Don’t think in categories

This piece is the third installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking It Through.

As a blogger, I often get phone calls from journalists who have been instructed to write a story on blogging. Generally, all they know about it is that it is some new kind of buzzword, and they have often not read any blogs. Their questions invariably include the phrase “blogging community.”

Oh how they generalise. “What does the blogging community feel about the new KBC?” they ask, or “What do bloggers write about?” I try to be polite and say that I can only speak for myself, but I won’t deny that the image of hanging a journalist upside down just above a vat of boiling oil gives me great glee at such times.

Bloggers have a community as much as drivers have a community. Would you ask a random person in a car, “So sir, what do drivers feel about abortion?” You wouldn’t dream of doing that, because you know that drivers are just individuals who happen to drive cars. And yet, we lump all bloggers under one convenient label.

And we have many convenient labels like that. Imagine someone saying, “Some Indian bloggers have been seen cheering for Pakistan during cricket matches. Therefore, all Indian bloggers are anti-national.” Or “Some bloggers burnt a train full of drivers, therefore we drivers will slaughter all the bloggers we can find.” Or “Bloggers have been discriminated against in the days before the internet, when they didn’t have access to any readership, therefore we will reserve a set amount of newspaper space for them.”

Would it not be equally ridiculous to take a poll of bloggers, find out that the majority prefer to use the blogging service Blogspot, and then force all bloggers to use only that service? “This is the will of the bloggers,” you could say, or “the bloggers have given their mandate.”

The above examples sound ridiculous, but you would have recognised the references. We tend to think in categories, and ignore individuals in the process. We are pattern-seeking creatures, and this can be a useful cognitive shortcut: classifying things into groups of things helps us make sense of the world. But it has its perils when we take it too far.

And we do. Millions have been killed citing the good of ‘nation’ and ‘race’ and so on. Every day, individual rights are trampled upon under the guise of the good of ‘society’ or ‘community’. This is a mistake committed on both extremes of the political spectrum, both by ‘pseudo-secularists’ and those who have coined that term.

The Hindutva parties in India and their supporters do this all the time when it comes to terms like ‘Hindus’ and ‘Muslims’ and ‘Pakistan’ and so on. Claiming to speak for all Hindus, as if that is even possible, they whip up hatred against Muslims in general citing the acts of particular Muslims. They demonise Pakistan and Pakistanis because of the acts of its government, as if that government is a representative one. They oppose globalisation in the name of ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’, as if those two things lie preserved in a glass case.

The Left parties aren’t behind. How much generalising do they do against ‘multinationals,’ ‘imperialists,’ ‘upper castes,’ ‘the middle class’ and so on? They praise democracy but speak darkly of ‘free markets’ as if they represent anything other than individuals being empowered to make their own choices. They claim to speak for some mythical beast called ‘workers’, though all their policies harm individual workers, and as if workers aren’t also ‘consumers,’ a kind of beast that they don’t quite like.

The classic example of thinking in categories gone wrong is our reservations policy. Under the pretext of clearing up historical wrongs done to one group of people by another, we effectively redistribute opportunities and resources by taking them from one bunch of individuals and handing them to another. Some individuals suffer, others get lucky, and that’s all there is to it. What is worse, they actually perpetuate such thinking in categories instead of bringing an end to it, and make the problem worse instead of solving it.

It reminds me of Ayn Rand’s famous quote, “The smallest minority on earth is the individual. Those who deny individual rights cannot claim to be defenders of minorities.” But do we really care about individual rights, and personal freedom, in India?

On literature and bestsellers

Early this morning when I was creating today’s edition of Extrowords, on The Booker Prize, I took a break in between to read a bit of Fay Weldon’s wonderful book, “What Makes Women Happy.” How apt, then, that I should now stumble upon these words by Weldon:

As the sequels and prequels take over — if they liked that one, surely they’ll like this one — the creative imagination withers. The advent of the Booker, the Whitbread and others was oddly pernicious in the public perception of what the writer does for a living — that the aim of the literary writer is to win the Prize. That the pursuit of excellence is yesterday’s preoccupation: the writer’s skill now lies in how he or she conducts the race to the finish, the race to celebrity. The camera fixes on six faces, and then whips the cheque away from all but one of them.

Indeed, this is especially true in India, where people seem to find it hard to fathom literature outside of commerce. What prizes has a book got? How much advance did the writer get? Which page 3 parties has the writer been seen at with the glitterati? These are the things that decide how many column inches writers get. I suppose that’s fair enough—supply and demand, after all—and we serious readers are just unlucky that there aren’t enough of us.

On newspapers and their websites

On one hand, Steve Rattner writes in the Wall Street Journal:

The news about newspapers could hardly be more dismal: falling circulation, repeated rounds of layoffs, disappearing ads and a chain of bad earning reports. It’s an unsavory stew of ills, one that shows little prospect of becoming more appetizing.

On the other hand, there are a slew of them coming up in India, as the Economist describes in its piece, “Let 1,000 titles bloom.”

One reason why newspapers are flourishing in India but diminishing in importance elsewhere is the internet. At the moment, internet penetration in India is simply too low for people’s reading habits to change, and for some of the things newspapers do to become redundant. But it will grow.

No niche markets in presidential politics

Peggy Noonan writes in the Wall Street Journal about the US presidential elections:

You remember the story, from Genesis, of the famished brother who gave up his birthright for food. “He sold his soul for a mess of pottage.” The problem in national politics this year is the number of candidates of whom it could plausibly said, “He sold his soul for a pot of message.” He became something else, adopted new views, took stands the opposite of what he’d taken in the past, because he thought that if he didn’t he could not win a base in the base. (“He” here includes “she.”) Candidates take new views to create a new message. You “sell your soul” to put on the policy skin media professionals fashion for you. In this way you make yourself into someone else. […]

Last chance to vote in the Indibloggies

Today is the last day of voting in the Indibloggies. If you feel India Uncut deserves to win Indiblog of the Year, please do vote. I suspect it’s going to be a close contest this time, and every vote counts.

You do not need to have a blog to vote—that field is optional. A valid email ID is enough. And voting is optional in all categories, so you can vote in as few or as many of them as you wish.

Cows and financial markets

Widgets are often used to illustrate concepts of economics, but I have long believed that cows bring far more value to the table. (To begin with, widgets can’t moo.) This is beautifully illustrated by a piece by Mark Gilbert in which he presents us “the world of money recast in bovine terms.”

Can anyone tell me where I could purchase a Collateralized Lactating Obligation? Even I want to play…

(Link via separate emails from Neelankantan and Anand Krishnamoorthi.

Previous posts on cows: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31 , 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65, 66, 67, 68, 69, 70, 71, 72, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, 78, 79, 80, 81, 82.)

Words, words, words

It hardly needs to be said that the bomb blasts inside the Samjhauta Express are a terrible tragedy, or that one feels awful for the people who lost family members in it, or that the perpetrators should be punished. Yet it is said, repeatedly, by leaders from all over the place, and duly reported. What’s the point of this? Does it matter to anyone?

And really, what’s the EU doing saying things like this:

The composite dialogue and reconciliation process between India and Pakistan should continue with all efforts.

Do they have any idea of the nuances involved? Who, exactly, is that statement meant for? It can’t be the governments of India or Pakistan, both of whom would snort, if governments can snort, at hearing such suggestions from the EU.

Perhaps Manmohan Singh and Pervez Musharraf should get together and advise the EU on how to rework their anti-trust laws. No?