Sunday, January 18, 2009


A very surprising thing happened today. I found a name for a particular set of beliefs I faithfully subscribe to (and vigorously sermonize for anyone who cares to listen…). It concerns the notion of hypocrisy; and the term is Existentialism. OK I’m not sure if I think that we are like ants wading through a meaningless universe (a fundamental Existentialist worry), but the concept of existence over essence (a basic tenet of this philosophy) makes a lot of sense to me. Simply put, is a person’s character is pre-ordained? Strangely enough, this might be one of those rare questions where religion and science can actually give the same answer. A yes. ’Genetics is the key’ says the deterministic scientist, while naturally, religions will claim that the person’s past deeds or the Entity Above are the only factors. Say there’s a person X who’s been pre-programmed (‘his essence’) to have unspeakably violent thoughts all the time. This person X tries really, really hard to change the person that he is, maybe even to the extent that he never raises his hand in anger. Now the non-existentialists (and some of you) might argue that the person is being a hypocrite. He’s having all those raunchy thoughts, after all, and he can’t really change what he essentially is. Let’s make the argument even more forceful. Person X becomes a preacher now, devoting his life to spreading the message about the fundamental goodness of humankind. ’Hypocrite!’ All the former fence-sitters join the screaming throng quickly enough. I find this idea extremely disturbing. To me, it seems to be a genuine attempt to block the efforts of the only people in the world who are trying to change for the better. Of course, there’s no way I can repudiate evolutionary psychology completely (I’m not trying to); it seems obvious that certain people are genetically programmed to be a bit more violent/ funny/ impatient/lustful than the rest. The point here is that the concerned variables are not set in stone. They are strongly stochastic, and strongly influenced by culture. It’s even possible that one strong willed individual can eliminate the concerned (dangerous) trait through ‘cultural evolution’. Another fascinating aspect of Existentialism is how humanistic it really is. The whole idea that a person is defined only by his actions, nothing more and nothing less, screams ‘Humanism’. Is this concept that disgusting? Come on. Give the ants a chance…

Friday, January 9, 2009


I don’t think it’s simplistic to assume that humanity’s love for religion comes from a more fundamental fascination with the supernatural. Humans abhor harmonious understanding, yet strive for it relentlessly. Science drives us closer and closer to a universe where everything, at least theoretically, can be built up from a few basic laws (the perfect order!). Slowly, yet surely, objects that were once firmly entrenched in the domain of the supernatural are slipping away into the obscurity of the scientifically understood universe. It’s like sand in an hourglass; there’s something distinctly inexorable about its progress. I’m sure the ubiquitous blade of grass was once a mystical and revered object. But as Jackie Tyler (of BBC’s Doctor Who) once said (to the aforementioned Doctor), ‘Why do you have to come and explain everything? Isn’t there anything Science can’t touch?’ Is that sort of sentiment the true nature of humanity often obscured by zealous scientific adventurism, or is that just superficial conservatism? I don’t know. But I am certainly not exempt from it. I’m anything but religious; I just can’t see how chanting a few hundred lines of something, or the movements of the planets in the sky can ever control your destiny. In fact, I think all we pray to is the Goddess of Chance; and what is chance but something that is too complex to be computed? Of course, something too complex to be computed even by the most powerful supercomputer today, may be solved by every twelve year old with a PDA a couple of hundred years down the line. Anyway, discussion about Chance and her many caprices should be reserved for a future post. My point is that my religious affiliations have nothing to with my desire for a glimpse for the supernatural. I distinctly recall the numerous occasions when I’ve caught myself staring into mirrors hoping to catch an inexplicable movement out of the corner of my eye; and the even more frequent rehearsed conversations with the ghost that’s going to appear any moment. Silly? Maybe. My sister seemed to have pointed out, with her usual skill for hitting the nail on the head, the source of this malaise (as my sceptical half called it). It’s all those episodes of Supernatural (a brilliant TV show concerning the … er… supernatural!) I’d been watching that are to blame. As my head dropped with the disappointment of all that frenzied philosophizing coming to nothing, something occurred to me. Didn’t I start watching the TV show because of this kind of sentiment and not the other way round? Ah, peace again. There’s nothing wrong with seeking a peephole into the Ether (or whatever). What is wrong is forming a closed minded cult over an entity that may or may not be a citizen of the Ether, and ostracizing other people who won’t join or screaming murder against members of another such cult. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the world really had a couple of hundred demons, a few score vengeful spirits and the odd zombie? (Oh yes, the numbers are anything but random. They are carefully chosen to just about ensure human survival…) I can have a zombie for a girlfriend, a best friend possessed by a demon and attend séances in my spare time. Of course, if I get bored, I can start hunting vengeful spirits. Imagination never did anyone too much harm, did it? Look at James Thurber and where he’d be without his hallucinations. Imagination, it has been passionately argued, is what the conflict driven world of today, and not just Ekta Kapoor’s soaps or the people who oppose this argument, needs. Go ahead, indulge in the Supernatural.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The Perennial Conflict-1

It seems obvious and straightforward that we term the Mumbai attacks an act of terrorism. After all, the perpetrators made no effort to avoid civilian casualties; bars and five star hotels don’t quite give off a ‘military installation’ vibe. Also, there aren’t really any governments you could point to and say, “They sponsored this!”, or “It was self-defence!” Therefore, it’s terrorism. Case closed. Or so I thought, till I happened to read an interesting column analyzing Western media coverage of the event. Apparently newspaper editors were reluctant to use the T-word for fear that... I don’t know why actually. ‘Militants’ carried out the attacks and the ‘aggressors’ and the ‘extremist’ organisations responsible must be swiftly punished. OK, they are being diplomatic. There is no need to stoke unnecessary tensions through irresponsible reporting, right? But these are the same editors who don’t break a sweat in condemning ‘terrorist’ attacks by Hamas and Hezbollah. This brings me to the topic I wanted to write about: the Israel-Palestine conflict. There’s no doubt that Hamas and Hezbollah have committed terrorist acts; shooting unguided rockets into crowded cities isn’t exactly civilian friendly. And they repeatedly refuse to acknowledge the right of Israel to exist. I’ll come back to this ludicrous belief in a moment. My first question is how, in the name of Canopus the Bright, is it so easy to choose the good side and the bad side in this conflict? For most Western commentators, it’s Palestine (or at least its government) that’s the bad side, with perennial bogeyman Iran hovering menacingly somewhere in the background. Period. For Arab nations, however toothless their actual actions may seem, it’s still Israel that’s the villain. It’s interesting to note that it’s always the US that backs Israel’s right to self-defence whenever they decide to go on the offensive. Every time Israel attacks Palestine, it’s Hamas’s fault- they brought it on themselves by being silly. Every time Hamas attacks Israel, it’s Hamas’s fault – they were the ones doing the shooting, right? Israel ravages Lebanon, displaces a million people, kills hundreds and destroys their infrastructure looking for members of Hezbollah. Western nations immediately go on record defending Israel’s right to self-defence, as Hezbollah had earlier kidnapped three Israeli soldiers. It’s more like Arnold Schwarzeneggar beating the pulp out of a 10 year old kid because he threw a paper plane at him.

The Perennial Conflict-2

Coming back to the point of Hamas denying Israel’s right to exist, I find the concept amusing. It’s certainly a self-defeating ideal to cling to, but does it mean anything at all? Does it affect Israel in any way if some petty war mongers deny their existence? Israel has a very large and efficient army; a powerful friend in the US, and of course the nukes. It’s again something like the 10 year old kid telling Arnold Schwarzeneggar, ‘I deny that you are strong.’ Of course if Arnie decides to bash the living daylights out of the kid for daring to say such inane things, it ceases to be funny. You can see what I am getting at. On the other hand, does Israel recognize Palestine’s right to exist? I thought the whole conflict arose because of this simple denial. And in this case, such recognition (and consequent acknowledgement of its sovereignty) is important: Palestine is desperately poverty-stricken, led by a stubbornly extremist religious group and without the benefit of a mighty army. If shooting rockets into cities is terrorism (we agreed that it is), isn’t torturing an entire population towards a slow, inexorable death by denying essential commodities and humanitarian care terrorism? Israel does this, and more. There are some things that have to change, at a fundamental level, for any chance of a lasting solution to the problem. Israel’s big bully attitude towards Palestine, firstly. It’s true that some Palestinian factions are involved in carrying out terrorist acts against Israel. But Israel must limit its response to defensive defence (not the aggressive brand they usually practise) if they don’t want to be responsible for the extinction of a nation. They must not punish the entire population in retaliation to isolated attacks; I’m sure they have the military prowess to take out the precise sources of these attacks. Israel has to show that it’s actually willing to see a sovereign Palestinian state up and running. And the (Western) media has to be more unbiased in their reporting. It has to be – ‘Use the T-word for both sides or don’t use it at all!’ Another thing that must change is the Palestinian government’s response to terrorist attacks originating on their soil. They have to make at a least a little effort to root out these hate mongers, it’ll take away Israel’s right to self-defence. It may even change the Western media’s perception of their standing on the good-evil scale, although it’s highly unlikely. There’s also the minimal requirement that both sides honour ceasefires; this is really, really hard judging by historical evidence but unless this is done, we can never move from the war phase to a rebuilding phase. Finally, religious extremism must be done away with somehow, for any kind of lasting peace, if the rebuilding phase is ultimately reached. And I honestly cannot see how this can be done without reverting to killer aliens and deadly comets as solutions. Sigh. One problem at a time.

Profane Musings

I wonder if swearing can be added to the select list of traits that can be called uniquely human. Considering that the number of species that can actually communicate using a vocabulary larger than ten words is very, very small (or zero if you believe all those specists (OED 2021/footnote) out there), the question seems rather silly. Or maybe we haven’t quite understood what all the leaping dolphins, Moby Dick’s disappearing siblings or Douglas Adams’ white mice are actually doing. Anyway, profanity belongs to the exclusive group that I like to call the teeny stoppers- things that are forbidden during childhood (probably by pesky parental rules), that bloom with almost unbearable intensity during adolescence (and college emancipation, whee!) and fade away to obscurity during adulthood (of jobs, wives and life insurances fame). Love, sex and pornography also probably fall in the same category. An interesting point about most of these teeny stoppers is that people straightaway assume that they are merely techniques to relieve some of the pent up Frustration (better known as Adolescence’s twin brother). We hear many well intentioned metaphorical allusions to pressure cookers. If you don’t have a steam valve the cooker explodes, right? How untrue. The true reason, I suspect is the good old S-word again. Society (or Social Status or Social Standing or Something). The S-word has been implicated as the reason why we do 99.3% of the things we do, right from defaulting on phone bills to choice of underwear. Let’s turn to metaphors again- submarines. Think of the submarine as your social standing and profanity as the ballast. The more you let out, the higher you rise. All right, but something’s clogging the periscope here. OK, OK, /*end of metaphor*/, what I meant was that something about this conclusion doesn’t quite ring true. Well… erm… swearing is supposed to offend people! (The ballast analogy finally flops over, stone dead. It’s not like the ocean minds the ballast being dumped in it.) So, how is it that we can offend people and still reach the social stratosphere? The logical conclusion is that we offend people, and hence reach the social stratosphere. The other possible conclusion, that nobody gets offended at all, is immediately discarded, for extremely obvious reasons. (Think Danish cartoons or Evolution in the US or Ram Sethu or the few million wars fought over a piece of paper.) Evidently if we are to achieve societal aristocracy by offending lesser people, then we mustn’t get offended the slightest bit when the insolent boot decides to shift to the other foot. So, that’s good right? People don’t get offended, nobody fights. Again, how untrue. When the unoffendables really, really get offended, they don’t just shoot their mouths off like commoners, they blow heads off. The bright side is that this doesn’t happen all that often. Usually they stay coolly cynical and unconcerned, moving on with their all-consuming lives. @#$%!!!!

Specist- A person who unfairly discriminates based on the creature’s species; structurally derived from racist.