Month: August 2010

Cosmic Utilitarianism

Disclaimer: this blog post has no relation to Serious Philosophy. It contains only the opinions of the author, and therefore is not meant to be taken as an authoritative commentary.

According to Wikipedia, which we all know is THE best source of credible information anywhere in the world, Utilitarianism is “the idea that the moral worth of an action is determined solely by its utility in providing happiness or pleasure as summed among all sentient beings. It is thus a form of consequentialism, meaning that the moral worth of an action is determined by its outcome.”

So we can see that in Serious Philosophy, the term Utilitarianism refers to morality, and, by extension, the consequences of that morality and the motives of performing any action. There are many rhetorical contortions that brainy scholars have gone into over the ages, and I have no desire (or, frankly, patience) to revisit those arguments. But I do want to borrow the term and change its orientation a little. Everything in life happens for a reason. Whether you believe in a divine persona or not, there is an underlying assumption that something beyond our control is at work in our daily lives, shaping our ends, rough-hew them how we will. People and things enter and exit our lives, and we are not always the conscious instigators of the revolving door that is variously attributed to god, to fate or to luck.

I’d like to propose that it is the forces of the universe (which I think of collectively as God, though of course everyone has different convictions and opinions on this) that conspire to work the revolving door, and the basis for entrance or exit of entities into or out of our life is the use that they have for us. While this may seem to be just another form of fatalism, it moves beyond passive acceptance of events in our lives to the reframing of those events in our minds as having taken place to serve some purpose for us. This reframing process moves us from passive receptors to active learners who seek to understand the basic utility of all events, working on the assumption that all these events have a utility for us that is shaped by cosmic forces.

A couple of examples might help. When I was in school I had a particular pen that I carried in my pencil case for every exam. I didn’t use it to write with, but made sure I always had it with me because I was convinced that it brought me luck. I have no idea how this particular perception came about. Possibly because someone I admired as academically successful had given it to me and I thought some of that intelligence would rub off on me! When I did well, I was convinced that it was because of the pen, though of course it was the confidence that possession of the pen gave me which pushed me to study hard, think clearly, and write relevantly. At some point I must have lost the pen. It didn’t happen very dramatically or anything. I just realised one day that I had written a few exams without it in my pencil case, and when I searched for it, I couldn’t find it. By then of course my confidence in my own ability had grown. I didn’t need the pen anymore. It had served its purpose in my life and moved on- maybe into a wastebasket by mistake, but that hardly matters. There are no coincidences in life and everything happens for a reason.

I have also had people who started out as part of my innermost circle of love and trust but then drifted away until they are today no more than passing acquaintances at best or total strangers at worst.  Of course it hurts when this happens. We become attached to the people in our lives and the partition is never easy. It makes us question them, ourselves, relationships, life, love. But this questioning process is an important one. After the anger, the denial, the grief and the acceptance comes understanding. If people come into our lives it is because we have important lessons to learn from them, and they from us. When they leave us, it is because we have each learned what we needed to. Or perhaps because it is only in the separation that the lesson can be learned. Either way the relationship is utilitarian, and the forces behind it are cosmic. For every relationship that has broken up new ones have formed. For example, each blood sister who left my life has been replaced with what I call a soul sister. We do not share parents, but we are kindred spirits, and the universe brought us together because we needed each other.

This all seems so simple as to almost qualify as a blinding flash of the obvious. That’s because it is, especially when we are talking in the abstract. But where I think articulation of the theory helps is when we need to face the events in our life with equanimity- not jumping up for joy when something/one comes into our lives, not collapsing into a sodden heap when something/one leaves our lives. I would be the first to admit that I am far from achieving this ideal state. But applying the theory of cosmic utilitarianism- in however delayed a manner after my first impulsive reactions- is at least contributing something to the learning process.

Feminine Empowerment Coded in Ritual

Last Friday, many Hindu wives performed the Varalakshmi Puja. This is a ritual that is ostensibly supposed to be for the protection of the husband and family, and the granting of all wishes (as a side note, the well-being of the family is generally assumed to be all that the ideal Hindu wife wishes for).

The altar is elaborately decorated, multiple dishes are prepared as offerings, other married women are invited to receive symbolic gifts, the ritual itself is performed and the accompanying story is read aloud. Having played the game right, the good wife then touches her husband’s feet to get his blessings.

In this version, the potential for outrage immediately becomes clear, especially if you are an educated woman who sees no way to justify your ideal of equality in marriage with this clearly asymmetrical power balance. I admit that for many years I performed the puja a little unwillingly, more to fulfill cultural and family obligations than out of any personal spiritual conviction.

To understand the level of outrage, you really need to know the story. And so, here is the nutshell version:

The goddess Parvathi asked her Lord Shiva to recommend a ritual that even (significant word) women of any (significant word) caste could perform. We gather from this that generally rituals were performed by Brahmin men. (Since my focus is on gender here I won’t deal with caste for now. But I am aware of the elephant in the room.)

Shiva described the Varalakshmi Puja as one such ritual, and explained how it was to be done, as well as what benefits it would confer. In response to Parvathi’s question about who had done the ritual before, Shiva narrated the story of Charumathi, a Brahmin lady who did Everything Right (I can’t seem to keep the sarcasm out. Forgive me.) She would wake up at an unearthly hour, do all the housework, pay obeisance to her husband and her in-laws, and generally was a paragon of wifely virtue according to the Hindu creed.

As a reward the goddess Varalakshmi appeared to her in a dream and described a ritual to her. She woke up and told all the ladies in the town about it (clearly a very efficient system of communication) and got them all so hyped up that when the day came they didn’t let her forget and descended on her house ready to perform the ritual. They cooked the offerings and decorated the altar. Then they proceeded to walk three rounds around the altar. When they had completed the first round, anklets appeared magically on their feet. At the end of the second round it was bangles on their wrists, and after the third round they were covered in assorted jewelry. Presumably this was supposed to be the reward for their devotion.

As a young bride I was horrified at what I saw as a shallow tale of materialistic gratification under a thin veneer of religious manipulation. I know of people who perform the ritual and leave out the story because it makes their hackles rise. There are others who simply pay no attention to the story, focusing on the decoration of the altar, the entertainment of their visitors and the general sense of wellbeing that any communal event seems to give rise to.

But years of performing the puja, and recent transitions in my life, have given me a new paradigm within which to place the ritual. I think that the story of Charumathi is really a form of coded feminine empowerment.

It seems to me that the chastity and faith of the woman sanctifies the man and his family. It places a terrible moral burden on the woman, but if you are in a position to do the ritual then that indicates a desire or at least an opportunity for the attainment of a higher spiritual plane.

Despite the discomfort about the story details, it’s not really about the man or his parents at all. It’s about the investment of divine power in the feminine, in a context of male-dominated ritual. In Rigvedic times there is supposed to have been more equality between men and women, but that was a really long time ago. Along with changes in socio-political contexts come modifications to religion, since this is possibly the easiest way to control whole populations while making them believe it is for their own good.

In any case, there developed a situation in which men were the custodians of ritual, and this of course invested them with a certain amount of social status and power. The overt empowerment of the feminine in this context would have been impossible without upsetting a few apple carts. Hence the coding of the ritual as a sub-level of spiritual empowerment, apparently trivializing women’s aspirations by representing them as mere baubles, but perhaps in reality using the trinkets as a metaphor for spiritual enlightenment. And the women were in control the whole time.

I have written in a previous post about Indian women and our resorting to passive aggression in the face of learned helplessness. Whatever Charumathi was, she was far from helpless. And you have to hand it to her- that was one kickass stunt she pulled. Who knew if her dream was even real? But more importantly, who would dare to mess with her after that?

In many parts of the world, it could be argued that education is moving women forward, but large numbers are still subject to terrible discrimination. In that kind of situation anything that advances the cause of women is a good thing but only if it is viewed as such. In these countries, Western models of feminism are often seen as strident, alien and unfeminine. Perhaps the answer lies in decoding traditional tales and rites, and investing them with meanings that invoke the power of the feminine.

Why Twitter spoils my reading pleasure

As I become more active on Twitter, I notice a number of things happening, and not all are good things.

To start with, it strikes me that armchair pundits are overrepresented. These are people (sometimes quite important ones) who comment on political situations and give their opinions- which to their credit are often well-informed. But as representative as their views may be of general sentiment, I wonder if they are also manipulative of that same general sentiment.

This is not a bad thing of course. Responsible people with experience and insight should have a hand in moulding public thought, else it will be left up to narrow minded rabble rousers alone to steer the course.

No, I have no beef with the pundits, and follow a few of them myself. India has a lot of them- brilliant and articulate, they open up new avenues of thought for me. I find myself wondering why Singapore does not have these sorts of people. A lot of it has to do with freedom of speech.

In his book, “The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cellphone”, Shashi Tharoor writes that the Indian press is “free, lively, irreverent, disdainful of sacred cows. India is the only country in the English-speaking world where the print media is expanding rather than contracting, while the country supports the world’s largest number of all-news TV channels.”

It would be nice if we had this sort of situation here in Singapore, but of course we are two different countries set in different contexts, facing vastly different challenges. That’s not the point.

Maybe there is another reason why we don’t see so many armchair pundits in Singapore. Maybe the people who care are too busy doing what they believe should be done to tweet about it. It’s such a small country, maybe we don’t have enough responsible people to form two groups- those who do and those who tweet. And so they just do.

After all, it’s easy to ask tough questions in 140 characters. If you have enough air time on TV or print space in a newspaper, you can have thousands of followers on Twitter lauding you for asking the tough questions. But it takes more than 140 characters to provide the answers, and most online citizens don’t have the patience to go into those.

I want a more free press in Singapore, I want political commentary to go beyond amusing songs on the Mr Brown show. But I think I’d rather have more of the active citizens than the celebrity pundits.

But what really gets my goat about Twitter is that it threatens to spoil my reading pleasure. I am experiencing increasing levels of meta-tweet awareness. Here is how it goes as I read:

“Ooh maybe this phrase would be good to tweet. Hang on, as I read there are more good phrases. Maybe I should tweet about the plethora of good phrases in this book. Or maybe tweet about how I’m thinking about tweeting while reading. Or about how Twitter is spoiling my reading pleasure. Sod it! I’ll blog about it, listing all the good phrases that are distracting me. THEN I’ll tweet about the blog post. Phew glad that decision is out of the way. Now to de-link from Twitter and get on with my reading. Hmmm… Good phrase. Tweet-worthy? Argh!”

My new toy

I have just bought an iPhone, and right at the outset am going to admit that it is terribly addictive. I have been going nuts adding applications, fiddling with settings and asking people’s advice about how to get the most out of my new toy. Languishing on my nightstand are my plain old fashioned cell phone (or POFCP for short) and my BlackBerry (henceforth to be referred to as bb- hey typing on the iphone takes some getting used to ok?).

To be honest I am getting a little overwhelmed. Unlike the trusty bb, on the iphone all the apps interact like crazy with no prompting from me. I have no idea which bits of data are being shared by which app when. I am not an introvert, but privacy is important to me. I crave the minute control that the bb allows with its detailed permissions.

There is also the privacy of bb messenger and PIN messages that you only get on the bb. Now I am not carrying state secrets or anything, but I think that this can be quite an asset. Also, there is an exclusiveness to the bb-to-bb communication that you just don’t get with Internet based platforms.

But there is no doubt that a whole new world has been opened up for me. If I can just get used to touch screen typing I should be on my way!

National pride: show me the money

How surprising is it that in the Institute of Policy Studies survey (published in the Straits Times and TODAY, Monday 2nd August 2010) it was found that Singaporeans’ sense of pride and national identity are tied to the country’s economic achievement? This is the direct result of using economic motivation as a paradigm for nation building. When all our policies are geared towards the economy, how can we expect that anyone will go beyond this goal, National Education notwithstanding? Economic success is only a means towards building a vibrant and thriving society. It cannot be the sole definition of one.

The survey also reported that there is a desire for more political participation, but there is little follow through. People want to have a say, but don’t actually take steps to get heard. Clearly, this links to the first point. Economic motivation is not a compelling reason for active participation. As long as there is food on the table, our needs are met and we have no desire to explore the philosophy of citizenship. Voting is not an example of active citizenship in a country where most constituencies face walkovers, and the passion for political involvement fades when faced with the rhetoric of need for administrative efficiency.

Eugene Tan of SMU is reported as saying that “ultimately, it is about getting the more educated and affluent Singaporeans to go beyond the ‘me-my-and-mine’ mindset.” I don’t think so. I think it is about giving people a safe place to speak up, because the higher you climb, the more you think you have to lose when you have the fear (however misplaced) that the administrative machinery will come down on you like a ton of bricks if you put a foot wrong. Active citizenship has to be nurtured in a forgiving environment that allows mistakes as long as each mistake pushes the collective consciousness further along on the learning curve.

Loyalty comes with intense involvement not only in the economic success of the country (which- let’s face it- is a vital ingredient) but also in its political process. As long as only the first is seen as a valid goal, people who have other economic options are going to keep them open.