A Dilemma


On my way back from my evening jog, I saw a curious incident in the parking lot. A man had caught hold of a boy, not more than 10-12 years old, and was slapping him. I stepped in, told the man to stop it immediately and asked him what the matter was.

I recognised him as the person who runs a small provisions store next to our building. He told me that the boy been caught shoplifting, and that this was the fourth of fifth time that this same boy had been caught shoplifting from his store.

I turned to the boy and asked him his side of the story. He was terrified, naturally. I consoled him so that he would open up to me and talk. The boy admitted to shoplifting, and from his halting answers, I could tell that this was not his first time.

I asked the boy to call his parents. He told me he could not remember their phone number. It was quite obvious that he was scared of letting them know.

I pondered over the various options presenting themselves.

Naturally, the shopkeeper beating the boy was not an option. Not only does no one have the right to hit a child, it would have only sent out a convoluted message of “street justice”. It would have been disastrous if the boy ended up with a message that street-beatings is a legit form of justice.

Talking to him was not an option either. I was a complete stranger. There was no way that I could have established the emotional bond that is an essential prerequisite in convincing him that what he did was wrong. If at all it had been his first offence, I might have possibly considered letting him go with a stern warning – but it wasn’t. The message had to get through that what he did was wrong. A lecture from a stranger would have perhaps convinced him that crying a few tears is enough to get away with a wrong-doing.

So I did this – I told the shopkeeper that under no circumstances is he to lay a finger on the child. He is to take the kid home, and tell his parents what happened. Given the situation, this was the best I could do. And his parents are best placed to impress upon him that his conduct was wrong and that while not a “worthless, criminal, good-for-nothing”, he should not repeat this behaviour either. The entire outcome of this incident – does it become a learning experience or does it end up harming the boy – depends on his parents’ reaction.

And herein lies the crux of the problem – how will his parents react?

Perhaps I am being far too judgemental, but my premonition, based on the boy’s behaviour, was that he would get a beating. And as bad as it is for a stranger to hit a child, it is equally wrong for a parent to beat a child. I think it is plainly obvious why this is wrong on so many levels, and therefore I will not elaborate.

His parents need to sit him down and talk to him. And this has to be done over a period of time. And for this to be conducted successfully, a level of trust and communication has to be established The equation between them has to be such that the lesson has to strike home, and the boy emerges a better person from this incident.

That’s more easily said than done.

In today’s hyper-competitive and high-pressure world, most parents are reeling under the stress of their lives.

As humans, is it not possible that they might not behave rationally and give a knee-jerk reaction? Will they have the time to communicate with they boy? Perhaps they might not believe that communication is the best way out, and might instead think a harsh punishment might instil “discipline”? Or perhaps they might be far too judgemental or disapproving, and end up making the boy doubt his own self-worth? Will they be able to strike that fine balance between sternness and laxity?

Even if his parents do reach out and talk to him, will the boy hear them out? At that age, most kids disregard their parents because they do not speak the same “language”. Speaking for myself, far too often have I belatedly realised the wisdom of what my parents taught me. In the given circumstances situation, it is but natural for the boy to conclude that his parents don’t understand him.

Besides, will he and his parents enjoy an equation where he would feel comfortable talking to them? An admittance of a mistake made can only happen if the boy believes that there will be an opportunity for atonement. And self-improvement can happen only after accepting that he did his wrong. The emotional bond necessary for communicating with absolute frankness cannot be created overnight; it has to be nurtured over the years.

And what about influences from all over the world that bombard the boy? The boy in all practicality had picked up a packet of chips or a chocolate bar. Today, everything from television to newspaper ads (Yes, ToI, I’m talking to you) are promoting consumerism. The boy has to only notice that he is the only one in his peer group who is not being allowed by his parents to eat a packet of chips (health be damned), and what we have is a natural reflex action. Do we honestly expect someone at that impressionable age to be able to decipher influences – gathered from every waking moment – and tell right from wrong?

I remember some time back, there was a great uproar over Miley Cyrus’ latest video-song. Out of curiosity I checked it out, and I was extremely disturbed and distressed. All that I saw was a troubled, misguided girl who needed a paternal, elder-brotherly arm around the shoulder; a girl who needed someone who she could talk to, and who could tell her that she’s going wrong, without making her doubt her self-worth.  What worried me the most was the number of young boys and girls she would be influencing. The number of youngsters being convinced that what her behaviour is appropriate, and that someone who disagrees is basically encroaching on their freedom, and that they need to rebel mindlessly.

I think about the way my parents have brought me up, and I realise that I have been extremely lucky. My parents never, ever hit me. But then, my mistakes were dealt with sternly. Wrong doings were never condoned, but I was always told what I had done wrong and I never was in a situation where I was insecure about my self-worth. Today, as a consequence, there is not a single thing that I cannot share with them, but hearing a grim “Hrishikesh” being called out still does scare me.

What I saw today was a confused small boy, not a criminal. And what he needed was not punishment; it was an opportunity to become a better person.

Slapping a boy – that is easy. All you need to do is stifle your conscience.

Talking to him – that is tougher. You need patience and time.

Reaching out to him and making him a better person – that’s the toughest.

But isn’t that what it’s all about? What we’re all trying to do? Make the world a better place – one boy at a time?

Selective Outrage


A plate of French Fries

Please note: Views expressed are strictly personal.

An argument has, amongst other things, a background on which it is based. And a response that it elicits.

A recent book that I read – it was either Romilla Thapar’s “Public Intellectual in India” or Prof. Amartya Sen’s “Country of First Boys”; can’t recall which, and I’m too far away from my bookshelf to check – argued that outrage should not seek historical legitimacy.

An admirable sentiment, and one which I (normally) swear by.

What it means, in a crude, easy-to-digest form, is that “you did not protest *X*; hence you protesting *Y* is wrong”, or “you did not protest at time *T1*; hence you protesting at at time *T2* is wrong”.

One of the chief rules of argumentation – a fine craft that is sadly lost in the street brawls that make up today’s “discourse” – is that an argument should be judged on its own merit. Facts and arguments in its vicinity (and specifically, the identity of the person making that argument) should not be used to test its validity. And ergo, the response to such an argument would also be limited to the context of the argument.

What I mean by this is that whether or not I had a healthy meal yesterday cannot provide a justification for me having an unhealthy meal today. Think of your school teacher screaming at you – “Don’t tell me you did something because s/he did it. If s/he jumped into a river, would you jump in too?”.

But then, at one point, we stop and wonder and say to ourselves, “Fine, you are protesting *X* without having protested *Y*. But why did you not protest at *Y* as well, when you just as easily could have?”.

And therein, as the Bard would tell us, lies the rump.

The Example

(And this is where the plate of fries makes sense)

Consider this – I go to a restaurant “A” and order a plate of french fries. The fries look wonderful – crisp, golden, sizzling hot. But they are overtly salty. Not only is the excessive salt bad to taste, it also adversely affects my health. I object, and send it back, and write a bad review for that restaurant. Nothing wrong in this, right? All perfectly a-okay.

But then it so emerges that I had, a few days back, gone to a different restaurant “B” where I had again ordered a plate of fries. And this time too, the fries had been excessively salted. But this time, I did not object.

I am not even talking about a presumed “conflict of interest” – the manager did not give me a discount or a refund or a gift voucher. There was no “consideration” transferred which would make me want to not object.

I simply chose to not object.

The question, then, is this – am I objecting to excessively salted fries (which are undeniably bad for both taste and health), or am I actually objecting to restaurant “A”? Or, to rephrase this question, am I using my opposition to unhealthy food as a proxy excuse to actually oppose restaurant A?

The Problem

But, is there something fundamentally wrong in objecting to restaurant A? I dislike the place, I think it is bad for the health of me and my family, and therefore I chose to object to it. I like restaurant B and therefore I chose to not object to it.

Nothing essentially wrong with this, right?

The problem lies at a lower stage of abstraction. Masquerading my opposition to A under the false proxy of disliking unhealthy food is a fundamentally wrong thing to do.

One – not restoring to such “theatricality and deception – both of which are powerful agents” is an important part of intellectual honesty. We all know why we are so dishonest, of course. Far too often we find it necessary to sugarcoat frank aspirations by marketing them under the guise of higher ideals, ideals that only a handful believe in to begin off with.

Two – using such a smoke-and-mirrors to deceive is essential crooked and cowardly.

Three – sooner or later, is going to cook up a healthy dish and sooner or later, B is going to cook up a dish that is unhealthy; such is dictated by the all-powerful, inevitable hand of probability. It is far better to be honestly wedded to the higher cause of healthy food, rather than being short-sightedly committed to a restaurant.

The Rump

All of this discussion about right and wrong, honest and dishonety, lies on the presumption that we, as a society, are capable of moral and nuanced behavior. If we agree that such ethically sound behaviour – of people saying what they mean and being honest – is far too lofty and utopian a goal, then the entire argument I pleaded above crumbles into pointlessness.

Sadly, in today’s age it is impossible to expect such mentally disciplined and honest behaviour – it would be an interesting exercise to figure out if such behavior was always impossible.

What I have said before, I repeat again. These are my personal views, and are mentioned in abstraction. This framework can be adopted and enforced onto any practical example, and its efficacy can be evaluated.

I look forward to hearing views and counterviews on this subject.

I am also fully aware that because I have spoken out on the issue of “selective outrage”, I shall be prescribed certain ideological sympathies, if not inclinations. While I assure you that what I right is strictly apolitical and devoid of any “cult-biases”, I could not care less about the conclusions you (voluntarily) wish to draw regarding my alleged biases.

Controlling the Humanities

It is much more important to gain control over the humanities, rather than the sciences. A different way saying the exact same thing is that it is “more necessary” to grant the humanities greater freedom than the sciences.

This is being said in a particular context, and must be understood within it.

The humanities are much more subjective; their essential character is interpretation. Ergo, they can be leveraged more pragmatically for social changes, and are particularly amenable to individual wills. The sciences, by virtue of the rigorous laws of rational enquiry, are much less so. If – and this is a terrifying, 1984-esque “if” – we reach a state wherein the sciences can be suppressed by opinions, society has reached a point of such absolute perversion that all liberties are rendered irrelevant. Such is not the case with the humanities – there is a greater tolerance buffer.

Besides, the humanities have an impact on a person’s psyche (psyche alone, at least and definitely, not an entire way of life) in ways and with an alacrity that remain unmatched by the sciences. What is going to be a more obvious influence a man’s behaviour in the immediate term? A Yo Yo Honey Singh song or the improved efficiency of a 4-stroke engine?

There are certain ideas that are palatable to society at a particular point in them, and there are certain ideas that aren’t. And to make certain ideas palatable, it is necessary to re-engineer society’s psyche. To do so, the role of certain elements is paramount. Let me illustrate – you want to promote smoking? Make movies, cast superstars, and make sure they look *cool* while smoking. You want to stop smoking? Make those very same superstars die in agony.

 Which is why one should never under-estimate the power of the Chetan Bhagat’s and the Honey Singh’s and the Arnab Goswami’s of the world. And – at the greater level of abstraction – the temples where they are born (or the factories where they are manufactured – whichever way you want to look at it) are much more critical.

Those guys got it, these guys are getting it, and those guys will again get it in the future. The fight going on right now is not about one man or the other, it is about much larger picture.

Note – I know I being a little obscure here. I ask your forgiveness, and I hope the right audience will understand (completely) what I wish to say.

Views expressed are purely personal.