Behavior / 20.05.2011

By Anjum Altaf What can the affair of Dominique Strauss-Kahn tell us about stereotyping and our biases? I intend to present for discussion five biases pertaining to religion, nationality, gender, communalism and civilization. Religion Imagine a role reversal in which the man who allegedly emerged naked from the bathroom of a $3,000 a night hotel room in Manhattan had been an Arab Sheikh who attempted to flee after the incident and the maid who was allegedly pounced upon, dragged around and forced to perform oral sex had been a French Jew. Would the media coverage, including the commentary on the blogosphere, have been the same? Or would religion have been a much bigger issue, with extensions to its relationship to the oppression of women, respect for law, the clash of civilizations, and latent hostility to Judaism? It is impossible to say for sure but it is difficult to imagine...

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...

Modernity / 19.09.2008

One could argue that fundamentally we are very similar – we are all conceived in the same way, we all come out into the world the same way, and we all die ultimately. So, in the major events that our not under our control we are very similar. Where matters fall under human control, differences emerge. For instance, while we all die, our final rites can be starkly different – burial, cremation, being fed to crocodiles or to vultures. What is a more important determinant of our being similar or different – events that are not under our control or those that are under our control? Surely we can find rational explanations for many of the differences. For example, people living in a desert would find it very difficult to cremate their dead or feed them to crocodiles. Of course, there are some differences even in matters that...