Measures of enlightenment: Do all prominent factors for a happier existence show signs of steady historical progress?

Steven Pinker, a Harvard College Professor and one of the world’s leading authorities on Language and The Mind, is due to publish a new book titled “Enlightenment Now”, demonstrating historical progress in the human condition. Or at the very least, he expects to show us that humanity’s approach towards progress has been a learning experience, and that we’ve steadily incorporated measures that foster better living conditions for ourselves. This piece of research is a sequel to his equally illuminating earlier thesis titled “The Better Angeles Of Our Nature”, in which he elegantly demonstrated how human violence has declined over the decades, centuries and millennia.

I keenly look forward to his new book. I would also like to raise a question that arises as a natural consequence of the book’s title, and the preview of its core thesis that Prof. Pinker has shared here. I agree that the steady decline of physical violence, the evidence of economic growth not being at cross purposes with environmental conservation, the improvement in living conditions through increasing adoption of technology etc, are all contributory factors to increasing wellbeing. Yet I still wonder if human attitudes towards each other have shown an equally steady improvement, leading to higher levels of inner satisfaction and external social equilibrium.

In simpler words, have we learned to live happier with each other and with ourselves? I think this is a justifiable, empirical question that can be posed objectively. The factors hinted by professor Pinker unquestionably impinge directly or indirectly on our happiness, such as iPhones bringing in easy conveniences and opportunities for relaxation or the reduction in oil spills leading to a safer environment. However, these kinds factors are the more easily measured, “material” outcomes of human progress, and whilst important to human happiness, are nonetheless incomplete measures of our progress towards enlightenment and the lessening of human suffering.

Daniel Kahneman tells us that we communicate our subjective wellbeing to others in two ways: through our experiencing self and our remembering self. In brief, our experiencing self is our moment-to-moment feelings, expressed through our speech, smiles, laughter, tears and such. Our remembering self is our memory of past experiences. Kahneman tells us that these two kinds of reports can sometimes contradict each other, for one and the same experience, such as whether we enjoyed a particular vacation. The important point though, is that our happiness in both cases can be measured at least to some degree of approximation.

Equally important is the concept of “social technology”. By “social technology” I speak of the innovations throughout history in human attitudes, that reshape (or claim to reshape) our character for the better, and lead to enhanced inner happiness as reported by their adopters and as experienced by those whom they come into contact with. There has been a vast range of such social technologies invented throughout history, some arguably obsolete, and some potentially of great value to this day.

Gods one can appeal to and seek solace when in difficulty, The Golden Rule of the ancients, the dissolution of the self and the practice of self-detachment in the face of adversity (as advocated by the ancient Buddhists and some modern secular thinkers), the art of forgiveness of the early Christians, the stance of non-punitive, restorative justice, the precedence of evidence over speculation or hearsay, the abandonment of superstition and the application of pragmatic solutions to life’s problems, the scientific method, psychology and the science of counseling, the art of reasoning through differences of opinion, the limits of income towards increasing happiness, or even such mentifacts as Sam Harris’s base moral stance of not harming the “wellbeing of conscious creatures” are some diverse examples of social technology that emerged in our turbulent history.

These types of social technologies have been claimed to help us live together in greater harmony, and/or yield greater inner fulfillment. It may be possible to research and chart our progressive adoption of such “social technologies”, over history. Have we adopted the ones that yield results, to the same extent that we brush our teeth, and abandoned the ones that don’t, to the same extent that we don’t use charcoal anymore to brush our teeth?

Yet another angle to my question is to inquire into the progress of our spiritual development. I used the word “spiritual” advisedly here, in the same context as someone like Thomas Metzinger would, where spirituality is understood to be a deep sense of intellectual honesty. Are we more intellectually honest today than we were in the past?

There is of course the tricky problem of determining measurable outcomes that demonstrate the mental wellbeing and spiritual development of humanity. What tangible outcomes can we survey to assess the qualitative progress in human wellbeing, beyond the material substratum shared in Prof. Pinker’s preview? We are not talking about oil spills here. Also, we are unlikely to get a very meaningful result by simply asking people “are you happy” over a period of several decades. Instead, I propose a survey of the following factors.

  1. Do young adults communicate a greater sense of optimism now than in the past?
  2. Are we more prolific today in our hobbies and pursuits per capita, adjusted for age and other relevant demographics, than in 1950?
  3. Do we claim to feel less anxious or threatened on a moment-to-moment basis?
  4. Do we report feeling progressively lesser mental duress – at work for example – over history, and exhibit lesser numbers of stress-related maladies and social consequences?
  5. On a mundane basis, are we increasingly free to be ourselves, express our opinions uninhibited (within the limits of non-violent conduct), without experiencing harmful consequences?
  6. Have we become less judgmental and more objective over time, focusing on resolving ethical dilemmas rather than assuming stances and polarizing society?
  7. When transgressions happen, are we more forgiving, understanding the frailty of the human condition?
  8. Have we progressively given less credence to speculation and hearsay, and focused more and more on evidence, in the media for example?
  9. Are we less superstitious, and increasingly rational?
  10. Are we kinder to each other, and do we help each other oftener, volunteering to provide advice and guidance?
  11. Do we have more fulfilling social lives, and have more friends and soul mates than (say) 50 years ago (the kind whom we discuss issues with, not our friends list on Facebook)?
  12. Are we more satisfied with what we’ve done with our lives, and have fewer regrets?
  13. Is jealousy on the decline?
  14. Are parents being more like friends and educators to their children, and less like authoritarian figures?
  15. Is politics becoming increasingly about team performance, and less about clan identity?
  16. Do we smile more, and laugh more?
  17. Are sociopathic personalities increasingly filtered out for positions of authority and for public office?
  18. Is public intellectualism becoming increasingly and uniformly popular in both the East and West?
  19. Do our education systems distill the progressive social technologies in an objective, secular manner, and instill them in our children?
  20. Do we brainstorm more often as families and social units?

Obviously one would have to structure these rather loose and diverse factors into a more cogent scientific proposition. It would certainly make an interesting research project, and perhaps Prof. Pinker’s new book addresses the above. Research into some of the individual factors mentioned may already be available, and it would perhaps be a case of mining the data and looking for an overall trend in the context of happiness and wellbeing.

My own hypothesis is that human beings have become less authentic and more hemmed in by retrograde social technologies like extreme political correctness, or by downright fear of unforeseen negative reactions. A few decades ago, a person would at worst have been politely chided for an inarticulate, yet well-meaning remark, such as “Tamils are good people”, for which one would be ostracized today. I suspect we have become so finicky that we hardly voice our thoughts out aloud in our own peculiar way.

Furthermore, I conjecture that in the past, there have been at least two peaks in human mental wellbeing, with troughs in between. One peak was at the height of the flourishing of the hunter-gatherer (or “noble savage” as Yuval Harari would say), just prior to civilization and the establishment of extensive social hierarchies. Wellbeing took a nosedive after civilization, because one’s actions were now largely controlled by a system beyond ones power to change, and because vast numbers were literally enslaved for the purposes of economic progress.

A more recent peak was reached shortly before the rapid acceleration of the information technology revolution, somewhere in the 1950s. This was the time when Western economies were growing, scientific optimism was high, population pressure was lower in the East, most occupations were not so specialized, and lucrative opportunities were widespread for those of average cognitive ability.

I theorize that at the present moment we are approaching some sought of a local trough in human wellbeing, where the rat race is so cranked up, where population pressure in the East is still very high, where lucrative opportunities are shifting to the right tail of the ability bell curve, and where earlier socialist or welfare state ideals are frowned upon to such an extent that the baby it encapsulated (aspirations of fair play and a more even distribution of comforts) has been thrown out with the bathwater (the hegemony of the former communist dictatorships).

One hopes get more answers from Enlightenment Now, and to research this topic further, about whether we are progressively happier to our own estimation, and whether our attitudes towards our fellow beings have become steadily more enlightened.

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In praise of Universal Basic Income

…and why objections based on so-called ethical principles are silly

In a recent address to his graduation class, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg called for the implementation of Universal Basic Income (UBI): a well-known and forward-looking concept in the social sciences, where the state provides everyone with an income sufficient to meet their basic survival needs such as food, shelter and clothing, irrespective of whether they are gainfully employed or not.

I am greatly encouraged by this resurgence of interest in UBI, amongst Zuckerberg, Musk and other Silicon Valley big wigs. I noticed however, that Zuckerberg’s speech in support of UBI drew a hostile reaction of non-trivial proportions across social media, and thought it worthwhile saying a few words in support of his cause.

Zuckerberg put the case forward quite clearly; he provided at least three compelling reasons for embracing UBI.

  1. Advancing technology and increasing automation is leading to fewer jobs.
  2. The dire need for a financial cushion for people, so they could educate themselves as adults, or engage in quality parenting, or perform other productive activities at different stages of their lives, which don’t provide a direct cash return.
  3. The undeniable role that basic financial security plays in fostering entrepreneurship.

I would like to reinforce Zuckerberg’s case for UBI by expanding and extending his rationale. I am charitably assuming of course, that Zuckerberg’s interest in the matter goes deeper than a mere desire to absolve people of the need to work, so they could spend all day on Facebook – a rather sardonic yet common enough reaction to his address.

Let us for a moment explore the ethical underpinnings of the objections to UBI. The commonest objection raised against UBI is the objection to giving people “a free lunch”, and thus “spoiling” them. I saw this particular objection echoed time and again in the commentary surrounding Zuckerberg’s address. One commentator stated this objection with poetic elegance, sighting the good book. “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread”, he chimed in.

I don’t buy this ethic. Iron age religions codified our inherited instincts to forage and hunt, which were perfectly natural, into a dogmatic ethical principle that one doesn’t deserve to eat, unless one has worked for it. There are two problems with this rather unfortunate paraphrasing of our natural instincts. The first is that nature doesn’t set a precedent to frown upon idle eaters who reach out effortlessly for an easy meal procured by someone else. A male lion, mooching about on the savanna whilst the rest of his pride sweats hard to bring down a kill, may simply saunter over and dig into the carcass, without causing any ill feeling.

Of course one has to sometimes “work” to obtain a meal in nature, but everyone doesn’t have to work for it all the time, and, more importantly, providing food to others is not something for which one need demand an explicit return. This is the second problem with the canonical viewpoint. Social animals such as lions, gorillas or meerkats instinctively understand that opportunity is the biggest success factor in nature, and the individual who “wins the bread” shares it without placing demands. An ancient Homo sapiens may have brought down a boar and dragged it over to his tribal dwelling, to be shared with his kinsmen with altruistic pleasure. Group cooperation, and adaptation for altruism amongst kin, are well-known Darwinian processes.

Civilization and the rise of religious ethics changed this protocol of feeding each other FOC, by sub-optimally placing a mandatory barter value for a meal; it had to be obtained by working (and usually working for someone else). To put it plainly, we were told we have to toil for every f…ing meal. We were conditioned to feel squeamish if we had procured our lunch effortlessly, even if it harmed no one.

Another fallacy, which again I suspect has its roots in the folk psychology of religions, is the idea that poverty is the main driver of success. One particularly benevolent commentator on the Zuckerberg story had these words of wisdom to say: “poverty will be merely a step you take towards success”. Really?! Contrary to this rather masochistic view, the majority of those whom I’ve met who had lost jobs due to no fault of their own, will attest to the huge dependence of their subsequent success on how much financial support they got, when they were “down”.

Rather than being a driver of employability, the fear of starvation often rushes and muddles up the process of getting back on one’s feet. Your friends and relatives push you get any kind of job, which often doesn’t match your skillset, causing further disruptions in your career and more psychological distress.

I quote from a conversation that the political scientist Charles Murray had with the philosopher Sam Harris, where Murray says that an income stream actually improves moral agency, contrary to popular belief. It’s much easier for society to demand more from someone whose basic survival needs are already met. “Don’t tell us you are helpless because you aren’t helpless; the question is whether you are going to do anything to further improve your lot” is something we can tell those who are unproductive, yet receiving a basic income from the state. In contrast, far too many homeless people without a predictable income are powerless to land a job interview, simply because they can’t afford to dress up tastefully. This fact reinforces Zuckerberg’s third point.

Let us bring in another perspective to Zuckerberg’s second point. Many young people sacrifice their best years helping others, at the expense of helping themselves to a comfortable salary. If one raised a child (or looked after an aged parent or grandparent), one has discharged an important practical responsibility towards maintaining a civilized and productive society, for which one ideally aught to receive some material benefit. However, when such a dutiful person looks about to make a living after a hiatus in paid employment, they often face a forbidding society that won’t employ them again because they have a “broken track record”, or are “too old”, or judged to be “overqualified” if they seek a “lesser” job than they last held.

To expand on Zuckerberg’s first point, it is more than mere automation that future employment seekers must worry about. The demography of working class society is changing, towards the upper end of the IQ and EQ bell curves. The rise of importance in IT is a classic example. Coming from this industry myself, I can say that not everyone is cut out to be a good software engineer, for example. In fact, very few people are. Successful lateral career moves into software engineering are an absolute rarity, and worse, the ratio of employability of graduates keeps dropping over the years. It is harder to become an expert software engineer in 2017 than it was to become a successful corporate executive in 1980, in real terms.

The eminent historian Yuval Noah Harari predicts that, barring other catastrophic possibilities like extreme climate change or nuclear war wiping us out, humanity is reliably on course towards freeing itself from the shackles of existential labor, and morphing itself into a species that spends most of their lifetime on pursuits of a recreational nature, either of the intellectual or physical kind. Hence the title of his latest book, “Homo Deus” – human gods. Work, including food production and delivery, will soon be seconded to technology, and humanity will be left to worry about doing things to please themselves, or please each other. This doesn’t sound like all too bad a predicament for us, particularly if one didn’t subscribe to those silly Iron Age philosophies about the sanctity of laboring for one’s meal.

I’ve purposefully not discussed the economics of walking towards UBI and ultimately a labor-less, recreation-focused society. I’ll leave that discussion to the economists and experts. Suffice to say that a very promising trial is in progress in Finland.

However, I argue strongly against any moral objections to freeing ourselves from the need to labor for our basic needs. Social norms are evolving, and its time that we freed our minds of the ancient burden of mere survival, in order to move 100% into the more joyous space of innovation and recreation. Just as Homo erectus evolved towards freeing two of its four limbs to use tools and develop its mind, Homo deus aught to evolve towards freeing its mind of the worry of survival, and focus on developing its technology and the quality of its leisure-time, at an accelerated pace.

Alternative Systems of Medicine – a vacuous, outdated and dangerous notion

snake-oilMany years ago, my uncle – who was a doctor – once told me, “There are no systems of medicine, just a system [singular]”. What he meant was that the only effective “system of medicine” known to humankind is the one that discovers new ways to heal the sick through rational supposition (about a drug or a clinical method), and subsequent confirmation through controlled experiments.

Over 150 years have past since Pasteur & Koch confirmed the germ theory of disease, and it’s been nearly 70 years since the basics of health science and modern medicine were introduced into middle & upper school curricula in our own country. Yet I find that this foundational truth about the empirical nature of medicine has not taken root in the ethos of Sri Lankans. I see a worryingly large number of compatriots believe that there are several alternative “systems of medicine” available at our disposal, such as “Western Medicine”, “Ayurveda Medicine”, “Acupuncture”, “Homeopathic Medicine”, “Astral Medicine”, “Alternative Medicine” or “Indigenous Medicine”.

Furthermore, the fact that there is a functioning government Ministry for “Indigenous Medicine” shows how far and wide this retrogressive misconception is entrenched in Lankan society. I believe its high time movers, shakers and socially conscious individuals muster their courage and the necessary resources to launch a massive campaign to educate the masses away from this harmful notion of the availability of alternative “medical systems”. There are many “disruptive” campaigns afoot in Lanka to raise the consciousness of society about problem areas like Gay Rights, Smoking, Drinking, Drug Abuse, Women’s Rights and Children’s Rights. The addition of PSEUDOMEDICINE to this list is long overdue.

If one were to properly survey the magnitude of the damage caused by so-called “alternative systems” of medicine, calculated in the form of loss of life, debilitation and needless discomfort caused by maltreatment of diseases, and the amount of money frittered away on bogus therapies for chronic or incurable conditions, one might be stunned by its enormity. It may very well prove to overshadow the combined “cost” to the nation, incurred by the aforementioned problem areas combined, such as Smoking, Drinking and Drug Abuse.

I confess I’ve forgotten most of the details about elementary medical science that I learned at school; and yet I was impressed enough by the subject matter to have etched in memory such useful principles like The Double-Blind Trial, The Hippocratic Oath (i.e. doctors swearing to first do no harm to the patient), The Germ Theory of Disease and How Infections Spread, the Theory of Immunity and How Vaccination Works, the Hereditary Nature of Some Illnesses, the Unreliability of Anecdotal Evidence, or The Difference Between a Virus and a Bacterium.

Let us recollect for a moment the concept of The Double-Blind Clinical Trial; if memory serves me, this is something we learn about in our GCE O/L Class. Any new medicine is assigned a period to test its effectiveness, where neither the researcher of the drug, nor the drug’s potential beneficiaries, actually know who gets the potent pills, and who gets the dummy pills that are thrown into the bargain to eliminate subjective human bias. We learned that an impartial third party adjudicator does a random assignment of patients to pills (potent or dummy), and that this same third party gathers the raw results, performs statistical analysis, and presents only the final outcome to the research team.

Have such impartial clinical trials ever been conducted to test the effectiveness of these so-called alternative methods of treatment? I challenge readers to present a single credible experiment conducted on popular “alternative medicines” like the thailayas, guliyas and arishtas of Ayurveda, published as a case study in a peer-reviewed journal. At best these substances facilitate the placebo effect – where a patient’s psychology improves immediately because they think they are under treatment, perhaps causing some degree of physiological improvement in turn, due to reduction in stress. At worst though, some compounds (such as Alcohol, Heavy Metals) in these “medicines” can be toxic when ingested over long periods of time, aggravating the original condition or causing other illnesses to crop up.

I suspect however that the biggest problem is that there are countless unreported cases of patients having delayed receiving proper medical attention for their complaints, because they counted instead on an “alternative” therapy to do its work. When their condition gets acute, they are rushed to hospital, where oftentimes it’s too late. Septicemia or other complications set in, causing death.

The way so-called Western Medicine is administered in our country is far from perfect, where abuses range from incompetence, to the indiscriminate prescription of antibiotics for colds (which are caused by viruses and thus unaffected by antibiotics, unless there is secondary bacterial infection that needs treatment), to delays in the treatment of acute infections due to fear of accountability for their side effects, to the administering of drugs without informing patients of their side effects, and taking no precautions against them.

The naked truth though is that in spite of these common imperfections in its practice, the “Western” system of medicine remains the only effective and self-improving system of medicine available to us, and its benefits far outweigh its drawbacks. There is simply no comparison with “alternative medicines”; they are mere hocus pocus, and represent an early historical attempt at healing the sick. They were superseded by modern, evidence-based medicine around 150 years ago. We must move on.

What worries me most, and what I am trying to address in this appeal to Lankan society, is that the knowledge we are taught at school about health and medicine aught to shape our subconscious instincts about the world. Much in the same way that gravity makes us shy of heights, or the volatility of petrol makes us shy of lighting matches near open fuel tanks, one would expect the educated masses to shy away from pseudo medicines and quacks reflexively. It is this instinct, to know when we are stepping outside of the medical system into woo-woo land, which I feel we aught to inculcate in our children.

The movement to educate society about how to look after ourselves and our loved ones in times of ill health is worthy of being elevated to the level of a profound social campaign akin to human rights, anti-smoking or gay rights, where the consciousness of the masses are sensitized to this issue through direct action. Where are the NGOs promoting health awareness?

I am by no means advocating here that we must become completely mechanistic in our approach to helping sick people. All human existential problems in general, and illness in particular, must without doubt be approached with a touch of spirituality. I personally am an atheist, unless one considers a belief in a deistic order in nature that transcends parochial religion, as being religious. Yet I certainly could empathize with a more religious minded person, who says a prayer for her love ones to recover. Any compassionate human being aught to be able to relate to this need for an almighty’s help, when one feels utterly helpless. However a loving, spiritual approach to patient care clearly doesn’t include allowing charlatans to deceive patients and aggravate illnesses, or holding off on more effective treatments due to one’s sheer ignorance. It is this ignorance that we must eradicate.

If you care about your loved ones, and want them to be able to get the best possible medical attention when they fall sick, then please join this campaign and echo this mantra.

When you fall sick

Lets learn about our bodies,
and how we fall sick.
There is just one system of medicine,
that makes us well quick.

Or even if it doesn’t,
and it only eases the pain,
its far far better,
than suffering in vain.

Do say a prayer,
to heal your sister,
but don’t waste your time,
take her to a doctor.

When you fall sick, charlatans will rush forth,
they will play upon your vulnerability, and take you up the garden path.
Its only your education, and your desire to know the truth,
that will save you and your family, from the devils hearth.

Letter to a Burkini wearer

burkini

Dear Burkini Wearer,

I feel that wearing Burkinis (and indeed Burkas) doesn’t make good dress sense at this point in history. I particularly dislike the Burkini fad because I believe that this fad helps symbolize an outdated and implicitly offensive view of normative human relations between the two genders. As civilized human beings, we have an obligation to inoffensively conduct ourselves in public places, if we can help it. Please allow me to explain myself.

I readily concede two possible handicaps, which may impair my judgment on this matter. I’m not a woman, and I’m not a Muslim. I’d be grateful to stand corrected, through rational discussion.

I believe that anyone has a human right to wear a Burkini. Any attempt to introduce a law banning Burkinis would violate so many fundamental human rights during the process of enforcing it, that such a ban would result in a moral travesty. Forcibly stripping the garment (and the dignity) of a woman is simply unthinkable to me.

Sadly, something of this sort happened in Nice last month. I am very disappointed with those French authorities that were responsible for this physical violence against Burkini wearers. I recoil from the notion that Muslim women must be “taught a lesson” physically, for revealing their religious identity through their clothing. If anyone wants to wage a “war” against what they feel is a highly offensive dress sense, then the proper thing to do would be to reach into the hearts and minds of the wearers.

I find nothing offensive in the mere physical appearance of the Burkini. Nor does it appear to be an impractical garment for the circumstances it was designed to be worn in. The Burkini is not quite like the Burka. Burkas were originally meant to be universal, commonplace clothing for women, yet they inhibit physical dexterity and the range of activities one can participate in today’s world, such as running for the bus, motorcycling, walking in the brush, exercising in the park or even driving a car.

The Burkini has no such shortcomings in my view, within its envisioned purpose. It is more or less like a loose, hooded wet suit, suitable for wading into the water, swimming (although a figure hugging wet suit made of the proper material might be more streamlined), or even hanging about the beach while avoiding a suntan. Burkinis might also be useful for those who have skin conditions or hair loss, which they’d like to hide when taking a dip. They come in attractive colors, can compliment a woman’s figure, and are pleasing to the eye.

I understand that the Burkini was designed with the good intentions. Aheda Zanetti presumably developed it as a step forward in the emancipation of Islamic women, allowing them to swim or wade in public places without revealing their skin and hair, thereby helping them to conform to the Islamic tradition of “modesty” in women. Women who wouldn’t swim beforehand, for fear of raising eyebrows in Muslim society by wearing a “revealing” swimsuit, are able to swim now.

I can appreciate the fact that some women, who have followed certain wardrobe habits through tradition, might feel an awkwardness to change them. Perhaps it may be similar to the awkwardness I felt the very first time I jogged in the park, in running shorts (I was a very shy teenager). I agree that you cannot be forced to wear something you feel awkward in, such as a swimsuit.

I don’t think however, that it’s a major leap of faith to change one’s dress sense. Islamic societies have been changing dress patterns rather rapidly at various points in history, in countries like Iran, Iraq, Syria or even in Sri Lanka, where I come from. Muslims have lived harmoniously in cosmopolitan Lankan society wearing both western and eastern (Sari) dress for centuries. It’s only within the past decade and a half that we Lankans have seen the Burka come into fashion amongst Muslim women. Their mothers didn’t wear them.

The Burkini and its “parent” garment the Burka cannot be isolated from the loud religious symbolism that underpins them. Anyone knows that Muslim ladies can only wear them, and that it would be an offence (in the eyes of a Muslim) for someone who doesn’t subscribe to the Islamic teachings to wear them. This is quite unlike other traditional garments such as Saris or a Kurtas, which were originally adorned by a particular culture, but with no exclusionist philosophy attached to them. Christian Lankans and Atheist Londoners have been seen wearing Saris and Kurtas for decades.

In a day and age where inter-cultural collaboration has led to better prospects for humanity, I feel it’s a little ostentatious to flaunt one’s inner religious beliefs as if it were the most important thing about oneself, to announce to the rest of the world. I feel the same way about the garb of Nuns or Priests, although in the case of nuns and priests, they by definition are renunciants from society. They would presumably like to discourage interaction with other people, except for solicited religious discourse. For women of the world, working closely with men and women of other cultures and religious denominations, I wonder if this flaunting of one’s religion makes good sense. It’s sort of like warning people that you belong to some intolerant cult.

Although some people might want to characterize Islam as such, I’m hopeful its not.

I am put off by the gender-demeaning symbolism of Burkinis and Burkas. The integrity and self-respect of both the genders are challenged by this symbolism. Just think about. In the case of the full Burka, we often find a well-dressed and otherwise attractive woman covered in what can only be described as a black cloth bag, to hide the “shameful” body she was born with. What are we ashamed of here?

Long before the advent of Islam, different human races had strived towards an optimal balance in body covering, balancing protection (from weather and sexual aggression) with display (of one’s unique identity and attractiveness). As dress senses evolved, we saw common patterns emerge, where one’s vulnerable places were often tastefully covered, whilst the rest of the body like the head, arms, hair, midriff and feet were often exposed (and adorned) for dexterity, recognition and beauty. Sure there were variations in the extent of cover, mainly based on climate. Those residing in temperate countries covered more of themselves because it was cold, and those in the tropics covered less because it was warm. There was no concept of hiding one’s entire body as a shameful object, with either gender. The fur coat of the Eskimo and the Sari of the North Indian are examples of naturally evolved wardrobe.

Furthermore, the majority of societies around the world developed systems of ethics, and rules of law, that strictly forbade women being molested by men at sight, for their bodily attractiveness. If we take Western Europe as an example, lawmakers and leaders improved social conditions over centuries, to allow attractive, figure enhancing dress to be worn by women, without being in danger of coming in harm’s way. The incidence of rape or violent sexual harassment due to the wearing of so-called “revealing” clothing is statistically insignificant in Western Europe today.

The philosophy of encasing women in order to protect them from the marauding instincts of men sets rather a low standard for men, and for the beautiful affair of human courtship. Since the days of the enlightenment, Western social norms neither accept nor allow disrespectful sexual submission; instead they expect high standards of restraint when it comes to sexual conduct. Women are not raped because they chose to be sexually attractive; rather, women occasionally get raped because of the psychopathic or violent behavior of errant men. Society trained to despise such men, and to protect the freedom of women (and men) to express their sexuality (i.e. capacity for sexual feelings and sexual orientation) openly, as a necessary part of friendly, nonviolent courtship.

Western traditions around courtship are fine-grained, such as reading the right body language before venturing into a kiss. Sex and courtship has evolved away from the course-grained affair described in the ancient religious texts, where women either covered themselves to look nondescript, or got plundered by sex-starved men. Courtship is about mutual attraction, love and consent today. Westerners or even easterners like myself who happened to grow up in liberal, evolved society, feel a tad uncomfortable to be implicitly branded as potential women-molesters.

I have this intuition that to be wisely dressed involves finding some middle ground between nudity and complete encasement in a cloth bag or skinny. Do you not feel this instinctively? That we should look nice and confident to others, but at the same time not offend others? That we should change how we dress based on our activities, our desire for comfort, and the weather?

If you do, I urge you to dress not for isolation, but for the occasion. If your society forbids you to do so, fight it nonviolently.

The debate on Free Will continues

The-Negative-Effects-of-JudgmentalismWatching the recent sparring between Dan Dennett and Sam Harris over the nature of “free will”1, 2 – the idea that human beings have conscious volition over their physical actions – has helped me immensely to refine my own opinion3 about this ancient and fascinating human intuition.

Sam’s view falls squarely in line with what neuroscience tells us. We know today that our subjective thoughts about a given physical action (like “lets turn on the light”) are preceded by unconscious neural activity that, if detected by the appropriate gadgetry, predicts the decision we “make consciously”. For example, if we were hooked up to the right kind EEG or FMRI scanners to measure our neuronal activity, we’d be able to first detect the neural processes that would make us “turn on the light switch”, and thereafter we’d have the subjective thought “lets on the light”. Finally, we’d physically turn the light on. Benjamin Libet first demonstrated this rather spooky phenomenon back in the early 1980s, through his famous “experiments”4.

It seems that Sam’s argument against free will emerges from this foundational scientific discovery, and is strengthened by his own, unique intuition based on introspection, that we don’t know where our thoughts come from, before they actually occur to us5. We don’t rationalize why we want to throw the light switch on, until the thought comes into our minds. Of course there would be physical causes for our actions, such as the ambient lighting in the room being low. It seems we make contact with the external world unconsciously, and a path of action falls into place unconsciously, and thereafter a thought bubbles into consciousness like “lets turn on the light”. Similarly, a myriad other thoughts may bubble into consciousness retrospectively, such as “its dark, that’s why I put the light on”. We are able to connect the dots – i.e. attach semantics to our actions in our consciousness – but only so far as our sensory inputs and other unconscious cognitive processes allow.

Therefore, a close study of the nature of our subjective thoughts and their relationship to our physical actions seems to nullify the long-held notion that we are in some sense absolutely free to “consciously preside and decide” over a multiplicity of options, when faced with a physical situation. Moreover, it seems that we usually don’t “think first and act later”. Rather, it seems on deeper analysis that we actually act deterministically, and rationalize or attach meaning to our actions later.

Sam has contrasted this important learning from neuroscience with the widespread advocacy for punishment, and the keenness for judgment in today’s society. Everyone wants to judge and punish others, because they falsely believe that wrongdoers “consciously decide” there actions and therefore are accountable for them in some absolute sense. In contrast, the concept of accountability it seems has no scientific grounding in an ontology of determinism, however complex and convoluted the deterministic processes that generate a given wayward action may be. We are never ultimately accountable for our actions in some puritanical sense, where if time were reversed magically, we’d have been able to “not switch the light on” (or more appropriately, “not plunge the knife in”). Therefore, according to Sam, we are better off sans the concept of punishment, and its allied judicial proceedings that focus on inflicting suffering on the wrongdoer, for making his “bad decision”. The practical implication of Sam’s central theme is not new, and in fact many countries practice a restorative system of justice (as opposed to a punitive system, that was instinctively rejected even by ancient sages like Christ) that, in theory at least, aligns well with the absence of free will.

It seems we aught to live in a world where wrongdoers are re-branded as errant human beings, or beings who are misguided, poorly trained or otherwise psychologically or physiologically maladapted to harmonious living. It is a well-known hypothesis that some people are by nature unempathetic towards others, due to physical abnormalities in their brains such as deficiencies in their mirror neuron systems6. It would seem less useful to understand such persons as “evil”. So we better off coming to terms with the fact that we live in a society burdened by weirdos, but not by “morally depraved persons” who must be punished or purified of their transgressions.

Therefore, systems of justice must focus on protection, prevention, restoration, and behavioral modification via training, if the latter were possible. The lives of such grossly harmful persons may still require termination, but merely as an act of self-defense by larger society. We don’t require a death sentence, nor do we judge people to be “evil” – instead we either sequester or (if absolutely necessary) kill extremely dangerous people as painlessly as possible, when we have concrete evidence of their impending transgressions.

Dan Dennett brings in an entirely different, but equally important dimension to the debate on free will. In summary, he believes that free will is a useful practical intuition (although perhaps an illusion in a theoretical sense) because it’s an effective way of minimizing and marginalizing errant behavior when living in an interconnected society. It’s socially advantageous to be “offended” and slap back, when someone slaps you, rather than contemplate about the inevitability of the first slap and the lack of volition on the part of the slapper. By placing the mantle of accountability on others, and punishing the wrongdoer, society jockeys towards a harmonious balance-position, where errant behavior is minimal.

The instinct to assume the capacity for an absolute freedom of choice in our neighbours, must have evolved for the above reason. To dwell on this point – how does the attribution of free agency to others become ubiquitous in a society?

The sense of pain (or discomfort) is the ultimate learning tool of evolution. Pain is useful because we have memories of us undergoing painful experiences. So when one has experienced a nasty slap for a particular action one has taken, the pertinent neural network associates that discomfort with the action. The next time that an opportunity presents itself for a similar physical action, an extra parameter comes into play during the early, unconscious part of the neural processing. The slap is not carried out, because its painful consequence is also fed into the neural network. When the subjective thought surfaces, the meaning of one’s action is expressed: “Lets not slap this guy, he may slap back”. So in a world where we punish people because they are “accountable” for their actions, we find society conditioned reflexively to expect a reprisal, and hence become more guarded. In the early days of human evolution, this would have amounted to an avoidance of death, and hence genes that predisposed a person towards retributive action, if they indeed exist, would have been selected.

There seems to be merits to both Sam and Dan’s points of view. I personally have developed weariness towards adopting Dan’s “social” or “3rd person hypothesis” of free will (which I used to empathize with some years ago).

The reason is this. Unlike in our evolutionary past, where person-to-person violence (strike and counterstrike) played an active, mediating role in behavior, we live today in a world where person-to-person violence appears to be on the decline7. Society has been trained to avoid person-to-person violence. Instead, large-scale violence organized via memes or catchy intellectual instruments of a punitive nature seems to be the order of the day. “Assad is an evil dictator” or “the west is greedy for Middle Eastern oil and is destroying the Islamic world trying to grab it, so we must defend ourselves” or “Corrupt Dictators are running some countries, lets punish them and do their countries a favor” or “Russia is an evil empire” are the sort of intellectual instruments behind global violence and suffering today. And, at some corner of these catchy thought patterns, lies the potent core idea of punishing leaders of countries, or even entire nations or communities, for what is perceived (and oversimplified) as their willful wrongdoing. The consequences of these crude attempts at justice often leave the world worse off then before.

 

References:

  1. Free will, a debate between Sam Harris and Dan Dennett in a bar: https://www.samharris.org/podcast/item/free-will-revisited
  2. Emails exchanged between Sam Harris and Dan Dennett on Free Will: https://www.samharris.org/blog/item/reflections-on-free-will
  3. Ruwan’s early thoughts on Free Will: https://izombi.wordpress.com/2014/02/21/an-ode-to-the-emotion-behind-free-will-though-it-may-be-imprisoned-by-causality/
  4. Libet’s experiments: http://www.informationphilosopher.com/freedom/libet_experiments.html
  5. The determined nature of thinking: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pCofmZlC72g
  6. Empathy and mirror neurons: http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/do_mirror_neurons_give_empathy
  7. The decline of violence in the world: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Better_Angels_of_Our_Nature

Image acknowledgement: taken from: http://markdejesus.com/negative-effects-judgmentalism/

“Lifeboat diplomacy” – a rejoinder to Sam Harris, suggesting America aught to abandon the “rogue nation” doctrine, and mediate in conflict exercising social intelligence and with foresight of outcomes

Sam,

Your “waking up” podcasts are profoundly educational for those of us who are living in these conflicted times, and keen on seeing a better world order. Your interviews (https://soundcloud.com/samharrisorg) are far more interesting than the humdrum analysis of violent conflict as portrayed on news channels like CNN or BBC.

I am relieved to discover that I’m not alone in denouncing the hypocrisy of pacifism, a view I suspect many liberal thinkers would share at heart, but dare not speak openly about for fear of being stereotyped as rightwing fanatics. The world is full of truly errant beings, from whom we must protect ourselves violently when all else fails. In my own country, Sri Lanka, we had what amounted to a 30-year failed experiment in pacifism, having had countless peace talks1 with a particularly ruthless terror group – the Tamil Tigers2 – before the then Colombo administration finally abandoned their pacifist qualms and defeated the Tigers militarily in 2009.

The defeat of the Tamil Tigers caused collateral damage3 that was deeply distressing, nonetheless blameless in my personal opinion, given the context of the well-publicized, cautionary approach that successive Lankan governments adopted6, even during the height of the fierce, final battle at Puthukkudiyirippu. Much of the credible accounts of civilian deaths were “caused” by the Tigers, who held over a hundred thousand civilian hostages as human shields4, 5. The government forces gave up on heavy weapons and resorted to hand-to-hand combat: nonetheless the fierce fighting couldn’t prevent the loss of civilian lives.

Coming from a country that won a battle against one of the worst terror groups in the world (not a single shot has been fired after the defeat of the Tigers nearly seven years ago, and the country’s economy boomed afterward), I agree completely with the instincts of your esteemed guests like Willink and Reitz. When you do decide that violence is the only recourse, and when everyone involved agrees with you that the forces driving the perpetrators are unbelievably immoral and impossible to manage by peaceful means (in a secular, rational analysis of the problem), that you must strike hard to kill.

However, I see a marked difference between governments fighting terrorists in their own countries, and powerful nations attempting to improve the lot of failing nations like Syria (or Libya or Iraq in the past). I believe that powerful countries like the United States must adopt a more imaginative approach to deal with entire nations that are failing or appear to be “rogue nations” at first estimation, by recognizing them explicitly as entities different from terrorist groups, requiring a different strategy of engagement. Let me elaborate this idea by way of a response to an idea that surfaces in your podcasts.

It seems to me you advocate (or at least toy with) the idea that the establishment in the USA, whose constituent individuals have a superior ethical grounding as compared with the leaders of ISIS (or any other professed terror group or rouge regime), cannot make cataclysmic blunders because their moral instincts (and intentions) are fundamentally good.

Your own caricature of this undertone sounds like this, to me at least. “Someone as “radical” as Dick Cheney would probably not see Ramadi carpet bombed (if he could help it), he’d probably try to make Ramadi like Southern Nebraska instead. I wonder why people can’t see this [and perhaps reduce their dislike of America?]”.

I personally feel that the good intentions of the political leadership in the USA have little bearing toward America regaining global respect for its foreign policy. It is the track record of US intervention in conflicted zones that has tarnished America’s image as a “helpful superpower”. America engages with conflicted regions often sans correct intelligence, foresight, due diligence, and, most importantly, without an informed philosophy for “conflict resolution” appropriate for the 21st century.

Let us delve in the “bad attitude” that is historically evident in US foreign policy, when it comes to mediating in conflicts in remote parts of the world. It is this attitude that makes not only terrorists but also nice, intelligent people dislike American foreign policy, in spite of the fact that they adore American culture, learning and intellectual leadership. Since I am not an expert on the pertinent hotspots like Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan, and because I have better knowledge of America’s attitude and approach to Sri Lanka during and after the Elam Wars, many of my supporting arguments come from this comparatively nameless experience.

  1. An obvious reluctance to decisively share a view about a given conflict (i.e. name terrorists) until “shit hits the fan” – even in cases where evidence was overwhelming from the beginning, but political interest was averse. Instead, in the case of Sri Lanka, successive American administrations adopted the “politically correct” approach of “cautioning both sides” to stop violence, indirectly fuelling the legitimacy of the completely unethical aspirations of terrorists – the Tamil Tigers. Consider this statement by Obama six years ago: https://youtu.be/gahJwnMLwtE

This is clearly a well-intentioned statement in itself, arising out of Obama’s genuine concern for the lives of civilians held by the LTTE as human shields, during the last stages of the “humanitarian operation” to free the North and East of terrorism. So, what’s wrong with this seemingly humane face of America?

What’s wrong is that for 30 years there was a brutal terrorist movement whose underlying aspiration7, 8 was to ethnically cleanse the North and East of Sri Lanka, and to carve out a “Tamil homeland”, pushing aside demographic realities and all known moral principles. The LTTE leveraged the most inhuman tactics ever know to mankind to further this ambition, ranging from the ritual disembowelment of babies in remote villages, to the crippling tens of thousands of civilians with their trademark “Jony Batta” landmine9, to the use of pregnant suicide bombers, to the assignation of heads of state like Rajiv Gandhi of India or Ranasinghe Premadasa of Sri Lanka.

When the LTTE is on the brink of defeat by a democratically elected government after 30 years of hell, and after many failed attempts at peace – including an open invitation to govern the North and East of the country for 10 years, unfettered by elections10 – America pops up at the 11th hour to express its concern for civilian casualties. Too little, too late, too biased.

What would have been impactful diplomacy is if an American president had made a statement of concern 30 years before this date – when the LTTE had shot and killed the democratically elected (Tamil) Mayor of Jaffna and began lobbying internationally for Elam War 1 – urging the Tamil community to stop trying to correct the poor administrative legacy left by the imperial British in Sri Lanka through violence. Not once (even after the banning of the LTTE in the USA on the advice of the secret services) did an American president openly declare the LTTE’s political agenda (carving out a race-centric “Tamil homeland”) to be morally unacceptable and absurd, and urge the Tamil community to shun the LTTE’s violent culture and help return Sri Lanka to normalcy.

  1. Making a stand on conflicts based on sectarian lobbying, as opposed to a close study of the history, moral justification and ethical merits of the demands of the parties involved in a conflict. In other words, carelessly equating sensible democratically elected governments with terrorist organizations, because representatives of these terrorist ideologies have better lobbying power in congress or the white house.

The former Rajapaksa government in Sri Lanka was viewed as an “unsound postwar peacemaker” by America, as openly acknowledged by John Kerry: https://youtu.be/Tnn-43OK4To

Kerry, whilst condemning terrorism unequivocally and condoning the defeat of the Tamil Tigers, goes on to insinuate that the Rajapaksa government didn’t have a sound approach towards “building the peace”. Furthermore, he says that civil liberties and a free press “are returning” since the government changed. This is intellectual dishonesty at its finest, considering the fact that it was a free press overflowing its gutters that caused the last change of government, with more or less every newspaper siding with opposition forces for years prior to the elections11! The slander against the government was so brazenly false at times that some officials challenged the press and won back their dignity in court. It didn’t help them however, as public opinion had shifted, and they bowed out of administration most democratically, as acknowledged earlier by Kerry himself12.

What we see here is more sinister than a mere absence of knowledge, or even a cheeky leaning towards one side of Sri Lanka’s political landscape by the US Secretary of State. The Rajapaksa administration steadily refused to give credence to the Tamil Tiger’s divisive, morally unsound “aspiration” for an ethnically cleansed “Tamil homeland”. What ordinary Americans might not know is that the Tamil diaspora led by the likes of Raj Rajaratnam invested buckets of money into pro-LTTE lobbying in the Americas. Rajaratnam may have been jailed for insider trading, but the opinion drummed up by Tamil Tiger lobbyists funded by the TRO (Rajaratnam’s proxy organization) had already taken root in the minds of “nice” people like Kerry. The Rajapaksa administration had become known as a “racist” one in Congress and the White House.

  1. A record of mercilessly allowing USA’s poor geopolitical relations with the two big powers (Russia, China) to shape opinion regarding the governments of smaller countries. There seems to be a particular fondness for “freedom fighters” that are opposed to governments of small countries, which are aligned with big powers that are considered “enemies” of America in one sense or another. Without going far, let us recall the Mujahideen and Taliban. It was genuinely “nice people” like Regan and Bush Senior who were in charge when these anti-Russian terrorists were funded by America, inclusive of Osama Bin Laden.
  2. A track record of American conflict management “diplomacy” having an underlying philosophy that is rather primitive, of the “Gog and Magog” (or brimstone and fire, call it what you will) variety. The world has seen 70 years of black-and-white US diplomacy, where countries are stack-ranked as “enemies”, “neutrals” and “friends”. Yesterday’s neutral becomes today’s enemy, if the said neutral happens to bolster their relationship with top ranking enemies. In the bad old days of Vietnam, open warfare against “evil communists” was the game plan. The salient technique these days for the punishment of “enemies” seems to be to orchestrate a “toppling of governments” by way of supporting civil disturbances led by otherwise marginal internal political factions, leading to “regime change”.

Syria is a classic example. Heartened by the “successes” (questionable really) in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, the US/UK-backed freedom seekers tried to “drive out” the “horrible” pro-Russian (and anti-Saudi) Syrian administration. Unfortunately for everyone (and I really want to stress this – perhaps it would have been better for Syria if Assad had caved in), the administration fought back viciously, instead of rolling over like puppies, or getting lynched like Gadhafi.

As your rather unworthy pen-friend Chomsky might tell you (mind, I find you far more palatable than him), there were many other shining examples of this lousy American foreign policy.  Like annihilating millions of people in Vietnam four decades ago in a war fuelled by cold-war ideology, only to find the Vietnamese yearning to become best friends with America a mere two decades later. Why couldn’t America foresee this?

What the world needs instead is a sort of “lifeboat diplomacy” where America recognizes the threatened state of mankind and the planet as a whole, and “rows together” with misguided leaders of apparently rogue nations, displaying some “social intelligence”, foresight of outcomes and concern for the ordinary peoples of these nations. America must realize that it is a strong (if not the strongest) member in an ungainly team of “global leader” nations, who must somehow work together and not make the boat capsize. If there were a rogue member in a lifeboat battling the high seas, we’d somehow try to get her on our side and row together for the common cause of survival.

Someone might argue that this is high-flying ideology – how does one put this “lifeboat diplomacy” theory into practice? The answer is actually quite easy. Assad, whether we like it or not, was the legitimate leader of his country at the time the civil disturbances began, as accepted by the existing norms and traditions of that country. He was no more a tyrant than the Saud family, or Saddam when he was a darling of the American secret service14 – and arguably less so. In fact, Assad was probably closer to Bill Clinton in his personal moral standing, and gave wartime directives with good intentions, that cost human lives (recall your email exchange with Chomsky). No one wants to firebomb old Bill’s house (except perhaps Chomsky) in retaliation for his blowing up hundreds of civilians in a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan, simply because of the unfortunate presidential order he gave, that caused massive collateral damage. Many however, consider Assad worthy of annihilation because of his geopolitical leanings.

If we were to consider the single biggest moral transgression Assad is accused of – the Ghouta chemical attack – the UNHCR’s independent international commission that investigated chemical weapon use confirmed that limited amounts of toxic chemicals were indeed used in four attacks in the civil war, but the head of the Commission of Inquiry, Paulo Pinheiro, said the U.N. could not determine who used chemical weapons in Syria after evidence had been delivered by the United States, Britain and France15.

If America had no part in instigating the civil disturbances in Syria, they should have immediately condemned it in principle. They could have negotiated their concerns with Assad, without pointing the finger at him instinctively. They should have obtained consensus in the UN and approached Syria respectfully, asking the administration to show reforms, in return for better commercial and strategic relations with the USA and the UK. They should have put a whole variety of carrots before the stick. As mentioned previously with the example of Sri Lanka, Americans sometimes don’t know the history and ethical underpinnings of a conflicted country well enough to jump forward, stick first. How can a nation that had absolutely false intelligence of WMDs in Iraq know for certain if Assad is truly an immoral being, a monster worthy of getting rid of at any cost to the country’s ordinary citizens, or the rest of the world for that matter (consider the migration crisis for example)?

So yes, Dick Cheney is a minor saint in comparison to Jihadi John… or perhaps even Assad. But if Cheney’s successor’s foreign policies include playing dangerous games in other countries like arming terrorists, then we must expect at least some intelligent sections of society to develop a distaste for America. America must be cautious of punishing entire nations and their populations, simply because their leaders won’t play ball with them, or align themselves with superior Western morals and political frameworks. They should stop carrying out experiments like supporting “Arab Springs” which invariably involve terrorism and bloodshed. America should stop acting like an unruly global cop thrashing hither and thither, and then refusing to take responsibility when innocents suffer.

Bernie Sanders, who appears a rather promising democratic candidate for the upcoming US election, has promised in New Hampshire to change America’s approach to conflict resolution, by discarding its role as “global policeman”. It may be that we finally have an American political leader who understands that while the greatest crime on earth is to do nothing in the face of human suffering, one can also escalate suffering by orders of magnitude through selfish, partisan interference and an absence of negotiation skills, borne of arrogance.

References:

  1. Peace attempts during the war against terror in Sri Lanka: http://www.defence.lk/pps/peaceattempt.pdf
  2. Ruthlessness of the Tamil Tigers: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_attacks_attributed_to_the_LTTE
  3. Civilian casualties in Sri Lanka: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casualties_of_the_Sri_Lankan_Civil_War
  4. Tigers using human shields: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/srilanka/5161118/Britain-accuses-Tamil-Tigers-of-using-civilians-as-human-shields.html
  5. Elam War 4: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eelam_War_IV
  6. Zero civilian casualty policy during the final battle: http://www.priu.gov.lk/news_update/Current_Affairs/ca201112/FINAL%20LLRC%20REPORT.pdf
  7. Thimpu Principles: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thimpu_principles
  8. Tamil Elam: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tamil_Eelam
  9. Jony batta mine: http://www.sundaytimes.lk/081109/Plus/sundaytimesplus_00.html
  10. Tigers offered the North and East for 10 years: http://archives.dailynews.lk/2001/11/21/pol08.html
  11. Press freedom gone haywire in Sri Lanka: https://izombi.wordpress.com/2015/07/11/on-being-right-about-right-and-wrong/
  12. Kerry on democratic transition of power: https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/i-commend-president-rajapaksa-for-accepting-the-results-us-secretary-of-state/
  13. Rajaratnam funds the LTTE:

http://www.thehindu.com/news/international/rajaratnam-major-ltte-financier/article37890.ece

http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/hedge-fund-crook-raj-rajaratnam-accused-funding-tamil-terror-1468411

  1. America helped Saddam: http://foreignpolicy.com/2013/08/26/exclusive-cia-files-prove-america-helped-saddam-as-he-gassed-iran/
  2. Ghouta chemical attack: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghouta_chemical_attack

 

The Indian Rope Trick and the dire need for critical thinking among us Sri Lankans

100civ19-indian-rope-trick-set-1127-pSri Lanka seems shy to reflect on the past, because its not considered “smart” – “stale news”, “don’t live in the past”, “what’s done is done”, “lets move on”, are some of the retorts one hears whenever one tries to draw lessons from history. I on the other hand, have no qualms about freely traversing the past, present and future when finding answers, like Minkowski in his Block Universe.

We are witnessing what I feel is the strangest episode in the history of Sri Lankan politics as yet – an episode that is unfortunately an outcome of the naive thinking that prevailed in the minds of the majority of our nation’s good citizens, during the past year. I’d like to urge us all to think more independently and critically about our country’s governance in future, without riding the wave of propaganda ever again.

Let us first consider these facts.

  • We recently chose a twice-failed and prematurely jettisoned politician as our administrative leader for a third time, against overwhelming evidence for his lack of courage and fortitude1, in favor of a twice-successful administrative team2. Only to find the said twice-failed “leader” heading for a third failure, being check-mated by political forces3 he is unable to outwit.
  • We recently deposed a President for being a “dictator” based on anecdotal reports and hearsay4, only to appoint another who publicly meddled with the electoral process and appears to be meddling with the judicial system. Not only does he throw out the former attorney general5, but also subverts the democratic values in his party by sacking candidates who were standing for election6, during an election. Furthermore, he appoints defeated candidates loyal to him7, through the National List, instead of the publicized list of “intellectuals” who should have been rightfully appointed.
  • We have a “new” government whose appointed attorney general, under the auspices of two cabinet ministers, investigated Avant Garde – an invaluable maritime security arrangement falsely touted as the greatest scandal to befall Sri Lanka8. It was said to be a “crime” committed by the former government, particularly by the former President’s brother. We have these appointed officials and their policy makers exonerate the previous government of any wrongdoing under our criminal law. We then have the President (of the “new” government) cast aside this verdict and appoint another set of officials to conduct “a full investigation”. The cabinet spokesman continues to tout Avant Garde as a “horrible crime” against Sri Lanka, contrary to the opinion of the ministers responsible for this investigation.
  • We had a government voted out for its supposed incompetence in economic affairs, only to find the new government see the country’s development visibly retarded9, with once robust public infrastructure crumbling10 due to lack of maintenance.
  • We saw the defeat of a supposedly “vile, greedy, unforgiving and superstitious man”11 – who, curiously enough, never spoke in anger in public, and hardly ever mentioned the ills of his political predecessors or opponents. We replaced him with a man who believes in an “eye for an eye”, is determined to bring back the hangman as a speedy solution to crime12, and who openly spouts hatred of his political opponents through his own tongue13 and that of his cabinet spokesman14.
  • We have appointed a “new” government that appears to be hung up on a punitive system of justice, seeking to punish political opponents from the previous government through various investigative bodies like the FCID15, as opposed to taking a more restorative stance of dialog and reconciliation with them. The government spends far more “nervous energy”, as is evident from the debates in parliament, on punishing opponents or using them as an excuse, as opposed to developing the nation.
  • We see terrorists suspected of grave crimes (such as the murder of our former foreign minister) pardoned and released, and instead have secret services officials imprisoned under counter-terrorism laws.16 With no apparent transparency around what the facts are – no justification of this peculiar approach to justice.
  • We see the government facing cash flow problems and grasping at straws such as “taxing the rich”, and taxing salt, sugar17 and “mansions”. In contrast to 2014, where taxation was reduced, particularly for businesses18, and where there was a visible boom in the economy.

One could go on, but I feel the above facts are sufficient to justify my hypothesis: We as a nation chose a worse political arrangement, whose inadequacies were staring in our faces at election time, in favor of a better arrangement that was governed by a more talented team. This former team had many faults, like being obsessed with the public image of their “leader” to the point where it was nauseating to see the good gentlemen’s sky-high cutouts plastered all over town. We saw a couple of makeweights in their cabinet that were reputed for being lowlifes. Worst of all, we saw state controlled media channels drum the victory against terrorism beyond decorum, to the point where old wounds would not have a chance to heal.

There were other more serious allegations against the former government, ranging from kidnapping in white vans to massive corruption and wastage of public expenditure, none of which are substantiated in a court of law to date, even under the keen guidance of an administration determined to “nail” its predecessor. To the contrary, some “scandals”, like Avant Garde, are declared to be non-issues.

These weaknesses were small in comparison to the strengths displayed by that deposed administration: competency in economic development, the right intuitions on national security and an honest desire for public welfare. These areas (or at least activity outside of the private sector’s engine of growth) are more or less stagnant today.

Why did we do this – vote in a less talented and “delivery-incapable” administration? I doubt its because our nation is purposefully subversive. The roots of this costly mistake run deeper than mere political naïve ness. I fear our country’s recent “poor choice” stems from an inherent flaw in our culture; we are not a nation of independent, critical thinking people who question ideas for evidence.

Astrology, homeopathy and mystical healing, state acknowledgement of “multiple systems of medicine”, an examination system that hinges on cramming, devil-riddled Poya-day sermons, cash-cow arranged marriages, hallucinations of Sri Lanka being a “paradise in 1975 under Sirimavo Bandaranaike” (a popular reflection amongst cabbies, when in truth the country was literally starving during that period), conviction that eating handsomely in old age is “bad for you”, aspirations for racially homogenous “homelands” and a myriad other cockeyed ideologies being almost ubiquitous is surely an alarming sign of wooly thinking and intellectual gullibility.

In a land beguiled by such profoundly bad ideas, one must be cautious when believing what one’s neighbor proclaims. Especially when the message comes in the shape and form of a stereotypical rumor, such as “Hey, my best friend works in the Presidents House, and he told me that he saw the President visit a brothel, with his own eyes… he runs it, and one of his promising junior lady-ministers is his main consort. He can deliver, but has no moral sense, yada yada yada” (this was a popular meme floating around late last year, and was one of many such memes).

Every one of us has a social obligation to square such rumors with evidence available to the general public; evidence that would (at least conceptually) survive critical scrutiny (such as a video of the person in the act, in the case of the previous example). The Avant Garde scandal exemplifies the problem we must overcome – a fascinating story that grabs our attention, but with no real value in it. It is like the Indian Rope Trick of yore (men climbing a rope dangling in thin air, cutting it off from the top and falling down). Everyone talks about it and word spreads. Unfortunately, there is no such trick. Other than being a mind-teaser, it’s a waste of time thinking about it.

We all know that even highly skeptical Western European societies do have a large appetite for rumor, but not to the extent that they are duped into voting for such an obviously weaker administration, and cheated of a better future. We owe it to our children’s future to not believe or parrot hearsay without our personal evaluation and endorsement.

We must also lean to become better judges of character. We should have been able to differentiate between public-spirited, talented persons who perhaps have ordinary human failings, and resentful, vengeful back-stabbers that have little to show for themselves beside their hate.

I leave with two cautionary quotes from two of the greatest philosopher-politicians of all time.

To the fans of the present government:

The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd; indeed in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widely spread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible.” – Bertrand Russell

To the leaders of the former government:

In a world of democracies, in a world where the great projects that have set humanity on fire are the projects of the emancipation of individuals from entrenched social division and hierarchy; in such a world individuals must never be puppets or prisoners of the societies or cultures into which they have been born.” – Roberto Unger

References:

  1. Ousted from the role of Party Leader in 1994 by Gamini Dissanayake, oversaw a government collapse in 2004, oversaw a Norway-brokered peace process that failed and cost many thousand innocent lives, and muddled through a record 29 election defeats.
  2. http://www.ft.lk/2014/08/18/south-asias-fastest-growing-economy-a-look-at-modern-sri-lanka-with-ambassador-kariyawasam/
  3. http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=134936

http://atimes.com/2015/11/sri-lankas-coalition-govt-in-deep-water-over-arms-ship-scandal/

  1. https://izombi.wordpress.com/2015/07/11/on-being-right-about-right-and-wrong/
  2. http://www.adaderana.lk/news/29637/mohan-peiris-says-his-removal-as-cj-was-unlawful
  3. http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/42642
  4. http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/42957
  5. http://www.adaderana.lk/news/32994/tilak-marapana-tenders-resignation-to-president

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TPYsuozkCos

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=41AjNbsRd_k

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_jYTfx7GRFk

  1. http://www.tradingeconomics.com/sri-lanka/gdp-growth
  2. http://www.nation.lk/edition/business-tbl/item/40410-construction-jobs-at-stake.html

https://twitter.com/anuradhakherath/status/648880535289229313

http://www.dailymirror.lk/61525/ressway-suspended

http://www.ft.lk/article/440675/Suspension-of-Chinese-projects–Loss-is-for-Sri-Lanka

  1. http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2015/07/05/main_Editorial.asp
  2. https://izombi.wordpress.com/2015/09/26/to-hang-or-not-to-hang-that-is-the-question/
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DsPrlFYii-U
  4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MUDYNZtl5Zs
  5. http://asiantribune.com/node/87074
  6. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EDSz4eE_VFY
  7. http://www.dailymirror.lk/89245/nut-oil-to-limit-intake

http://www.dailynews.lk/?q=2015/11/06/political/sixty-percent-not-paying-taxes-ravi

http://www.lankabusinessonline.com/sri-lanka-calls-for-expat-funds-in-swiss-accounts-ravi-k/

  1. http://www.taxsrilanka.com/infocentre/index.php/year-budget/62-budget-2015/289-value-added-tax
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