Self and Society

February 27, 2009

Is it just me or have things taken a decided turn towards alice in wonderland-esque surrealism. Like a kaleidoscope, the events of one's life are seemingly determined by external movements, people like bits of colored glass significant only in the patterns formed by their repeating mirror reflections. The force of events that upturn people's lives is breathtaking, and completely beyond the scope of most to foresee, let alone control/alter. There is both absolutism and arbitrariness, and the individual is left with a galling sense of powerlessness. How do the apparent odds of absolutism and arbitrariness coexist? The answer can be traced to an ever tighter black hole of power: the capriciousness of the egocentric, yet an all encompassing influence. We see both at work in the global meltdown, and the mass hysteria that is Slumdog.

The complete disregard for reasonable risk and ethics concentrated in a few square mile area in Manhattan has wreaked havoc around the world, leading to collapse in the economies of entire countries (Iceland, Latvia) and an anticipated 50M lost jobs. No one will be spared from the aftershocks, even those who've never heard of CDOs. Blips on the computer screen representing ridiculous financial engineering and 30-1 leverage ratios by a bunch of men in dark suits has led to a global recession, and the leading threat to stability around the world. Slumdog vaulted its cast and crew unknowns into premier league, after narrowly escaping its own Direct to DVD demise. Everyone looks suitably overcome, esp the three slumkids on the improbable journey from tinroof to Oscar red carpet, courtesy "Danny uncle". But what about the other thousands still under the tinroofs, yet now with hungry hearts? Quite possibly the only way for them to escape the hopelessness of their life was/is this fairytale. And fairytales by definition are for the chosen few. Off with their heads!

Given the complete lack of control that one has over one's life, what then is the meaning of life? I could delude myself with notion of control: of the apparent freedoms that I exercise in my academic/professional pursuits, the discernment I fancy in my consumption, the passion with which I guard my recreation, the number of people whose life I control. But all of these are afforded to me by birth, a function of family, citizenship and local zeitgeist. The trajectory is defined by birth; individual effort merely determines which end of the range is reached. Even if one overlooks the "default by birth" theory, a fatal blow to the delusion is dealt when one attempts to change the system/framework.

Maybe then life's meaning is not defined by individual control, but by living itself. Every single act that defines humanity has been done before, the attendant feelings felt, the thoughts thought. Joy, sorrow, anger, pain, fear, love, running, eating, thinking, working, dancing, etc. So the value of the experience must reside not in its novelty for humankind, but for each person. In fact it is in the commonality of the experiences that we feel connected. And sometimes it feels great just to be alive - steeped in the experience, liquid in the moment. However, most experiences fall prey to diminishing returns with repetition and there is need to broaden/deepen the experience base either through novelty or complexity. Moreover, innate in human race is the need/ability to assert individuality, and seek long-ranging pursuits which connect our past, present and future. Longer the pursuit, more limited the range of options at any point of time. Coupled with the highly centralized society that we live in, the past becomes an even greater determinant of present and future possibilities.

Given the longitudinal nature of pursuits, and the increasingly constrained choices along the continuum, is it acceptable for each person to maximize only one's own experiences and pleasure? Maybe. The underlying tenet of all societies, its social contract, is the expectation that each individual gives up small personal liberties to maximize freedom/opportunity for everyone in the society. Hence within the periphery of minimal socially acceptable behavior, self-interest is justification enough for any action since in a functional (tending to equilibrium) society, my pursuits wouldn't impinge on someone else's pursuits, and to the extent they do, it would lead to competition, innovation, and "creative destruction".

But this answer doesn't satisfy. Implicit in the "self-interest" theory is the determination of equal benefit, that the gain of one is comparable in importance to the loss of another. We need only to look around to *know* that this is not true. The marginal gain of each added luxury is laughable against the minimal bar of a human being able to exercise the faculties of her humanness. In a country like India, one is assaulted daily, hourly with people reduced to bestiality. Having once seen and understood this inequity, how can one overlook it? Is it okay to ignore hardship because it's not mine? While instinctively inaction seems wrong, often good intentions have little meaning beyond personal gratification. Each act terminates in itself, maybe even causing harm. On my way back from work one day, a street kid was at my window peddling some cheap "made in china" toy. Loathe to turn him away or give him money, I gave him my pack of gum. Another kid was at window the same instant. I didn't have any more gum to give him, and as we drove away, I turned around to see the second child trailing the first. My act was cruel in its randomness, and had the unintended effect of depriving the second child. Considered judiciousness too does not permeate the system, remaining instead like a little oasis amid a desert, necessitating either detachment or frustration in engagement outside.

What is the balance between self and surroundings? Should one optimize for the former or attempt to change the latter?

Ruchi has recently returned to India after seven years in the US. Wanting to fit, yet (unconsciously) judging at the same time, she sees not "India Shining", but an India going terribly awry: an inefficient and corrupt state, mind-numbing poverty, deficient public services, unprofessional and frivolous news media, and general political apathy amongst the Indian populace (in the world's largest democracy!). Ruchi is currently obsessed with mainstreaming civic engagement in the city/country to demand accountability from the administration. Blogging is but a fringe effort. She is working on an idea to organize the discrete dissenting voices into some kind of a critical mass to ensure that citizen voice/concerns are heard and addressed by our polity. Please email her or visit her blog (http://bourgeoisinspirations.wordpress.com) if you'd like to be kept informed, and/or to connect if you're part of an existing effort.
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Self and Society


Author: Ruchi


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February 27, 2009
01:04 PM

The complete disregard for reasonable risk and ethics concentrated in a few square mile area in Manhattan has wreaked havoc around the world..

perhaps you meant a few blocks around 1600 pennsylvania ave.?


that is why it is important for individuals , wherever they may be, to speak out

"one brick at a time" is/should be the mantra:)

February 27, 2009
02:39 PM


Good, thought-provoking article.

Very few articles on DC make me think harder. I will have to read yours couple more times to understand all its salient points.

February 27, 2009
02:52 PM

In plain english please!

March 1, 2009
12:44 PM

Well written! Makes one think about the futility of plans.

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