Denying people their jokes

When I was in Bangalore earlier this year, I was talking to a “US returned” friend about moving back to India, and he mentioned that one of the reasons he moved back is that he didn’t find very good “culture fit” in the US. “The thing that got to me”, he said, “was that I couldn’t even connect with their jokes”.

Living in the UK, that is not that much of a problem for us, since British humour is pretty good, but this anecdote illustrates how important jokes can be for people.

Regular readers of this blog might know that I get damn irritated by the new-found culture of political correctness. While it is not my intention to hurt anybody or their feelings, I feel that political correctness is being overdone nowadays, and that severely restricts what you can say. And that is a problem for people like me who like to say things without thinking.

Reading the odd news report from the US – about the Trump campaign, for example – it’s clear that I’m not alone in having a problem with this newfound political correctness (oh – I can now expect people to attack me for having views similar to Trump’s voters). In some ways the left-right battle in the US can be described as a battle of political correctness, where the “left” likes to be all correct, and expects that everyone else is also always politically correct and not offensive, while the “right” wants to say things as they are.

Anyway, putting together my friend’s anecdote about not getting American jokes, and the culture of political correctness, I can think of one other, possibly major, reason why people are pissed off about the culture of political correctness – it denies people their jokes.

Most popular jokes – may not be the best ones, mind you, but ones that have high memetic fitness – are cracked at the expense of an “other”. This “other” can sometimes be another person – even a public figure, but at other times, it defines a particular community (though not necessarily a certain community). And the joke consists of laughing at this particular other community (broadly speaking).

So you have short people jokes, and black jokes, and Jewish jokes, and Pakistani jokes, and Muslim jokes, and so on. And then you have sexist jokes.

Now put this in the context of political correctness – most jokes that most people have grown up on are now taboo, because they are offensive to one or the other community, and it is not polite to make fun of these communities. So a whole truckload of jokes that people are grown up on can now not be cracked in polite company. And as even the Soviet Union discovered, that can be oppressive.

I recently read this book called Hammer and Tickle – a History of Communism through Communist Jokes (you can find an extract here). This sub-heading accompanying the extract summarises the Soviet attitude towards jokes:

Communism is the only political system to have created its own international brand of comedy. The standard interpretation is that communist jokes were a form of resistance. But they were also a safety valve for the regimes and jokes were told by the rulers as well as the ruled‚ÄĒeven Stalin told some good ones

Now if only the “modern Soviets” were to get this!

TV Punditry

Those of you who might be following me on social media (Twitter/Facebook/LinkedIN) might know that I’ve started a career in TV Punditry over the last week. Well, it’s not that much of a career – I still need to figure out how to get paid for it.

Anyway, so I was on News9 once on Saturday (analysing exit polls) and again on Tuesday (analysing the election results). It happened pretty much at random, from a random twitter conversation:

And so Mathang (who I’d first met in 2004 when he had interviewed me for Education Times) set me up with Anil Kumar from News9, who presently asked me for my number. A couple of twitter DMs, a couple of emails and a couple of phone calls later, I had been asked to come to the News9 studio at 5pm on Saturday.

Saturday’s session was really enjoyable, and I spoke a fair bit on the process of conducting an exit poll, the importance of sample sizes and representative samples, the process of converting votes to seats, etc. A 5 minute monologue on sampling process got the anchors interested in me, and they kept coming back to me. As is my wont, I summarised the import of my arguments for Mint.

And so I got invited again for Tuesday’s post-counting session, and I’m not sure I enjoyed it that much. As the elections threw up a hung assembly, the politicians on the panel spent their time shouting at each other. I was seated in an inappropriate place – right between a loud JDS spokesperson and a loud BJP spokesperson. I recused myself from much of the discussion and was only brought in because the anchors probably thought I should be “given some lines” – an opportunity I used to comment on the parties’ election strategies.

So two TV appearances later, I must say I quite like the format – it’s good footage (literally) if not anything else, but it can be a bit painful. Writing is easy in the sense that you just collect your thoughts and deliver them at a time.

Video means that you are virtually participating in a group discussion, and need to butt in to make your point. You might have something insightful to say, but need to wait for an opportune time to interject. You might be in the middle of a long point but get interrupted by another panellist. You might wait for ages to say something but the opportunity never comes. At other times, you might get a question that you’re not prepared for.

The worst thing as an analytical guy on TV is that you need to keep referring to your data, and your analysis. So there was one occasion on each session when the anchors asked me a question to answer which I’d to write some code to answer. So each time I mumbled something and bent down to my laptop, and got bailed out by the anchor who got someone else’s view in the time I took to get the requisite data.

In any case, I want to do more of this. I also hope that like with my writing, I can some day hope to get paid for TV appearances – this is a hard job since panellists representing political parties don’t charge anything – it’s in their parties’ interests to be represented on the show.

But, some day..

PM’s Eleven

The first time I ever heard of Davos was in 1997, when then Indian Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda attended the conference in the ski resort and gave a speech. He was heavily pilloried by the Kannada media, and given the moniker “Davos Gowda”.

Maybe because of all the attention Deve Gowda received for the trip, and not in a good way, no Indian Prime Minister ventured to go there for another twenty years. Until, of course, Narendra Modi went there earlier this week and gave a speech that apparently got widely appreciated in China.

There is another thing that connects Modi and Deve Gowda as Prime Ministers (leaving aside trivialties such as them being chief ministers of their respective states before becoming Prime Ministers).

Back in 1996 when Deve Gowda was Prime Minister, Rahul Dravid,  Venkatesh Prasad and Sunil Joshi made their Test debuts (on the tour of England). Anil Kumble and Javagal Srinath had long been fixtures in the Indian cricket team. Later that year, Sujith Somasunder played a couple of one dayers. David Johnson played two Tests. And in early 1997, Doddanarasaiah Ganesh played a few Test matches.

In case you haven’t yet figured out, all these cricketers came from Karnataka, the same state as the Prime Minister. During that season, it was normal for at least five players in the Indian Eleven to be from Karnataka. Since Deve Gowda had become Prime Minister around the same time, there was no surprise that the Indian cricket team was called “PM’s Eleven”. Coincidentally, the chairman of selectors at that point in time was Gundappa Vishwanath, who is also from Karnataka.

The Indian team playing in the current Test match in Johannesburg has four players from Gujarat. Now, this is not as noticeable as five players from Karnataka because Gujarat is home to three Ranji Trophy teams. Cheteshwar Pujara plays for Saurashtra, Parthiv Patel and Jasprit Bumrah play for Gujarat, and Hardik Pandya plays for Baroda. And Saurashtra’s Ravindra Jadeja is also part of the squad.

It had been a long time since once state had thus dominated the Indian cricket team. Perhaps we hadn’t seen this kind of domination since Karnataka had dominated in the late 1990s. And it so happens that once again the state dominating the Indian cricket team happens to be the Prime Minister’s home state.

So after a gap of twenty one years, we had an Indian Prime Minister addressing Davos. And after a gap of twenty one years, we have an Indian cricket team that can be called “PM’s Eleven”!

As Baada put it the other day, “Modi is the new Deve Gowda. Just without family and sleep”.

Update:¬†I realised after posting that I have another post called “PM’s Eleven” on this blog. It was written in the UPA years.

The “war” on terror

In light of the terrorist attack in London this morning, when 29 people were hospitalised following an explosion in a peak hour District Line train on a massively crowded route, I nearly re-wrote this old blogpost of mine. I even thought of the very same examples before I figured I should once check.

Recently, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi declared “victory over Islamic State“, and announced that the organisation had been defeated. In this statement, Al-Abadi conveyed his ignorance of the kind of conflict his government was involved in, for Islamic State is not a “normal country” and the so-called “war” the Iraq and others are fighting it is not a war – since it will never end the way normal wars do.

As I’d mentioned in the other post on wars, wars end in a political decision – a surrender, usually. Sometimes, it takes extreme measures to induce surrender, as it happened with Japan in World War 2. At other times, a slight advantage to one side might lead the other to concede, and strike a treaty. Either ways, in a conventional war, few sides are likely to fight on until last man standing.

The so-called “war on terror” (especially aimed at the Islamic State) is not a war for several reasons. Firstly, Islamic State is not a conventional organisation – it has transcended that to become a concept, to unite radical Islamists worldwide. Irrespective of how many layers of the top management of the Islamic State are eliminated (either by killing or by incarceration), the remainder of the organisation will regroup and continue to thrive. And the organisation continues to grow – with ordinary members constantly seeking to enroll new members.

This feature of the Islamic State not being a conventional organisation also means that there is no central leadership that has the power to concede defeat and declare the war to an end. Even if a nominal leader of the organisation were to take such a decision, the fact that the organisation is an extremist on might imply that this decision might be decried as “selling out” by the more extreme factions of the organisation, who will fight on.

Then, the Islamic State is a distributed organisation – even in terms of geography. The use of the internet for recruitment has meant that they have operatives in most countries, and after some initial training, these operatives operate independently. So even if a nominal “top management” of the organisation were to be eliminated, these independent operatives will continue to thrive. And they need to be taken down – to the last man.

In that sense, the “war” against Islamic State is hardly a war. There is no political objective since the Islamic State lacks a political leadership capable of taking decisions. The organisation is rather distributed and even killing the “main organisation” will not eliminate the branches (reminds me of this demon in Hindu myth who had the property that each drop of his blood that would touch the ground would result in a clone of the demon).

The fight is going to be a long one, and we’ll need measures both conventional and unconventional to defeat the organisation. Declaring victory, like the Iraqi PM did, can only prove counterproductive.

On cultural appropriation

Over the last few months, I’ve come across this concept of “cultural appropriation” several times. I don’t claim to get it completely, but I think I understand it enough to comment about it.

Going by Wikipedia, cultural appropriation

is the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture. Cultural appropriation, often framed as cultural misappropriation, is sometimes portrayed as harmful and is claimed to be a violation of the collective intellectual property rights of the originating culture

The list of celebrities who’ve been accused of cultural appropriation runs way too long to list here, but it’s basically a popular topic of outrage among the modern left, commonly described by their detractors as “social justice warriors” (SJW).

In any case, my attention to the topic was drawn by a recent essay on the topic by philosopher Kenan Malik. In “In defence of cultural appropriation“, first published in the New York Times, Malik writes:

But who does the policing? Every society has its gatekeepers, whose role is to protect certain institutions, maintain the privileges of particular groups and cordon off some beliefs from challenge. Such gatekeepers protect not the marginalized but the powerful. Racism itself is a form of gatekeeping, a means of denying racialized groups equal rights, access and opportunities.

In minority communities, the gatekeepers are usually self-appointed guardians whose power rests on their ability to define what is acceptable and what is beyond the bounds. They appropriate for themselves the authority to license certain forms of cultural engagement, and in doing so, entrench their power.

In fact, reading the rather long essay, it was hard for me to disagree with him. In fact, it started to make me wonder why cultural appropriation is a matter of debate at all – controversial enough that at least three editors who defended it have lost their jobs (per Malik). In fact, Malik himself was victim of significant online abuse and trolling following his article.

So thinking about this topic during a work break the other day, I found compelling evidence about why the concept is bullshit – basically, it’s one-sided.

The whole concept of “cultural appropriation” hinges on there being a “superior community” and a “marginalised community”, with members of the former not allowed to adopt practices of the latter. This is a one-way street – if you turn the argument around and say that a person from a traditionally “marginalised community” should not adopt cultural practices of a “superior community”, you’re essentially being racist or casteist or whatever.

Consider this, for example – “Dalits should not recite the Vedas because by doing so, they are appropriating the culture of caste Hindus“. ¬†It is unlikely that any self-respecting SJW would condone this statement. But turn the communities around, and the outrage on cultural appropriation become legit!

This makes the entire concept problematic, since it rests on a prior of certain communities being “marginalised”. In other words, it rests on a prior of a partial ordering of “communities”, with some considered more advanced than the other. Take away any such ordering or hierarchy, and the concept of cultural appropriation falls flat.

To me, the outrage about cultural appropriation smacks of a sort of “white man’s burden” among SJWs in an attempt to seemingly protect seemingly marginalised communities. All this achieves, as Kenan Malik mentions in his essay, is to empower the self-appointed leaders of these marginalised communities.

Opinion polls and betting

So for a change the opinion polls seem to have got it right. I’m talking about the just-concluded elections in the UK here, which has returned a hung parliament. The Tories have fallen just sort of a majority (in Kannada we’d call it “AJM“). It’ll be interesting to see how a government will be formed now.

Now, the thing is that the opinion polls got it right. While the Tories had started off with a big lead at the time the elections were announced, opinion polls over time showed that the race was getting a lot tighter. I’d piggybacked on the opinion polls to conduct my own analysis which got published in Mint.

Having shown off that I’d made the prediction correctly, let me get to my hypothesis of why the opinion polls got it right.¬†Opinion polls in the UK have a greater chance of being right because because betting is legal here.

I was walking around Central London yesterday when I saw this poster outside a betting shop.

Because betting is legal in the UK, betting houses take bets on just about anything, including the results of elections. The way betting works is that the betting houses make markets. They present odds for each side of the deal (in this case, let’s say Tory win, Labour win and hung parliament), and whenever a punter walks into the shop and places a bet, it’s the house that’s taking the opposite side of the bet.

What this implies is that the house better get the odds right, otherwise the difference in their odds and the actual results can wipe out the shop. And how does the betting house know where to set the odds? For something like an election, they rely on the opinion polls.

If the opinion polls get it wrong, the betting houses can end up losing a lot of money (like they evidently did last year during the Brexit vote which most pollsters got horribly wrong). So there is a legal entity which has real skin in the game in opinion polls being right.

I’m not sure of the ownership of the opinion polling companies here in the UK, but I won’t be surprised if they make plenty of money by selling their results to betting shops (at a more granular level than what they make public). And given the intense competition among pollsters here in the UK (at least 15 different agencies conducted opinion polls ahead of yesterday’s elections), there is a real incentive for a pollster to get it right – get it wrong and the betting houses might take their business elsewhere.

In case betting wasn’t legal (such as in India), polling agencies wouldn’t be able to legally sell their results to betting houses and punters, and their markets would be limited to media houses. Media houses don’t have that much of a skin in the game in the polls – their profits don’t depend on getting polls right as much as the profits of betting houses. And pollsters would have less incentive to get the polls right.

Now, howzzat?