Yemen – forgotten by our tribal mentality

According to the UN, Yemen is currently the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Countless have died, become homeless, on the verge of starving to death, and besieged by diseases. Yet it has barely created a ripple in American social media. I am starting to realize social media outrage has the potential to produce real-life changes. The conflict in Yemen has been covered by the major American news organizations for years. So why hasn’t the war gone viral or seeped into our collective consciousness in the United States? I think it is because the war in Yemen doesn’t fall under any ready-made narrative. There are no preconceived heroes or villains for liberals or conservatives to pick on. A civil war in a Muslim nation where numerous Muslim nations are fighting a proxy battle doesn’t animate conservatives. Since Israel or some Western nation aren’t involved, liberals aren’t motivated to condemn the atrocities in Yemen either. Add the fact that the Obama administration’s continuous support and arming of Saudi Arabia made it complicit in the war crimes in Yemen, liberal outrage has been mostly muted.

I think in our polarized times what goes viral depends on what tribal narrative it can fall in to. I noticed it earlier this decade and tested the hypothesis in my head during the Sochi Olympics. Just before Sochi started, protesting against the anti-LGBT laws in Russia became a big thing on social media. I was surprised and also happy. But I wanted to know if this attitude will extend to all other countries with anti-LGBT laws or will the topic fade away after Sochi ends. From prior experiences, I guessed it would be the later because it is easy to hate on Russia. But criticizing “minority” countries, where most of these anti-LGBT laws exist, has become very hard for progressives in the West.

It is harder to find ready-made villains in the Yemen conflict, unlike the Syrian refugee crisis. That war had been raging since 2011 and well covered in mainstream media, but it only jumped to social media few years later when the bad guys were white Europeans who were uncaring for asylum-seeking peoples of color. Around that time, I started feeling frustrated about the lazy criticism of mainstream media. The idea that the media did not cover the Syrian war was not true, just like it is not true that the media isn’t covering the Yemeni crisis. Not all news organizations have resources to be everywhere. With consumers moving towards free media, which is also prone to click-bait journalism by appealing to our emotions and personal ideologies, the serious media with high journalistic standards is suffering from declining readership and revenue. Layoffs make it harder to cover every inch of the planet. Safety of journalists also come into consideration in covering every conflict. Therefore, is it not the fault of the citizenry for sometimes being lazy in not getting their news from diverse sources nor paying for good journalism. When the Syrian conflict reached European shores because of refugees, more media outlets could cover it. And only then did the outrage machine about the Syrian crisis go into overdrive. There was no outrage or sympathy at the plight of Turkey, Lebanon, or Jordan, each of whom host over a million Syrian refugees. 30% of Lebanon’s population are Syrian refugees. These information could be found in mainstream media, if not in the social media echo chamber or highly partisan websites.

Similarly, there is a thinking among many that the American media is the world media. If something is not covered in the American media, it is assumed it is not covered anywhere else. Or that the American media has a responsibility to cover every story from every corner of the planet. And if it doesn’t it is proof that American/world media doesn’t care for these other places. For example, over the past week coverage of Hurricane Harvey has dominated American news media. Couple of days back The New York Times reported about the monsoon floods killing over 1000 people across South Asia. I have seen two ways in which a story like this is shared across social media. Some share it for informational purposes. And some share it with a self-righteousness shaming of others. The later goes along these lines – “while the world media/mainstream media is focused on Texas, 1000 people have died in South Asia and little or no attention is being paid to it.” This led me thinking about two things – these monsoon floods have been going on for a while. The people who post with the second attitude did not read about the issue till The New York Times and then the NPR reported on it this week. So they weren’t too far ahead of those whom they were shaming. Secondly, when I look at Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, German, French, or Spain’s English language newspapers’ websites, there are none to maybe one small article on their websites about Hurricane Harvey. Are THEY ignoring the disaster happening in America, or is the more likely explanation that media companies have limited resources, and they invest those resources in places where their readership is more interested in? Indian newspapers report on things happening in and around India. American newspapers report on topics happening in and near America or its allies.

We pick on outrageous comments or actions of individuals on the “other” side and paint them as a monolith. Yet when someone does the same on “our” side, we say these individuals don’t represent all of us. Instead of waiting for full facts or the understanding of nuance, we jump to instant outrage. If liberals support a cause, conservatives have to be against it, even if it goes against conservative ideals. Even if it turns over the conservative movement towards racists and nationalists who would have never been included in the original conservative movement. If conservatives are against something, liberals become for it, even if it means abandoning the ideals of liberalism. Embrace of racists and anti-Muslim bigots on the conservative side has made Muslims an oppressed minority in the eyes of Western liberals. But that has led to the muting of any criticism of LGBT or women’s rights in Islamic nations. There is no outrage at the state persecution or mob lynching of liberals, secularists, or atheists in many of these nations and other “minority” nations. But many of these “minorities” in the US are conservative majorities elsewhere. Many of these “minorities” had vast empires, were conquerers and subjugators, and also engaged in slave trade for centuries. Many of them are apologists about issues within themselves, but quick to point fingers elsewhere. I know this because as a liberal Indian, one of the biggest criticism I get is talking about problems in Indian society. I am met with the familiar – “problems happen everywhere, so are you picking on problems on our side.” One of the biggest causes of bigotry and prejudice is seeing people as “us” vs “them”. Us is the good side. Them is the bad side. And if liberalism also becomes “us” vs “them” where we see people as monoliths of good or bad, victim or oppressor, we lose the individual stories and their nuance. We only speak out when someone of the “victim” tribes of America is affected. And that makes us go silent when atrocities do not fall under such black-and-white American definitions of victim vs oppressor. Taking this attitude to the extreme isn’t only intellectual laziness, it might even be a savior complex that requires certain groups to be the victim groups so we feel good about ourselves when we jump into the outrage bandwagon. In this tribal mentality, who speaks for the liberals when they are killed in the “minority/oppressed group” countries of the world? Who speaks for the women, LGBT, or the atheists in these places? Is it a wonder then that Yemen or numerous other conflicts never reach our consciousness? Liberals must stand for the ideals of liberalism everywhere. Social liberalism must stand for the weak and the oppressed no matter who they are or where they are. It must call out those who oppress individuals or groups, no matter who they are or where they are. If we turn to tribal identities in our fight for social justice, we risk becoming silently complicit in a lot of atrocities and injustice. We risk seeing Rwanda or Sudan or Yemen repeat again and again. We risk abandoning liberals where being a social liberal might mean a death sentence.

 

Advertisements

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: And Other Clinical Tales – a perspective

The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, the first book of Dr. Oliver Sacks that I read, had a profound effect on me. The book has 24 chapters, with each chapter being a standalone clinical tale from his career as a neurologist. Divided into four parts, the book delves into ‘Losses’, ‘Excesses’, ‘Transports’, and ‘The World of the Simple’. The first part, ‘Losses’, describes numerous clinical cases of people who have lost some aspects of neurological function. The protagonist in the title chapter has trouble identifying things around him, and once mistook his wife’s head for a hat which he tried to wear! There were also a few poignant tales of those who had lost their sense of self or identity. The second part, ‘Excesses’, has many stories of neurological ‘excessive’ disorders such as Tourette’s syndrome. These stories describe people whose lives have become either energetic or impulsive because of their disorders. Although the ‘Losses’ part showed how neurological defects can have a detrimental effect on quality of life, the ‘Excesses’ part showed how some neurological disorders can bring more color and ‘life’ to someone’s daily existence. And sometimes treating these symptoms can make the patients feel as if they have lost an important part of themselves.

The last two parts were quite special to me. ‘Transports’ has clinical tales about patients who have ‘transported’ to a different conscious state – imaginations, spiritualism/religiosity, dreaminess, and reminiscence. There were two touching clinical tales about ladies whose illnesses made them dream or hear sounds from forgotten parts of their childhood. This section also delves into epilepsies of the temporal lobe, which has been implicated in deep spiritualism, religiosity, seizures, and having ‘visions’. Finally, the fourth and last part of the books presents clinical tales about mentally handicapped people – a group that used to be shunned and misunderstood by society, yet whose unique gifts and talents were presented with empathy in this book.  This section showed Dr. Sacks’ empathy and talents in presenting mentally handicapped people as normal human beings. He gave a sense of normality to those with autism and various other traits that might be considered oddities or mental disorders. This book also led me to question what exactly is normality? What neurological or physiological disorder is ‘abnormal’, or just a different kind of normal?

One of the thoughts that occurred to me after reading this book was whether we should accept what nature has given us, or whether we should try to overcome nature’s limitations with biotechnology. It also got me thinking about many people’s fears about new technologies that tinker with nature’s status quo. Many people use the phrases “everything happens for a reason”, or “there is a meaning behind everything”. Even though it is said with good intentions, I want to give a differing perspective on why it isn’t necessarily empathetic or helpful. Many of us say it from our experiences, privilege, and by rationalizing outcomes after they have occurred. Yet many people might not appreciate these statements when it relates to tragedies like war crimes, suffering of the innocent, or a parent burying a child. How can we tell a mother that there is a meaning or reason behind the death of her child? I have personally found these statements to be unhelpful, and in contrast have appreciated the honesty that something bad happened because I made a mistake or because I didn’t have the foresight to make a wise decision. That honest appraisal has led me to make changes, rather than rationalizing or normalizing a mistake as if the outcome was part of a divine plan. If we say everything happens for a reason, it might not motivate us to try and change the status quo for a better outcome.

When I see people with mental and physical disability, what is the reason or meaning behind their situation? Many of them have made the most of their disabilities. But wouldn’t it be better if they had their full neurological and physiological capabilities? Why should we accept or rationalize pain or physiological handicaps, instead of trying to create a world without such suffering? I have read articles written by parents that they wouldn’t use gene therapy to treat their children’s physical disabilities before they were born, because those handicaps made their kids who they are today. I find such thinking selfish because the child doesn’t get to decide if it wants to be born with neurological or physical disabilities if potential preventive treatments are available. I find it incomprehensible that those of us healthy would rather choose and rationalize nature’s random mutations causing severe disabilities in others over biotechnology that can prevent or treat disabilities.

There are those who have lost their sense of self and identity, or are physically disabled to the point where their quality of life has diminished. We can empathize with their pain without telling them that there is a reason for their disability. It doesn’t mean that we should despair at finding no ‘meaning’ to our circumstances. We can accept that life isn’t always fair, or that bad things happen to good people without any supernatural machinations. And that unpleasant truth should be the impetus that drives us towards eliminating unfair situations in life, towards fighting for a better and just world, and towards eliminating pain and suffering. This should prompt us to invest more in biomedical research where disabilities and illnesses can not only be treated, but also prevented through gene therapy. Such therapy, whether for embryos or adults, requires society to reach a consensus as to what treatment is acceptable or not, especially when someone is incapable of giving consent. How should we treat those who have lost their sense of self and are incapable of informed consent? And should it be mandatory to use gene therapy on an embryo that has all the markers for severe disorders? And how should we distinguish between the ‘excesses’ and ‘losses’ disorders. If the ‘excesses’, as shown in the book, can enhance someone’s life, should they be treated in unborn fetuses? These are questions with no objective answers, but questions society must ponder with the increasing advances of biotechnology.

The other topic from this book that piqued my interest had to be with the section ‘Transports’. As a scientist and supporter of rationalism, I strive for knowledge and understanding of our natural world. Religion has affected me in numerous ways, both good and bad. Understanding religiosity also increases my understanding of human behavior. Our advanced brain has made us ponder existential questions, and spiritual and theological doctrines have helped answering many of those questions. But what makes some people more spiritual or religious than others? What is behind the visions, voices, and other types of religious experiences? For many years, I had read of temporal lobe epilepsy being implicated in extreme religiosity. Therefore, it was a pleasant surprise to read the neurological reasons behind such ‘visions’, hallucinations, or seizures. Specific doctrines and beliefs will always evolve or go extinct, but if we have unanswerable questions then some sort of supernatural beliefs will remain a part of our species. But the changes I would like to see relates to understanding doctrines and personal interpretations of doctrines as immutable facts.  Too often such ‘facts’ have been used for violence, prejudice, and discrimination. We can be spiritual and/or religious, yet be humble enough to accept that no one has the right answers to our existential questions. Our brains might revolt against uncertainty and grey answers, yet uncertainty should be the preferred outcome over false truths.

Finally, if religious doctrines are considered as subjective understandings of our world rather than as objective truths, it might give people courage to go against doctrines when they wish and explore more personal freedom. Too many of us, myself included in the distant past, have wanted to eat something, wear something, and explore other personal freedoms but felt guilty that we are committing a sin or going against immutable truths. I have seen people cry because they mistakenly didn’t follow some doctrine or rule. I have had people ask me wistfully “when will doctrines change”, or “why are doctrines the way they are”. No one should feel guilty if they go against doctrines for their freedom or happiness. I don’t want to see people cry or commit suicide if they cannot follow some of these doctrines. I don’t want to see judgment and nonacceptance on parts of those who take doctrines as literal truths. I think a world where religion isn’t absolute, but where religiosity can be explained as products of our brains’ quest for meaning, a world where people can be spiritual or religious for personal peace and happiness, will be a better and happier world. I want people to see the beauty that comes from our own brains, be it spiritualism or the ability to overcome nature’s deficiencies with scientific breakthroughs. I want people to be confident about themselves, their strengths, and their abilities to change the world.

Women and toxic families

Women dealing with toxic family – a topic that comes back to me every week, even at work after others become familiar with my writing. And these stories are overwhelming shared to me by women from the eastern part of the planet (doesn’t mean it only happens there). In popular culture, many times we easily call women “crazy”. Ignoring psychiatric illnesses, how often is it that someone who might seem “crazy” has been dealing with a ton of shit in life. Stress can easily break down any human being.

One of the most common effects of dealing with toxic family is that women have to live a double life if they ever want to create any sense of self. Families, especially who immigrated to the West in the 80s or 90s, still have the same social attitude as they had back home because they never immigrated. They try to control and mold every aspect of their daughter’s lives – for sake of control, sake of “honor”, and for her “marriageability”. In more conservative families, they have to give a “pure”, quiet, and obedient girl for marriage with the understanding that “you can do anything you want after marriage”. Which usually depends on future husband and in-laws and how liberal-minded they are.

All this control leads many women to start living double lives outside their home. It is like a person divided against themselves. How they want their lives to be vs how their parents or relatives want their lives to be. From clothing to activities to relationships, it is a life either hidden from everyone or from more conservatives friends/family members. But how long can a person live a double life? Some give up and accept their fate. Some know what their parents will never accept and never stray from the path decided for them. But some rebel and their everyday existence becomes a hell. Yet nearly all of them accept it as “love”.

For those living a double life, every moment is spent in fear of being caught. For those rebeling, every day is spent fighting. And when someone isn’t obedient, even if they are in their 30s, the constant criticism is what breaks them down. And that is the story I hear often – every cruel thing their parents or sibling tell them just because they didn’t follow the line. This happens even if they are married. And that makes me sad because I see the shit women deal from toxic relatives slowly trickling down in their behavior to their own children. It is said that abuse exists as a circle. Seeing that circle of abuse breaks my heart and boils my blood because another generation starts suffering. All because for too many people on this planet women are still objects and properties to be controlled. Somehow women represent their family’s honor. And finally, women are seen as an extension of their family/parents – not as an individual with her own agency and personhood.

The Tragedy of Kashmiri Pandits

This is a very charged topic, especially in India, but I’ve been wanting to write about it for a long time because Kashmiri Pandits are one group of refugees that everyone seems to have forgotten about. Having Kashmiri Hindu friends in New York City who themselves or whose parents had to leave Kashmir, gave this topic an added importance to me. Finally, I want to make clear that talking about tragedies isn’t a zero sum game. Just because I am talking about Kashmiri Pandits doesn’t mean there aren’t numerous other refugee tragedies in the world. And just because I am focusing on Kashmiri Pandits in this essay doesn’t mean that other communities in Kashmir or elsewhere in India haven’t also suffered terrible tragedies. Discussing one tragedy shouldn’t minimize or take away the importance of other tragedies. It isn’t a competition. And it is impossible to give equal weight to every single tragedy in the world in any one essay.

Kashmiri Pandits are Hindus belonging to the Brahmin caste. The Indo-Iranian peoples who would go on to practice Hinduism came to the Indian subcontinent 4000-5000 years back. As such, Kashmiri Pandits have been dwelling in the Kashmir Valley since the Bronze Age. Although Arabs, Turks, and Persian armies started invading India from the 8th century onward, Kashmir didn’t completely fall into Muslim hands till around the 14th century. Inevitably, subjects in any land start following the beliefs of their rulers. As such, through force, necessity and choice, Hindus of the Valley had started converting to Islam, or had started leaving the Valley. Incidentally, it was Akbar – one of the most tolerant rulers of medieval India, who gave the Kashmiri Brahmins the title of “Pandit” – a learned scholar. And when Akbar’s son Jahangir saw the Valley for the first time, he was mesmerized by the beauty of the land to utter his famous words – “If there is ever a heaven on Earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.”

After nearly 500 years of Muslim rule, and as the Mughal Empire was on its downward spiral, the Sikh Empire conquered Kashmir. But only a few decades later in the Anglo-Sikh war, Kashmir was annexed by the East India Company and then sold to a Hindu dynasty. By the 19th century the demographics of the Valley had changed, where Muslims now comprised over 90% of the population. Between 1948 and 1950, in inter-religious violence after independence and other land reforms, led to a huge exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley. Alleged vote-rigging in local elections in 1987 in favor of the ruling party disillusioned Kashmiri youths and was a primary motivator for the rise in militancy against the Indian government. As the Soviet retreated from Afghanistan in 1989, militants and resources used to fight the Soviets were in turn directed towards Indian-held Kashmir, and also for the creation of the Taliban. Deadly attacks against Pandits increased in 1989, and in early January 1990 Urdu newspapers in the Valley asked the Pandits to leave. On the night of 19th January 1990, messages from the mosques blared out across the Valley – convert, be killed, or leave but leave your women behind. Within a few weeks, somewhere from 100,000 to over 160,000 Kashmiri Pandits had left Kashmir and become refugees in their own country and around the world. By many accounts, from 1947 to 1990 nearly half a million Hindus had migrated from Kashmir. Today there are only a few thousand Pandits left in the Kashmir Valley. The tragedy is the Indian State’s inability to protect its own citizens in its own country. Nearly a quarter million Pandits are living in Jammu in refugee camps. Many have moved to Delhi, elsewhere in India, or abroad. Even after 26 years, successive Indian governments have failed the Kashmiri refugees. And worst, having over half a million people and their descendants living as refugees in India seems to have been forgotten from the national conscience.

This story isn’t unique. This has been happening throughout our history, and will keep happening in the foreseeable future. The well known example is the plight of Arabs who became refugees in the partition of Mandatory Palestine. One problem with the creation of countries based on identity politics or beliefs is that it makes indigenous people refugees or second-class citizens in their own land. 700,000 Arabs became refugees in their own land. Similar number of Jews were made to leave Muslim lands. 7.5 million each Hindus and Muslims became refugees in the Partition of India. People had to leave lands their ancestors had been living for centuries or since the beginning of civilization. Yet this is human history. Every group has been conquerors, and unfortunately it has led to a loss of the indigenous culture and beliefs. Today Christianity is nearly gone from the Middle-East. Jewish kingdoms no longer exist there. Indigenous Arab and North African religions are extinct. One of the great ancient religions – Zoroastrianism, that has influenced Abrahamic and Dharmic religions, is nearly gone from Iran. European colonialism has led to the decimation of indigenous religions in the Americas and Africa. Even the propagation of Hinduism in South Asia came on behalf of conquerors from present-day Iran. Outsiders come, start calling the land their own, and it slowly erodes away the beliefs and cultures of the conquered peoples. As someone who loves pluralism, I find that to be a great loss of history. But no one is to be blamed except human nature. Everyone has been a conqueror, and everyone has been conquered.

We cannot change the past. But we can learn from it, and we can definitely be more aware so we don’t forget tragedies. And such awareness can prevent us from having a false sense of reality where the only story we read is that of victors and conquerors, who glorify themselves and dehumanize or erase the conquered people. I don’t see a realistic pathway for over half a million or more Kashmiri Pandits to return to Kashmir. It becomes harder with the passage of time. But we can at least remember their tragedy and not forget it in the dustbin of history.

CDC, Quackery, and the Habit of Blaming Women

Recently the CDC posted guidelines telling women that drinking too much alcohol can result in violence/injuries, getting STDs, or getting unintentionally pregnant. Although intentions might have been in the right place, a lot of it came across as patronizing and somehow taking away the sense of agency – that women need to be warned to watch out for the unintended consequences for their actions. And it falls under benevolent sexism, something I have written about before. Under the pretext of protecting/saving women, we continue to chain them and/or hinder them. I understand the sentiment of the guidelines, it could have been done in a better way by removing a few points that perpetuates assumptions or gender stereotypes regarding women.

Over the last few weeks, society’s habit about blaming women, and pseudoscience, have been bothering me quite a bit. And I am going to point out how both can be inter-related. Throughout history, women have been burnt and killed as witches, or for bad omen, among many other things – for issues which can today be explained by meteorology or microbiology (paraphrasing from Carl Sagan). Human beings used to be sacrificed to please gods or nature. Women have been blamed, even killed, for having daughters and not sons – when it is the sperm that carries the X or the Y chromosome. Women still get killed for ‘dishonoring’ their families. Women’s bodies, independence, and voices are still controlled – many of it under the ‘good intention’ of benevolent sexism. Heck, women are still seen “unclean” when menstruating. And we as a species have still not grown up about breast-feeding in public. As a 200,000 year old species, I think it is about time we became adults about human sexuality and biology.

Society decides what constitutes a woman’s ‘modesty’ – which is invariably covering up as much skin as possible. Isn’t that objectification of women too? When someone says ‘covering up is modesty’, what does that say about women who do not cover up? Aren’t the societies with that kind of attitude suffering from misogyny and violence against women? Someone can show just their face and still be dressed ‘immodestly’, while someone walking naked might not get a second look. Modesty is subjective, and a woman’s character should not be decided by how much skin she shows, but by her empathy, compassion, and kindness (and intellectual curiosity…for me).

As much as we have lived in a patriarchal society, what I still struggle to understand at the age of 30 is how so many women enforce so many sexist rules and chains on other women. Be it sisters or mothers, aunts or friends, it has been enraging to me to see so many women hold back other women – especially from the culture/world I am from. I have seen mothers threaten to kill their daughters she brings ‘dishonor’ to her father’s name. I have seen brothers prevent their sisters from going outside in jeans because it shows the shape of legs. I have seen fathers call their daughters naked for wearing a skirt and leggings. And in all of this, I have seen women – sisters, mothers, friends – defend the sexism, I have seen them defend the brothers and the fathers. I just don’t understand why. Women getting raped get killed by their own mothers. Little girls getting sexually abused are not protected by their own parents if the abusers are family members – lest it brings dishonor to the name of the family. When we complain about our society, what are we teaching our sons when we always blame or try to control women. If we keep women inside the home because she will get harassed outside (or because women don’t belong outside), how are we teaching the men not to harass? If we allow brothers, fathers, and husbands to have veto power over a woman’s life, what message are we sending our sons and daughters. And it is even more frustrating when I see how many women are the enforcers of these rules.

So what about quackery? I will be writing a different article where I bring the hammer down on pseudoscience, something that has bothered me for last few years. But the level of pseudoscience is becoming too extreme for me to stay quiet. I am going to be writing something like I did with religion and spirituality. The problem with tolerating quacks and quackery is that the same concept of quackery has been used to punish women throughout history. We tolerate a lot of quackery and pseudoscience because we term it harmless. But I absolutely believe that tolerating one kind of pseudoscience allows the propagation of other kinds of pseudosciences. Take the example of anti-vaccination movement. It exists in a society where anyone ‘knows’ science without even understanding the scientific method. Be it the anti-vaccination mothers, or not understanding the placebo effect nor anecdotal evidence, I don’t deny the sincerity of the people. I do agree that the tears of a mother on TV complaining about vaccines are real. But that doesn’t mean she is right scientifically. Over the long-run, these feelings and pseudosciences hurt us as individuals and as a society (take climate change denial as an example). Even societies who have killed women as witches think they are doing something good. As Mark Twain once said – “It is easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled” (because of feelings, confirmation bias, and other psychological reasons I won’t go into here). So it is important to teach people how the scientific method works and how to ask questions so we don’t get conned by quacks. It is easier to prevent quackery when it is trying to take hold than to eradicate quackery. At least in many developing parts of the world, quackery and women’s rights is still a very inter-related issue.

 

Facebook Privacy Posts to Conspiracy Theoryies – Thinking, Fast and Slow

I had written this post a month and a half back. Two weeks ago The New York Times published a similar article here, and therefore I decided to update and publish this. Few weeks back many people were posting all over Facebook regarding a privacy statement – if you post a certain paragraph then Facebook doesn’t have permission to use your content. Postings like that come up periodically on Facebook, and this time even John Oliver made fun of it in this video. Similar postings in various other topics keep showing up in social media, topics with a single internet search would be disproven. And usually, it is the same people share and post such things. So what is the reason behind this?

In Daniel Kahneman’s book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’, mentioned in the Times’ article, the author comes up with two thinking systems in the brain. He names the fast thinking system, the part that depends on intuition and reactions, as System 1. This system doesn’t spend a lot of time in thinking or analyzing an issue. It lacks critical thinking and questioning skills. In contrast, system 2 is a skeptic. It spends time in studying an issue before reaching a conclusion. It questions everything. A simple example was how President Bush was described as someone who ‘goes with his guts’ (system 1), while President Obama has been described as someone who dithers over an issue (system 2).

From an evolutionary perspective, system 1 would be important in protecting us from predators. You hear a rustle in the leaves and you run as fast as you can. There might not be a tiger to eat you, but if there was a tiger then depending on system 2 would mean you would end up as the tiger’s dinner. But as we have moved on from the lifestyle of a hunter-gatherer and live in a civilized and globalized world, system 1 creates a ton of problems for us. People who depend too much on system 1 believe almost anything they hear or read the first time, especially if it fits into a narrative which they have been exposed to since childhood. They lack skepticism and questioning skills. On the other hand, people who possess system 2 skills to an extreme level end up as conspiracy theorists. They are skeptics of nearly everything. Those who are more inclined towards system 1 might be lean more towards traditional and religious values where they do not question what already exists, while those who are inclined more towards system 2 might lean more towards left-wing spirituality that has do with ‘higher consciousness’, ‘energy’, ‘chakras’, naturopathy etc. These people are skeptics in the traditional sense, but not skeptics enough to challenge left-wing pseudoscience. Finally, there are people who believe everything from left-wing pseudoscience regarding aspects of spirituality to right-wing pseudoscience like religious dogma. These kind of people are rarer, but they are a fascinating study because they lack any and all skeptic nature and are prone to believe anything.

Finally, even if people have skeptic genes – people in whom system 2 works well – their system 2 might be able to detect error but might not be able to correct error. These people will know something is wrong because of their system 2, but they will double down on their belief by rationalizing it. Taking it to an extreme is called denialism – as written in this article from today’s New York Times. One common example is evolution, creationism, and intelligent design. A traditional religious person depending on system 1 would believe in creationism if his/her religion has a creationist story. A person who has a healthy system 2 would know the theory of evolution and how it is incompatible with religious dogma. But a person with a system 2 that detects error (creationism), but cannot correct the error will double down on the religious dogma and support intelligent design. Such a person is intelligent and educated enough to know that going against science is a losing cause, but such a person also has a deep affinity for something that is refuted by science, facts, or logic, and therefore that person will try to find any loopholes to try and bridge the gap between science and religious dogma. In this example, intelligent design sounds like science while also allowing aspects of religious doctrine to exist.

But we shouldn’t judge people for having a predominant system 1 or an extreme system 2. Whatever anyone believes, they do so because they are sure about it. And no one is immune from the effects of a system 1 or an extreme system 2. We all have our inner biases inculcated since childhood. Therefore, to be more logical and rational in our lives we must make a conscious decision to teach our children how to think, how to ask questions, and to teach them the difference between facts and beliefs. Because once we are set in our beliefs, it is extremely hard to let go of them. The emotional pull – neuroplasticity – is too hard to break. To control a predominant system 1, we must cultivate listening skills, learning patience, and having questioning skills and an intellectual mindset. We must refrain from rushing into conclusions. We should try to see topics in black and white.

Having healthy System 1 and 2 are important are important for many reasons. Most importantly, a predominant system 1 is part of our tribal mindset of us vs them. This leads to violence and conflicts. We don’t take the time to know the other side’s story, or if our teammate started the problem. We jump to conclusions. Having an extreme System 2 leads to dangerous pseudoscience, including quack cures/treatments/diets etc that can either bleed people of their money without providing any benefits, or refrain people from taking medicines because they mistrust Big Government or Big Pharma. It is important to find that balance between thinking fast and being an extreme skeptic. And it all starts with a conscious decision to slow down how quickly we reach a conclusion. It includes expanding our breadth of reading and knowledge so we are aware of many sides of many topics. It includes learning to question everything, including going against our gut instincts. Most importantly, it includes teaching these skills to our children from a very young age. The price of blind beliefs and denialism is too high for our society to tolerate any longer. Progress requires rational explanations and logical thoughts which can act as a firewall between extremes of human behaviors and emotions.

What if I don’t want to be a shoe? What if I want to be a hat?

11873772_750328941780577_2438279940601320326_n

As I get older and listen to people express their inner feelings, one of the deepest pains I hear is how so many us are living a life not out of choice, but out of expectations or pressure. We live our lives based on parental expectations, societal expectations, and religious expectations, among any others. Many times these aren’t just expectations, but also pressure and force. I have heard people complain sadly as to what they wanted to study, what career they wanted to pursue, whom they wanted to marry, etc but couldn’t. Most of them wish their families and societies would see their way, would accept them, and unconditionally support their happiness. And these complaints reminded me Friends’ pilot episode where Rachel complains to her dad.

11863356_750328938447244_812628829442048742_n

But the part that confuses is when people say they want to be accepted, that they want society to change, but they themselves don’t. We are society. Although we want to be accepted, we don’t accept what we don’t like. We don’t want to be singled out because of our race, gender, age, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, or any other trait, but too many of us do that to others.

We want our children and spouse to follow our beliefs. Even if we say we don’t want it, we expect it. And while those expectations from our parents made us change our dreams, we don’t think its wrong to expect it from our children or spouses. But the funny thing about beliefs is that they keep changing along with our life experiences. What we believed or practiced yesterday, we might not do that today or tomorrow. Yet we probably had fights and arguments with our family members or loved ones regarding how they aren’t following our beliefs. Even if we do not force them, our expectations creates pressure on them, especially on children, to conform to our beliefs. That is the same pressure we felt as children, those of us who complain about our parents or societies’ expectations. This is the hypocrisy that keeps the cycle going on and on. And this pressure and expectation never leaves us. If someone we loved wanted us to be something and we didn’t choose that career/spouse etc, as they get older or pass away, we choose to do what they wanted us to do because we feel guilty and think we owe it to them. Why is it fair that we leave others with a feeling of guilt of how they should live their lives?

If our own ideas and beliefs keep changing, why is it okay that others should live their lives the way we are living ours at this moment in time? Our ideas might change tomorrow. Should we make our children and spouses keep changing their lives based on our expectations and ideologies? Today I might marry say I want to marry someone who only believes in the flying spaghetti monster, but what if I don’t believe in it tomorrow myself? What if my partner stops believing in it, but keeps up the act just for my sake? Is that fair? When we say we want our children and spouses to have our values, we misconstrue values with beliefs. Values are universal – honesty, compassionate, kind, empathetic etc. But beliefs are personal. And beliefs should remain personal, without expecting it from anyone else, not even from our own children. We should be teaching them values, and not beliefs that might not make sense to them as they grow older, but which they might be forced to continue to please their parents. Teaching them is acceptable if it is done with the unconditional expectation that as they grow older, they have the right to choose their own paths. If we want to be accepted by others, we must break this hypocritical cycle of not accepting others. We can all be happy if we let everyone choose whether they want to be a purse or a shoe or hat, whatever makes them happy!

Faith is beautiful – Part I of Faith, Religion, and Me

Faith, now what does it mean? It is a confidence or a trust in something, or someone. Faith gives up hope, it gives us a reason to go on when we cannot see the future or an end. Faith doesn’t have to be in a deity but it could be anything – it could be in our own abilities, our friends and family, or just a positive thinking that if we keep trying something good might happen. One doesn’t have to be religious or even a theist to have faith, because everyone has faith in something. Some might even call faith as positive thinking or vibes, or a belief in hard work, due diligence, and its reward.

For a religious person, faith involves a deity/deities who might answer prayers or our performance of doctrinal rituals. We believe such a deity is looking over us for our well-being and we implicitly trust this deity to bring something good to us, even when bad things are happening to us. For an irreligious person, faith involves in trusting their own actions, abilities, efforts, or just the luck of probability.

Faith keeps us going in the darkest of times. It transcends the analytical mind because the logical brain deals with facts, not with hope. When a parent loses their child, it is faith that keeps them going that their child is in a better place. Try telling such a parent that their child’s life meant nothing and that it is now reduced to the dust of time. Faith gives many of us hope that our good actions will be rewarded, the injustice we face in this life might be rectified in an afterlife, or that we will once again be able to see our loved ones whom we have lost.

Similarly, an atheist or an agnostic might have faith that hard work is rewarded. A deity isn’t necessary to have faith. We can have faith in our fellow human beings and trust that they will be kind, compassionate, and just to us. We can have faith that our positive feelings would improve our outlook on life and cheer us up. Some term these positive feelings as prayers and put their faith in a guardian angel or a God.

It is when we lose faith in something is when we give up – be it a job, a person, or even life. Faith is the motivator that promises us of a better future. It is the catalyst that keeps us moving despite hardships and trials. Faith brings us closer to spirituality, because no matter what our beliefs are, the spiritual aspect of faith gives takes us to a deeper place where the analytical brain isn’t capable of entering. Knowledge, logic, and reasoning has its important place in our daily lives, but when we are hoping for a miracle, it is only faith that is by our side. The miracle might not even happen, but isn’t it better to live hoping for a better future than to give up the idea that anything can be different. Now hoping and faith is never going to work if we do not make an effort to change our circumstances, but faith can greatly complement our efforts when we are trying to achieve something.

Faith is too personal to be taken away from someone, or invalidated because it doesn’t match up with someone else’s faith. After all, isn’t faith nothing but hope and trust? So who are we say what gives comfort to a person, and who are we to say that someone’s faith in something is wrong? If it gives them happiness, hope, and a promise for a better future and it doesn’t harm or hurt anyone else, let us respect their faith like we expect them to respect ours. Let us respect that we can coexist together even if we do not share the same faith. Let us acknowledge that faith isn’t fact, it cannot be empirically determined, that there is no wrong faith or right faith. It is only our personal hope for the future.

Love story from HONY

I have heard from countless people about both sides of the argument as to what makes a marriage work – is it love or is it sharing similar background. Too many confuse infatuation with love, and give ammo to people who say love doesn’t work. And too many think having similar background will lead to compatibility or a happy marriage. I believe the answer is love, as portrayed by this couple. But my definition of love is commitment, communication, compromise, tolerance, friendship, equality, and most importantly respect. Infatuation doesn’t cover a fraction of it, and sharing similar background does not guarantee anything about a happy marriage.

Me

Once you have met and befriended people of various nationalities, race, faiths, sects, political beliefs, ethnicities, and sexual orientation…it becomes really hard to keep believing that your background is the right/true/best. It feels like intellectual cheating and arrogance to continue to pick and choose based on convenience/selective ignorance to support your side. And for this, I am indebted to New York City, and to the United States in general for the global melting pot that it is. Seriously, I have friends from Chile to China, Morocco to Malaysia, and every major religion you can think of. I am fond of Arab and Mexican cuisine, German and Belgian beers, and Eastern and Western philosophies. And I have spent more time in the last 10 yrs reading up on Abrahamic faiths, especially Islam, than I have on biology (my career) or astronomy (my passion). So when some of my friends, especially South Asian females, try to put a label on me -Indian/Brown/Hindu/Brahmin/Oriya or anything else – I just say I am a human. Every other label makes me susceptible to be biased towards my background. And after knowing every different kinds of people, I cannot afford to be biased to any side for emotional or sentimental reasons. Who or what I am today is immensely shaped by the diverse groups of people around me. So yay for diversity and melting pots!