion is by and large a matter of grooming. Good discussions follow certain patterns, which, through regular practice, are rather easy to catch. When a discussion is approaching one of its pitfalls, when it's straying, and how to avoid these and maximise the benefit of a session, are things which one could learn with practice and observance of discipline. 
To this, probably it is relevant to look at how things culturally are in our Indian families. When men discuss, women cringe into the kitchen or some other part of the house only to appear to provide refreshment. Even now, in a lot of families, men and women form separate groups. No wonder, if someone is routinely kept away from opportunities of learning something, she will not learn it. And then, we attribute it to their intellect. And the sequestration intensifies. It's a vicious cycle! It's not as if men are forcing women to this plight. Men and women are equal parties to this folly. It's more like men and women, all, are playing puppets to a strange illogical custom. If there's any semblance of fact in the opening statement of this piece, I feel, it could largely be attributed to this strange custom (In fact, I was recently made aware of this by one of my cousin sisters, and it struck me like a thunderbolt.) 

What a pity for us all that we lose out on about half the intellect of our race while discussing on matters! What a pity!

Related posts:

Pritesh Dagur - It's a very very valid and thought-provoking point Sujju. I can identify with the pattern of women escaping to the recesses of the kitchen, with or without realizing. In spite of having more than equal opportunities of discussing, I tended to do this too (maybe, I still do it to a certain extent). So, I don't particularly blame the less-educated or less well-treated women doing so. I guess, this goes back a long way and will change very slowly, just like many other things about our Society. Conscious efforts will need to be made to bring the other half of the Society into actively discussing matters and ya, the discussing half to get into the kitchen and bring refreshments too! :-) Change has to happen both ways! :-) The other half of my marriage already does this, I hope the others can learn too and we can have a wider variety of inputs in every discussion :-)
Sujit Kumar Chakrabarti - Yes. Also, the groups that get formed in the living room should be more based on interests, and not gender. Why is it necessary for men to talk about footfall and politics, and for women to talk about recipes and cosmetics?! These days we have women heading prominent countries. Aur to aur, ab to ladke bhi cosmetics use karte hain! ;)Edit
Pritesh Dagur - Hahaha, this is true. But yes, it is also about taking an interest in other topics. I can contribute a bit or two about football now and Ananth can talk about toners and facewashes too! :D
Sujit Kumar Chakrabarti - ...and I will make a good listener to both! :D
Hasan Raza - I may not agree completely. You are trying to relate two things together. However, you are right that it's not the women but people who behave like this. But is that those men who behave like this go to kitchen when intellectual talk is happening, and appear to provide refreshment. 

I didn't like the above post. As simple as that.
Sujit Kumar Chakrabarti - There should be one '[:(] Unlike' option for buzz posts! That would have been even simpler! :)
ananth krishnan - @Hasan: I think what Sujit is trying to say here is that, being part of intellectual discussions is largely a grooming issue, not a brain issue. Less women are able to join intellectual discussions because they are groomed to cater to refreshments, not indulge in intellectual discussions. So when they are exposed to an intellectual discussion, they may find themselves ill at ease, even if they may actually have the aptitude or interest to join in such a discussion. But on the other hand, some men don't like such discussions, but are forced to sit through them because they cannot excuse themselves to go and provide refreshments. 

@Sujit: One solution Pritesh and I tend to follow is the take turns in making intellectual (or non-intellectual) conversation and dropping into the kitchen to arrange for refreshments. If the party is smaller, then we shift everyone into the kitchen and talk while we preparing the refreshments with each of us handling some parts. In spite of that, Pritesh ends up spending more time arranging for the refreshments while I end up spending more time on the conversations. 
@everyone: Usually the women too end up making conversation among themselves, often in the kitchen while arranging the refreshments, in a typical Indian party scenario. I think it would be stupid for us men to label their talk as any less intellectual than that carried out by men. I would sometimes say, their conversation may be more useful, than the so called intellectual discussions by men. As Sujit puts it, it is a shame that one half of the intellect is lost on the other half :-)
Hasan Raza - Ok, let me be more clear. There are two discussions running above: 

(1) How to do a better conversation and lead a discussion to an end; and other interpersonal skills 
(2) Intellectual strength of women 

The first one is altogether different from the second one. I can't question the intellectuality of women, the difference is that the direction is different. Women put their intellectual strength in a different direction than men. Just take an example: 
Skill of not to give up in a discussion - it needs lots of brain power to keep going with the discussion and poke out new things which pierce the opponents mind and stature, and be present with another cross question or incidence which can cancel the opponents statement, and prove ultimately that you are wrong. 

The above is commonly found in women but even men sometimes behave like that (eg. here I am :) Now how does it relate to the way how women are treated in our culture and society? 

The only difference is that people who talk smart (be it a women or men), always follow a path in the discussion and do not deviate from there.
Sujit Kumar Chakrabarti Hello Hasan. Let me try to frame the above two things in one: 'Utilising the intellectual strength of women in discussions.' It's a composite topic. That's OK na?! 

If I try to go into explaining the unity in the topic I had started, probably I'll end up repeating a lot of what I said at first. Let me still try by writing something like a paper abstract. 

Women are intellectually equal. But they don't end up taking equal part in serious discussions in general. I have tried to analyse the problem. In the process I have agreed that the distinction between discussers and non-discussers exists but it's not fundamentally gender based, rather it's a matter of practice. I have concluded by giving a brief explanation as to why in the current society the bias of non-discussers might be towards women, by bringing in our social norms of isolating women from intellectual activities. 

Do you still think I am trying to force two topics deserving separate discussions to fit into one? 

Dear Ananth. Thanks for a solution to the 'refreshments' problem. I'm sure you understand, but for the benefit of all, let me just mention that I mentioned that issue more metaphorically, to represent the fact that normally, women in our society are meant to keep out of intellectual discussions. 
Also, whether women end up making meaningful discussions among themselves is slightly besides the point once we have agreed that the distinction between discussers and non-discussers in not gender based. What is important to highlight is that there indeed are people who never learn to make meaningful discussions not because of their own faults but because prevailing norms never allow them to learn it.Edit
ananth krishnan - I guess the confusion is caused do the assumption that intellectual discussions are restricted to the living room which is usually inhabited by men during a typical Indian family party. Where I beg to differ from Sujit in the light of Hasan's comments is that, women in our society are meant to keep out of discussions which men have, not necessarily out of intellectual (serious) discussions. Because of the different practices of discussions between men and women, the intellect is not shared between men and women. But I have never heard of a man winning an argument with his wife about anything without resorting to violence. So obviously men are ill-equipped at having the kitchen variety of (serious) discussion.
ananth krishnan - But what I agree with Sujit is that men often subscribe to the belief that women can't make intellectual conversations, because of the social milieu of the Indian family and the gender roles.
Shipra Agrawal - that is one reason I am fan of open kitchens, my current kitchen is open, into the living room, that not only allows me to talk while I am making tea or something, but also encourages everyone including Piyush to be more involved in arranging the refreshments.
Sujit Kumar Chakrabarti - Wow! That's really a cool aspect of open kitchens. Never thought of it!Edit
Pritesh Dagur - I so totally agree with Shipra. Open kitchens (like we have in our Pune house) are a really cool idea.........
Ayan Kar - I like to idea of being able to interact.. but I prefer the big separate kitchens that include the dining area.. I can sit and chat with my wife and also we get to do a lot of joint cooking of tasty bengali maach bhaat or spicy chicken masala's my present house has an open kitchen and me and my wife hate it because it limits the options of food we can cook. You can accuse of both of us of being food junkies.. ;-)
Sujit Kumar Chakrabarti - Bindu! Point! I'm fine with both. There should be good food coming out of them prepared and eaten over interesting discussions. :)

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Correct Pronunciation

Two Indians -- a North Indian and a Maharashtrian -- were fighting about how 'either' should be pronounced. North Indian said it should be pronounced as 'आइदर'. The Maharashtrian said it should be 'ईदर'. That's when a Tamilian passed by. So, both decided to ask him. The good-natured Tamilian thought for a while, and said, 'यइदर will do!'

Morale of the story: No point trying too hard to get rid of your local accent.

We, particularly Indians, work so hard to sound like British people (now Americans, of course) when it comes to speaking in English. Is it needed? If you look around, people from every country have their own accents. No one seems to fret so much as Indians do about their English. Nothing wrong in wanting to use a language well. But the unfortunate thing is, we end up thinking too much about being indistinguishable from the originators of English in terms of accents.

We should remember that the only way of enriching a language is by using it in ways other than how their originators did. The only inviolable rule of using a language is that it should communicate what you wish in the way you wish. Everything else is a dispensable trait. Various accents, particularly in India, makes language usage really interesting. Should we emphasise too much on making them all sound similar?

Acknowledgement: Thanks to Dr. Valli Rao for providing the above thought.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Thought Processes behind Ethical Decisions

What do we think when faced with an ethical problem? What goes on in our heads in those excruciating split-seconds?

To help you in following the discussion below, try and imagine what would go through your head when faced with a situation like the one below to make a decision. 
  • The traffic light is red. But there's no one looking (not even cameras). Should you jump the signal?
I tried to conduct the above thought experiment over several sessions of thinking. Follows a list of traces of thoughts that I could detect in my mind. Of course, the experiment was conducted with an attempt to be objective. So, I have tried to keep my own personal dispositions out of the way.

Reward and Punishment
Do that for doing which there is a reward, or  for not doing which there is a punishment.

The above is an obscenely simple, and potentially the most profound of all mechanisms of practicing ethics. Why it is simple is because it works on grown ups, kids and even animals. Why it is profound is because it is parameterised with how one interprets the notions of reward and punishment. A reward may mean something as simple as a kiss from parents for which a child decides to eat his food quietly. Or it could mean a national independence that a freedom fighter lays down his life for.

Except in the most direct ethical problems of day to day life, this mechanism fails to provide a good and timely solution. In most cases but the most trivial ones, it will result in very narrow-minded behaviour if used in a time-budgeted manner. And if we try to use it in very fundamental manner, we mayn't reach a conclusion in time.
Religious Approach
Follow the scriptures.

There are people who do well in ethical sense by sticking to what's considered correct as per their religious belief. Don't cheat. Don't lie. Don't kill. Don't be greedy. Most of it is all there in any religious text and following one is a sure bet that you will by and large be ethical.

Difficulties arise in the implied aspects of religion. So, some people think women should cover up. Others think freedom to dress at will is a part of the notion of freedom. Some people say eating meat is violent. Some say eating some specific types of meat is OK, while eating others is bad. There are too many religions around and there are disagreements. One notion is that all religions are fundamentally in agreement. But the level of abstraction where the agreement is complete doesn't lead to anything actionable. Refinements and interpretations are essential to turn religious thoughts into actionable ones. And that's where disagreements creep in.

Spiritual Approach
Follow your heart.
There are many cases where we are well-aware of what's going on in our mind. We may be able to sugar-coat our greed as something really good. But, the heart is most often ruthlessly clear about such acts of deceit.

However, an act done with an honest sense of good could be disastrous. Even if we discount the direct ethical connection between an act and its consequence, we can't leave out the disagreements that may arise. And then comes the question of how strongly should one stand on one's opinion. For example, Gandhiji was known to be pretty rigid about what he thought to be right. People like Hitler must also have been pretty convinced that they were right in tried to wipe out a complete race. There are so many schizophrenics around. Spiritual approach doesn't help in telling one from others.

Civic Approach
Grant full loyalty to a social structure, movement, or concept and do what you think benefits it.

We can view ourselves as tiny little components of something larger than ourselves. You may call it the country, the world, the society or whatever. It's a human creation, and we all have teamed up to create it. This requires order and cooperation and we owe it in our conduct. Obey rules. Respect other fellows' requirements. You look at it this way, and it becomes rather simple to decide as to what should be done.

Whom to be loyal to? The faith here is that we are components of something which is inherently good. And here lies the tricky part. Let me illustrate this with an example. We find ourselves in membership of composite structures which more often than not conflict with one another. For example, trivially, we are members of our own self. Then family. Friend circle. Organisation. State. Country. Caste. Religion. Human race etc. It's hard to define at which level of this compositional hierarchy should we define our absolute allegiance based on which we drive our ethical decisions. For example, you may be working for a mining company which is taking away precious minerals from your country dealing it a profound long term damage. So, should you not act against your company in the interest of your country? Perhaps. Unless, your country is a hostile one which will eventually use all its mineral reserves to manufacture or purchase weapons of mass destruction.

Hope of effectiveness. The other difficulty arises when the effectiveness of our action is not clear. Then our decision completely rests on how hopeful we are that our act of loyalty will fulfill its intended goal. Most unethical acts fall in this category. Most ordinary people do something wrong not because they directly find it rewarding to do it, but because they feel foolish trying to do something good. Not bribing. Not jumping signals. Not producing false bills. Civic approach to ethics relies on an unflinching faith in entity to which you have vowed your loyalty. This approach becomes ineffective when one loses the faith in the above premise, or in the ineffectiveness of one's ethical act in really serving the charter of that entity.

Scientific Approach
Do what is objectively the correct thing to do. In case of no clear answer choose whichever you please, including nothing at all.

Let me go back to the example of driving -- an everyday act which, I feel, requires a huge number of moral decisions taken in split seconds particularly where application of reward-punishment duality is particularly tricky. The primary purpose of driving is to get from point A to point B. Everything that prevents us from being at B instantly on starting the journey could be taken as an impediment. This approach would lead us to look with hostility at everything: any turn on the road that doesn't directly point towards B, the traffic, the traffic lights, traffic rules, the finite power of the car...even laws of physics! I agree that there's nothing moral or immoral about taking this approach. The one thing problematic about this approach is its stupidity. The most logical approach here is to understand that nobody owes us a right of way in our journey unless its a mutual understanding. It's equally likely that we will not succeed in forcing our way through realities to our destination unless we get them to work in our favour through a mutually agreeable protocol. Similarly, it's ridiculous to think that anyone gains by not letting us be there at our destination as early as possible. In the light of this realisation, treating all the above artifacts with hostility appears stupid more than anything else.

Theoretically, the above seems robust. Except that in my view, I haven't found scientists doing too well in general when it comes to ethical living. They cheat at work. They envy and back-stab their peers. They misbehave with and disrespect the general people, sometimes even their family members. Pretty lousy people, sometimes. Why do people trained to think scientifically fail to work out the details of ethical questions? What goes wrong?

InterconnectionsThe above approaches aren't orthogal. There's a relations between religious approach and spiritual approach. Civic approach is similar to religious approach in most part except that the object of loyalty is worldly in one case and mystical in the other. Religious approach is similar to the approach of rewards and punishments when it's driven with the idea of securing a good after-life.

In fact as aluded to earlier, all mechanisms could be fundamentally based on a notion of reward and punishment. However, to interpret it literally would be dangerous and naive in the same manner as would be equating animal selfishness with principles of advaita.
Concluding Remarks
We must remember that ethics is one of the fundamental problems of philosophy. Like most fundamental problems of philosophy, it eludes a final, universally accepted solution. But like all problems of philosophy, it touches our lives in a very basic way. In some sense, practicing ethics is something we all, philosophers and non-philosophers, must do. In this article, I have tried to list and present a primitive analysis of the mechanisms we ordinary people employ for practicing ethics. Further thoughts on them will undoubtedly add clarity to our understanding of our own mechanisms of practicing ethics.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

The Dead Pigeon

On Diwali evening, a beautiful pigeon lost its way to my balcony. There were 3 little kids at my house who got very exited on seeing it. They screamed and jumped. The pigeon fluttered its wings in panic. But, blinded by night, and disoriented with terror, it only bumped against the pot with the withered tulsi. I drove the kids away and closed the balcony door hoping that in some time, the pigeon would find its way back out.

I checked up a few hours later. And found the pigeon dead. I picked it up and took it to the security with a weak hope that the dead bird would find an affectionate burial in their hands. They couldn't help. And I left it near the dustbin, to be picked up the next morning, along with that day's trash. I felt very sad. I affectionately asked the bird why it died like that. The only answer I got was an uncomplaining calmness of the dead.

That night, in wee hours, the thought of the dead pigeon visited me again. I thought how it would have been a glorious and beautiful bird that previous day. I mused if there would be near and dear ones at home waiting for the pigeon who would never come back. How would they feel when they learned of the inglorious death? How would they feel to learn that the corpse had got disposed along with municipality trash? Or was the pigeon loved by no one, in which case, being dead was also a homeless state? I wondered why it died like that. Did it get hurt by Diwali crackers, or the commotion of the bursting crackers and screaming kids scared it to death? I wondered what it may have thought of all this noise and fire: sports for the big and powerful; and death for the poor delicate creature.

I also wondered: how many pigeons die without anyone to mourn their death? With no ceremonies to mark their departure? No obituaries? How many beautiful lives are lost due to the splinters from the crackers of more significant creatures? How many beating hearts just wither away while the loud racket emanating from the sports of larger creatures goes on unceasingly?