In appreciation of Tom Vadakkan

The former Congress spokesperson had said on national TV that ‘a tweet is a very lonely man who needs counselling’. While he might have been misinformed on that count, I do think that social media nowadays overindexes on spreading mental illness. 

Let me get the most controversial statement out of the way right upfront – most activism relies on creating anxiety. Yes, I just said it. I must mention that creating anxiety may not be the express intention of the activism. However, it is an inevitable effect.

I had written about this a long time ago, specifically in the context of environmental activism. Basically, things like carbon taxes (and other Pigouian taxes) and other price-based measures of environment regulation mean that things have been priced in by the time an ordinary person comes across it.

“Should I take the plastic cup from the coffee shop?”. Has already been priced in in the price of plastic.

“Can I take shower for another 15 minutes extra today?”. If I’m paying fair price for the water this ceases to be a moral question.

“Is it okay to drive across the city each day by my own car? Wouldn’t it result in extra emissions?”. If the price of the extra emissions has been included in the price of fuel, again don’t need to worry.

On the contrary, you might see that a lot of activism (and left-wing activists are generally against the price mechanism) is about creating guilt. It’s about making you think at every point in time because the price mechanism doesn’t account for it. And it is not just about environmental activism.

Take political correctness for example. A lot of jokes from my childhood (and even from a few years ago) are not kosher any more because they hurt the sentiments of some minority or another. So, while we’ve been conditioned to make these jokes as if they are normal, now there is an extra layer of thought, leading to anxiety.

And activists won’t let you be in peace either. For example, one rational response to things being shit all around us (like it is right now, as covid cases are raging, and bodies have to wait for days together to get cremated) is to just ignore it all, get into our little bubbles and move on. Activists don’t let you do that. It’s not uncommon to see tweets of the nature of “how can you sleep soundly when <some unknown person you wouldn’t normally care about> is dying on the street?”. It’s about creating guilt.

A few days back, I put this tweet (of late, all my blogposts seem to be expansions of random thoughts I would’ve thrown around on twitter):

I guess this deserves an explanation. I keep quitting social media, and while I’m on it, I keep unfollowing (and muting, and blocking) people who post too much negative or “outrage-y” stuff. The reason I go on social media is to have some nice discussions, see some ideas and so on. For news, I have my morning bundle of The Times of India, The Business Standard and The Economic Times.

“Why do people outrage so much on social media”, I was wondering aloud to my wife the other day. I wasn’t talking about people giving their opinions on what is wrong or how it should be done (that at least adds SOME value). I was talking about tautologies of the like of “oh, Kumbh Mela is being allowed to go on”. Or “migrants are dying due to the sudden lockdown”. No opinion. No value addition. Just selective amplification of news that people will get from the next morning’s papers anyways.

My wife and I had a long discussion. One of the points that came out of the discussion is that people seek some solidarity on social media. People are anxious, have nobody around them to share their anxieties with, and if they can find like-minded people on social media who share their anxieties and empathise with them, it is rational to rant on social media. The downside, of course, is that you might lose the people who don’t share your anxieties.

One of my links above refers to Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life (another source of anxiety that activism creates – “what will people think of me given that I’m quoting someone they’ve ‘cancelled’?”. It results in self-censorship. And by not expressing your thoughts your mental health becomes worse). I think that was his Rule 11. I want to now bring up his Rule 1 (later on I might bring up his Rule 12. Most of the rest are not worth quoting).

In the first chapter of his book, he talks about anxiety and depression, taking the case of lobsters. The thing about anxiety (I’ve just about gotten off another round of medication for it) is that you get into a situation of heightened defences.

This is a natural reaction. If you are walking in the jungle and hear a lion roar, you better have heightened defences. The problem with chronic anxiety is that you are always in a state of heightened defences. You are always worried that something might go wrong. This means you have less mental and physical energy for more productive stuff. And so it hampers your life.

Being in a state of anxiety means you want to get early information of anything that might go wrong. This makes you an ideal candidate for “24×7 news” – since that sets you up and prepares you well in time for anything that might go wrong. Depending on your persuasion, you either get your news from television, or from social media. Thus, on the margin, mentally ill people are MORE LIKELY to be on social media all the time, and be on it for the sake of news.

Let’s put things together.

  • Anxious people are more likely to be on social media for news
  • They are more likely to get triggered by news, and become anxious about it.
  • They want some release from the anxiety, and that can come by way of empathy from people with similar anxieties. This means they tweet (or post) their anxieties. Sometimes it could just be tweeting tautologies.
  • At other times it is retweeting activism from people they empathise with. And activism fundamentally causes more anxiety (as explained above)
  • Thus, anxious people end up spreading their anxieties through social media. And when someone says they don’t care about these anxieties, the privilege card gets brought out.
  • And so, on the margin, spending more time on social media can make you anxious, by increasing your exposure to tweets that create anxiety.

Unfortunately I’m unable to find the video (it seems to have been removed from YouTube). So I’ll just link to this blogpost by Vadakkan’s then co-panelist Amit Varma.

And how do I plan to deal with all the shit happening around? By following Jordan Peterson’s 12th rule. I spend half an hour in the morning reading newspapers. Given what’s happening around, I feel depressed and worried. And then by the time I have moved to the business newspapers I am feeling better. And then I get on with life. And work. And keeping my family and myself safe. And I only use twitter one day a week.

PS: I learnt while researching this post that Tom Vadakkan is with the BJP now.

Denying people their jokes

When I was in Bangalore earlier this year, I was talking to a “US returned” friend about moving back to India, and he mentioned that one of the reasons he moved back is that he didn’t find very good “culture fit” in the US. “The thing that got to me”, he said, “was that I couldn’t even connect with their jokes”.

Living in the UK, that is not that much of a problem for us, since British humour is pretty good, but this anecdote illustrates how important jokes can be for people.

Regular readers of this blog might know that I get damn irritated by the new-found culture of political correctness. While it is not my intention to hurt anybody or their feelings, I feel that political correctness is being overdone nowadays, and that severely restricts what you can say. And that is a problem for people like me who like to say things without thinking.

Reading the odd news report from the US – about the Trump campaign, for example – it’s clear that I’m not alone in having a problem with this newfound political correctness (oh – I can now expect people to attack me for having views similar to Trump’s voters). In some ways the left-right battle in the US can be described as a battle of political correctness, where the “left” likes to be all correct, and expects that everyone else is also always politically correct and not offensive, while the “right” wants to say things as they are.

Anyway, putting together my friend’s anecdote about not getting American jokes, and the culture of political correctness, I can think of one other, possibly major, reason why people are pissed off about the culture of political correctness – it denies people their jokes.

Most popular jokes – may not be the best ones, mind you, but ones that have high memetic fitness – are cracked at the expense of an “other”. This “other” can sometimes be another person – even a public figure, but at other times, it defines a particular community (though not necessarily a certain community). And the joke consists of laughing at this particular other community (broadly speaking).

So you have short people jokes, and black jokes, and Jewish jokes, and Pakistani jokes, and Muslim jokes, and so on. And then you have sexist jokes.

Now put this in the context of political correctness – most jokes that most people have grown up on are now taboo, because they are offensive to one or the other community, and it is not polite to make fun of these communities. So a whole truckload of jokes that people are grown up on can now not be cracked in polite company. And as even the Soviet Union discovered, that can be oppressive.

I recently read this book called Hammer and Tickle – a History of Communism through Communist Jokes (you can find an extract here). This sub-heading accompanying the extract summarises the Soviet attitude towards jokes:

Communism is the only political system to have created its own international brand of comedy. The standard interpretation is that communist jokes were a form of resistance. But they were also a safety valve for the regimes and jokes were told by the rulers as well as the ruled—even Stalin told some good ones

Now if only the “modern Soviets” were to get this!

Slashing Art and Activism

Yesterday I happened to drive all the way to Domlur to attend this “Art Slash Activism” event organized by the Center for Internet and Society and one other organization whose name I’ve forgotten. I must confess that I had set my expectations too high, for the event’s description on the website itself was a little hazy and “global” (as we would put in B-school parlance). Given it was set as a part of a series of events on “open data”, and from what I could gather from the event website, I thought there might be fundaes to be got on stuff like data representation – a topic I’m quite interested in and am looking to learn. Maybe this was too optimistic, but I expected some Hans Rosling type visualizations there.

As it turned out, I ended up walking out an hour into the event (it was supposed to last for two hours), unable to take it any more. I don’t know if “Art Slash Activism” meant that people had to speak on exactly one of the topics. Or maybe it was just that the description of the overall theme was so vague that the designated speakers simply went up and spoke on whatever they wanted to speak, giving the same kind of speeches they give elsewhere. The speeches were quite disjointed, I must mention, and none of the three that I happened to sample during an hour there were anything close to spectacular on their own legs, either.

First up was an activist, who I was to later find out, was from an organization whose representatives we had majorly trolled when they had come to IIMB to give a series of guest lectures on culture. She spoke about activism, essentially about her research, using some high-sounding terms, and trying to diss certain popular discourse. While the content of the speech might have been appropriate in another context, I soon had the feeling of what I had gotten myself into. The curious thing was that people all round me were taking notes, furiously. Like this was a lecture in their college on which they would be quizzed in their next exam. For what it was worth, I took out my fancy notebook and fountain pen, but didn’t write anything.

She was followed by an American lecturer and librarian, who gave a power point presentation on “what is a database”, again something I thought was quite trivial and not really in context. Maybe it was my fault, and I didn’t understand the context at all, but this guy seemed like one of those Americans who think that people in “third world countries such as India” know little, and need to be educated on the fundamentals.

There were supposed to be four speakers on the day which was supposed to be followed by a discussion, but I left midway through the third speech, which was by an artist, who spoke about her art. It was all so disjointed and disconnected. I don’t know, and don’t particularly care, if the last speech would have added value.

I don’t particularly regret going. The event website promised “option value” – the option that I would meet some interesting people at the event, and the option that I would get to learn something I wanted to learn. In the event, the option expired worthless. I’ll continue to go to events or meet people for the option value, and I know a lot of them might expire worthless. But I know that if I keep doing this, there might be a breakthrough somewhere. And I’m chasing those potential massive payoffs.

The moral of this story is about clarity in communications. When you try sell something to people, you need to be concise with your communication, and let them know exactly what you’re trying to sell them. If you’re vague, there is a chance they might be disappointed because they expected something completely different from what you were actually offering. And this is a major problem for me as I try set myself up as a fairly niche consultant.