The Informal Blog of an Incidental Computational Linguist?
मैं सांगणिक भाषाविज्ञान (Computational Linguistics) में एक शोधकर्ता हूँ। इसके अलावा मैं पढ़ता हूँ, पढ़ता हूँ, पढ़ता हूँ, और कुछ लिखने की कोशिश भी करता हूँ। हाल ही मैं मैने ज़ेडनेट का हिन्दी संस्करण (http://www.zmag.org/hindi) भी शुरू किया है। एक छोटी सी शुरुआत है। उम्मीद करता हूँ और लोग भी इसमें भाग लेंगे और ज़ेडनेट/ज़ेडमैग के सर्वोत्तम लेखों का हिन्दी (जो कि अपने दूसरे रूप उर्दू के साथ करोड़ों लोगों की भाषा है) में अनुवाद किया जा सकेगा।
It seems that these days everyone is saying that the world is undergoing a radical change, and rightly so. It may be that the reasons for saying so and the motivations behind it span the whole of social, political, moral, economic and technological spectrum. It is also widely recognised that this change has been underway for at least two decades now. During much of this period, one has been following discussions on various kinds of forums such as mailing lists, group discussions and open digital publication venues, including blogs.
More recently, one has been following (and to some extent participating in) this particular forum*. Going through discussions like those on this forum on the one hand, and some other usual kinds of forums on the other, one can’t help observing that:
* Don’t form an opinion about the forum based on a couple of posts as there are wide variety of people on it.
1. If the people in a forum are only after totally selfish gains, solidarity consolidates extremely rapidly to the lowest point possible, as if enabled by gravity. It is like collective free fall that does not even harm the people involved in it, as they get a kind of immunity and can say or do things with impunity. It is like leaping down a cliff collectively. Of course, there will be a crash at some point, but things can move from one crash to another as if nothing happened, as long as life itself doesn’t become totally impossible for everyone on the planet.
2. If, on the other hand, the people in a forum are motivated by completely or mostly unselfish concerns, it is extremely hard to achieve even the minimum level of solidarity, climbing against all odds, as if against gravity, a bit like a group of people trying to fly together. Even if a good degree of solidarity is established, it comes at a great cost. And it can fall apart quite easily.
This has become more true in the last two or three decades, as we enter the hyper-digital age. One can think of it as binarisation of politics and of all the social and political (and other) issues of life on the planet. Some examples are given below.
The world, it seems, is divided into binary classes and all you have to do (in fact the only thing you are allowed to do in terms of political decision making) is to perform instant binary classification on all the individuals and groups in the world. Some example binary classes are:
– Those who are against J. K. Rowling and those who are not
– Those who are in favour of ‘fighting the virus’ and those who are not
– Those who are against Putin and those who are not
– Those who are strictly in favour of masks and those who are not
– Those who are against the new Michael Moore film and those who are not
– Those who are against Israel and those who are not
– Those who support Israel and those who don’t
– Those who are in favour of the ‘cancel culture’ and those who are not
– Most importantly, for the last four years, those who are against the Reality TV POTUS and those who are not
These are like binary constraints and after a point it becomes impossible to satisfy all the constraints in any way at all. Everyone is forced into innumerable binary classes, because if you are not in one class (that is, declare yourself into one class), then you are, by definition, in the other class. As a result, the good kind of solidarity becomes impossible. It may still be achieved, but only by collectively ignoring the existence of some or many such constraints and collectively pretending they don’t exist. This naturally implies implicit sacrifice from a large number of people who are affected by these ignored constraints, who are usually already the people most at disadvantag as far as life on the planet is concerned. It should be pointed out that most of the ignored constraints, in reality, are not binary.
There is a name for this phenomenon and it is well known: polarisation. It was always there, but the difference is that, in the hyper-digital age, binaries are not about complicated matters like the interactions between global social welfare, human rights and justice and truth and sustainable growth. They are like being against J. K. Rowling or not and so on.
How do we deal with this hard hard problem of solidarity for unselfish purposes without sacrificing a (large?) number of people? This is perhaps the biggest challenge facing us, if we stick to truth and justice both (not one or the other).
The irony is that this is happening at a time when a consensus is emerging (rightly) all over the globe against a specific kind of binarisation which had existed for ages: Gender binaries.
Why do binaries exist? Why do they proliferate? Why do they dominate?
One can try to answer in common sense terms, using informal logic and common sense psychology.
One reason is a deterministic view of the world, but that alone does not explain it, as even that view allows for non-binaries.
Another reason that seems obvious is along the same lines as why did religions, full of superstition, originate?
In a world that they could not understand and were afraid of, human being tried to make sense of it. As a secular view of the reality became more and more popular and established, this need did seem to decrease with scientific and technological developments. However, these developments, along with social, political and economic developments (or regressions) brought about radical changes in societies.
At this point, in 21C, we have reached a situation where, due to things like Reality Shows and Social Media (among other things) it is more and more possible to manipulate the perception of what is the reality, thus making it difficult to make sense of the world again. One could say more even than during prehistoric days.
So once more we look for certainties where none exist, at least as far as known human knowledge is concerned. Perhaps none exist in reality.
Every belief in total certainty about any non-trivial matter usually gives rise to a new binary opposition, perhaps more than one. Sometimes binary oppositions are created through diktats. When faced with any complicated matter which leads to some kind of fear(s), a perhaps natural response of those in power (i.e., those with the blessings of the materialistic Holy Trinity, even if they claim divine blessings), particularly those with regressive minds, is to issue a diktat. A common kind of diktat is to ban something, to prohibit something, as if by that act alone the problems that give rise to the fear(s) will magically disappear.
Strict binary oppositions are very much like using diktats to ban things, even if the motives are driven by the urge to achieve truth and justice.
So again, in a world full of deadly uncertainties, we seek refuge in creating artificial certainties of our own.
If we are secular, we might even try to use science to justify these artificial certainties, working backwards with logic and evidence.
One way to deal with uncertainties is to abandon all principles and become totally cynical, as some ideologies and their followers do.
Another way is to ignore uncertainties and pretend they don’t exist, that everything has been worked out by groups of some seemingly superhuman people with some authoritative labels.
Still another way is to stick to the principles and at the same time face the uncertainties of life. This is much more difficult and it imposes a great deal more responsibility on us.
It is true that such responsibility is too much for us, but the question is should we still face it? Because that is the ‘path of truth’. So far so good, because if we only care for the truth, then it is still relatively easy to make good enough decisions and to act on them. But if we care equally for justice (recognising the fact about the uncertainties even there), then it is much more difficult to make decisions, to act upon them and to explain them and to justify them. This is often called, in the age of neoliberalism and neoconservatism, ‘policy paralysis’. This is supposed to characterise the total inability to act, as if by just taking some action rapidly, any action, even radical action, we would have solved the problem. This is the “do something, anything, *now*!” philosophy/ideology, which has an infamous historical record. It even has a name: Kissingerism, as described> so well by Greg Grandin in Kissinger’s Shadow.
One is not suggesting that all those creating these strict binaries are followers of Kissingerism. The truth is, whether we like it or not, this calamitous ideology has seeped into our global social, political and economic fabric, and is corroding that fabric quite fast. No political faction seems to be immune to this societal toxin. It has affected even arts and literature. One can argue it is not an ideology, but a meta-ideology. And a dangerously fallacious one.
Do something (specific) now is never the only option. There is always an obvious alternative: Do something else. Or do something later. Or both. Statistically speaking, it is common sense to say that if we have a strict binary opposition between doing something or not doing something, then, all things being equal (which is the case when we don’t know *exactly what* to do), doing something (specific) is likely to be more dangerous than doing something. It should be emphasised that not doing something (specific) is very different from doing nothing. You can always do something else. Or do something later. Even doing nothing at a certain moment or duration can actually be sometimes far better than doing anything at all right at that time or duration. It’s true of individuals, but it more true of collectives because collective action has much bigger consequences. This is, perhaps, a lesson for achieving sustainability, as even some regressive people understand. So do many progressive people, but less so now. This common sense should not be mistaken for ‘historical imperative’.
Coming back to well-intentioned people, perhaps naturally (?) we shy away from taking the last way, the most difficult way. And so we take refuge in either cynicality (as opposed to skepticism), or in artificial certainties (maybe for the Greater Good).
But science says there is no justice in nature, doesn’t it? I don’t agree with that. Why? That is for another day.
As I posted the above comment early morning today, a shout of “O Chhakke!” (“Hey *untranslatable*), loud and clear enough for me to hear inside my house today evening, full of contempt, reminded me that my statement about an emerging global consensus against gender binaries was perhaps an overstatement. Or not very accurate.
The *untranslatable* Hindi word (also used in many other South Asian languages) is the foulest word used by homophobic and transphobic people, and it is used very commonly. A bit like ‘faggot’, but more offensive. Some other English words or terms similar to this are ‘fudge packer’, ‘pouf’, ‘fairy’, but they all are unambiguously (less) offensive. The main offence is the knowledge of the impunity that it provides, and therefore the helpless humiliation it causes.
The word literally means a ‘sixer’, which is the cricketing term for when the batsman hits a ball out of the ground, earning six ‘runs’, the maximum you can earn in a single ball. It is a word that can be used in normal conversation, but also as an expletive. Like other common expletives, for example the four letter f* word in English, it has many meanings, and fluid meaning under different circumstance.
It may even be possible to write an academic paper in Linguistics or Sociolinguistics, like that famous paper on the word (?) ‘OK’. Perhaps the word originated in card games, or became common due to them. Or it may have a relation to, yes, the number theory. The logic seems to be this. There are ten basic numbers in the decimal system: 1 to 10. The number six, even though it may be called the first Perfect Number in number theory, it is seen as the middle number. It perhaps then got associated with the ‘middle sex’, or the third sex. That is why the closes translation of this word in English is ‘eunuch’, and its closest synonym in Hindi is also ‘hijra’ (made famous recently by Arundhati Roy in her novel Ministry of Utmost Happiness), which also translates directly to eunuch or hermaphrodite. However, since there were no terms in Indian languages in common usage (as far as I know) for other non-binary genders, these highly pejorative words are used for all people who identify as (which is rare) or are seen as belonging to to any non-binary gender. So, these words are used for homosexuals also and for effeminate men or impotent men.
Apart from the literary meaning, in which it is used rarely, it is more commonly used as a slur, to insult someone or even a whole community. Communities abuse each others with these terms. However, if the word ‘hijra’ is used, then it is clearly an insult, but the c* word can be used in the normal course of a conversation as a dog whistle. Certain kinds of dog whistles are more hurtful and dangerous and actual unambiguous expletives.
In the context of this article, the word can be seen as manifestation of the dangers of having strict binary oppositions. If you don’t belong to one of the two genders, then you are outside genders, or belong to the third gender (or sex). That makes you fair game for everyone. You didn’t join either of the allowed binary categories, so you are a danger to the society and will be treated like that, even more than the members of our opposing binary category (think of misogyny).
You, however, have the the to option to join one of the categories. Since the third (or fourth or fifth, or a scale-based) category is not allowed, you can save yourself from social condemnation and censure (abuse, even violence) by joining one of the categories (as per your ‘biological gender’) by going through the necessary ritual: getting married. Once married, you are, so to say, one of us. This is why the criticism against J. K. Rowling has a validity. But cancelling her is another matter.
How does it concern me personally? That is a long story that has to told some other time.
I understand personally how this word (or any other word like this) hurts. Should the word be banned? I think it is counterproductive. If you send ideas — dangerous idea — underground, they have a way of coming back at us in unexpected ways and then we may not have any defences against them. Just as words like the c* word reduce a human being to a single trait or tendency, a binary based on whether someone uses this word or not will also reduce people to a single trait or tendency, and is not a good idea. Something similar applies to J. K. Rowling, in spite of her latest defiant action of announcing her new novel as a kind of revenge (or justification?) for the criticism against her.
If we ban certain things, people are likely to find ways around them. It takes time for deep seated prejudice to *really* go away. The c* word has multiple senses and it is hard to ban it as India is a cricket crazy coutry and hitting a sixer is like the ultimate momentary action in a game, like getting someone ‘out’ on a ball. It invites the loudest cheers. This point is related to the idea that it is perhaps impossible to ban dog whistles, because they are born out of ambiguity of language and interpretation of linguistic expression. It is also about one way that impunity works.
Even though we can’t ban the above, it is still offensive and hurtful. People still need to realise this. Related to this is the point about how widespread homophobia and transphobia are in our region.
Even so, while the strict gender binary still continues in some places, those most vociferously fighting against this binary are also creating their own strict binary oppositions, believing in often non-existent certainties. When you do that, you force those people who don’t fit neatly in either of the binary categories into a catch all ‘illegitimate’ category, just like in the case of the c* word.
Hope someone volunteers to be the faithful executioner of The Will. If you do, please stick to the letter and spirit of the document, kind of poetic though it is. Hope you don’t mind it: the poetic part.
Two minutes silence not necessary, but if you insist … get it done at the drain where the The Will is fulfilled. Better still, cheat on the two minutes. And steal a laugh or two, as one knows from experience it is difficult not to do so.
It could be any drain. The more stinky, the better, unless you can’t bear that smell. Or those smells. In that case, please just find the one you can bear, i.e, as stinky as you can bear.
Signed in full sanity,
Dated: 30th June, 2020
Place: Varanasi (not really Kashi, but there is no harm in pretending, if you so wish)
(But The Will applies to any relevant place.)
Note: This is a serious document. Don’t take it lightly. That is, if you volunteer to be the executioner of The Will. Otherwise, of course, you can. That’s your freedom of expression, short of gaslighting.
Holding a gun to the head of the participant and threatening to shoot him/her if they don’t wake up at the pre-decided time.
The participant wakes up. It may not happen the first time, as they might not understand or believe that the threat is real. But ultimately, as it is made clear to them that the threat is, indeed, real, they will ultimately wake up on the intended time. The intermediate steps might involve hitting them on the head with the gun with increasing force or frequency with each passing day.
The hitting on the head is the reward. The ultimate reward is shooting in the head. This is useful if you have spectators, either physically or virtually. These are negative rewards (punishments). There might also be positive rewards, which could be anything. One low cost reward can be designed like this:
Hit the participant on the head arbitrarily at any time of the day. Rewards can mean decreasing the force or the frequency of this hitting on the head.
The participant (subject) wakes up on providing the stimulus.
The above is a crude experiment, a kind of thought experiment, as it is possible only in certain settings such as physical concentration camps. A more realistic experiment is given below, which has become possible with the latest developments in technology, as we move towards the technological Utopia of the 2030s.
The Realistic Experiment
Confirming that stimulus and reward change behaviour.
Participant (Subject): Consent not necessary, as it avoids chances of bias.
Holding a ray gun that produces painful levels of radiation (radio frequency, electric field, magnetic field or any combination of these: ionizing radiation should be avoided, but can be used in exceptional cases) or physical Dog Whistles based on untrasound or infrasound to any part of the body of the participant and pushing the button on the emission device if they don’t wake up at the pre-decided time.
The participant wakes up. It may not happen the first time, as they might ascribe the pain and the discomfort to some illness or other transient problem. They may blame themselves or their bodies. Even when they finally realise the cause, they might not understand or believe that the threat is real. But ultimately, as it is made clear to them that the threat is, indeed, real, they will ultimately wake up on the intended time. The intermediate steps might involve radiating them (with electromagnetic or sonic pulses) with increasing intensity/power or frequency with each passing day.
The electromagnetic or sonic radiation on various parts of the body is the reward. The ultimate reward is *__redacted__*. This is useful if you have spectators, either physically or virtually. These are negative rewards (punishments). There might also be positive rewards, which could be anything. One low cost reward can be designed like this:
Hit the participant on any part of the body or the whole body with radiation (electromagnetic or sonic) arbitrarily at any time of the day. Rewards can mean decreasing the force or the frequency of this hitting on the body or body parts.
The participant (subject) wakes up on providing the stimulus.
Many experiments have been conducted based on the second design and they have produced (and reproduced) the expected results with exceptionally high accuracy. The results have been released in certain forums. The forum membership is strictly by invitation only. The results may be released publicly at an appropriate time.
The same results can be obtained even after reversing the genders.
And the results are far more diabolical when the individual mademoiselle is replaced with a collective mademoiselle. Or monsieur, or whatever other gender on the spectrum, because the phenomenon is gender-neutral.
The results are already quite diabolical due to the effect of the collective gravitating towards the individual evil, but they become exponentially more diabolical when the evil itself is collective and even bigger collective gravitates towards the collective evil.
The above is an example of the malignant type of this phenomenon.
In a highly organised social collection of individuals, as we have in our world at a global scale, individual evil is (at the worst) like a cancerous cell. There exists what we call cancer only when there are a very large number of such cancerous cells. Individual cancerous cells can’t do much damage.
Even a small group of cancerous cells is usually benign. Unless, of course, the collective gravitates towards it.
Here is benign type of the same, that is, some of the seeds of it, lest we forget completely, shown in a very much sanitized version:
We all carry some seeds of individual evil: some more, some less. Most of these seeds are supposed to lie dormant and they often do. They are there, at least partially, for evolutionary reasons. There are more than enough technologies of power (in the Foucauldian sense) to keep individual evil in check (but also keep individual good in check if it conflicts with the interests of the powers that be).
The problem is, these same technologies of power create and facilitate collective evil and/or make the collective gravitate towards it for reasons of their own (such as The Greater Good or The Higher Cause, whichever way these causes are defined, which may not be really good or higher).
So, yes, in that sense it is more a political matter, less a psychological matter.
Who decides what is Good or Higher? Who decides who decides? The collective? Those who represent the collective? Those who claim to represent the collective? Those who have the power to decide on behalf of the collective? Those who have the power and just pretend to decide on behalf of the collective? Those who convince the collective that they are deciding on behalf of the collective or for the good of the collective?
To convert a mainly political matter into a totally psychological matter has always been a tactic dear to socio-political establishments to maintain their power and to maintain the status quo (or to change it to their interests), particularly to totalitarian systems such as the Stalinist Soviet Union or the Maoist China or Nazi Germany. That is what the Re-education Camps and Gulags were for, in terms of the justification given for their existence.
There is no reason why a Capitalist Establishment can’t or won’t use this tactic.
We do know for sure about the use of medical ‘treatment’ for gender-related ‘illnesses’ or ‘disorders’ or ‘diseases’. That is not a Conspiracy Theory. The people — good people, nice people — genuinely hated and dreaded the people with such ‘illnesses’ or ‘disorders’ or ‘diseases’, to the extent we hate pedophiles, for example. In many societies, such gender related phobias (is that the right word, considering what I just said about the psychological and the political?) are still the norm. Not just phobias (or whatever is the right term), there are still laws applying them.
The one below is a less benign case of the same phenomenon, hinting towards the malignant form:
This one, as the others, shows the pushes and pulls (well, technically only pulls) of gravitation between entities, both good and evil, whether in the same person or not, and also (more importantly) between the individual evil and the collective evil. The political here is much more explicit. The psychological is just what humans are. The political is what humans have made for themselves, collectively. That last one is the keyword.
In that case, are there some Special Ones or Chosen Ones, or is the Higher or the Good for everyone?
In the fight between good and evil, the evil always has the upper hand. This is almost a cliche. But also in the fight between the individual evil and the collective evil, the latter is a guaranteed winner.
The collective just brushes aside the individual good. And it crushes the individual evil as a giant can crush a little thing. It does that only when the interests between the two don’t align well. Otherwise, they can get along just fine. That is part of how the world works.
There is less evil in a room with a view. A room at the top, however, is a very different matter. The evil there is immeasurably more.
The room at the top is the control centre of the technologies of power. An evil Mademoiselle or a Monsieur is just the kind of asset that they need there.
Only as long as the interests align.
A room at the top comes, not only with a view, but with much evil, with or without the Mademoiselle or the Monsieur.
Of course, it is not just about alcohol (or any other intoxicant). It is about any moral, ethical or legal issue. It is about unintended consequences. It is also about politics and meta-politics and the influence of religion, race, money etc. over it. It is about racism and anti-immigration. It is about religious bigotry. It is about gender bias. It is about organization and mobilization. It is about rural versus urban life. It is about conservatism versus liberalism. It is about the proletariat versus the bourgeoisie. It is about solidarity. It is about crime and punishment. It is about Human Nature. It is about what is radical in a time and place and what is not. Finally, it is about economics.
All these are connected in real life. The Great Dilemma of real world politics is, however, that the lesson from it seems to be that single issue politics is most likely to succeed in the short term.
But an opposite lesson is that it is also guaranteed to fail in the medium or long term. That’s one of the reasons why real political change is so difficult to achieve.
There are many sub-lessons too, for example in the way the Women’s Suffrage movement thought about Prohibition before and after this great mistake.
Still, in spite of its relevance, we have to keep in mind that times have changed in some very fundamental ways. Just to give a small example, we have no H. L. Mencken now. Nor F. Scott Fitzgerald. Nor even an FDR.
The Mainstream Media has transformed, across the political spectrum, into something I can’t express without using some very very derogatory words. There is widespread TV now, which is far worse than even the Mainstream Media.
Not to mention the technological and economic changes.
And the core specific issue is going to be super-relevant because a whole new generation of intoxicants are on the way. And they are coming from the top, not from the immigrants, but the local heroes of the New Global Establishment. You won’t be able to stop them. You will only be able to regulate them, if you don’t want to repeat history catastrophically.
Have you started thinking about that?
It is not really now. It was aired in 2011. And it was aired on PBS, which is part of the Mainstream Media. Even so, PBS is somewhat special case. Sitting here in India, it seems very special.
The Prohibition itself (the 18th Amendment) started in 1917 and ended in 1933. Till recently, it was not that unusual to see such programs on Mainstream TV almost 80 years after the whole affair ended. To some extent, on some channels in some countries, it still happens. Could it have been made (and shown) before 1933?
In the coming years (or months, or days, who knows in these times) even this kind of History lesson may become hard to get because now History is being re-written like never before, at least since Enlightenment.
Where will future generations find the truth (as much as it can be found, even with best efforts). Some Select Few might still have access to it, but even that does not seem certain now.
How long will PBS last as it exists today?
Big Data and Big Information and Smaller Knowledge and Tiny (or Zero) Understanding. And what is Wisdom? Back to thousands of years ago, perhaps.
What will politics mean then? What does it already mean? Have we reached a point of no return?
But what about Prohibition of the original intoxicant: alcohol? Is it gone forever, or at least everywhere? Not at all. It still exists in many places. Just as it did in the US back then. And it is following almost the same trajectory. And in these places, it can cause even more problems, if not for any other reason than simply because of poverty and the stigma.
Even in the past, Prohibition has been used politically in many other countries. For example, it was used (the movement of it), perhaps not that rigidly, but still as a rallying cry for reform by someone as illustrious as Gandhi. And most Gandhian (or those who call themselves Gandhian: the gap is getting larger as with any other ideology), still argue for it in some or the other form.
In places where it is still used, the reasons given (often very valid ones) are almost the same as for Prohibition in the US. The biggest similarity has been, perhaps in all cases of Prohibition, the support of women, particularly rural women. That support is based on just as valid grounds as the one in the documentary. Another big similarity is that, for similar reasons, it can swing elections. Many politicians have once again realized the political utility of it. Most probably they have known all along, but they didn’t believe it could swing elections.
A party in existential crisis in 2015 won the state elections by promising Prohibition and kept that promise. Seeing the success, others also started talking about it.
Same valid reasons, justifications and grievances. The same disastrous results. The same long term positive effects. Or may be not the last part, may be not in all cases.
I personally have little to do with it. Strange as it may sound, as alcohol use is widespread in India even with the enormous stigma, I hadn’t actually even seen an alcoholic drink till the age of around 25 or more likely 27. It wasn’t till the age of 38 that I had tried out one spoonful out of a glass that someone in a celebration had ordered. Now I have been to many conferences where there are (usually paid) banquets where liquour is served and I have tasted a glass or two several kinds of alcoholic drinks.
However, it is almost embarrassing to admit that I still haven’t developed a taste for such drinks. Not that I have ever been against alcohol as such. Nor do I have anything against those who drink.
One reason for me is that they are so bitter (particularly beer) and we don’t like bitter in India! We like sweets, lots of sweets. Very sweet. Too much sweet. The kind a westerner might taste and say (perhaps silently, Ugh!). I did too (liked sweet, that is). I still do, but not the ‘sweets’ themselves, just the taste sweet. Moderate sweet. Have I become Europeanized. That is, to some extent, a fact worth taking for granted for all those who are ‘well-educated’ and live in urban areas.
There is a very large number of Indians that drinks, so they must like it for some reasons, but I am not sure whether bitterness is one of them.
I am sure there are many many people in India who have actually never tasted alcohol in their whole life, as they consider it a sin, as did so many people the world over and throughout history.
But I can’t resist repeating again. The world is changing radically. In fact, the word radical isn’t even enough to describe that change.
For both who drink and those who don’t drink. Or those somewhere in between, like me.