Saturday, February 4, 2017

Advice to a younger me

My ideological beliefs have changed considerably over the past couple years, and yet I feel my fundamental values haven't - they have really just been transformed in different relative ratios due to reading and learning, the same way how tweaking different relative proportions of red, green and blue produce drastically different colors in a color picker.

What have I learnt? What is different now? What high-level changes have transpired that have changed the prism of my worldview?

The nature of human nature

Fundamentally, I think it is the underscoring of the universality of the human experience and human values. That there is nothing qualitatively unique about me that makes me what I am, or the way I think, that prohibits anyone else from being and thinking the same by virtue of their caste, race, gender, language, ethnicity, sexual orientation, any other physical characteristic etc.

One can never be humble enough in admitting this. However, this humility did not come spontaneously - to me this is now so reinforced by fact that any alternative sounds absurd. My point is that such humility is not merely just a lofty value, but something I feel is logically borne out by reality. The sheer complexity and incredible variations of the human experience, ideas and achievement within any group, and the overwhelming similarity of people across all groups, leads me to think that anyone seeking to cast aside another group of people based on physical characteristics as a fundamental "other" of lesser value, is not only immoral, but more so unintelligent, and thus, self-defeating any claims of supremacy. The fact that racist/religious/nationalist/casteist/ethnic/gender supremacists of all physical, cultural and geographical characteristics are so similar in their beliefs, ironically reaffirms how alike humans are and how less our differences really matter. The human experience is universal. Any moral idea I hold today, can be held by any other person in the world - and their gender, ethnicity, caste, race or language, etc is no bar. It is crudely arrogant to suggest that one is morally enlightened by virtue of an accident of birth. Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan was a Pashtun, and so was Mullah Omar. America created Martin Luther King, Jr and Bull Connor. The very same India produced both Gandhi and Godse. Yet the similarities between these people transcend their geographic, racial, ethnic, linguistic, and cultural differences.

If one accepts the universality of the human experience and human values, it should be obvious that any attempt to assert exclusive ownership of such values on the basis of physical or cultural differences is simply masturbatory arrogance. The hollowness of ascribing Judeo-Christian Western or Hindu nationalist culture as tautological to the exclusive owners and discoverers of true morality should be evident - and not just because these are factually incorrect (a good case can be made that these forces were in fact ordinarily immoral rather than uniquely moral). Or, conversely, that scientific or logical thinking is "Western" and that mystic mumbo-jumbo is "Eastern" - fundamentalist Christianity in America today and the rationalism of the Carvakas through the ages render any such pigeonholing meaningless.

It might seem like idealism - that I sincerely believe my moral compunctions are not exclusive to anyone (for example, a cursory search for "vegan muslim" yields several hundred thousand results). However, the implications leave ample room for cynicism as well - perhaps the phrase "Inside every cynical person, there is a disappointed idealist" has some truth to it? The corollary is that immorality and barbarism are not exclusive to anyone either. There isn't really any meaningful difference between My Lai and 9/11. Or between the enslavement of black people by white imperialists and the analogous domination of Dalits by so-called Indian upper castes through the ages. Or, closer to home - the fact that a systemic violent culture of ragging can so easily exist among college students who had perfect childhoods and loving parents who spared no expense to instill the best values in their upbringing.

To me, this now cannot be emphasized enough. Only a radical adherence to the idea of universality can withstand the relentless daily onslaught to dehumanize each other by our differences, due to social or political pressures.

Humility and Shame

Honesty requires humility, and justice requires shame.

I feel like any honest discussion can only really be had when people are willing to criticize themselves, their privilege and their history. To me a person who engages in proud or arrogant discourse on obviously tribal persuasions without any admission of introspection, is dismissible.

A huge part of honesty and humility, to me, is to listen to and read about different points of view - particularly the victims of history. However, to actually learn from this, one has to be prepared to face shame either directly or due to a sense of shared identity. This requires courage.

Shame is the fuel for the engine of moral progress. Caste oppression in India should induce shame in every moral person - yet I feel the purposeful lack of acknowledgement is exactly the cause of its perpetuation. Shame - the recognition of wrongdoing by a self or shared identity, is necessary for its cessation.


These two ideas are the main core values that I have come to believe in. I wish that the importance of these ideas was impressed upon me when I was younger and growing up - it would have saved me a lot of time and errors in getting to where I am now.

I remember reading the preface on the first page of my middle school math textbook when I was a kid and the awe it induced. I felt like I had stumbled onto something monumental, which was somehow invisible, inconsequential to and ignored by the rest of the world. However, that was the most valuable lesson in my entire education that I wish I had internalized - it was Gandhiji's talisman:

"I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj for the hungry and spiritually starving millions?
Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away."


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