Similar and Different: What Else?

With Vivek Raghavan’s input we make a quantum jump in our understanding of this issue. It drives home three lessons: how much we are helped by conceptual clarity; how we get to conceptual clarity; and how we learn.

We started this discussion with our conceptualization of the issue defined by Vir Sanghvi: we were thinking in terms of ‘things as a whole’ that were either similar or different (or were similar at one time but were different now). We were thinking in terms of binaries and polar opposites. One could say we were conceptually in an ‘either/or’ world, where you were either like me or unlike me (or you were either ‘for us’ or ‘against us’ – the famous Bush formulation analogous to the Sanghvi formulation).

From the outset we were uncomfortable with this binary view of the world and were groping our way towards a more nuanced perspective. And because humans argue from experience we illustrated the similarity of east and west Punjabis by referring to their lived experiences in the diaspora. But we were still trapped in Sanghvi’s paradigm – we wanted to prove Sanghvi wrong by making the counter-case that east and west Punjabis were similar, not different.

The conceptualization suggested by Vivek changes the entire perspective. Now we do not see things as things in their entirety but as bundles of attributes. And as soon as you do that it becomes obvious that there can be some attributes that would be similar and others that would be different. When Vivek explains it, we see what we feel we should have seen all along – that even a shirt and a shoe possess attributes some of which are similar and others that are different.

To go back to the east and west Punjabis and two take only two attributes, we can see that they would have language in common and could differ in religion. Once we get to this point, we can also see how different attributes could disproportionately influence our attitudes in different situations. In a foreign country, language might have salience; at home religion might be the key determinant.

From here, we can project other factors that influence our behaviors. In a foreign country, when two Punjabis run into each other they negotiate their relationship largely on their own. At home, there are many third parties (politicians, editors, talk show hosts) intervening in this relationship to advance particular agendas. So which attributes are highlighted is a social issue but can also be a political one. And as we know (but do not fully understand why) human beings react much more emotionally to some attributes than to others. We all have hot buttons and others know we have hot buttons. From there on it is a familiar story…

Now let me address the issue of how we get to this kind of conceptual clarity that we are talking about – there is a long way and a short way. We can begin from a Sanghvi-like simple understanding and grope our way towards a more nuanced one – this is what we were doing in the course of this discussion on the blog. Or we could have been introduced to A Tale of Two Cities in high school, which would have made the nuanced understanding our starting point. And we would have immediately smiled at Sanghvi for his crude formulation and for his attempt to push our hot buttons.

Of course, I am not saying that the conceptual understanding could have come only from A Tale of Two Cities. Any one of many texts from our local literary traditions could have achieved the same result. The point is that this kind of understanding of the world comes indirectly from an exposure to the humanities and it is being progressively neglected in our education because it (seemingly) does not add to our prospects in the job market.

This is one premise on which this blog was founded – that without an exposure to the humanities we would move further and further along the path of intolerance that Sanghvi inadvertently represents.  At least we are trying but contrast our groping attempts in this discussion to the elegant simplicity of the one sentence by a master like Dickens in which an entire worldview is laid bare before us. Add a good teacher and the payoff is invaluable. It is this tremendous wisdom locked up in the masterpieces of our literary traditions that we are failing to benefit from. Thus it is no surprise when Stanley Fish says that undergraduates can be introduced to all the big questions of life just from a course in Milton. (Incidentally that column was the inspiration for the Ghalib Project on this blog.)

So, what do we do now that most of us have been deprived of such an education that nurtures the conceptual understanding of our world? One recourse is to become participants in structured and respectful conversations and hope that there would be people like Kabir and Vikram and Vinod to pose intelligent questions and people like Vivek to add new dimensions to our thinking. Add Satjit’s perspective on taking a longer view and things begin to appear even more different.

Together we can learn from each other and get to the point where we would have very problems separating good arguments from bad. Meanwhile, examine your attributes, watch your hot buttons, and read a book.

PS: We can now respond easily to Bush – we are with you on some things and against you on others; please formulate your proposition with more care.

PS: On Vinod’s recommendation I am reading Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond – it is a provocative book that I would heartily recommend in turn.

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  • kabir
    Posted at 18:28h, 28 March Reply

    I agree whole heartedly that the study of literature leads to more nuanced understanding of the world. Incidently, in today’s New York Times, there is a review of a new TV production of Dickens’s “Little Dorrit”, which points about how the current economic crisis is similar to the one that causes characters like Dorrit’s father to go into debt.

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