The assumption of difference, the violence of judgment – Part I

Back in school there was this guy who, at the end of the day, would go around sitting on the chairs of all the “best” students in class (and no I wasn’t one of them – always a late bloomer it seems), because he hoped that their talents would, in a very literal sense, “rub off” on him. At the time I found it hilarious (and in a disturbingly mean way); now it just makes me sad. And a lot of that is because, without realizing it, he had come a lot closer to the truth than I’d realized (and I wouldn’t for a long, long time).

There a few things you learn if you teach for a living that can fundamentally change your entire narrative of how the world works. Correction – not “learn”. It isn’t that you necessarily learn anything new, but that you feel some truths for the first time. That is, of course, if you’re paying attention. And one thing that bothers me, perhaps above all else, is the assumption of stupidity; the judgment of intellect.

We are all in our own small ways guilty of it. Those who teach faced with those who either refuse to learn, or seem incapable of it. Those who succeed effortlessly faced with those who either couldn’t give a shit, or who seem to fail no matter how much of a shit they give. And worst of all, those who fail themselves, eventually resigning themselves to intuitively appealing explanations based on talent and effort – it seems (to most) that neither capacity is distributed in a very egalitarian manner. A large part of it is the structure of the education machine itself, but the problems with such industrial age factory-based systems are well known. What I’m trying to talk about is a lot more insidious. It is the problem of judgment – or more accurately, judgment that obfuscates and perpetuates deep structural social inequalities.

A twenty something who shrugs and confesses that she “just can’t do math” has already committed a serious crime against her own self which, if not corrected, will continue to hurt her all her life. There are reasons, of course, professed or internalized (or both), and they range quite widely. But almost all of them will fall under one of three labels: “I don’t like math” is one. Now I myself don’t care much for math, but nor do I like the sound of Cantonese very much; we learn the languages we need for our purposes, whether it’s economic modeling or two years abroad in Hong Kong. This is by far the easiest of the cases to deal with; the other two are much, much harder – “I’m not working hard enough”, and the worst one, “I just don’t have the mind for it”. But since working “hard” is useless if you’re not working the right way, the former can largely be subsumed under the latter.

A tragedy of our time, here and now, is that one of the few distinctions we are still allowed to make even in seemingly educated circles, after having discarded gender, race, class, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity and so many other false divisions, is the distinction between “intelligent” and “stupid” (usually expressed more euphemistically). Not only is this distinction a profound lie, it is a fundamentally dangerous one, capable of slowly but surely crippling life after life without ever arousing suspicion.

To be sure, mental retardation is real, and so are prodigies. Outliers aside, however, most of us are so (surprisingly) close to the average that it’s almost a little sad. And yet, understanding this is crucial, because the biggest mistake that someone who is “failing” at something can make is deifying the successful. Recognizing failure is the first step in the right direction; normalizing it is a giant leap backwards. It is easy to take that wrong step after seeing people who appear to be succeeding with almost half the effort, but do you truly believe that they are twice as smart as you? If you do, you are almost certainly wrong. Most human beings do not differ that much in terms of “inherent” intelligence or ability, and chances are that you and everyone you know are not among the outliers, no matter what many would have you believe. Society loves to deify and separate the masses from the “elite” – saying “oh of course she can, she’s a genius” is the easiest way to forget about her altogether, and stifle all the normal jealousy and envy and competitiveness that we feel with our contemporaries. But how can one be successful while only having failures as benchmarks? What we have is a lie that is as dangerous as it is comforting. Anyone who thinks that they are inherently very smart, is almost certainly not as smart as they think. And anyone who thinks that they are inherently very stupid is almost certainly a lot less so.

We appear to be disturbingly comfortable with what I like to call assumptions of difference. To take an example from a class I teach – with a simple additive social welfare function (meaning that social welfare is just everyone’s welfare added together), assuming that everyone has identical utility functions that depend only on income (people only care about money and derive exactly the same satisfaction from it), that these utility functions exhibit diminishing marginal returns to income (every dollar makes you happy, but the 100th dollar makes you a lot happier vs the 99th than the 1000th vs the 999th – money’s good but gets a little boring after a while), and that the total income available in the economy is fixed, then the optimal (most socially desirable) income distribution is perfect equality. This is because in this model, taking a rich guy’s 1000th dollar and giving it to a poor guy does make the rich guy a little worse off, but it makes the poor guy a lot “more” better off than the rich guy is worse off (perhaps that dollar is the 100th one for the poor guy) – this means that social welfare (in the net) has improved. In fact, we can keep doing this until we reach a point where we can no longer take money away from someone and give it to someone else without hurting social welfare, because at that point the former is exactly as worse off as the latter is better off – this is the point of perfect equality.

A radical conclusion, but the holes in the model are obvious (it would seem). It is enough for our purposes here to focus on the first assumption. Utility functions can’t be observed (your preferences are a black box – all we can see is behaviour), so it is simply impossible to determine whether everyone’s utility functions are indeed the same. This is the point where I ask – if, hypothetically, we were able to actually observe utility functions, would you still expect them to be (roughly) the same for everyone? Every single time, the overwhelmingly popular answer is NO.

Isn’t that curious? Instead of the logically sound “we can’t tell either way”, we seem to naturally gravitate towards assuming difference. Reasons given range from “well, people are just different” (why though?) to “we’ve all grown up in different circumstances and environments” (if that is the case, why assume difference and not pursue equality instead of assuming sameness, pursuing equality, and then seeing if the differences actually persist?). There is not a shred of actual evidence to justify such an overwhelming response, while there is quite a good deal of evidence to go the other way.

Part of it may simply be a lack of perspective – the differences stand out to us even if they are really meaningless in the greater scheme of things. We tend to mistake a taste for coffee as different from a taste for tea, whereas they are both a taste for hot caffeine-based stimulants. We see the difference between the top of the class and the barely passed and we forget that they are both in the same course, studying in the same university – they are both part of a still privileged few. We see that some people spend their money on tehari and some on sashimi (damn I could use some of both right now), and we conclude that it would be wrong to assume that they have the same preferences. But that is simply a question of levels of abstraction – they are both prone to spending their money on feeding themselves.

All of that may account for some of it, but I think the greater problem is our inability to identify the channels through which circumstance and environment shapes us, our inability to connect the dots and draw a mental map of the series of key turning points in our lives that led to where we are (largely beyond our control), and our inherently narcissistic memory that naturally subscribes achievement to the self and over-inflates the scope of our agency. Imagine, if you will, that a girl is not doing particularly well in college. And now think about the 20 something years that this girl has lived until this moment. Isn’t it possible that at least a few events (which may or may not have been thought important as they happened) may have occurred in all that time which ended up playing an important part in nudging her life to precisely this moment and situation? Parents’ income, level of education, social and cultural capital, time of birth, place of birth, gender, childhood nutrition, parents’ income and lifestyle over the course of the daughter’s life, upbringing, exposure to books at home, family’s religious inclinations, domestic stability, affection given and on display at home, choice of school, peer group, friend circles, teachers and mentors, exposure to different socio-economic strata, geographical exposure, role models, choice (or lack thereof) of entertainment at home, choice of entertainment by friends – all of this is just scratching the surface. Imagine that each of these is a continuous variable that can take an immense multitude of values, and that each of these has an impact (from the minute to the permanent) on the ability of the girl to perform in college right now, and realize then just how different it could have been. Faced with this realization, can it ever be intellectually honest to not assume that we are indeed more inherently similar than different? Only if we can conclusively show that, under any permutation of the above list of factors, she would have grown up to be in the exact same situation, with the same abilities, skills, personality and character traits as she has now. That is clearly impossible, and the odds against such a result are enormous.

This reasoning can be extended to attack any argument from inherent difference – women are naturally suited to the private sphere, the poor are poor because they are lazy and have too much sex, certain races are inferior, certain cultures are more prone to corruption, certain religions more prone to violence – the list is endless. In every single one these cases, the only intellectually and morally defensible position is to assume similarity, not difference, until proven otherwise under identical circumstances over a sufficiently long period of time. To deny yourself this realization in the face of apparent failure, to deny others the psychic sanctuary of this truth when they are faced with your own relative success – that is the violence of judgment.

To be continued

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Am I a thing? Or, on not being your self.

We cannot “find ourselves” after all, because, it seems, there is no “self” – the self is a system, a structure of a potentially infinite number of “sub-selves”, arranged in a constellation of minute differences, a continuous palette in which no individual colour can be separately identified, nor do we know its beginning or end.

Each of these sub-selves is a product of our eternal engagement with our natural and human environments. They are regularities, repeated patterns of internalization and response to repeated patterns of stimuli. This is far from a “blank-slate” position – the genetic heritage encapsulated in our brains and bodies react and represent in subtly different ways, leading to an accumulation of substantial differences over time. And yet, there are real (if fuzzy) limits to how much stimuli originating from the same physical environment and the same social, economic, political, cultural and historical context can differ. This may be why individuals from the same class, for example, behave in systematically similar ways, and yet no two of these individuals are exactly alike.

The “gaps”, so to speak, between sub-selves, do exist, but are almost impossible to identify through introspection – our natural hard-wiring actively engages in selective remembering and forgetting, in order to provide the very necessary illusion of a consistent overarching structure – memory blurs the edges and creates a solid mass we call the self, but which is really a loosely connected crystal, made of fragments of patterns of stimulus-reaction, represented in our minds through language. To a large extent, language provides the necessary illusion by subsuming a vast set of fragments in the overarching genre of “I”.

This crystal is neither frozen, nor easily malleable. The extent to which one’s self appears to be unified and concrete is a function of how long one has been exposed to stimuli of a relatively similar sort. That is perhaps why, on one end, people belonging to socio-cultural groups not historically exposed to other environments or cultures appear to be both more rooted and stable, and relatively hostile to those who do not belong in their group. At the other extreme is the child of the postmodern world, over-exposed to a chaotic jumble of fragmented experiences without any solid center. Reactions to such experiences flowing from a longing for a solid, unified self-world may be what leads to the contemporary reactionary ideologies popping up across the globe.

Since we internalize the socio-cultural systems we float in, our internal, mental structures and our external, social structures are mirror images of each other – each one of us is a carrier of society and culture, which becomes embodied, a living breathing entity in and through us. But the mirror is not perfect, nor is the reflection. Since we do not passively accept the imposition of society, but actively interpret, represent, assign meaning, manipulate and navigate through it, the mirror is more muddy water then clear glass. The relationship between inside and outside is not a one-to-one correspondence, but a continuously evolving metaphorical one. Nevertheless, to the extent that our experiences are static, so are our minds – to the extent that our experiences are multifaceted, so are our minds. And since we seek to impose a confused mix of our interpretations of the world (and what we desire from it) back on to it, our internal and external worlds may co-evolve forever.

We are stuck then between several constraints. Our self-systems are, to a large extent, determined by our lived experiences, which in turn depend on our positions in the social structure, as well as the past, present, and future of the particular group of which we are a part, groups which are formed at the intersections of numerous economic, social, political and cultural fault lines. Our longing for a singular identity can only be fulfilled, it seems, by a violent restriction on our lived experiences – hence “identity crises” and “culture shocks” lead so often to an in-group mentality. Knowing, however, the potentially disastrous consequences of such an imposition, we may choose to go the other way, and actively seek to diversify our lived experiences (and thus our environments) as far as our mental faculties will allow, even as many who have been forced on to such a path by the contemporary, fragmented world have chosen to reject it and turn inwards again. Is there no other way?

Perhaps the problem is that we do not go far enough. Our need for unity pulls us back before we can reach the end. What, though, is the end? Only the internalization of every feasible configuration of lived experiences? And, therefore, only the exposure to every feasible configuration of physical and human environments, both spatially and temporally? That hardly seems feasible, to say the least.

Perhaps, then, by consciously creating and sustaining a social structure that is by definition all-inclusive, where every single form of categorization of people is torn apart? Perhaps we can only become someone by either becoming one – a single sub-self – or everyone. We will carry society within us as before, but no longer fragmented, no longer clumsily patched together, for our internal and external worlds will encompass the entire possible universe of human experience. For us to achieve that, we would not need merely a system that “makes room” for all experience, but one constituted by all experience. And for that, all differentiation between human experiences must be destroyed, leaving only one – the one experience of being human. And for that in turn, all differentiation between human beings themselves must be destroyed, leaving only the single category of being human. Can our capacity for imagination even grasp at such a world yet?

Inspired by Marx, Bourdieu, Victor de Munck, Katherine Ewing and Daniel Dennett.

Transgressing to obey, obeying to transgress: On the possibility of revolution in the 21st century

The paradox of an authoritarian social structure is the everyday transgressions that are ubiquitous and common knowledge – the paradox of a permissive, “liberal” society is its impervious-ness to true revolutionary change. It is much harder to rebel when rebellion is expected, even encouraged.

To take a simple, local example: the consumption of alcoholic drinks is legally prohibited in a good Muslim society such as ours. This, of course, does not mean that Bangladeshis do not drink. On the contrary, everyone knows where the booze flows, including (I should add, especially) the government. I suggest here a simple thought experiment – what would happen if, starting tomorrow, the government of Bangladesh started an actual crackdown on booze? No doubt, people would still find ways to smuggle tequila into the country and into their homes, but it would be a decidedly more risky business – amazing profits would await those who would take the risks and succeed, but I expect that such people would be much fewer in number than the number of people who regularly drink today. The genius of an official ban combined with a “don’t ask don’t tell policy” is that everyone is happy – sure, many drink, but most don’t. Those who don’t like the idea of a permissive society can be comforted by the official mantra, those (relatively few) who like their barley with their beef know where and how to get it, and the government does not have to waste the precious time, sweat and money of the state to hunt down a few harmless drunks.

This, according to Zizek, is precisely how authoritarian power functions – no such power structure can survive and reproduce without its inherent, apparently subversive “transgressions”. Zizek takes the example of the old homophobic Yugoslav army which would reek of the homo-erotic undercurrents of barrack life, whether in act or innuendo. The same can be said of the two guys walking down a Dhaka street holding hands (and much more), who would gladly beat an openly gay man to death the same day. The truth of course is that these undercurrents are only apparently so – they are not people testing the boundaries of authority, but slaves of ideology relishing in the ironies that are its lifeblood. Without such everyday, inconsequential transgressions, perhaps, the cold, brutal touch of power would be too close for comfort.

Small transgressions, then, are not only not subversive – they reinforce the power of explicit command. To truly obey, one cannot obey to the letter – it is just as important to internalize the implicit rules that govern when and where to obey and when to transgress. These rules are unspoken, unwritten, but ultimately crucial. Direct prohibitions have their inherent, subliminal injunctions to deviate – the result however is that, so long as the deviations themselves do not deviate from the unsaid rules of deviation, no act of true transgression or subversion is actually performed, and the power structure is not threatened at all. That is precisely why acts of subversion need only take the deviation too far – to be openly radical is indeed a threat, whereas laughing at the king/queen/master-of-the-universe in private is not.

Permissive society turns this structure on its head. Transgression is now explicitly allowed – one is expected to drink and be merry. Indeed, to not transgress is suspect, for why would you not? If transgression ceases to be transgression, then, is obedience subversion? Not quite – refusing to transgress the injunctions of authority in a permissive society is to obey two-fold. Authoritarianism allows the freedom to obey against one’s will, yet why would one obey in a permissive society unless it is truly out of one’s own free will? To shun profligacy, promiscuity and the power of narcotics in a “free” society is to send the signal that one has freely chosen the monastic life. Note also that even here, there are some transgressions that are not allowed. You can smoke marijuana, but not tobacco. Instead of liberation, liberal society simply pushes the power structure deeper, by adding a layer of permissiveness over the same commands and injunctions.

What, then, is true subversion in a society that welcomes it? Or, to put in other words, what is the possibility of personal and political revolution when “anything goes”?

Personally, true subversion is to expose the farce for what it is – by transgressing out of obedience, and obeying to transgress, without ever losing that most important and unnerving of ingredients – irony. To participate in society’s rituals with the knowledge of their inherent arbitrariness, to be both rebel and humble servant, exactly when least expected – thus being neither. To appear to be forced to transgress when obedience is costless, and to be forced to obey when the situation reverses. To be perpetually in battle with the forces that seek not only to control our behaviour, but to control our will and beliefs about our behaviour.

Politically, one must avoid, at all costs, the appearance of the lunatic radical. Obvious revolutionary demands are as meaningless as the inherent transgressions of an authoritarian power structure. They are laughable, implausible, and irrelevant. But to make specific, concrete demands, to ask for slow, incremental change – that has true revolutionary potential. Such demands must be locally or temporally (apparently) idealistic, but always plausible and globally modest. They must tread the gap between the solidly status quo and the cries of the supposedly “far” left.

One must not equate such an approach to the resignation of Fukuyama-esque (un)politics – the idea that liberal capitalist society is the end-point of our eternal quest for the ideal, just form of social organization, leaving room only for gradual, incremental and inherently small adjustments, improvements and appeasements to make the “system” as “humane” as possible. Our approach is not that of resignation, of the acceptance of ultimate defeat. At every point, during every intentionally deceptive maneuver, we must be actively, almost painfully aware of our ultimate destination, as well as of the importance of the deception. And while we must remind ourselves of our destination, we must not get bogged down by the details of the road – there are many roads to the truly free society, and we are better served by focusing on our next footstep, instead of trying (and failing) to know the path stretching in front of us in exact detail, and refusing to walk when we don’t like the nature of the dirt.

The competent establishment is not nearly as afraid of the open radical that it can entertain and ridicule, as it is of the hidden radical that it cannot drag out of the closet. No revolution can be successful in a permissive society if it is seen to be one – the revolution must not be televised.