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Social Media: The Most Dangerous Echo Chamber


social media

With every passing day of my settling down in India, I am finding how the change in India and USA has been parallel. In USA I have seen the two political parties getting increasingly polarized and it has been the same in India. People have extremely strong opinions about things, even simple things, ridiculous and irrelevant things. And the level of passion and heat in an argument quickly reaches stratosphere. Use of inflammatory words is very common. Conspiracy theories are abound. The words “Fascist”, “Nazi”, “Traitor”, “Treason” are being thrown around like candy.

I was wondering what happened. And then it dawned to me.

Social media. Bang.

There are multiple major problems with this social media influenced thinking.

  • Polarization and rigidity of opinions – People are used to post things, about their political and religious beliefs and inclinations on social media and get comments from their friends and family, an audience who is very much similar to them. The opinions they hear are mostly like theirs, as if they are hearing their own echo, hence echo chamber. Hearing the same opinions again and again, just like a magnet exposed to same type of magnetic field repeatedly, their own mind gets completely polarized.
  • Selective empathy – People who have brain washed themselves for long time suffer from selective empathy. They show empathy to one side and completely lack any empathy to other. Granted we are not Mother Theresa or Dalai Lama to feel love for everyone. We have preferences. But at least there should not be dehumanization. The people we don’t like get dehumanized and refused the right to basic human emotions and human reactions.
  • Confirmation bias– People seek out only the information that already confirms what they know, or they think. They avoid the information or publications that might prove them wrong. If the argument is irrefutable, they will cast the doubt on intentions of the writer. There is no tolerance for opposing viewpoint. The quality of objective thinking is severely eroded because of confirmation bias.
  • Emotional reasoning– When you say something and someone agrees with you, it gives you validation, a sense of being right, being appreciated, being valuable. It helps bonding and brotherhood and can generate good feelings and emotions. Since these are desirable emotions, our reasoning often gets clouded. We think, perhaps subconsciously, that whatever makes us feel good must be right. We enjoy agreeing with friends more than we enjoy being truthful, and the cycle of agreeing goes on. After a while, people get into discussion just to agree and to make it a bonding exercise. Truth does not matter.

Over the time, same thing get repeated again and again and again. In our mind, a thought or conjecture is promoted to a hypothesis or a theory. A hypothesis or a theory is promoted to the truth. And eventually the truth becomes an assumption or  forgone conclusion. Original thought, which was probably a guess at best, which has undergoes no scrutiny, is now used as a reference to prove or disprove other similar thoughts. This results in circular reasoning. Since A is true, B must be true. Since we now conclude B is true, A must be true.

And almost all people I have known to be in this trap claim to be fair, to be centered in their preferences. They are completely in denial of the trap.

One strong sign, a red flag that you are biased. If you cannot find anything good in the other side, if you cannot find any common ground with the people with whom you disagree, you are in this trap.

What about Hitler? you might say. Do you find common ground with Hitler too?

And their lies the problem. Hitler was bad, but there aren’t that many Hitlers in the world. If you are seeing Hitler everywhere, there is something wrong with you.

How to get yourself out of these mental traps?

  • First, open and accept that you, and everyone is vulnerable to these traps. The best way to equip yourself against these is knowledge. Google the terms “cognitive bias”, “confirmation bias”, “emotional reasoning”, “echo chamber”, “groupthink”. And read information. These are well known cognitive traps and a psychologists have done a lot of research on them.
  • Second, to check the confirmation bias, actively seek out information that is contradictory to your viewpoint. It can cause short term distress when you are forcing your mind to adjust with a complicated perspective, but eventually it will broaden your understanding and point you to the truth which will result in much less distress.
  • Third, practice all encompassing empathy. Showing empathy to someone does not mean you are agreeing with them or you will surrender your position or you will cease to fight. It just means that you give them right of human emotions such as fear, greed, and do not directly link their choices to being sociopath or evil.  It means that you accept that they are fallible human beings just like you and in different time and circumstances, they could be you or you could be them. May be it’s not hate, may be it’s fear? May be it’s not arrogance, may be it’s insecurity? Give your adversary benefit of doubt at least once or twice.
  • Fourth, when you get a message that gives you some information that just seems too good to be true, seems to prove you are right beyond doubt, put a hat of skeptic and cross check. Find references from reputed sources. Use your common sense. Put yourself in that situation and ask yourself if you would do that?
  • Fifth, and most important, get the hell out and interact with real people and put yourself back into reality. Shake hands, smile, chat, walk in their shoes. Get to know them. Don’t just form your opinions about them based on what you are reading , form it based on personal experience.
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Elementary Watson! Trump is Moral Arbitrage for Media.


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Long time back my friend in finance explained me the concept of Arbitrage. Apparently there are computers dedicated to searching stock prices on many stock exchanges. And every now and then a computer finds that a particular stock XYZ is being sold on exchange 1 at 99$ and is being bought at exchange 2 at 100$. Then the computer buys in a chunk of that stock from exchange 1 and sells on exchange 2, making small but sure profit. The opportunity may not come that frequently and the sizes of profit can vary. But if such an opportunity is found, then it must be jumped on because profit is guaranteed.

Before I write anything further, I must declare that I do not like Trump as a person. I do not think he should have become president. I did not vote for Trump.

But his rise from a fringe candidate to main candidate to president continued to baffle me. Throughout the primaries and in election and even right now, I continued to get amazed about how much coverage he was getting and he is getting even right now. This is the post about my attempt to understand the obsession of the media, both professional media and social media, with Trump. My AHA moment was thinking about this as arbitrage.

I think Trump as no friends. He only has enemies of enemies. And the continued media coverage helped him make more enemies and thus in a very convoluted way, get more people on his side by ‘enemies of enemies’ rule.

Just the way financial institutions love ‘financial arbitrage’ the people and media loves ‘moral arbitrage’. Instead of tackling complex issues that do not have good and bad sides clearly marked, they prefer to focus on small, irrelevant issues that have good and bad very clearly defined. So they can take the “good” side and feel good about themselves. This way no one has to face the uncomfortable, inconvenient truths about themselves. No reflection is required. No change to be made within ourselves.

Let’s keep the common people and social media out here. Because portraying the current affairs accurately is not really their job. But what the professional media did is inexcusable. They went after cheap headlines with ‘moral arbitrage’ with far more vigor than after complex issues that really mattered. All they cared about was staying in the positive light. And Trump gave them the perfect opportunity.

If we have to make sure another Trump does not rise in future, someone has to break this frenzied search for moral arbitrage in media. We need media that takes moral risk, handles inconvenient truth and is less judgmental than informative.

Why We Fail To Understand Each Other?


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On two corners of this world, I am watching two divides. India Pakistan divide in Southeast Asia and another Democrat Republican divide in USA. Of course the first divide has lot more sinister dimension of possibility of nuclear war. And that has historical context too. But more on that in next post.

The Democrat Republican divide is interesting because it’s happening even when there is no reason for this divide to be that strong. After all, both parties support capitalism, human rights and more or less agree on constitution.

What makes the public opinion about each other diverge? Why people completely fail to understand each other’s viewpoints.

And then one of my walks, I made a discovery. I am sure people have made this discovery before. But here it is in my words.

When thinking about someone else, people expect them to behave in a rational and ethical way. But when thinking about themselves, people make decisions based on emotions.

It reminds me of an psychological experiment described to me by a friend of mine. Forgive me for not providing a link, but it was just part of a conversation.

People were divided into two groups and asked to make a choice.

A. Select an airplane ticket at certain price for flying on the route where bad weather and heavy turbulence was expected.

B. Or select a ticket on the route for double the price where good weather was expected.

Everything else was supposed to be same about planes. There was no known technical difficulties and both airplanes were statistically supposed to have the same probability of safe journey.

One group had to pick this ticket for an unknown person. They mostly picked the cheap but turbulent route, because that was rational choice, scary but still statistically safe and cheap. The other group had to pick for their own, they mostly picked the calm route with double the price.

After this, both groups were shown a movie narrating horrible turbulence experience. Then they were asked to make a choice again.

Again if they had to pick the ticket for other person, they picked the scary but cheap route with almost the same probability.

But here is the real kick. When they had to pick for themselves, they picked the safe but costly route even in significantly higher numbers. That means they were more inclined to avoid the fearful experience for themselves after watching the movie. But still they thought it’s OK for the other person to face the fear, as long as it was in their rational interest.

It’s not that people hated the unknown passenger. They  underestimated the importance of emotions to the other person.

When thinking about others, people underestimate the erosion to the quality of life by negative emotions like fear  and enhancement to the quality of life by positive emotions like self esteem boost.

But when it comes to them, they overestimate those exact things things. They want to avoid negative emotions and go for positive emotions, even if it means making a choice that seems not rational.

Two primal emotions  – desire to increase self esteem and desire to reduce fear play a huge role. If you leave room for these two emotions, you would understand the response much better.

Take an example. Think of a recent incident when white cop shot black person.

When white person is thinking about the incident of black person being shot by white cop, their first thought is whether the black person followed cop’s instructions? If yes and still shooting happened, then white people are willing to investigate further. If not, then the case closed. The black person should have followed the instructions.

When black  person thinks about the same incident, their first thought is whether the police followed the procedure. No matter the victim followed the instructions or not, the black person would conclude that if the victim did not pose danger to the officer, the shooting was not justified. The situation when cop arrests you is stressful to both ends and may be the victim was too stressed or confused ?

The white people are more likely to identify with police and allow them some emotional slack, like fear and anxiety. The black person is more likely to identify with the victim and allow them emotional slack, like fear and anxiety.

Who is right? I am afraid both are.

(I am generalizing too much. I know. There are plenty of white people that see black angle and vice versa.)

Next time if you don’t understand the choice made by other person, think of two things. Self esteem and fear. Or rather Self-Love and Fear. If the person has to not only make a rational choice, but also make sure it helps them to do self-love and reduce fear, what choice would they make? And you will surely have a lightbulb moment.

 

 

 

Open Letter To Rahul Gandhi: No Such Thing As Absolute Freedom Of Expression


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Dear Mr. Rahul Gandhi,

Some JNU students chanted slogans wishing destruction of India and when action was taken against them, you and your party took their side citing the cause of freedom of expression.

I would like to point out two things about Freedom of Expression.

First, freedom of expression is not a wild card or a blank check the way you are imagining it. It does not give you right to yell “Fire” in the middle of a packed theater or “Bomb” in the middle of a flying airplane, neither does it give you right to shout “I will kill you” at a fellow human being without repercussions. The chants of “Death to India” are exactly that, a threat.

Second, freedom of expression indeed gives you right to express freely provided you use this for betterment of community that bestows such right. It comes with an implied responsibility to earn trust of the said people. With chants of ‘Death to India’, those who chanted those slogans have directly threatened the country and lost the country’s trust and henceforth as a country, we are not willing to tolerate their actions and if we choose to retaliate within the premises of law, it is within our right of self defense.

You are more than welcome to use freedom of expression to cast doubt, provide constructive criticism or share a different perspective and thereby add value to the discussion. But what happened at JNU is abuse of such freedom and must be dealt with in strictest possible terms.

You see Mr. Gandhi, India does not exist so that freedom of expression can be practiced. Freedom of expression is permitted in India because that creates necessary environment for progress of Indian society. And if at times the expression turns and threatens the very country and community that nurtured it, it has to be curtailed. We are not alone in curtailing it. In Europe you can be jailed for denying Jewish holocaust. In USA, you can be denied entry to board a plane if you write articles in support of Islamic State. In Saudi Arabia, you an be jailed for praising any God other than Allah.

Not just freedom of expression but advocating practice of any noble value like non-violence or compassion or forgiveness IN ABSOLUTE is dangerously delusional. These values have to be practiced in a balanced manner in order to ensure survival. If you decided to practice absolute non-violence, it dictates you kill no plant or animal, thus pretty much sealing starvation and death as your only fate. That might be OK for some saints, but that’s not OK for me or my family or my friends or my community. Same goes for freedom of expression. If freedom of expression thrives but India dies, it is of no value to me.

It has indeed happened in the past.  Blindly followed good values have caused destruction of the very people who followed them. The American Indians welcomed the Immigrant Europeans with open arms as guests, only to lose their land and people in the end. Persian kings fought with Chengiz Khan following “the noble code of warriors”, only to have the entire nation of Persia looted and the people massacred by Khan and his armies. I have no desire to add India to that list.

Moral of the story. There is no absolute freedom of anything anywhere. And India does not need to be an exception.

Yours Sincerely,

Kedar

P.S: You are deeply traumatized by your massive loss to BJP and you are behaving like a headless chicken. All of your actions are coming out of that traumatized feeling and they make no sense for our country. Please gather yourself.

Colonialism – A Societal Abuse


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A bit departure today. Into history and politics.

Often times I post on online forums and debates. One recent such debate was about colonialism. The poster was most likely from Britain or one of the other colonizing countries, and was making a point that India and all other colonized nations should not be complaining really because they got a lot out of colonialism. He stopped just short of saying that the colonized countries should in fact be thankful to their colonial masters.

Lots of Indians voiced their disagreement, some in strong words and the argument degenerated. However I had a feeling the real problem was not quite captured. Thus this post.

History is just vast sea of facts. Based on these facts we make our judgments. Why we focus on a particular set of facts and what judgment we derive from them depends on our emotional undercurrents. And sadly, rarely people dig deeper than the superficial facts and judgments.

I have strong negative feelings about British colonization. You know why? Every nation, every society has this ongoing love affair with their past, their history. It is from this love affair that they derive their sense of identity, their pride, their self esteem. It is a form of self worship. Everyone has an altar deep in their mind, and there is an idol of self. There is nothing wrong in self worship as long as you are not sacrificing others at that altar.

The grim reminders everywhere of colonization throw a wrench in this self worship, this love affair with the past. People struggle to feel good about themselves. This struggle for self esteem is very subtle and hard to spot, but very pervasive and thus far more damaging in long term. It creeps into your decision making, it creeps into your relationships, it creeps into your sense of identity. It contributes a lot to create a dysfunctional society.

It’s a trauma. It’s as if part of me wants to forget that trauma because it’s painful. But part of me wants to keep that trauma alive as a reminder, as an insurance that I will be able to avoid such trauma in future. And the conflict tires me out.

In short, I don’t like colonization because it makes me difficult to love myself. And ironically it is difficult for a British person to accept colonization as bad because it makes it difficult for them to love themselves.

For the most part the first world, and especially Anglo Saxon demographics, has been unaware of how a massive societal trauma feels. Some segments of this world, like women experiencing rape or soldiers experiencing PTSD have been exposed to this trauma. But others are blissfully unaware and vastly underestimate the impact such trauma has on your life.

No, 9/11 was still not a national long term trauma. It was painful tragedy, but not long term trauma. Because USA was able to bring people to justice and bring some closure. When you bring closure, you can maintain your self-respect and a sense of control over your surrounding. It hurts a lot more when you are violated but have to live with the trauma and see the perpetrators walk free. We are all aware of dangers in this world. But we live with a certain plausible deniability of “that may not happen to me.” When you suffer trauma, but can’t bring closure, that comfort of plausible deniability is taken away.

Most of the first world nations have this blind spot for trauma. And that sadly reflects in their politics and foreign policy.

Consider the Iraq war. How did it play in Iraqi minds? History reads “America and Britain invaded Iraq and Iraq lost.” No matter what, that reminder of loss and the crisis of self esteem inflicted is going to contribute to the dysfunction of Iraqi society far more than the arrival of democracy is going to fix it. When an American or British person looks and salutes at their flag, do you see the warm glow of pride in their eyes? The Iraqi invasion just made sure that Iraqis won’t feel that glow for the next 100 years.

Was it worth it? I don’t know. I am too small person with too limited resources to decide whether Saddam Hussein was keeping WMDs or not. But I would have liked to see this considered. I would have liked at least one from the trove of political pundits on either side to acknowledge this.

And this is not just a problem with any one nation or any single person. We all underestimate, or completely forget, the need of other person to feel good about themselves. It’s like we have no awareness of ever not feeling that need, so it has become background veil of our thoughts not registering in our consciousness. And we have have no sensation of other person feeling that need, so we discount it while dealing with them.

If we paid attention to this, we would realize that we not only need good things to happen to us, but we need them to happen in such a way that they make us feel good about ourselves.

That realization of abstract, unsurfaced, emotions of other person is compassion. Compassion is not giving a dollar to the beggar. But compassion is realizing that the beggar is as entitled to self-esteem as the queen of England.

And next time when you will get multiple calls in your head, that call of pride or call of virtuousness or call of compassion, I hope you answer the call of compassion. Because that is the golden virtue.

Who Wants The Rapists Hanged?


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There is a story of the sage Raman Maharshi. When people went and talked to him about their grievances, he would ask “who is talking?” If the person talked about enlightenment, he would ask “Who wants to get enlightened?”

This seemingly perplexing question was intended to make the questioner start querying the nature of their own identity, the nature of source of desires and to begin the introspection necessary to eventually get enlightened.

The death verdict has been handed out to the Delhi Rapists a while back. It’s time for us to do that introspection by asking ourselves. “Who wants the rapists hanged? Which part of us will be happy when they are dead?” Because it’s not the incidents of rapes but the immediate cry to hang the rapists as a solution speaks volumes about our maturity as a society.

For one, I question the wisdom of hanging the rapist. When the rapist has already committed rape, if they already became eligible for penalty given for murder, why will they keep the woman alive? Keeping her alive in fact increases their chances of being found and being hanged. So won’t they kill the her? That’s going to be the unwelcome outcome of death penalty for rape. It may bring down the number of rapes, but it will increase the number of times the woman is killed after the rape. Have we asked the raped women is that really they want? Noone wants to get raped, but if raped, I bet a large number of them will still want to live, for their kids, for their loved ones. Because as heinous crime rape is, it’s still possible to cope with it in the long term with counselling and support.

Second, if all you are debating is what to do with the bad guys, you understanding of the real problem is superficial at best. Because in reality, deciding the punishment is very tiny piece of the puzzle. The larger pieces are to find the culprits, to make sure they are the criminals and not some scapegoats, to follow the due justice process and prosecute them for exactly the crime they committed, and to prove the crime beyond reasonable doubt.

What we really need is to dig deep in ourselves. For any event, there are causes and there are enablers. In the event of rape, the cause may be the criminal tendencies of a few young man. But the enablers are outdated values of society such as tying honor of the family to sexual encounters of a woman, even involuntary ones. Or outright barring premarital sex. Or banning prostitution for 19th century puritan values.

The last one might be a tough pill to swallow for some. But the fact is one huge enabler for the misbehavior against women is suppressed testosterone. Having a legal age sexual encounter much before marriage might just disillusion the young men about sex and they will know that while sex is pleasurable, it’s not worth scarring a woman for life. Why bar prostitution if it provides a channel for this disillusionment that is least hurtful to all? India already has one of the lowest ratio of cops per thousand citizen. Is the society better served by the cops chasing prostitutes? Or by the cops chasing murderers and robbers?

I am afraid solutions like allowing prostitution to reduce crime against woman will never go well with most of the angry crowd. Because that would involve stopping hypocrisy and coming to terms with reality. And because sadly the part of us that feels happy when the rapists are hanged is not the voice of truth inside us. It is the insecure part of us that whispers “I must yell out for the harshest punishment for the rapists, because I have doubts whether I am a good citizen and this is only way to silence my doubts temporarily”.
Sadly we have turned the death of an innocent woman into pornography for our conscience. Just like real pornography has one dimensional, shallow, unrealistic portraits of characters that quickly quench one particular thirst of human mind, we turned this whole incident into our quest for validation of our conscience, our need find clear black and white situations and then side with white to see ourselves in positive light.

And sadly the answer to the question “Who wants the rapists hanged?” is not a flattering one.

Arm Them With Knowledge, Not Guns!!


Something about the headline “USA government decides to provide arms to XXXX” disturbs me. There has been a series of civilian uprising in the Middle East and several parts of the world. And the most frequent mode of response seems to be arms and ammunition or military action. While there might be a strong case of short term surgical military intervention for a precise objective, military intervention for a prolonged and directionless civil war is almost always counterproductive.

Syria is in the news lately. Let’s say you found a Syrian rebel and just before you hand him a gun, you asked “What does the future Syria look like? Will it be secular? Will there be equal rights for women? ”, what do you think his answer will be?

There is a common theme in most recent uprisings worldwide. The protesters succeed in threatening the existing regime, yet they don’t get enough traction to derail it. They begin with a bang, but lose in mid-game or end-game. They know what they don’t want. But once they are done away with that, they don’t really know what they want and how to get there.

So what seems like a promising change in course of affairs of a nation fizzles along the way. The direction is lost and despondence sets in. It goes either to stalemate and years of dragged civil war, or defeat of rebels. At some point society returns back to where it was, or rather a few years behind where it was, before the war. Occasionally the rebels succeed, but then they turn out to be worse than the people they replaced.

That’s the key difference between most of “springs” and rebellions worldwide and American Revolutionary war. The revolutionary war did not really begin on the battlefield. It began in the town hall. It did not begin with firing of guns. It began with signing the declaration of independence. The leaders of the war had a very clear constructive vision of how the country was going to look like after they won the war. That helped them garner widespread support of masses . Masses were genuinely convinced that winning the war was in their interest.

The distinguishing feature in these failed civil unrests is the lack of vision going forward. The core of any civil unrest needs to be a constructive vision of better future and a strong leader of a group of leaders committed to that vision. As long as the vision is there, common people will go to war again and again, with whatever arms they have. As long as it is not there, no amount of external infusion of arms will convince common people to fight.

The importance of such a positive vision is critical to any civil unrest. Frustration and anger are not enough, because a constructive, sustainable, long term change cannot ride on the back of negative emotions alone.

I have no doubt in my mind that many people behind the decision to arm Syrian rebels have genuine intention to do something good. And that Assad has committed many crimes against his own people. And that rebels are committed to their cause and their grievances are genuine. Yet I have many doubts about how this whole thing of providing arms assistance is going to pan out.

So what do we do? Do nothing and let innocent civilians die?

If I were the president of USA, I would use all the might to orchestrate a truce between Asad and the rebels. Temporarily remove imminent threat to Assad so he would stop using extreme measures. Perhaps arrange some UN headed oversight of the Syrian administration to make sure that there is no retaliation. Let life get back to normal to some extent. Let students return to schools, workers return to factories.

And then I would spend all the money I had set aside for Syria in political education of Syrian people. In empowering the grassroot leaders that can drive the change organically. In bringing out Jeffersons, Lincolns, Martin Luther Kings of the Syrian society.

And one day they will have a Syrian dream. It may take a decade or two, but for sure they will have a dream. And once they do, there will be no turning back. Remember, what won the civil rights battle for Martin Luther King was not his anger, but his dream.