A Duty to Question Fake News

The discourse around fake news often focuses on the ones disseminating it. Organised troll factories, chatbots, media houses with questionable integrity, elected leaders who like to play fast and loose with facts: the list is endless. But it is equally important to look at individuals, the targets and consumers of fake news, and ask what they should do when bombarded by inaccurate information.

This was the subject of a short essay titled The Ethics of Belief, written in 1877 by the mathematician and philosopher William K. Clifford. He sets a very high standard for people to follow, as is evident from the following line:

…it is wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.

Clifford justifies the need for such an ethical duty for three reasons. One, and the simplest of them all, a wrongful belief can dictate wrongful action. Second, it can foster a bad habit where individuals become credulous believers, their sense of discernment dulled by a tendency to accept whatever is presented to them. And three, the larger social reason of human actions and thoughts being a form of common property, and thus to be considered both a privilege and a responsibility.

Regardless of how convincing one finds Clifford’s reasons, what makes his position relevant for the current age is its flipping of the discourse. By presenting the questioning of beliefs as an ethical duty, the essay gives primacy to individuals. It remains to be seen if this framing can be used to arrive at a public policy solution to the problem of fake news.

Understanding Witch Hunts

One of the signs of good literature is the ability to stay relevant with the passage of time. Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, written in the 1950s, uses the Salem witch trials as an allegory for the paranoia surrounding Communism in the US after the end of the Second World War. It is a testament to the strength of the play that it resonates just as strongly in the world of today, with the fears around fake news and the targeting of individuals and communities.

The play has a fairly straightforward narrative (minor spoilers to follow): a group of young women lie and claim that certain members of their town are indulging in witchcraft. This sets off a chain of events both absurd and scary, with the accused being presumed guilty until they either confess (leading to a loss of reputation and property) or refute the charge (leading to a death sentence).

As I read the play, two things struck me as being particularly relevant for understanding the nature of witch hunts in general.

One, the women who accuse others do not create a new divide in their society but instead widen existing ones. They allow the townsfolk to give voice to their prejudices and social distrust, something that normal bounds of propriety would have otherwise prevented them from acting upon.

Two, and a related point, is that the people who back the claims of the women often have baser reasons for doing so. This includes the pursuit of material profit at the cost of a neighbour’s, petty dislike, or to right perceived historical slights. In other words, these people are self-aware. They are not acting for the “right reasons,” even if they claim otherwise.

Unbundling “household work” to get more women to work

At a recent Takshashila roundtable, I met Shruti Rajagopalan and we discussed the challenges faced by working women in detail. An enriching conversation, Shruti provided various insights such as looking at the female labour force participation as an inferior good. As the household income increases, the demand amongst households to send the women to work reduces and is substituted with women focusing only on household chores. Reasons as Shruti pointed out varied from lack of household help to the increasing pressures of being a working mother. The conversation brought out an interesting insight: the biggest problem with reducing household chores for women is that it is a bundled good.

What is commonly referred to as “household work” contains a bunch of varied tasks like cooking, cleaning, stocking food, managing the assets at the house, managing vendors and neighbors, etc. A set of two or more goods or services when sold or consumed together are called bundled products. Due to the bundled nature of the products, it is difficult to create specific markets for individual subsets within the bundle. For instance, it is difficult to break down the household tasks such that separate agents manage vendors and assets at the house. The closest we have come to distributing the tasks is still within the household unit and yet to create a market where external agents that can be hired for it.

Each of the tasks under “household work” would cost a certain amount to the household. Hence, when a household reaches a certain income, instead of hiring an external agent, the household substitute the cost by letting go of the income earned by the female in the house. Only two chores have been unbundled till date- cooking and cleaning. The exclusive nature of the tasks and clear job description has helped in building both demand and supply for these chores. Hence, being able to unbundle the tasks would help households to outsource the chores as the income increases rather than substituting it with the income earned by the women.

The other obvious solution is to reduce the pay gap between men and women such that the income earned by women are not dispensable enough to be substituted for household chores.

More than a source of empowering women, creating a market for household chores would help solve the increasing job crisis in India. We need to create 20 million jobs per year in order to cater to the people entering the workforce and the disguised unemployment in the agriculture sector. One of the ways to generate these new jobs would create a services market for household chores. As per the study was done by  Bela Bandyopadhyaya, and Hilary Standing in the paper “Women’s Employment and the Household-Some Findings from Calcutta”, high-income families create 1.5 jobs per household for the child and household care (full time and a part-time employee). As most of the domestic care is under the purview of the women in the house, each working women helps increase the household income and generates jobs for a cook, a housekeeper, a cleaner and for general domestic work.

As I unravel the giant problem of declining female labour force participation rate in India, I have realised that social mindsets play an integral part in keeping the status quo intact. Hence, the change in the viewpoint towards household chores and the distribution of the agency would only improve as the social narratives are altered. Until then, making it easier for women to chose between staying at home and working should be a step in the right direction.

How Many Governments Does it Take to Fix a Light Bulb?

In a series of surveys conducted over the last five years, the Lok Foundation and the Centre for Monitoring the Indian economy have been attempting to understand the attitudes that the Indian people hold from everything from jeans to caste and privatisation. Some interesting and counterintuitive attitudes have come up, pointing to a need for policymakers to re-prioritise the problems they aim to tackle, and re-evaluate possible solutions.

(This is the first in a series of blog posts in which I will aim to unpack some of these attitudes).

Privatisation, especially for key utilities, seems to be catching on – with three cities in Maharashtra announcing earlier this year that they will privatise power supplies. Consumers, though, are likely to be less than overjoyed. Here are results from a January 2016 survey on a nationwide sample of 158,624 households:

 

Two interesting takeaways: on average, a whopping 65% of Indians prefer that the Government provide electricity – and the richer they are, the more likely they are to say so. I suspected that this may be due to the fact that richer Indians tend to be urban and are thus used to larger amounts of affordable electricity with relatively few interruptions. It turned out that this was indeed the case. Here are responses for urban Indians:

And electricity is hardly an exception: the exact same pattern appears in responses to the question of who should provide piped water. But note that poor and middle-class respondents are around 3% less optimistic about the government in this question:

Why is there such a high degree of trust for the government? Here’s my theory: perhaps the State is perceived as a paternalistic and essentially benevolent (if not exactly efficient) institution, thanks to its decent track record in expanding the provision of basic services. And if a government isn’t able to provide affordable utilities, it can always be replaced by one that will (long-term effects be damned!) On the other hand, Indians who are more exposed to government inefficiencies – especially rural Indians – prefer that the private sector take over instead. This may not necessarily reflect an actual awareness of how the private sector operates, but rather a case of “if A couldn’t provide it, and we voted them out in favour of B, and they couldn’t do it either, maybe C will.”

Not convinced? Check out this article that I wrote a while back. Next week, I’ll look at attitudes towards government jobs to support the case that the “government” is seen as a magic wand which will solve India’s knottiest problems despite its patchy record at actually doing so.

What Hate Speech Is Not

The CEO of Twitter, the social media platform, recently found himself the subject of some heckling on, irony be damned, Twitter. The reason was a photograph taken of Jack Dorsey holding a poster that read ‘Smash Brahmanical Patriarchy.’ Some claimed that this amounted to hate mongering and hate speech, a notion that is as misguided as it is dangerous.

To begin with, the plain text of the poster is not directed against any individual and arguably, it does not target a particular community either. What it does is call for the end of a regressive tradition of patriarchy that anyone can subscribe to.

Which brings us to the second point: the inordinate amount of focus on the use of the word ‘smash’ and how this is tantamount to a call for violence. It is almost as if the hecklers have seen one too many movies containing a certain green-skinned comic book character who likes to wreak havoc and now cannot help but associate the said word with violence. In reality, the word is little more than an example of the usage of a forceful verb.

This examination of the plain text of the poster must also be seen in the context of what the intent behind it was. In the Shreya Singhal judgement, the Indian Supreme Court looked at the conditions under which the right to freedom of speech and expression can be restricted. It held that speech and expression that amounts to either discussion or advocacy, howsoever unpopular, cannot be restricted. The only valid ground is that of incitement. Can the language of the poster be categorised as incitement? Clearly not, judging by a measured understanding along the lines of the first two points above. Does it fall within the scope of discussion or advocacy? Yes.

Thus, the claims of hate mongering and hate speech against the poster are ill-founded. Their attempt to lower the bar for the freedom of speech and expression is as regressive for society as the patriarchy that they implicitly champion.

Deontology and Dogma

When I read the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy entry on Deontological Ethics, I was struck by a phrase that brought out the distinction between deontology and consequentialism. It states that in deontology,

…the Right is said to have priority over the Good.

Does this mean that deontology as an ethical discourse is vulnerable to the influx of dogmatic positions masquerading as the Right? I ask this because deontology depends on a pre-emptive determination of whether a particular act passes the necessary ethical muster. This can lead to a regressive agenda hijacking the discourse and becoming the norm, suppressing dissident voices in the process.

In its defence, the article does provide a more nuanced study of deontology. It can be argued that a hijacking of the discourse would be antithetical to the way deontology is meant to function. For example, true agency is not being exercised in the agent-centric version of deontology if an individual is merely following the norms set by others. Similarly, a regressive position is unlikely to be in the interests of the subject matter of an act in the patient-centric version of deontology. Both of these are valid arguments for a continued engagement with deontological thought, particularly given some of the benefits that this discourse brings to the table.

That said, these discussions around ethical positions often take place in an ideal setting. This approach fails in a setting where actors do not necessarily spend a lot of time introspecting on the merits and demerits of their actions. Of course, this fallibility can be extended to any ethical standpoint that requires an individual to be aware of his actions. What this means for the study of ethical discourses is a different question altogether.

Note: If this short post seems muddled in its reasoning, it is because my thoughts on the subject are still in a state of flux. I do hope to attain more clarity on this in the future.

Frederick Douglass and Some Lessons for the Present

Too often political speeches aim to temporarily rouse the passions of those who listen without making any attempt to be a record for posterity. To be prescient requires an understanding of human nature and the wisdom to foresee the future that is beyond the ability of many who engage in rhetoric. This cannot be said of Frederick Douglass, the American social reformer and abolitionist, and his speech What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?, delivered all the way back in 1852 but which remains timely even now.

The speech is a great piece of oration. It deserves to be read for the strength of its purpose and the clarity of its vision. Here are the two things in it that stood out for me, aspects that resonate in today’s world.

One, when Douglass refuses to engage in argument and reason with those who support slavery. Instead, he says he will rebuke such people and lay bare their faults as individuals. These are his words:

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.

This is a position that is reminiscent of many of the so-called liberal elites today (exemplified, in the US at least, by several late-night show hosts). The reasoning goes that the people you are in opposition to hold values that you disdain so much that it makes no sense to try and reason with them, to engage in a conversation with the aim of persuading them to your line of thinking. Is this the best method to adopt? I do not have an answer to this yet.

Two, and a more unambiguous lesson at that, is that Douglass is critical of his nation’s hypocrisy when it comes to liberty: extolling it as one of the foundations on which the nation is built and at the same time depriving millions of their liberty under the institution of slavery. He does not mince his words when talking about these national inconsistencies. If someone were to utter the sort of harsh words that Douglass uses today, they are likely to be branded unpatriotic. But as Douglass’ example shows, calling out the ills of your nation is an act of patriotism itself. For only when you know where you are going wrong as a nation can you correct your course.

Note: For more information about Douglass’ life, I would recommend this episode from BBC’s In Our Time.

The Conundrum of Informed Consent

I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks recently, a masterful book about the real-life story of a woman named Henrietta Lacks who died of cervical cancer in the 1950s. Before her death, Henrietta’s cancer cells were collected by doctors at the Johns Hopkins Hospital and it was found that they had a remarkable capacity to grow and proliferate. The sheer scale of the scientific achievements that followed and which owed a measure of credit to HeLa, as the cells came to be known, is immense. The crux of the book, however, is that Henrietta Lacks never gave informed consent to the harvesting of cells from her body.

Towards the end of the book, the author juxtaposes Henrietta’s case with that of other individuals, like Ted Slavin, who recognise the potential that parts of their bodies have for research and medical advancement, and ensure that they have control over who uses the tissue in question and under what circumstances.

The following text from the book, centred around these examples, is one of the best enunciations of the dilemma of informed consent that I have read:

“This is a capitalist society,” says Wayne Grody. “People like Ted Slavin took advantage of that. You know, the way I see it is, if you think of doing that on the front end, more power to you.”

The thing is, people can’t “think of doing that on the front end” unless they know their tissues might be valuable to researchers in the first place. The difference between Ted Slavin, John Moore, and Henrietta Lacks was that someone told Slavin his tissues were special and that scientists would want to use them in research, so he was able to control his tissues by establishing his terms before anything left his body. In other words, he was informed, and he gave consent. In the end, the question is how much science should be obligated (ethically and legally) to put people in the position to do the same as Slavin. Which brings us back to the complicated issue of consent. [emphasis from the text]

Disaster Relief and competitive advertising

Last weekend, following the Kerala floods, a long audio clip went viral on Whatapp groups across the nation. On two of my groups, each discussing the best way to contribute to disaster relief, this was thrown up as a counterpoint.

The speaker, who identified himself only as ‘Suresh’, says he “landed up in Kerala by accident” during the floods. The thrust of his advice:

  1. People in Kerala are rich. They don’t need your money.
  2. The only help they will need is by way of tradespeople – electricians and carpenters – to restore severely damaged homes.
  3. Oh, by the way, if you do decide to donate money, send it to Seva Bharti.
  4. And by the by the way, don’t donate it to the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund, since we have some evidence that all is not above aboard there.

What Suresh did not say was:

  1. His full name is Suresh Kochattil.
  2. His Twitter handle says “I hate Sickulars and Commies”.
  3. “Following requests from…Bharatiya Janata Party karyakarthas, I have decided to come back to India and go full steam into the campaign for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections”

Seva Bharati is an NGO affiliated with the RSS, and was founded by Balasaheb Deoras. I respect the work of RSS organisations in relief work, having observed them close at hand when I traveled in Garhwal after the Uttarkashi earthquake.

If Seva Bharti wants to campaign for donations, this is perfectly legitimate; if they want to say they will do a better job than the CM’s relief machinery, they need to present good reasons why.

But what I just can’t figure is why an organisation seeking funds would start off by saying funds are not required. Mr. Kochattil’s motivations remain a mystery to me.

 

New Perspectives for Independence Day

Last week, India celebrated more than seventy years of being independent. This is a fact that Indians should be proud of and we are, judging by the articles and news segments that are common during this time of the year. At the same time, it is useful to not look at the country’s independence and its progress in isolation. Taking a step back and looking at the experiences of other countries can provide an interesting perspective on our own journey and offer some lessons for the future. I thought of this as I came across some literature about Kenya over the past few weeks.

First was the novel A Grain of Wheat by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, set during the time Kenya became independent in the sixties as well as the long period of emergency that preceded it. While the book illuminates much about how Kenya gained independence and how ordinary Kenyans approached it, what took me by surprise were the multiple references to India. India, by then, had already been an independent nation for the better part of two decades and was a model of resistance for people still struggling against colonialism elsewhere. One of the characters in the book makes repeated references to Gandhi and the spirit of non-violence that contributed to India’s liberation. There are also less charitable references to Indians vying with the Europeans to seize local markets at the cost of the indigenous population.

The second was about the prosecution service in Kenya which is, on paper, an excellent and well thought out mechanism. It provides for the Director of Public Prosecutions to be a Constitutional position answerable to the Parliament with adequate safeguards against executive interference. It is also a relatively recent system, with the current version of the Kenyan Constitution having been in force for less than ten years. It shows the advantage of learning from the mistakes of other countries. For instance, as was pointed out to me, it would be difficult for India, without a Presidential form of government and with the anti-defection rule in place, to adopt a similar model even if it guarantees to be an upgrade on our existing system.

So, to recap the lessons learnt: one, we should be mindful of our influence and our power in being role models for other countries. And two, wherever possible, we should take advantage of being late to the party by adopting systems and institutions that do not carry the heavy burden of legacy while being best-suited for our unique needs.

Public Transport and Nudges

The messages in the Bangalore metro urging people to give up their seats to those who need them more are an excellent example of a nudge adopted to mould the behaviour of commuters. They are also a cautionary tale on the need for nudges to have the right messaging.

This is what the infographic says:

Please give up these seats for persons with disabilities, the elderly, women with children or pregnant women.

There does not seem to be much wrong with this at first glance. But a closer look reveals something disquieting:

Please give up these seats for persons with disabilities, the elderly, women with children or pregnant women. [emphasis supplied]

Why did it have to say women with children? Does this not act as a subtle propagation of existing gender roles for child rearing? This unfortunate state of things could have been easily avoided by the use of a gender-neutral expression, say, persons with children. What is infuriating is that a similar expression is, in fact, used earlier when a reference is made to individuals with disabilities. That this was not done for the other part of the message shows just how entrenched societal norms are when it comes to child rearing and the scale of the task before us to effect a change in them.

Social Capital and Caste

Conventional wisdom is that social capital in India is low because of our historical caste system. By placing people in a rigid hierarchy, and giving some people privileges over others just because of the families they were born into, the caste system prevented people from cooperating as well as they would in a more equitable society – that is what conventional wisdom says.

However, a point that we cannot miss is that despite the caste system placing a hierarchy on people, people from different castes did regularly cooperate and trade with each other. In fact, with caste being tied to hereditary professions, people had little choice but to regularly interact and trade with people from other castes. And this inevitably created social capital.

Putting it differently, the result of the caste system was an unequal but stable society, and this stability led to reasonably good social capital (history might be biased given it was written by people from certain castes, but we don’t see many instances of caste riots or clashes from over 200 years ago). You can think of it as a stable society with “handicaps”, where some people were privileged over others (in fact, there was a hierarchy of privilege), to the extent that it was okay for some people to abuse others in various ways.

Over the last 150 years or so, the caste system has been (rightly) challenged, and we are seeing various movements towards a more equal society. One side effect of this has been that the (unequal) equilibrium that had existed has been disturbed, leading to caste-based antagonism and a fall in social capital.

We are in the process of moving from one (unequal) equilibrium to another (more equal) equilibrium, but until we get there, existing beliefs and biases will continue to be challenged, which means some sets of people will continue to be suspicious of others, and there will be mistrust and thus low social capital.