Behavior / 25.03.2011

By Anjum Altaf The title of Gautam Adhikari’s new book, The Intolerant Indian, is intended to be provocative and it might indeed provoke those who go just by titles. Anyone reading the book though is more likely to be puzzled. The subject is important no doubt – the extent of conflict fueled by the inability to agree is increasing – and so the intent to provoke a debate is laudable. But the manner in which the debate is framed is likely to generate more heat than light thereby threatening to inflame the very intolerance it aims to subdue. The book starts off on the wrong foot right from the Preface by choosing an ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’ frame in which to locate the moral argument: I just wanted to talk about those of our compatriots who did not seem to appreciate the idea of pluralist tolerance, which formed the structural...

Behavior / 19.03.2011

By Anjum Altaf The following is the issue: If a South Asian were introduced to, say, a first-time visitor from Norway with the preamble “He/She is a liberal,” would the Norwegian be able to guess correctly where the South Asian might stand on a number of salient policy issues? I expressed my doubts in an earlier article (The Peculiar Nature of the Pakistani Liberal) that concluded as follows: “On closer examination, the Pakistani liberal turns out to be a breed apart. The easy transfer of ideological labels – “conservative,” “liberal,” “progressive,” “reactionary” – across political and social contexts obscures the nuances and complexities necessary for understanding the juncture at which we have arrived in Pakistan today.” To be useful, a label has to convey an accurate representation of reality and many of the labels we use in South Asia today fail this test.I wish to illustrate this using...

Behavior / 18.03.2011

By Anjum Altaf The “West” versus the “East,” the “West” versus “Islam” – there is much talk of the clash of cultures in these ideologically charged times. Yet, there is as much confusion about the understanding of culture itself. If we are to be clear about the nature of the conflict, we need to first define what the argument is about. Culture as a thing in itself: “the power of culture” Culture has many dimensions and meanings – we can talk of the power of culture as well as of the culture of power – and some of the meanings have altered over time. In its original sense the notion was applied to humans as it was to the earth, the equivalent of agriculture – a way of cultivating the mind akin to cultivating the soil. It was common to speak of a cultured person as one who...

Behavior / 21.11.2010

I found our discussion on values and behavior (On Religion as an Individual Code of Behavior) particularly useful. Here I wish to summarize my conclusions and illustrate the arguments further with reference to the ongoing changes in attitude towards the institution of marriage. The principal conclusions are the following: Moral values and related behaviors are not static. They can often change with surprising rapidity. The possibility of change can be triggered by any number of reasons – wars, famines, technology, etc. The changes are usually advocated by a small group of opinion leaders or role models and adopted by a small set of social rebels or dissidents. Wide adoption by people who may or may not have thought consciously about the values result in the changes being incorporated at the level of society. Variations in behavior become acceptable when social taboos erode and often a new...

Behavior / 21.08.2010

By Anjum Altaf I had been intending to explore why, throughout history, man has been the perpetrator of so much inhuman behavior and what, if anything, could be done about it. My plan was to substantiate the claim of inhumanity with some examples before moving on to a discussion of the possible remedies. It is a coincidence that between the intention and the execution, I chanced upon a poem by Josh Malihabadi (1898-1982), a poet held in high regard in Urdu poetry. This poem written in 1928 (Fitrat-e Aqvaam – The Character of Nations) makes a much better case than I could have and I offer it here (with a rough translation by myself) in lieu of the first part of the intended article. zulm-e la intihaa se tang aa kar aadmii chaahtaa hai aazaadi ho ke azaad phuunk deta hai doosre bhaai’oN kii aabaadi pehle banta hai dushman-e jalaad khud hii phir...

Behavior / 16.07.2010

Loyalty and patriotism are emotive issues and it often proves difficult to have a reasoned discussion about them. I am going to seek an easier entry by dealing first with misplaced loyalty and patriotism. I was drawn to this subject by the swirl of conspiracy theories that surrounded the refereeing in the recently concluded soccer World Cup in South Africa. (See the articles by Jeffrey Marcus and Tim Parks.) I recalled the times when home umpires were the rule in test cricket and the endless talk of favoritism that inevitably ensued. There were umpires about whom it was said that their fingers used to go up even before there was any appeal. I suppose the umpires must have considered this an act of patriotism and loyalty to their fellow countrymen and I suppose some of the latter might have seen it in the same light.Opposing teams...

Behavior / 11.07.2010

By Anjum Altaf In two previous posts in this series (here and here) I argued both sides of the proposition that economic interests take precedence over loyalty to attributes like culture, nationality and religion. How do we determine which argument is the more convincing? What is the “truth” regarding such a proposition and how can we discover it? A partial motivation in working through this series of posts was to illustrate a special debating technique used by the ancient Greeks to arrive at the truth or falsehood of such propositions. Part of the exercise conforms to the usual debating format: a questioner undertakes to challenge the proposition and prove it wrong; an answerer undertakes to defend it and prove it right; and there is an audience that acts as a jury and enforces the correct rules of argumentation. The more interesting aspect of the Greek practice pertains to an...

Behavior / 09.07.2010

By Anjum Altaf   In the previous post in this series I had argued in favor of the proposition that economic interest has the dominant influence on what we do in life; even culture, nationality and religion are often treated as impediments to economic advancement and sacrificed for its sake. In this post, I aim to see how well the contrary case can be argued. The key point I intend to stress is that the argument of the last post embodied a superficial perspective on the trade-off between economic gain and these attributes (culture, nationality, religion) making the classic error of mistaking form for content In thinking through my argument, a very old and remarkable film song from 1955 came to mind. (Now that I look at it anew I am amazed how it anticipated globalization almost a half-century before globalization itself became a household word.) Mera joota hai Japani Yeh...

Behavior / 05.07.2010

By Anjum Altaf I am going to present a provocative thesis in this post: Economic interest has the dominant influence on what we do in life; even culture, nationality and religion are often treated as impediments to economic advancement and sacrificed for its sake. On the face of it this is indeed a provocative claim and it is not one that I necessarily subscribe to in its entirety. I take it on in the spirit of a challenge faced by a participant in an extempore debate or by a lawyer arguing the best case for his client. In that spirit, I would be more than happy to argue the exact opposite case after a good night’s sleep. The drive for upward mobility in British India dealt a mortal blow to many aspects of our culture. Gone are our modes of dress, our ways of eating, and our postures...

Behavior / 20.06.2010

By Anjum Altaf We are reproducing, with slight changes, an article that discusses popular myths about the behavioral attributes of high-achievers. The objective is to show that some inherent and constant disposition is not a defining variable in achievement. A recent article titled ‘Successful risk-takers’ advised readers to take only moderate risks if they wanted to be high-achievers. Before you follow the advice, imagine that you meet an old high school friend with whom you used to do the most risky things, and you suggest repeating them for old-times sakes. How likely are you to be told that he couldn’t because he was now a respectable married man with a young daughter to care for? If you have experienced the above, or find it plausible, you can conclude that the amount of risk people take depends upon circumstances. And that conclusion can be the starting point of...