Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The clarion call of the trumpet

For the past six months, the US media has often revisited the idea that the Republican Party will and must soul-search. This OP-ED piece in the New York Times is one of many that suggested that the party is reaping the thorny harvest of divisive politics. That the US has way too many blacks, Hispanics, Asians, homosexuals, Muslims and youngsters to appeal predominantly to the "too old, too white, too male" votebank. The fact that a black man with a Muslim middle name was elected and then reelected should have tipped the Republican party to think anew. This was conventional wisdom till yesterday.
In the last 24 hours, the onus of soul searching has shifted to the Democratic party. What happened? At first glance, it appears to be an American version of majoritarianism. In India, Modi won due to an unprecedented aggregation of the Hindu vote. In the UK, Brexit was passed by a silent protectionist majority. And in the US, Trump won due to the backing of a white majority, comprised of a vocal throng and a silent fringe. Three of the most important democracies resoundingly rejected "other" people at a time when none of our leaders question globalization anymore.

Although we'll never really know if Bernie Sanders would have trounced Trump, it can be said with some conviction that, in the end, Hillary Clinton proved to be more unpalatable than the misogynistic, racist, hate-mongering, shallow, ignorant, whining egomaniacal billionaire. Just one of those adjectives would have decimated anybody else's campaign. But the more Trump slipped into the morass of his own character, the closer he inched towards the pedestal his supporters had built for him. When the media threw feces (read: evidence of wrongdoing) at Trump, his supporters thought they were breathing in the unfamiliar aroma of authenticity.
Does that make those supporters misogynistic, racist, shallow, hatemongers? Some of them, yes. But most of them share just one trait with Trump: ignorance. They firmly believe that this man will fix a system that has dismissed their grievances for a long time. Whereas every piece of available evidence shows that Trump has never been concerned about anybody else's welfare. That he can't muster an ounce of empathy even if his life depended on it. That evidence was dangled in front of their eyes. Again, all they saw was the sheen of authenticity.

We are talking about a blackout of the senses. Some reality in their lives motivated them to believe and hope without evidence (Michael Moore's film Trumpland gives us a peek into some parts of their reality).
As a species, we need to address a screaming need: how do we train people to demand evidence for their beliefs?
Here is a minuscule sample of what a great number of Americans have believed or continue to believe since the beginning of the millennium:
  • Iraq had a stockpile of WMDs
  • Global climate change is a myth
  • Evolution is just a theory, probably even a conspiracy against religion
  • Trickle down economics works everywhere, all the time
When people do not demand evidence, they become vulnerable to every charlatan, flimflam artist or demagogue that knocks on their doors. Trump's reptilian brain probably understood this better than anybody else. He said all the right things as far as his supporters are concerned. He sold emotions, underplayed the importance of details in his schemes, repeated nonsense till they sounded like facts, became louder when challenged. He embodied the trinity of message, messenger and saviour without having a shred of evidence. That was the last thing he needed to preach his gospel.

The result: at least 4 years of Trump. That's four years of climate change denial. According to scientists, we do not have the luxury of waiting for 4 years before taking concrete action to stem the tide against global climate change. Trump might go to the extent of rescinding the marginal gains made by the Paris Accord. He will be aided in this by the Republican majority in the House and the Senate. It is foolish to hope that a party that sings hymns in praise of quarterly results will safeguard the next century. Capitalism is founded on greed, which is a HERE and NOW emotion.
And this is where one must question those who believe that the system will self-correct. The Trump supporters got one thing right: the system is broken. It has secret keys, hidden passageways and trapdoors. Even if Trump doesn't fulfill the doomsday prophecy of a nuclear nightmare, escalating violence and systemic discrimination, there is reason to worry.
This man loves negotiations and the "art of the deal." His game of chess resets itself after every move. He has never been interested in being consistent and calculating long-term repercussions. He just wants to win the next move at all costs. He and Paul Ryan will soon appear on our television screens, shoulder to shoulder, their grins extending from cheeks to cheeks. He will coerce, bully, cajole or seduce key people as per the needs of the moment.
His supporters might even benefit from the spillover effects of his actions. But that will not be enough. They will just have to believe that it is.

For the human species to have a long-term orientation, we have to train ourselves to FEEL a little less and to THINK a little more. We need to question, analyze, evaluate so that we can create better realities. At this moment, one hopes that we have enough time to do that.
Sigh! At a time when we are betrayed by our collective emotions, all we have to hold on to is an emotion.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Don't be so open-minded that your brain falls out

Yesterday, I got a message on a WhatsApp group I belong to. A person employed by a well-known corporate research firm made the tall claim that NASA itself had rejected global climate change. This comes at a time when Planet Earth has recorded its 11th hottest month in a row. So I messaged the group stating that the man's claims were too ridiculous to be taken seriously and also wondered about the veracity of the research being conducted by his employer.
Having just delivered a class on Being non-judgmental, I've been even more preoccupied with beliefs and the role they play in shaping our thinking and behaviour.
Ever since I became a counselor, I've been extra careful in respecting people's beliefs. That's important in counseling. Most of us seem to possess a subset of beliefs that is bizarre and/or unproven but deeply cherished. Rejecting such a belief is akin to rejecting the human being herself. So while counseling, I ask a golden question: is the belief helping the person or harming the person? If it is helping them, who am I to question it? If it is harming them, it is my job to ask them to reconsider their belief and then let them make an autonomous choice.
So when it comes to individual interactions, to each his own. One person's nectar is another person's poison. If you think that the universe is concerned about your well-being and that belief keeps you positive, by all means believe in it. I will not tell you that you are an inhabitant of a placid suburban planet of the Milky Way galaxy which itself seems to be in a far-flung quiet neighbourhood of the universe.

At the same time, I'm disturbed to witness bizarre, convenient beliefs take centrestage in discussions that affect humankind. Nowhere is this more evident than the issue of human-influenced global climate change. In the US, the Republican party has successfully created the impression that there are two sides to this story. They claim that scientists are divided on the issue (as per the NASA website, 97% of the scientists are in agreement and the findings of the 3% have been widely debunked). However, a great number of Americans believe that we must research more before we conclude that we are destroying the ecology of earth. Apparently, breathing toxic air and drinking filthy water is not proof enough.
In reality, this debate is between a fact and a belief. It is a fact that we need to find a more sustainable economic model. It is a belief that we don't. This unequal juxtaposition has been made possible by elevating the belief to the status of a fact and by pulling down the fact to the level of a belief.
If this were happening in Nicaragua or Moldova or some such small country, we needn't be so concerned. But since the US is the largest carbon emitter in the world, this discussion affects all of us. If the US doesn't lead us out of a fossil fuel-based economy, and soon, we might well get to the brink of extinction or beyond.

Meanwhile, many other beliefs continue to threaten our collective well-being. Believing that a herbal juice will miraculously cure cancer, that self-proclaimed gurus can offer a panacea for our problems, that vaccines cause autism, that homeopathy is a true science, that capitalism is the only viable economic system... the list is endless, really.
For a long time now, I have been way too respectful of beliefs that dilute the quality of debates happening in society. It's time for me to evolve. I don't have to treat your belief as equal to everybody's fact. Yes, facts belong to everybody. Even to those who don't agree with them. Gravity is a fact. You don't start floating off into space when you refuse to believe in gravity!
What's the difference between a fact and a belief, you ask? Facts need to be established. Beliefs only need to be articulated.

I remain a willing learner. I am not shy of stating, "I don't know," when confronted with a deep question. I will continue to embrace the mysteries of life and the universe. I will forever strive to seek broader understandings of reality.
But, to paraphrase a famous quote: if I am any more open-minded than that, my brain will fall out!

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Excellence over perfection

“Perfectionism is self-abuse of the highest order” – Anne Wilson Schaef

Should the pursuit of perfection be attempted? Is it even desirable? Well, I'd rather pursue excellence. And I'll tell you why.

Perfection is three demons masquerading as one angel. Underneath the sublime radiance of perfection lurks the fear of inadequacy, fear of criticism and fear of rejection. Underneath excellence lies the far kinder fear of mediocrity.
There may be some perfectionists out there who are always in action mode. Heck, some of them might not even suffer from acidity, cardiovascular problems, migraine etc. But they are few in number. For the most part, perfectionists are either stuck in neutral gear or revving ahead in fifth gear. Because perfection is a destination. And unless the perfectionist can see it, have a map leading up to it and has clear blue skies to take him there, he isn't budging.
Perfection is like an airplane journey. It takes off from Point Zero and reaches Point Perfection with no stops in between. The trouble with airplane journeys is that it requires a smooth and long runway (bundles of energy), white petrol (inspiration) and ticket cost (the luxury of time so that inspiration can strike and clarity can emerge).

Excellence, on the other hand, is a land-hugging journey (not a destination). It's a bumpy ride, involves taking wrong turns and making an ass of oneself. Excellence is a series of incremental hops from Point Zero to Point Oh-Wow. Excellence constantly acknowledges its current position (which could be "pathetic", "mediocre", "getting there", "getting good" etc). In other words, it celebrates imperfections at all times. Excellence is not stopped by the current point, because it runs on the belief that things get better with effort.

So you want to kick the demon triplets (inadequacy, criticism, rejection) out of your lives, then I suggest that you drop perfectionism and embrace excellence. You may not be able to see the landscape of your idea from 10,000 feet above the ground, but your feet will be firmly planted on the ground and you will be able to put together the Big Picture soon enough.
So know that you are good enough. And start soon enough.

P.S: While this post serves anybody interested, I wrote it specifically for the writers participating in the second batch of my Write Now! program.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Write Now! - my workshop is back


Last year, my writing workshop titled Write Now! was extremely well-received, as is evident in this video testimonial. It was but natural for me to undertake this journey again, this time with new fellow travelers.
So if you are an aspiring writer, closet writer, doubtful writer, optimistic writer... in short, if you have a desire to write and are based in Bangalore, do check out my workshop.
I love writing and I love teaching and this workshop brings those twin loves together.