April 14, 2006

Our problem

Every now and then, I find myself embroiled in an argument like the one that just petered out here. Every time, there are some common features.

  • One, there'll be a gathering of people, as if the call has gone out to come watch the pig getting stuck. Not all of them get involved in the argument, but they watch from the cheap seats, periodically reissuing the call themselves.

  • Two, there'll be the guys who trade only in insults; one exchange or maybe two, and I know all over again that paying them no attention is what the doctor ordered. A long time ago.

  • Three, there'll be the guys who are confident that logic and reason and facts populate every square inch of their writing, that they are bright like we would never know, and that their views are, by golly, exactly right. Therefore, they are just as confident that their opponents in the argument are illogical and unreasonable and stupid and have no facts, only anecdotes, to offer in support of their case. That arrogance also gets what the doctor ordered.

  • And four, there'll be the guys who try to engage, sometimes heatedly, but engage nevertheless. Alone in these episodes, those guys -- the owner of the site mentioned, for example -- get my respect.

    So I stroll in and offer my views. And of course I think I'm right, of course I think I have logic on my side. But I try very hard not to mistake opposition to my opinions for illogic or stupidity, however much I disagree. I try hard to remember that these guys believe they came to their views much as I believe I did: logic, reason. Why try hard? The old lesson: the quickest way to lose is to underestimate the guys you're up against. (They underestimate, their problem).

    And yet here's one thing: issues like this last one are bigger than who loses. Reservations are so vital to so many people that I don't even know in what sense I might "win" or "lose" an argument over them, or how it matters at all.

    And here's another: since they are so vital, that says something about this country. We have profound chasms that we have not bridged, injustices we have not addressed, inequalities a lot of us don't want to see. But they are there.

    One suggested solution to one of these issues is reservations. Those who find that repulsive must then offer another solution, a better solution. That is the challenge. Yet we have innumerable bright graduates from the IITs and IIMs and similar institutes. We have some stellar men and women in our corporate boardrooms. I believe that if these smart people want to, they can find creative answers to the problem that reservations claims to solve. (And to any number of other Indian problems).

    And it's more than just wanting to: perhaps they must work to find those answers. Because the inequalities cannot be wished away, and can be ignored only so long. We -- and here I particularly address the guys from point four above -- have to find ways to tackle that. This is our problem. Nobody else's.

    Ashish Gupta said...

    I am sorry to realize that you don't have respect for others except owner of the blog who watch, but not actively participate, in the debate; and their presence in the 'gathering of onlookers' insults you (which your doctor kindly advised you to ignore). For your convenience, I will no longer watch you nor converse with you any more. You win.

    scribbles said...

    Like many others, I watched that exchange on the blog you mentioned from the sidelines, almost but never quite deciding to write in myself. I can quite see why the owner of that blog was the only one who won your respect, he was one of the very few who deserved to. Most of the other bloggers on that thread had nothing except a supreme, arrogant assurance in the infallibility of their positions, and frankly their invocations of your background, and their judgments about their 'motivations' disgusted me. i wonder why your writing seems to frighten so many people. because fear is the only thing that really explains the mccarthyite tone of some of the responses to you. there also seems to be this desire to believe that anyone who espouses views that sound 'radical' or 'left-of-centre' or just plain secular-humanist, has GOT to be motivated by something other than conviction, some tangible benefit that he or she is getting. it's as though you, and arundhati roy, and any number of other people who've chosen to support beleaguered causes and movements because you believe them to be just, have engaged in some kind of class betrayal, and the only way to fight your arguments is to fight you, as a person, on the grounds of your age, your background, whatever 'dirt' they can dig up on you.
    at one level you should take this as an enormous compliment, i think. you're obviously provoking people to anger, and if you're doing that there's a fair chance that you're also making an equal number of people, who read your work, rethink or give shape to their positions on crucial issues. not only reservations, but so much else. i read 'the narmada damned' by the way, i thought it was one of the most important commentaries i'd ever read. so thanks, i suppose, for arguing and reasoning so patiently and so well.

    Anonymous said...

    Agree with Patrix. The people who tried to argue with you with their self-proclaimed superior intellect and logic energy of sighs sounded totally like "You must be a fool; becuase I couldn't understand your reasoning".

    On the reservation issue; we all start with a premise that a meritocratic system is the most fair and ideal. While in truth, it may be the most unfair though efficient. Merit, as has been convincingly proven,is a product of nature and nurture. So a student's brilliance or dumbness is a lot dependent on his biological constitution (genes) on which he had no control. I don't think that human societies anywhere has clearly established which is more superior: Efficiency (merit) or fairness (social justice). However, in the case of politics, which is the most significant aspect of human society; social justice has been clearly given one up over merit.

    Anonymous said...

    Dear Dilip,

    I thought the following may be useful. I would rather post it on your blog than anywhere else, but if you think it will be useful anywhere else, please do feel free to cut and paste. I am aware that the tone is slightly patronising, but I hope that can be forgiven. I do know some (not all!) of the answers to the "assignments" listed below, but for R2C2E I can neither reveal them, nor join the debate. In any event, the proposed exercise might be good for everyone's soul!

    How one might have an informed debate (not, civilised, not courteous - that would be unduly optimistic).

    Prelude: The IIT's already have reservations for SC and ST candididates. SC and ST students can be admitted to IIT even if their scores are somewhat lower. This does not fill the 22% quota. Hence, a still lower cut-off is introduced. Students who score above this cut-off in the JEE exam are admitted to IIT in "year zero". They are trained in IIT for a year.
    If they perform satisfactorily in these courses in year zero, they are allowed to join the regular B-Tech programme from the next year as first year students, i.e., a typical student will finish the programme in five years (including "year zero") instead of four years for the B-Tech students admitted through the "general category".

    Assignment 1: Read the above paragraph carefully and make sure you have understood it.

    Assignment 2: Decide beforehand what it means to have a "succesful" social policy.

    a) Define beforehand what compromises merit. Suppose, it turned out that students admitted under quotas did only slightly worse in IIT (define "slightly worse" than the general category, does that justify reservations or not? For instance if the median score of a student admitted through the general category was 70% while that of a student admitted through a quota was 64%is the experiment worthwhile? Decide beforehand how much this "compromises merit".

    b) Also decide beforehand whether someone getting 64% after facing significant discrimination is "better" than someone getting 70% after receiving significant societal advantages.

    c) Decide beforehand if it matters whether students entering under the quota are from a "creamy layer". Define "creamy layer". For instance, if no one in the caste has ever been an engineer, does it matter if the caste is extraordinarily rich?

    d) If in c) you decide that a creamy layer does matter, decide how much it matters.

    If you want an honest exercise, do this before performing Assignment 3.

    Assignment 3:
    a) Find out how students admitted under "reservations" fare compared to others (hint: use the right to information act).

    b) How many are from a "creamy layer"
    (hint: use the rti) - if your definition of creamy layer is very complex, you will not be able to get the requisite data. But some rough measures will be verifiable.

    If you do not oppose reservations in IIT on some purely philosophical position you will first inform yourself of the situation with regard to SC and ST candidates. Then, you will decide whether the situation for OBC's is similar in anyway and whether the experiment in reservations can have similar consequences for them.


    Bombay Addict said...

    Agree with patrix on this. "In brief, it was either you are with us or against us kinda situation and that's why I kept out of it." Indeed that's why I kept out of it.

    Here's an aside I thot was interesting - the defintion of logic, as per Merriam Webster, also includes "something that forces a decision apart from or in opposition to reason". (hehehe?)

    For the record - I'm in your camp Dilip.

    Dilip D'Souza said...

    Thank you Patrix. You don't have to agree with me. I appreciate your civility. Now get going to Big Bend dammit!

    scribbles, thank you too. You're kind. It's always a pleasure to run into someone who has read my book!

    And thanks anonymous 9:08 and bombay addict. Anonymous, there's something worth thinking more about in what you say about the possibility that this meritocratic system we all seem to aspire to may be unfair.

    And Ravi, that's quite a quiz there! I'm not confident I can attempt it...

    Anonymous said...

    You do yourself a great disservice by writing posts like this, by responding to the provocations of that cheap bunch of school kids called the libertarian cartel of Indian bloggers and their sympathisers. The cartel is also know as the Society for the Propagation of Itself. You and your willingness to engage with them is exactly what they want!

    Anonymous said...

    Honestly, I did not find the blog owner to be worthy of any respect either. The amount of paragraphs spent just to get him to agree that he was using anecdotes just like every other guy was ridiculous. It was so f**king obvious and he still hasn't conceded that itty bitty point. And the suppossed illogic of applying the same quotas to all institutions frankly speaking eludes me. And what is with all the "red herring" talk.

    It is just so f**king ridiculous that they are unwilling to have a half decent discussion without planting all kinds of labels. "Red herring", "illogical", "Anecdotal".

    This is how the game is played. You make a statement. They come along and apply all kinds of labels. You are trying to address a core issue. They jump all over every syntax and semantics and have you defending statements that Shivam Vij made and parse every peripheral sentence you typed for possible "ad hominems, lfallacy, nonsqtr and what not". They number in dozens. You are alone. So effectively you spend 10 paragraphs defending some peripheral statement. The core issue is never discussed. You also succumb to their crap and play the game by their rules and point out logical fallacies and anecdotal stuff in their posts. The worst part is they wont acknowledge it and continue bickering. This creates an absolute crapfest and senseless discussion. You are trying to find a possible solution and they are sitting there waiting to pounce on any possible cracks. If of course you make a genuine slip it will be linked to for the next decade. Each and every discussion has been like this. I dont even understand why you engage these guys. I found dk2 obscene and condescending even though he defended you in spots. He looks good just because everyone else is so gross.

    And I am not even talking about the obvious trolls like Gaurav Sabnis. These guys are easy to ignore.

    However this is not the worst. I actually read a thread where CK mathematically demonstrated how taxation does not imply wealth destruction through a simple mathematical model (the only relevant counter argument was made by Sid). Gaurav Sabnis trolled right through the thread punching non existent holes in the model that he himself set up plus there was the standard litany of name calling. Apart from advertising his awful maths skills he actually managed to announce that CK had "lost" the argument. There is no way you can be "logical" with these guys. You can supply a mathematical proof and they will still laugh you off. It is more of a heckling, name calling, labelling riot. I dont understand how guys like you and CK actually manage to be civil amongst such hecklers.

    BTW the tax thread is here in case you missed it.
    You may think the thread is not relevant here. But I personally found that thread to be a severe example how you can supply a perfect mathematical proof and still be laughed off as illogical or as "still does not get it for the nth time". The reservation thread on dk2 is milder version of this though it is far more personally abusive. I find personal abuses easy to ignore because they mean nothing and usually makes the abuser ugly. But this kind of hair splitting (how the f**k is shivam vij's statement on lfallacies in any way relevant!!!) has the pretence of a logical discussion while being anything but that.

    dhoomketu said...
    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
    Umesh Patil said...

    - True that Reservation is a big issue so it is natural that there will be prolonged and intense discussion about this topic. I am surprised that this time around it has not reached the fever of Mandal of 1990's in the street.

    - I doubt if any open societies are free of any such contentious issues. If not for Mandal, for something else there will be a serious debate. As long as society at least has civil ways of conducting the discourse, it is on better track than the closed ones.

    - Reservation is a Political issue. So I am not sure how it comes to smart people of successful companies and board room to solve it. We know that Politician's do not listen even if the argument has merit when it does not buy them votes. The whole framework of debate in Indian politics is stuck with reservation and no reservation; as if that is the only way to remove the caste based discrimination. So many alternatives have been talked (other day Times of India had a good editorial asking Congress to work for universal school open to all caste members and kids of all religion and so on); but that is like Greek and Latin to our politicians. We all know how stupid these politicians can be. I mean what else to describe other than that moron Arjun Singh. These were the same people who advised Rajiv Gandhi to back Shaha Bano amendment, which he did foolishly and we all know what happened - neither that gave votes to Congress nor stability. India lost almost a decade in the whole affair. Fast forward to Dr. Singh's government - you can hardly find any more respected PM than him as well as leadership of Sonia. But you know how Dr. Singh responded to Medha Patkar and NBA appeals. Very shameful. GOI does not even want to address the simple issue of settlement of oustees when no one is talking about ROI of Narmada Project.

    So I do not think alternatives to reservation is an issue. It is a political question of how do you open the debate so that competitive political parties are open to consider alternatives, articulated by so many experts.

    And oh yes, I do oppose the reservation policy and am fearful of the possibility it may be forced on private sector in any one of these days. Competitive politics of election based system almost makes it inevitable.

    Dilip D'Souza said...

    Illogical, you've defended me in that post? I thought it was all directed at me! And you don't love me?

    Well, seriously: it needed to be said. There's a lot of guys out there who have no substance in them, and therefore fall back on pointing out (what they think are) fallacies and strawmen and non-strawberries sorry non-sequiturs and the like. I have no problem with those things, always provided there's the substance too. So thank you, and may your comment get us all to introspect.

    Mridula said...

    Non-strawberries! Now this is a nice one.