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Saturday, September 20, 2008

Charity and other things...

There is a scene in Lage Raho Munnabhai where a girl talks to Munna over the phone, asking him how to make out whether the young blade who has asked her out on a date would be a good husband, and Munna tells her to take good note of how the man addresses the waiter at the restaurant. The young man unwittingly does what he is used to doing – because he is a rich man’s spoilt and snooty brat, he snaps his fingers and makes the kind of noise (‘tch tch’) that we normally use to call our pet dogs – and the girl runs, as Munnabhai had told her to do: a man who behaves like that with waiters is not a good man to tie up with for a lifetime.

I endorse that view completely. My experience tells me that to find out whether some people are nice people or not, ask their durwan, maali, maidservant and driver, and ask about them at the local grocery (Does she have a civil tongue? Does he bargain even over a single rupee? Does he pay his bills on time without having to be reminded?). And also find out what their attitude towards charity is. If all the indices are negative, you would be well advised to give them a wide berth – no matter whether they are good looking, rich, ‘educated’ and whatever.

I am trying very hard to pass on lessons from life like this one to my daughter, knowing that how well she will do in her career as a writer, lawyer, corporate manager, bureaucrat, teacher, movie director, advertising expert or whatever will depend in much larger measure on such lessons than what she crams from school- and college textbooks. I have been telling her, for instance, to observe very keenly how people react to a request for charity – at school and in the neighbourhood – because she can learn a very great deal about what human beings are really like that way, and forewarned is forearmed.

So, although I have had rather bitter experiences when trying to collect funds for this or that (in my view deserving-) cause, I did not say ‘no’ to my daughter when she told me two days ago that her school authorities had asked some girls in her class whether they could go around collecting money to donate for the flood-affected poor in Bihar, and she was one of those (not many) who had volunteered. I only told her to restrict herself to the people living on our own street and the adjacent two – that would be enough for starters (she had actually done this before, with friends, but this was the first time she was going alone). I also told her to write on top of the collection list that her dad had already promised Rs. 200 (I have no intention of breaking the promise), and then try her luck. I knew she was going to learn a few things, and I was not disappointed.

She came home with a headache only partly due to roaming about for more than two hours in the sun, and quite a few stories to tell. She had collected Rs. 176 after visiting twenty households during that time. Most people had given her just five or ten rupees, and that most grudgingly – despite the fact that they were obviously well-off if not rich (she said she knew some of them, and they probably wouldn’t have given even that much if their sons and daughters were not my current pupils, or about to be!); some bluntly told her to go away because they never gave money to charity, some expressed irritation and serious doubts about her intentions, one family said very loudly behind her retreating back that she was showing off, asking for charity in English! At the same time, my insistence that she never lose hope and faith in mankind has been vindicated, too: one family asked her in and treated her to mishti and cold water, while another woman, who did not seem very well-off at all, gave her all of fifty rupees after checking that she had her papers in order.

Sounds familiar? Well, it does to me. No amount of book-learning or lecturing from her parents could have taught my daughter more about things that matter in one morning. She already understands, as few of my much older students do, that charity is good, charity is hard, and if you go around dealing with people for a good cause you had better be very persuasive, very optimistic, and have a very thick skin! – and you had better learn to ignore all those clever and plausible people who will give you a hundred reasons to prove that you are wasting your time.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Thoughts for Teachers' Day

Prestige and dignity, pride and respect

[This is a long one again: don’t read if you are “busy”!]

These words have great and genuinely respectable meanings in many a context. Yet they have been so widely abused – and taken advantage of – in every culture and every age that in lots of cynical eyes they have become quite meaningless, or worse.

As I see it, certain ideals and institutions, and individuals who have stuck to and upheld these ideals and institutions, often at great personal risk or cost (sometimes life itself) gradually acquire prestige, meaning respect amounting to awe. It often takes a very long time to acquire that kind of prestige and the labours of many great and dedicated men (Sir James Murray’s lifetime labour gave the Oxford Dictionary its prestige, men like Drake and Nelson gave it to the British navy, and Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, the Roosevelts and a few others together gave it to the American presidency); it can easily take centuries. So it is with the office of the Pope – still at least halfheartedly believed by millions to be the living representative of Christ on earth, even after two millennia of turmoil, corruption, cruelty, base compromise with earthly lords and interests, bureaucratic intrigue and apathy, and all the challenges from critics, including purveyors of other religions, godless scientists and communists. So with organizations like the Royal Society. So with the world’s oldest extant universities. So with the Shaolin temple in the sphere of the martial arts, or cordon bleu chefs in the world of gastronomy, or the Rolls Royce when it comes to cars, or Lloyd’s Register in the world of marine insurance and underwriting, or The Times of London when we are talking about newspapers. Prestige comes from a reputation for old, established quality of an unusually high order, quality long sustained in the face of harsh and diverse challenges; a quality which may be moral or spiritual, academic or practical, but quality nevertheless. Prestige means also that the very name of an institution, organisation or title is widely assumed to be a guarantor of quality, so the ‘customer’ (whether he be a seeker of knowledge, luxury or glory) may be assured that he is buying into a good thing without having to do too much fact-finding for himself; he also hopes some of that prestige will rub off on him – my doctorate is from such a great university, I am a priest of such a hoary religion, I drive only the best cars and dine at the best restaurants, so others less fortunate and less distinguished will look up to me and perchance envy me.

If it is admitted that beyond air, water, food and sex what men most want is a certain sense of identity, and since prestige gives identity as nothing else does (not even raw money or power), it follows that men will pay a very heavy price to acquire some prestige in their chosen walks of life: so countless scholars and monks are perfectly happy to live materially poor lives in great universities and abbeys, and so many soldiers were willing to die fighting for Alexander and Caesar and Napoleon. At a much baser level, crooked businessmen, once they have made their sordid piles, spend so much to buy seats in legislatures and the boards of great charities, while they wives spend little fortunes on ‘designer’ clothes, jewellery and cosmetics. This is the unfortunate, not to say pathetic side of prestige: unworthy people go to such absurd lengths to acquire the prestige that they neither deserve nor can really win for themselves (who cares about a page three wife except a handful of other page three wives?) – some folks pierce and maim their bodies to ‘look good’ according to local and current convention (I may not be a mentionable warrior, but at least I wear the right kind of costume and affect the right degree of snootiness!); some buy all kinds of junk they don’t need because it helps them to ‘identify’ with the celebrity icons who endorse said goods in TV advertisements, others try all they can to bend the rules which prevent them from joining institutions where they really have no place – in the process ever so slowly diluting the very standards on which the prestige of the organisation depends, until, if they are not careful, these organisations wake up one fine morning to find out that their old glory has faded away, leaving not a wrack behind. Thus have great empires vanished, and so also churches and universities and commercial marques. It is this way that the civil services in India have lost much of their sheen, and I can predict that the rate at which the great institutions of higher learning in Britain are signing up young morons from backward countries if their rich dads can pay full tuition is digging their own graves: the whole world will sneer at once-prestigious British universities fifty years from now. ‘Dwarfs in giants’ robes’ are bound to degrade every office and institution they swarm into. A few more like the present incumbent and the prestige of the White House is going to hit rock bottom!

One other thing that I should mention about prestige is that its signs and yardsticks are highly culture-specific, to the extent that what is very prestigious in one country or locale or peer group can sound meaningless or bizarre in another. Think of punks attending a conference of physicists, think of formula one racing stars visiting a venerable temple in Puri to watch some great religious function. A mere doorman might not let a samurai warrior from an ancient family into the hallowed portals of Wall Street, and the absolute dictator of one country might be subjected to a humiliating body search by lowly customs officials of another. They say only footballers have any real prestige in Brazil, and only baseball stars and tycoons in the United States. Jagjivan Ram, for two decades the second or third most powerful person in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet and an enormously rich man, was heard to lament that no blue-blooded Brahmin would marry his daughter, an ‘untouchable’. This is perhaps why the truly wise man does not believe in and stand on prestige at all: he is like a child, a citizen of the universe, and nothing that human beings can say or do can glorify him or insult him – with Shakespeare, he laughs and says ‘Lord, what fools these mortals be!’ If he has any dignity at all, his is the simple, unassailable dignity of the mendicant sage; he is one who calls every man his brother and no man his master. To my mind, no man who has become less than that deserves the tribute of both mind and heart, regardless of his age, his titles, degrees, rank, wealth or power: these are but baubles that we all need to outgrow, but one in ten million can. India once worshipped such men: our standards have fallen greatly of late, even as our wealth has multiplied and technical ‘experts’ proliferated.

So that brings us to the idea of dignity. It means a sense of self-possession and self-worth that does not depend too much on others’ recognition, and a serenity of temperament and solemnity of manner that stems from that sense. Most children are born undignified – they tumble in the dust and get into scrapes and lick the same ice-cream and yell and make faces with utter self-abandon, and laugh shrilly over it (we have heard of very young children with a remarkable air of dignity too, but they are rare, and make their peers uncomfortable and their elders worried, lest they should become weird prodigies or renounce the world or go just plain mad). As we grow, we learn to acquire at least a modicum of dignity by simply watching and imitating our supposed betters – older siblings, parents, teachers, bosses. With most of us, this does not take us very far; learning by imitating without understanding and personal appreciation has not been called ‘aping’ for nothing. It merely makes us warped, less natural and spontaneous and lively and interesting than we might have been, and hypocritical. I have seen far too many people either making a fetish of dignity, so that form becomes much more important than substance: mediocre schoolteachers insist that a boy who asks too many questions is being ‘disrespectful’ rather than clever, and so many ‘high level meetings’ everywhere involve nothing more than dozing and gorging delicacies and making polite noises at the appropriate places in the course of utterly boring and endless speeches – or throwing all dignity to the winds the moment they are sure that some guardian is not looking over their shoulders (they call it ‘letting your hair down’ or ‘unwinding’, and they do it by acting like demented chimpanzees at parties and picnics and festivals, supposedly because it helps in ‘socializing’ and de-stressing every now and then. My point is, if the ‘pressure’ of keeping up an artificial fa├žade of dignity is so stressful, why keep up pretences so assiduously? Especially since, as I strongly suspect, the pressure, when released, makes people feel a desperate urge to misbehave while making up for ‘lost time’?) I believe that up to a point the Americans have done the world a great service by greatly cutting down on the need for such stilted, archaic forms of enforced dignity everywhere, from the home circle to universities, senates, churches and clubs. They might have gone a bit too far in the other direction – but about that more later.

Some people are by nature or through long habit more dignified than others. Some occupations require more dignity than others – doctors, lawyers and teachers are not supposed to be noisy and frivolous and irresponsible; nor are high officials of state and soldiers parading in public on important occasions. When people who by nature or upbringing are not suited to such jobs get in nevertheless they can make life difficult for their colleagues and superiors, and earn great contempt even if they are not booted out (imagine someone with the temperament of a video jockey becoming a banker): though a great deal of eccentricity, which is often lack of conventional dignity by another name, is forgiven to someone possessed of exceptional talents, someone like Mozart or Richard Feynman or Charles Wingate. People are supposed to become more dignified with age everywhere still, and most do, though this is at least in part a covering up of the very sad (and undignified) fact that they are growing weak and slowing down in both body and mind – and in most countries the young are taught and expected to defer to the dignified old. I haven’t been able to make up my mind about whether this is a good thing or not. I have read that in very primitive times most people died young, and the few who got to be old and feeble were simply left to freeze in the cold or be devoured by wolves and vultures: now that is a horrible thing to think of, and in these comparatively civilized times we cannot deal with the old like that; besides there are far too many old folks in all ‘advanced’ countries now to deal with in such cavalier fashion – they have money and hold too many votes, and ever so slowly they are forcing law and society to accommodate their special needs (there are now veterans’ Olympics, and a store in Germany caters only to people above sixty). But is it right for the young to listen to and obey the old too much, just because they are old and ‘dignified’?

I believe that Americans discovered a century ago that the old hold up progress through timidity and by insisting too much on blind obedience and old conventions, so they as a nation threw these virtues to the winds – and look, it has certainly helped them advance in every sphere of life, from politics to technology to global cultural domination through the airwaves! In the process, the old there have got a rather raw deal: they grow lonely and helpless as old folks do everywhere, and do not even have the compensation of being revered and obeyed. As a result elderly people in America (and their imitators throughout the world) are now desperately trying to cling to the image of youthfulness for as long as they can, and a multibillion dollar industry of ‘anti-ageing’ cosmetics and sauna baths, sanatoriums, vitalizer drugs, silicone implants, botox injections and plastic surgery has sprouted to cater to their needs: if you stand back and watch thoughtfully, doesn’t it look terribly undignified? If all these gimmicks can make you look and feel young a little longer that’s fine (if they don’t bankrupt you!) but what can you say when you see middle-aged mothers competing with their teenage daughters in flaunting sex appeal, or people in their 60s and 70s still meddling in their grown-up children’s affairs to feel important and needed (as millions of middle class parents in India are doing right now)? Why shouldn’t people have the moral right and courage to acknowledge they are old and enjoy to the full all the advantages that old age brings: lightened family burdens, the end of the rat race for marks, promotions, bigger pay packets and social status, the joy of bringing up grandchildren, leisure to cultivate all the hobbies one never had the time and money for before, the freedom and poise needed to turn one’s attention to those things which all great religions have called the higher or ultimate goals of life – charity, art, peace of mind, salvation of the soul? There’s something terribly wrong with a civilization which has robbed old people of their dignity in this fashion, forcing them to count their days in useless idleness and pitying themselves until they can be thrown into the garbage bin.

Here’s another thought. In India – perhaps because we have been slaves of someone or the other for a thousand years – we confuse conceit (ahamkar) too easily and commonly with dignity (self-respect) and pride (gaurav), which stems only from great achievements. A truly dignified person will not boast of petty achievements (or things which are not even achievements – like good looks or one’s father’s money or connections) and throw his weight about with his subordinates (pupils, juniors at the office, wife, poor people); at the same time he will not cheat in examinations, vandalize public property, take bribes right and left, use foul language among friends and grovel before superiors as though his life depends on it. Alas, that is precisely what most of us do, and quite unselfconsciously too: in fact we get very angry when someone points out that it is uncouth. This is one of the many things about the Indian social psyche that disgusts me, and I am quite convinced that next to the problem of overpopulation, this is the single greatest stumbling block to our national progress. We neither care to know the limits on our own behaviour that dignity demands, nor are we ready to acknowledge the rights of others that the same dignity requires we acknowledge (once upon a time there was a name for it: noblesse oblige) – we all believe that if I am ‘somebody’, the rules do not apply to me. If you think about it, a nation with so much conceit and so little pride and dignity cannot progress, because it has never taken pains to understand the true meaning of progress at all. A nation can only progress when it encourages lots of people to put the right kind of dignity above physical security, immediate convenience, peer approval and material comforts, and a nation can be said to have progressed only when the humblest peon and maidservant and shopkeeper is guaranteed a minimum of personal dignity which cannot be violated by the highest in the land, while those who hold the reins of power have also learnt to behave with the dignity appropriate to their exalted offices; the kind of dignity that Tagore spoke of so eloquently in Rajarshi. 2,300 years after Plato, such philosopher-kings are still very much the exception rather than the rule. Our hoi polloi have never been educated in that sense (I know a lot of hoi polloi with MBAs and PhDs), and our leaders say they are always too busy to pay attention to niceties. And yet so many Indians with eyes to see with go to ‘advanced’ countries only to gush over how it is precisely an attention to niceties that separates them from us in every walk of life!

What have we been taught about ‘respect’ in India? We have been trained to confuse respect with the deference and servility to authority figures (father, husband, teachers, thanedaars, netas, employers…) that stems out of fear: we have been told that no matter how much we might dislike them, or how obviously wrong they might be or unreasonable their demands might be, we had better obey them silently, for it’s always ‘or else…!’ So, generation after generation, we have gone through the motions of being ‘respectful’ to our ‘betters’ (usually males, parents, people who are older, people of ‘higher’ castes or of the dominant religion, people holding superior office), often for no other reason than that they happen to hold the whip hand over us, though most of us like to pretend that we obey because ‘they always know better what is good for us’. This has had some really terrible consequences.

For one thing, the slave who cringes and grovels at his master’s feet obviously desires nothing better than to cheat or hurt the master, or at least to see him cheated and hurt, whenever he’s sure he can get away with it. So we easily forget and even abuse our old parents or at least wish to be rid of them (they are no longer ‘masters’, you see, and deep in our subconscious there’s this intense desire to get a bit of our own back, sick as that sounds). So we call someone mad who insists that we should take pride in our work and do it well even if the master is not breathing down our necks. So servants rob and murder and rape masters and mistresses so often. So we eagerly speak ill of our teachers/bosses behind their backs (the ‘masters’ have to make do with mere make-believe of ‘respect’, though many of them are bitterly aware that the slaves would gladly dance over their graves!) At the same time, we believe that, while our masters have a right to grind us under their heels, we have an equal right to deal with those ‘below’ us the same way – so, despite our vaunted self-identity as a ‘democratic’ society, we still think that parents ought to get away with every kind of child abuse short of murder; witness also the way teachers and senior officers talk down to students and subordinates; see how the disgusting practice called ‘ragging’ flourishes on our college campuses, or look at the heartless high-handedness with which our bureaucrats deal with people who queue up before them for everything from pensions to driving licenses, passports and ration cards: they are not government functionaries getting paid for doing their jobs well, but petty feudal lords doling out favours out of the largeness of their hearts – unless, of course, you are a mafia boss with deep pockets, a reputation for violence and powerful political godfathers – in which case they seldom make a mistake about who should fall at whose feet! (this, by the way, is why I tell all my pupils never to give me gifts or touch my feet unless they personally and strongly feel like doing it).

Real respect, like real pride, is very rare in this country. A housewife who, despite poverty and a backbreaking workload, always manages to keep the house neat and beautiful has legitimate reason for pride; so also the man who has never cheated or flattered or bribed anybody for favours and yet has succeeded in making a decent livelihood. Someone who has truly mastered a musical instrument or a language can likewise be proud of herself (I have met very few ‘educated’ Indians in my life who can write one page of elegant English quickly before my eyes without making a single mistake of spelling, grammar, syntax, idiom or choice of words; the same goes for their native tongues these days). I don’t need to speak of great social workers, or lame men who climb mountains – they have every reason to be proud. Modesty suits only the saint and the non-achiever. Now if you look around, you will see that very few people you know personally have done anything at all to be proud about: we’ve just got some degrees and found nondescript middle-level jobs, and are now just making a living from day to day like millions of others. Unable to be proud, we have conveniently forgotten to be proud, or decided it’s not necessary! And things keep getting worse…notice that these days we admire nothing but money (no matter how it has been made), nor can boast of anything but (well, marks in childhood and money after we have grown up). And even our admiration is little more than envy, our boasting only a desperate effort to hide from the voice constantly mocking us inside ‘you’re a nobody after all!’ This is why we love so much to speak ill of others, this is why we are so sensitive about what people are saying about us (anybody with low self-esteem is bound to be touchy that way), this is why we cannot bear to hear somebody being spoken well of: not being capable of giving respect ourselves, we insist that if someone is showing respect to somebody, it cannot be anything but sycophancy. Why should you respect anyone who can neither threaten you nor do you favours?

All this has been with us since time immemorial; the pity is that it refuses to go away. But I wish to end with something that is a relatively recent (and ghastly) development. Of late, now that we are getting used to living in a somewhat more permissive atmosphere, our young (without having given up most of the bad attitudes outlined above) have decided that since we no longer have to show people respect out of fear, we must go about being deliberately rude and cruel just to show how liberated and smart we have become. Look at how they shriek and scream ‘for fun’ in school these days, how they jostle the elderly in the malls, how they talk back to some old man who ‘dares’ to give them a bit of advice against littering or driving rashly, how they scoff at the idea that they might wish an old ex-teacher ‘Good morning ma’am, how do you do?’, how young wives these days think it is their ‘right’ to abuse their husbands at the drop of a hat. Some of my grown-up ex-students and strangers their age, much junior to me, start mails to me with ‘Suvro’ or 'Hi Suvro' or even ‘Hey Suvro’, forgetting that Indian/Bengali civility demands that they should address me as ‘Dear Sir’, or ‘Dear Mr. Chatterjee’, or at least ‘Dear Suvroda’. When I cut the line, or tell them to buzz off, they rarely acknowledge their lapse in manners and apologise; instead they insist they can’t see they have done anything wrong; or even declare that they hadn’t thought I could mind: ‘you’re so conventional!’ (don’t they do that sort of thing all the time in the US of A?). If I ask them whether they habitually address their fathers or fathers’ friends that way, they prefer not to answer. All things about tradition are neither silly nor obsolete; manners were invented to make social intercourse a better experience than a dogfight, especially to protect the weaker, the quieter, and the more decent among us. I wonder how the brash teenagers and twenty-somethings of today would feel in 2050, when they can no longer afford to be so aggressive and devil-may-care, when their grown-up children and folks their children’s age tell them night and day where they can shove their instinctive longing for a bit of dignity and respect. I hope they relish the experience.

Monday, September 01, 2008


I am reading a remarkable book right now, given me by my clever and thoughtful pupil Supra, and I thought I should write up a few paragraphs about it. It’s called blink (by Malcolm Gladwell, 2005, Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Co., US $15.99). Its thesis, racily written and backed up by a great agglomeration of research findings, as such American books usually are, is that ‘thin-slicing’ of experience matters far more in human decision making than we know or believe – whether we are selling cars, or sizing up battlefield situations, or figuring out which of our patients are most likely to have a heart attack soon, or differentiating between fake and genuine works of art, our subconscious minds, working behind a ‘locked door’, make decisions in the blink of an eye, on the basis of extremely quick first-impressions, and those are the decisions which we often try to rationalize afterwards with all kinds of carefully-sifted evidence and closely-reasoned argument.
The author insists that it is by and large a good thing that most of us can do this ‘thin-slicing’, and do it fairly well: otherwise, in the swift hurly-burly of life, when a thousand quick decisions have to be taken and there’s no time to do ‘proper’ research and detailed analysis of pros and cons (such as slamming the brakes a few seconds before there is a traffic pileup ahead of you because ‘something’ warned you things were about to go wrong), we simply wouldn’t have survived. If some of us want to call this ‘intuition’, the author only wants us not to think that we are talking hocus-pocus about ‘supernatural’ powers: a well-developed intuition is only an ability to make very prompt judgments on the basis of long-accumulated, well-digested experience which is not always available to the conscious mind for instant processing. I am reminded of having read how hunters and commandos claim to have acquired a keenly-honed intuition on the basis of long and often costly experience; and Asimov wrote long ago that while great scientific ideas come far more often to the trained mind than to the layman, the trained scientist owes far more to sudden flashes of intuition than is commonly supposed. The author also acknowledges that some people have far keener intuitions than others: that is one reason they excel in their chosen fields of work (sharp stockbrokers, like brilliant generals, often find it very hard to explain in step-by-step logical terms what exactly made them decide on doing the things that brought them glory, victory or a big fortune).
I myself endorse the thesis to a great extent: as a private tutor who has to depend on a very flighty group of ‘customers’ who are very unsure of what they want from me, I have always known that whether I can keep my family in gravy depends a very great deal on what sort of first impression I make on new batches every year. Which is why, after so many years, I still worry quite a bit about ‘getting it just right from the first word to the last’ in the first class. Of course there are always pupils who later claim that I gradually ‘grew on them’ as the classes progressed, but I know that if I have to retain ninety percent of the group that turned up on the first day, I cannot afford even tiny mistakes in giving the kind of first impression I want to give – with most people (even those who follow the herd) the first impression can often be the last! It might all seem like spontaneous fun on the receiving end, but believe me, an enormous amount of cool and hardheaded planning, self-correcting, self-monitoring and practice has gone into shaping the ‘final product’.
What is most alarming about the author’s thesis is that we often can, and do, go hopelessly wrong in making such snap judgments, too, and it leads to untold woe and injustice. That happens because, alas, our unconscious minds are crammed with all sorts of prejudices and fixed ideas which are simply not true nor fair. Thus it seems to be a fact that tall men seem to have an unbeatable advantage when it comes to the selection of CEOs of large business corporations: no matter how silly or unbelievable or just plain wrong it sounds, a short man (or a woman!), however sharp and highly qualified, has the whole world’s deeply-ingrained bias against him/her (a leader is expected to have a domineering physical presence, and height is supposed to facilitate that greatly). This is apparently a statistical fact – so, in case you are thinking of Alexander or Napoleon or Vidyasagar or Sachin Tendulkar, remind yourself that these are truly exceptional people: how many such have you personally encountered? We are talking about the average MBA-type here (tall men with MBAs can be duds, of course: hence so many bad CEOs who drag their bottom lines down!) Likewise, the fact that a musician, first selected as brilliant when only heard by a great Philharmonic Orchestra, was rejected as soon as they saw that it was a woman, or the fact that far more black men get convicted with all kinds of crime than white men do in the US, despite the latter having the same weight of evidence against them, is due to the very unfortunate reality that typical judges and juries are still very heavily biased against women and blacks (woe betide the short and black woman!). And this sad reality is not altered by the fact that most of those judges and juries might be consciously very nice people, and very strongly not just profess but believe in the most liberal, egalitarian social values – we are talking subconscious minds here.
Gladwell, therefore, neither praises high-speed intuitive decision-making as the right thing to do in all situations, nor does he lament that its problems cannot be handled and cured, or at least ameliorated. Our biases against black men or women, for instance, which slow down our performances in all Implicit Association Tests (he says go to www.implicit.harvard.edu and take a test for yourself) are greatly weakened if we are asked to look at pictures of famous and great blacks or women for a while before sitting for the tests – ergo, it is highly recommended that social arrangements be gradually so re-organised that people in important decision-making positions first get a great deal of close first-hand exposure to nice and clever blacks and women and black women, so that those unconscious biases slowly fade. And since the bosses of the Munich Philharmonic chose both rightly and fairly when a screen prevented them from seeing that the musician was female, it is highly recommended that judges and juries do not get to see the accused, lest their unconscious biases get a chance to wreak havoc with sane judgments! It is this kind of practical solutions that appeal greatly to Gladwell – he is, after all, an American. Think how much harder it would be to bring about such social changes in a country like India, where our biases are not only explicit (every would-be bride who wants a good match had better be fair-complexioned), but most of us are still far from feeling guilty about them!
And finally, Gladwell suggests (with a doff of the hat at Freud) that all the mass of extant research seems to indicate that, contrary to popular wisdom, the big decisions – which require processing a great number of variables and juggling a great many facts – are best left to the subconscious, while the minor decisions in life (do I want a chocolate sundae right now?) can be dealt with in the best traditions of slow and careful analytical thinking. He tells people that the knowledge provided by this book should make us more aware that we could very often be wrong (shades of Russell!), and that should make us more forgiving towards those who cannot consciously help being wrong (that would have warmed Jesus’ heart). He also warns that having too much information at one’s fingertips can actually be disastrous instead of a great help to wise decision making, by making us both complacent and confused: that, says Gladwell, is precisely why the vast US military/intelligence apparatus, with all their superdooper technology and mathematical models, got their prognostication of the ongoing war in Iraq so horribly wrong!
Try the book. For some people, especially those still under 30, it could be a life-changing experience.