This is an obvious fact that everyone can grasp; yet I’m really surprised by the pessimism of even the educated people who say “Nepal is doomed”.
Why? I ask them. Most reply that we are being ruled by thugs and are not really a democracy but rather a plutocracy. We’d rather have a strong autocrat like Lee-Kwan Yew or maybe even Gyanendra himself, they say, and we haven’t experienced progress of any kind.
Then I reflect upon the country’s history. How long has it been that we’ve become a republic? 10 years? And how long since we’ve had our first, elected, constitutional government? Not even a year?
Not even a year of stable governance and we already want a strongman. Is that rash or just immensely short-sighted? And is there a guarantee that a strong authoritarian leader that we may get – will out of serendipity become a benevolent one like Lee Kwan Yew? We could very well get our own version of Gaddafi or Saddam. Don’t tell me if you’ll miss democracy then.
Of course there is corruption, of course there are instances of nepotism and of course the laws aren’t perfect and neither is the constitution. Progress isn’t utopian. Struggle will always ensue in the path of progress. Stability, development, good education, quality of life – all these will take time. We may have immensely corrupt politicians today, but with time and a newer generation the person in that position will become less corrupt, the next one thereafter may not be at all. No matter how much those in power tend to ignore problems at present, they cannot stay that way forever because demand or outrage will ensue, values will change and people will want progress so much that there will be little room left for wrongdoing. But for that we should constantly be voicing our concerns or demands – never being complacent nor unjustly pessimistic.
Here’s what Noam Chomsky has to say about realistic optimism. “Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, it’s unlikely you will step up and take responsibility for making it so. If you assume that there’s no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope.”
Imagine if we do not have democracy – we will have no right left to even voice about change, let alone take responsibility to see it happen. If not for democracy, the vicious cycle of illegitimate plutocrats or autocrats would have kept strengthening to the point that we may never would’ve been able to resist them. Power cannot be trusted to a concentrated few. Even if it seems imperfect to start with, it is always better used when divided. All the struggles, all the lives lost – all for nothing. So we need to throw away the poisonous cultural and political pessimism that we brew in our minds because we read too much headlines and use too much twitter – but not facts, statistics or critical thought. So to even opine that the country would be better ruled by undemocratic forces instead – is morally irresponsible!
Steven Pinker summarizes in Enlightenment now: “A liberal democracy is a precious achievement. Until the messiah comes, it will always have problems, but it’s better to solve those problems than to start a conflagration and hope that something better arises from the ashes and bones. By failing to take note of the gifts of modernity, [unjust] social critics poison voters against responsible custodians and incremental reformers who can consolidate the tremendous progress we have enjoyed and strengthen the conditions that will bring us more.”
Think about it Nepal……
* [I used France instead of Rome (unlike the original adage ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’), in the opening quotation, because I think the former represents democratic and humanistic ideals better than Rome would. I’m not, however, considering some of the notable heinous foreign policies of the aforementioned state for the sake of brevity. Some may also point out that France was also ruled by strongmen such as Napoleon; I’d like to highlight that we have been as well – on two occasions after 1951 – but nonetheless in both nations the call for democracy was too great to suppress.]
As I’m writing this, I’m very well aware that I should be going through my own little curriculum instead of this blog, but I have a habit of jotting down stuff instantaneously and, if I deem it’s worth it, sharing it with others. But this blog is not about me or my life, it’s about an obvious thought I had on which I really want to elaborate. It’s about higher education in this country in general.
There’s no point in regretting even the bad decisions you make in life since you can’t go back in time and right the wrong, but you definitely have a responsibility to redeem yourself or others from similar mistakes or misfortunes by trying not to put yourself in that sort of situation again, and by warning others at present or in the future. So this blog could be a useful insight for people who are, at present, in the same situation I used to be in the past. I have to say, with a heavy heart, that it was a grave mistake to have studied my undergraduate course in Nepal. However, I do think I have tried my best to compensate for the lack of diversity of ideas, absence of proper scholarly training and poor standards of scientific methodology in my medical college curricula, with amateurish self-education and a couple of online courses on research writing skills, thinking skills and professional skills albeit without any formal degree of any kind. None of which I got the opportunity to learn through my Alma mater nor through my university. Probably the most common demerit of studying in a private, non-autonomous medical school (does not include reputed public institutions).
But this blog is not just about medical education, but instead about the entire pattern of the local undergraduate system. I will also make an effort to question whether or not we should maintain technical disciplines such as medicine, engineering or law as undergraduate degrees. The blog is not meant to blame anyone directly, but instead to point out a serious problem in our education system here in Nepal (the scope of the blog focusing mainly on higher education and perhaps secondary, but not really primary education). However, we should with an open mind and honest self-reflection, be able to realize that all of us, perhaps myself included, are part of the problem.
If I see a fundamental flaw in our system of higher education, be it secondary, undergraduate or post-graduate, then it must be in the design and enforcement of restrictive and rigid curricula. Such is their pattern and strictness, that it is almost impossible to change subjects or streams midway through a course. Of course, I realize people will make the counter-argument of one having the responsibility to decide for themselves in due time. That makes sense, but it should also be realized that to be able to decide in that manner, students who are not really primed should have the right to receive a detailed orientation program providing an apt introduction into the system, before they have made their payment or admission. But they don’t get it.
I also realize that due to pragmatic difficulties in tackling the rampant bureaucracy, cronyism or nepotism or all at once, this arrangement may not be immediately feasible, but the troubling thing is, it looks like as if none of us are eager to solve the problem at all given the time many cohort of Nepali students have had to deal with such problems. Well, if this arrangement doesn’t fit within our system, then there should be an easier alternative, to be able to change the stream midway within the same university ecosystem. But that is not allowed without heavy consequences. Academic flexibility is simply non-existent. This, however, does not apply to technical disciplines such as medicine or engineering because since a lot of time and investment is required to train students, it would not be a viable or sustainable model if respective institutes came with a free abort switch every semester or so. But where such provisions do justice, there can be found none.
So students are stuck mostly in a rigid system of education, wherein a humanities student cannot major or minor with a science degree or a science student cannot minor in a philosophy degree (of which Nepali universities are seriously lacking in quantity and quality) and the like. As this does not apply to technical fields, such fields should be instead transcended up to the post-graduate tier. In short, to try and model them after the American system. Before addressing any rebuttals, I’d like to stress on an evident fact that high school or secondary school students are not fully capable to directly transition into a technical field without proper orientation or without undergoing the intellectual maturity-inducing buffer of undergraduate degrees. There is thus a reason why higher education in the United States of America is still the most sought after option for students globally. One general reason is that most of their universities are autonomous and allow students to discover themselves within a vast pool of career options. Another general reason is that despite the vast pool, they always have the flexible option of selecting add-on, alternate or double majors or minors, limited perhaps only by the individual’s capacity. And since they get an enormous amount of practical, theoretical and social exposure during their undergraduate years, only the surest of them will opt for the essential yet difficult technical fields as graduate studies.
Critics of this idea may dismiss it as a far-fetched and an overtly idealistic one, but if you look carefully into the history of education in the United States, they too had most vital technical education as under-graduate degrees as late into the 1980s. It was after a paradigm shifting legislation that most technical disciplines got raised into graduate-levels, allowing students time to be sure of their academic prowess during their undergraduate years. We don’t necessarily have to copy the Americans exactly. If you look at other western countries such as the United Kingdom, despite having technical disciplines included as undergraduate level degrees, prefer at least a year of internship, experience or related training and a well-guided, informed orientation before enrollment through a standardized exam. I guess that time lag provides a minimum buffer for students before painstakingly mugging up for entrance exams only to be abruptly thrown into an inescapable well of professional responsibilities.
I’m in no way saying students out here are incapable of pursuing technical studies right after secondary school. But I guess, having experienced the unfair pressure and also the irrational feeling of race to get a degree, a little bit of buffer of any kind would be more than welcome. Of course there are pretty competitive students who despite being of young age achieve any feat other international students achieve, or maybe even better. But these are outliers, and when talking about improving a system as a whole, we need to look at where the average lies. Sadly, our average is even below just ‘disappointing’ to be honest.
To add to our misery, in spite of this country declaring itself a socialist-welfare democracy in the constitution, the exponential mushrooming privatization of educational institutes could probably make even the red-state libertarian capitalists in the US jealous. As we all know, decades of political instability, and lack of stable regulations allowed this nightmare to project as reality. As you walk the streets of any big city or town in Nepal, you’ll definitely come to see at least 4 poorly established, cramped up, two-storied private schools every block or so. Going further, the story of colleges are similar, just only slightly regulated as the economic incentive is relatively higher. Moving on, even a pep talk about the frequency of private medical colleges or engineering colleges in the nation is enough to elicit a big, synchronous, nation-wide face-palm.
A university is supposed to be a self-sufficient, autonomous institute dedicated solely for the purpose of furthering scholarship and broad academic progress to help the society it exists in. But despite founders of the two largest universities in the country having that vision, their visionary goals definitely did fall victim to agendas carried by sycophants and crony bureaucrats, for us to today witness a disgusting trend of capitalization of an essential sector. Universities here prefer to hand out profitable affiliations wearing thick blindfolds without regard for any standard. Private medical schools, to be specific, screen students through, mostly but not always, poorly regulated entrance exams. That too, taken actually by their affiliated university and not they themselves. And there’s no trickle of standardization at all. One year the pattern is A and another year it’s like B and the subsequent year maybe even a Z! No wonder why Dr. Govinda KC keeps up his hunger strikes for more than 20 days each time. Entrance exams have no systematic curricula, people who make questions aren’t always taken fully in confidence liable to become leakers, and the question-makers depend almost entirely on Indian question-banks, without having to waste any intellectual effort to rigorously design a scientific or standardized pool of questions. An easy way out. Similar is the case for all private engineering colleges as well. And despite all this, they expect professional standards to rise (perhaps miraculously by way of some unseen entity).
Education in Nepal is heavily influenced by the Indian system. Rote learning, point-blanc in-your-face questions that test memory more than concept, and an ever increasing race-for-life fostered by a paucity of academic space amidst an ever-growing population rate. To be fair to India, institutes there are already starting to up their standards and loosen the pressure on students due to popular and intellectual demand across many places. But our institutes show no sign of budging from the ridiculously regressive, plagiarized standards of education that go completely against human nature itself!
I honestly do not have a pragmatic solution in mind for solving this. I guess perhaps people with better experience and knowledge than myself have even more workable solutions. I am just pointing out a problem from the point of view of a dissatisfied graduate who claims to have learnt more through foreign textbooks, curricula and the internet than I should have from the local curriculum or system. To tell you a story, as we were interns, demanding a raise in our stipend as per university guidelines, we were lambasted and lampooned by the authority quite literally as “immature children going against their guardians” (I never knew we had to pay a large sum of money to get such dishonest and insecure guardians). Despite giving us the raise, the college greatly cheated us with regard to rooms for interns saying ‘internship is not for resting’. Provision of rooms for interns remains, however, till this day, strongly etched in university guidelines for private medical education. A room that pops into existence every time the university inspection arrive and disappears right after they leave. And no one ever went further to ask for the room ever, because private colleges here actually have the tyrannical ability to hold individual students as academic hostages. For instance, if you open your mouth too much, your degree can be held back or your letter of recommendation not issued, conjuring up with some obscure and bureaucratic clauses for not doing so. It’s basically career suicide to voice against your college administration. Such is the reality, as I can write now as a safely emancipated graduate.
What may have happened to the world of philosophy if Socrates had never questioned the way of his teacher and his elders? Where would we be with the practice of blood-letting and operating without anesthesia had someone not doubted on their efficacy at one point in history? What would have become of this country had we not thrown out the Rana regime out of dissent? We would perhaps still be wearing long pointy masks to treat a global Bubonic plague with bear-bile and perhaps be taking our sick to the shamans to treat infections. Or perhaps be prosecuting dalits for spoiling the village well as per the first Muluki Ain set by Janga Bahadur Rana. Humans have come a long way from obsolete practices because people could doubt and improve on their doubts thereafter. As an old latin proverb goes: Where there is doubt, there is freedom.
But the trend we have in our education system, is that of a masochistic submission to the sacred ‘Guru’. Especially prevalent in medical education, if not in others. An anti-intellectual hierarchy that tries to suppress doubt and dissent from their juniors. To be fair to some inspirational tutors who really are dedicated towards encouraging openness and academic dialogue, I’ll say that you people fall in the minority and this isn’t about you lot. The pervasive mentality is still that of a hierarchy of age or professional graduation. ‘Thou shalt not go against the professor’ is the common save-your-asses trend. Or even the nonsensical ‘call your immediate seniors dai or didi’ or the anti-humanistic tradition of “Ragging” (Formal bullying of freshmen by seniors). Because if the professor or the senior has a problem with you, it’s highly likely that you’ll have a problem socializing or even passing. Academic dissent can easily turn into a sequence of personal vendetta and thus professional or academic sabotage, from which there may not be any redemption. One reason why students self-suppress themselves even in the face of inaccurate or outdated information. Ask anyone who has gone through an archaic testing pattern known as Viva-Voce in medicine. If you question the teacher or the examiner, you’ll hurt their ego so keep quiet instead and mug up their notes for some bloody marks or points!
To be a little optimistic, this trend is dwindling, thanks to the advent of broad band internet and an increasing awareness in part of the teachers as well as recently graduated students who became teachers themselves. But it’s not surprising to see students joyful whenever they find a good and welcoming teacher, because those still are rare. It’s this mentality that must be upgraded for us all to better our system. Students should never be held academic hostage for dissent or difference of opinion. How else is anyone supposed to broaden their mind and think outside the box? There’s a reason why freedom of speech and expression is vital in educational institutes, it’s to foster legitimate dissent without the fear of prosecution, formal or informal. A virtue which Nepali students almost certainly are deprived of in their institutions.
Race for the Holy Grail
Spoilers ahead! By the holy grail, I actually mean academic degrees. That’s all that matters to a majority of parents, students, teachers and institutes. We are, in this tiny country, in a serious race for some academic degree and to earn money faster than our neighbors or cousins. A superficial counter-scholarly trend that is prevalent in this part of the world. Knowledge, professional training or skills should be the desired means as well as the end of any academic of educational institute or student. Out here, paper certificates, many times liable to be counterfeit, are treated as the only important end. Degrees, though they seem important, are but just means to make a get some academic recognition and to earn a living. The end should, rightly always be, the knowledge and expertise one gets through the process of education.
Such is the provision out here, that students can even obtain a degree (however poor their academic or professional prowess might be) simply by passing a black and white exam that only screens for their ability to recall volatile memories. Concepts and practical skills are rarely well-tested. Now of course, as I’ve pointed out earlier, there are outliers who can excel in the same system as much as the outliers at other end who constantly fail and never get anywhere. Again I’d like to stress on the fact that it’s the average we should be after, not the outliers. Any body or group of people genuinely interested to improve the standards of graduates of any discipline, technical or others, should always strive towards improving the average. But that doesn’t happen here, at least not according to my experience and knowledge. It’s a culture reflected by acts such as schools displaying the names of their best 10 students on hoarding boards outside their premises, who have gotten good marks in a certain board exam. Much like one of those cheap click-bait advertisements we see on the internet for Viagra.
Colleges, campuses and private medical schools all exist, annoyingly fostering this dystopian mentality. Instead of improving the average, their focus is too often just on the outliers for the sole purpose of advertisement, possibly to pull in more students. The blame can partly be put on the society as well. These profit houses disguised as professional institutes, are mere stamp pads bearing the emblem of the university’s degree. Their fodder actually comes from the society’s priority of superficial taglines over the more important pulp of education: The real-world application of their knowledge. The major incentive is solely profit and nothing more, with certain exceptions of course, but very little. The people who run such institutes perhaps have no sense of responsibility towards the nation or the society at all. They can be justifiably called factory houses that package students with respective degrees, which occasionally hand out the best employee or best package award to keep the money flowing. A massive disgrace to scholarship indeed.
I repeat, I do not claim to have a solution at hand at the moment. I’m just a mere blogger highlighting what I saw to be wrong and disturbing. From the beginning of the history of scholarship, from the time of the first universities and schools established in the first civilizations, it is well known that the quality of any society is an indirect but proportional reflection of the quality of their education or scholarship. As a matter of fact, we can grossly estimate where our nation stands at the moment.
I really want to be optimistic on this regard though. Despite my harsh criticism, I do need to point out that this country has made significant strides in the sector of education as a whole, considering the nascent history of democracy and a sluggish yet emerging free market. Bureaucracy is not as pervasive as it used to be during the Panchayat era and it is being easier for citizens to access government services as per growing popular demand. Corruption and nepotism is being scrutinized, and efforts at improvement are being made by related individuals and groups in related sectors. The first actual federal government hasn’t even worked for a year and federalism hasn’t had an actual chance to test itself. Foreign graduates and expats are returning and there’s an ever growing entrepreneurial spirit reflected by the the emergence of new startups and them turning later into successful businesses. These are hopeful aspects of this nation. But never really enough to be content. Not yet.
Despite the visible glitter, attitude towards scholars, intellectuals and professionals are still not impressive though. Those who do opt to stay in Nepal to further their fields are seen with contempt, many even labeling them as elitists or non-relatable privileged class. Opinions of experts are not given more importance in policy making than those of a less educated but powerful politician. Celebrity worship is on the rise, but intellectuals and scholars are looked down upon with the stereotype of talkers and slackers (more than often, rightly so). It’s simply a paradox of dissatisfaction. All hope may not be lost, but anyone concerned should seriously need to contemplate on this grave matter.
If we supposedly need to start from any one point in the long and tedious process of bettering our society, then definitely top priority should be given to education and scholarship. Do we wish to stay in the dark and keep blaming our politicians for eternity, or do we wish to better our society by recognizing, respecting and emancipating our potency for enlightenment?
– His intentions are noble, but his approach is immature.
– His philosophy is courageous, but his support is mostly virtual.
– Actual reality is much more complex than portrayed by his political correctness…..
– Not every change can be achieved by playing the blame game, no matter how resistant or authoritative the opponent is….
– Blaming politicians will not solve anything, everything will ultimately come down to the democratic process…..
– We need to be able to suggest alternatives and also be able to implement those changes….
– To change a particular system we need to get into the system and change it from within…. not from a parallel….
– That is why I think Bibeksheel Nepali is a better force than Ishan to bring about effective change…. (but still not as effective as it should be)
– Change comes from the ballot boxes, change comes from opening our minds, not by idolizing a ‘messiah’ for change….
We do not always need a Gandhi or a Mandela to solve our problems. We can and are capable to raise our individual consciousness by training ourselves to think independently and by rationally and effectively being able to identify our biases.
Lately there has been quite a buzz around the the Nepali internet community regarding some Sidhha Baba Krishna das, who, along with his disciples and followers, has been claiming to have survived underground in a sealed compartment without food or oxygen for 9 days!
Now it surely is quite an astonishing achievement, defying human physiological limits, if what he’s claiming to have done is actually true.
At first, when I read the news on some online portal, I thought about leaving it as it is without debunking it, owing to the negative reputation among the public regarding online portals. It’s always a tedious work to debunk something that sounds so obviously farcical. But when I noticed big shot national daily newspapers such as the Annapurna post and National television such as NTV News cover Krishna Das’s story, the conscious part of me noticed that something was not right and thus I was motivated to write a debunk-blog on this.
Without wasting more time, let us examine his claims straight away, systematically.
The Claims made
Krishna Das claims supposedly on 25th Chaitra 2072 (7th April 2016) that he can survive without oxygen and food for 9 whole days.
He and his disciples and followers stage a demonstration on the above mentioned date where he was to supposedly sleep inside a polythene-sealed supposedly air-tight wooden compartment for 9 days.
Annapurna post goes on to report that the air-tight compartment was placed underground under observation of doctors and press (unclear about how many of them were present and whether or not they are affiliated to Krishna Das and his motives).
The sealed compartment was to be buried under 1 foot of soil and sand on top of which holy grass (Jamara) is to be grown, probably just to show that the lid to his compartment was not tampered with.
He claims he would be able to do so by the help of a certain unnamed yoga aasan and meditation, which allows him to stop his heart beat for 9 days!
He projected to wake up on 3rd of Baisakh 2073 (15th April 2016) at exactly 9:35am whence he shall be unearthed from his transient burial.
As promised he does wake up and is uncovered from the compartment at the said date and time.
If we were to only look at his side of the story, and also as reported through various Nepali media outlets, then whoa! This seems to be nothing but a miracle! Chamatkar! But, as with every other Godman and charlatan, there always remain some loose ends and loop holes while they make some extraordinary claim out of the blue to garner public attention and media coverage. Because we should realize that 1) most televangelists, godmen and religious leaders seek mass media for publicity and 2) we live in a superstitious country where national daily newspapers have serious daily segments on astrology and Vaastu Shastra. So it is nothing new for even reputed news portals to come up with credulous stories on some mystical babas or gurus performing some random magical stuff.
What troubles me, and urges me most to write this blog is especially a statement made in the NTV 8:00pm news report today, at a time when a great many people nation-wide are hooked to their TV screens for this segment. The news reader said “Baba claims that his success has demonstrated that Scientific medicine still has not been able to prove anything of this sort and needs more investigation in this sector.”
It’s a matter of concern in itself to see major media houses giving room to trivial news in place of the more important ones. It’s also very sad to see them portray some random charlatan as something worth considering, instead of trying to skeptically examine their activities as unbiased press is supposed to do. So I write….
Examining the claims in the same order
[Krishna Das claims supposedly on 25th Chaitra 2072 (7th April 2016) that he can survive without oxygen and food for 9 whole days.] Krishna Das has surely claimed to be able to live for 9 days without oxygen and food, but he is not the first. There have been many claimants such as this one, some who have even claimed to have done so for 15 days let alone just 9! This still doesn’t validate his claim however, as it suggests more than ever of a likelihood of some slick trick up their sleeves. Another one is that of this guy, who claims to have been living for 70 years without food and water. One thing constant in such cases is that these Babas carry out their demonstrations only in the presence of their devotees or disciples and most of the time refuse to participate in controlled experiments to be carried out by neutral third parties, when invited.
[He and his disciples and followers staged a demonstration on the mentioned date where he was to supposedly sleep inside a polythene-sealed supposedly air-tight wooden compartment for 9 days.] His samadhi takes place at his place of choice amidst his followers. It has been said that the whole thing was carried out in the presence of a few unnamed reporters and doctors. It’s not like in a country such as this that doctors and reporters cannot be bought. It’s also wrong to assume that a few doctors and press reporters could not even have been hoodwinked or deceived right there. Unless and until we are to be shown the details as to how the plastic was applied and how the compartment was designed, the whole demonstration loses its credibility.
[The air-tight compartment was placed underground under observation of doctors and press] This is simply not enough. As I have said before, doctors and reporters are people as well and can be easily deceived owing to the overwhelming presence of devotees and disciples. A better way to observe would be to place cameras both on the inside as well as the outside, that are able to provide us with continuous non-interrupted recordings. What makes me doubt is the compartment being made out of wood and placed just a foot under porous soil and sand, which may not seal air completely. The method by which the plastic seal was applied is not very clear as well.
[The sealed compartment was to be buried under 1 foot of soil and sand on top of which holy grass (Jamara) is to be grown, probably just to show that the lid to his compartment is not tampered with.] Nice try, but Jamara and sand are not enough in my opinion. One could easily cover pores with them and they too are not able to make the setup completely air-tight.
[He claims he would be able to do so by the help of a certain unnamed yoga aasan and meditation, which allows him to stop his heart beat for 9 days!] A lot of sadhus and babas have claimed to have been able to do so, simply with the help of yoga and meditation. The most popular claim is them being able to stop their heartbeat completely. The same claim is made by Krishna Das as well. When invited to a fair, unbiased and controlled experiment, most of them refuse or do not attend for one or other reasons. In an experiment, when some claimants were observed under ECG while they meditated, their heart did not stop at all.
The longest time breath held voluntarily recorded, is 24 min 3.45 secs and was achieved by Aleix Segura (Spain), in Barcelona, on 28 February 2016. This was done under a controlled setup by Guinness world records.
Yoga and meditation experts have been shown hold their breaths for longer than the average person who doesn’t do Yoga, but that is still not enough to hold it for a whopping 9 days as we are talking only in terms of minutes.
So it is impossible to be able to live even for more than a day with absolutely no oxygen, so 9 days is too extraordinary a claim!
[He projected to wake up on 3rd of Baisakh 2073 (15th April 2016) at exactly 9:35am whence he shall be unearthed from his transient burial.] Well, this is not hard to understand. To be able to predict for exactly how long one can go without oxygen is very unlikely and dubious.
[As promised he does wake up and is uncovered from the compartment at the said date and time.] But certainly if the entire setup is staged, then there would be no trouble in doing so. Anyone can do that. Not surprising.
Let’s come to the science part
Obviously a random blogger such as myself debunking Krishna Das’s claims logically is not enough to disprove him. But that still doesn’t give his demonstration any validity again. What is necessary is a controlled experiment to examine his claims. Because just as Carl Sagan has put it ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’. The more profound a claim is, more rigorous should an experiment be in order to try and test the claim. If it passes after such unbiased observed scrutiny then the claim could be considered valid. If valid, such findings would possibly aid the human race with further research in order to be able to hold breath long enough for deep sea diving or maybe even outer-space explorations. If not, then it becomes just another claim without evidence in the market.
So I have designed an experiment for this purpose, which will be able to test Krishna Das’s claims accurately, that also will be immune to any foul play or trickery.
Survival without oxygen (0% Oxygen i.e zero partial pressure of Oxygen)
Duration of claimed survival: 9 days (216 hours)
Claims this can be done by meditating in a Yogic aasan, which temporarily stops heart beat, while being deprived of Oxygen for 9 days.
Set-up and materials required
A completely air-tight (or vacuum) chamber that fits an adult human, made up of
Preferably hard plastic with air-lock system
that is preferably transparent and has a vacuum outlet to remove all air from within the chamber and vacuum it.
if transparency is not desired, then a go-pro or any camera system fit on all corners of the chamber inside as well as outside, that records video on continuous shot for 9 straight days
a team of significant professionals (certified medical doctors, journalists and technicians) not known to have been affiliated to Krishna Das in any way whatsoever.
an ECG (or vitals) monitor placed within the transparent chamber or that which can transmit signals wireless from within the air-locked chamber.
A pulse oxi-meter that displays oxygen saturation in the subject, to check if the subject is well and alive just in case his ECG becomes flat as he has claimed his heart will stop in his yogic aasan.
A system to monitor oxygen levels within the chamber
Camera angles outside the box should be adjusted such as the entire surface of the box from all sides, top as well as bottom, should be visible.
A method for immediate termination of experiment should the subject be under serious health hazard.
No one apart from the experimenters should be allowed within 10-20 metres of proximity of the setup.
The entire experiment is to be televised on a continuous shot with the help of multiple cameras simultaneously able to do so for 9 days continuously.
Setup is prepared accordingly.
Cameras roll in a continuous shot able to last for 216 hours straight.
Subject (Krishna Das) is allowed as much time needed to carry out the preliminaries (Puja, Yogic practices etc) required for him to prepare himself before commencing.
Subject not be allowed to take into the chamber with him any equipment or instrument that helps or aids breathing, his clothing and garments and body surfaces are to be thoroughly checked by the examiners.
When everything is ready, subject enters the air-tight chamber with ECG and Pulse oximeter monitors in-situ.
Cameras inside the chamber (if any required) is initiated into recording.
Air-lock is applied, chamber is vacuumed, subject’s vitals checked and oxygen level inside the chamber checked.
No one is allowed within 10-20 metres of the setup.
Unless the subject’s condition worsens to critical level or if the subject voluntarily signals for termination, the experiment will not be terminated until the 216th hour is over.
Pulse oximeter in-situ.
First-aid setup with stretcher.
Well-equipped ambulance on the ready.
Cardiopulmonary resuscitation setup with the provision of cardiac defibrillator and trained personell.
if Oxygen saturation (SPO2) is less than 80% with flat or almost flat ECG.
if SPO2 is less than 70% without flat ECG.
if SPO2 is less than 60% with or without flat ECG.
if subject signals for abortion.
Anyone thorough with high school science can understand this experiment and anyone equipped with the necessary budget and time can carry this out flawlessly. It’s a simple experiment anyone can design and perform.
If Krishna Das agrees to take part in this experiment or a similar controlled one, then maybe his claims are worth considerations and worth the time and effort of all the professionals involved. If he refuses, just like other previous babas and sandhus, then he goes straight into the archive of charlatans, frauds and con-artists. Period.
Let me begin by telling you all about a compelling process that happens all around the world, constantly. It’s an age-old story without which human and primate existence would not have been possible.
It begins when every month or so the uterus goes through changes in the endometrium, the cellular lining within its cavity, for it to prepare nurture a probable conceptus (fertilized ovum or zygote), which if the odds favor, may turn out to be a human baby one day. But the sad part in this story, with relation to the readily awaiting endometrium, is that the ovum is not always fertilized. So the poor endometrium which used up so much protein and nutrients for it to thicken up, under the influence of hormones, sheds itself and bleeds out through the vaginal orifice. The process repeats itself after almost a month. This, my friends, as you may have already guessed, is the process of menstrual bleeding. Completely natural and involuntary when it comes to the human female body and ends only when women reach old age.
But for many people around the world it’s more than just biology. To some, it’s a culturally inappropriate subject matter, a thing of shame; whereas to others it is just something natural they have to deal with every month or so. To some it is a foul and disgusting curse imposed upon women by some higher power, while to others it is a gift from the same. But all in all, whatever people’s perceptions may be about menstrual bleeding, it happens to women worldwide. A process that is of utmost importance for human reproduction, very natural in its entirety which necessarily should not have garnered any stigma had we seen it this way. However, most of us fail to realize this and the unsettling reality in some part of the world, including mine, is that menstrual stigma and taboo exist for real!
The Urban picture
To start from somewhere, let’s do so from the women that I happen to know. My mom happens to have a bachelor’s degree in economics and social science and my sister is in her first year of medical school. As I live in a privileged part of this country, I come across female relatives, family friends, colleagues, co-workers, nurses and friends in everyday life, all who have been educated beyond high school, many even holding scientific or healthcare degrees. These are well educated women. But if you go on to ask them whether they enter the puja kotha for worship or at minimum even touch the refrigerator during their menstrual bleeds, you’ll be surprised that most of them will admit that they don’t.
It’s a frequent debate I have with my mom and my sister as to why educated women like them have to follow such dated and baseless traditions which exist simply out of cultural misogyny? The answers I usually tend to get in defense are ‘our ancestors devised it for hygienic reasons‘ or ‘it’s our period of rest assigned by god, you’re simply saying this because you’re too lazy to work on our behalf‘ and if I push it further ‘don’t you feel ashamed talking to women like this?‘ or ‘it’s my choice, I just don’t want to touch the fridge and don’t want to argue with you for god’s sake‘ or ‘there are offerings to god kept inside the fridge, so I will not dare touch it’ and so on…..
Most of the time, I go on to further explain, that hygiene practices as proposed by the ancients should be considered in light of the fact that they had very limited knowledge about proper hygiene and tampons weren’t even invented then. But why do we need such practices now, in the 21st century, when you can get tampons for prices as low as Rs. 10 (10¢) and women can be simply taught how to look after their hygiene? [Read about Muruganantham, a man who invented cheap tampons in India] I add, that if they need rest, they could very well take any day/time off just like that; why wait particularly for periods and what has rest got to do with an act as benign as simply touching the fridge? And regarding the fridge containing offerings to some deity, for a believer such as my mom, aren’t women considered creations of the same supernatural force in Hinduism? So why would a supposed ‘creator’ ever be angry with her for simply touching the offerings? Here, obviously I get confronted with answers full of ad-hominem; as well as those containing arguments from authority and not to forget, God!
Perhaps it’s due to my constant questioning and maybe even my mom and sister being tuned to urban life, we have over the years become much progressive compared to what we were in the past and also when compared to other average families in the city. This is because except for the fridge and the puja kotha, my mom and sister touch almost everything else for convenience. Different families have different levels of norms when it comes to menstrual taboo in urban Nepal. Especially joint families with elderly members tend to be the most conservative with stricter rules imposed such that the women are not even allowed in the kitchen let alone touching the refrigerator. Another big irony is that I also happen to know many aunts and relatives residing abroad who enforce such taboo onto their daughters who are not even born in Nepal!
One could wonder how and why these practices came into effect in the first place? To that I’d answer; it is partly influenced by religion and partly by a deeply etched culture of superstition and misogyny. This aptly describes the Nepali society, at least in stereotype. In short, women are being discriminated for something that happens to them naturally. To me, it’s as irrational as ostracizing people for defecation or urination, but unlike such semi-voluntary reflexes, menstrual bleeding is not a reflex and definitely not voluntary.
The Rural picture
The picture in rural areas, is quite drastic. The untouchability factor being constant, though greatly amplified. I am referring to practices, such as those in rural parts of western Nepal, as the Chhaupadi (Nepali: छाउपडी). Here, a menstruating woman is known as a Chhau or Chhui which means ‘untouchable’ and Padi refers to ‘cow-shed’. Judging by the name, it’s literally the practice which considers menstruating girls and women untouchables and sends them to live in the cow-shed.
In Chhaupadi, a girl has to sleep out in the cowshed, away from her family for the length of her bleeding. She cannot touch other people in her family as it is believed that doing so will make those people fall ill. She cannot consume milk as it is believed that doing so will result in the cattle or buffalo to cease lactating; she cannot consume legumes or bread as doing so is believed to mar the crops and invite famine. Same goes for fresh fruits and vegetables. So she has to survive only on plain rice, salt and dry fruits; all when during her bleeding she requires more nutrients than usual as she is losing blood from her body.
A survey report [AWON, 2012] carried out by Action Works Nepal across different VDCs in Jumla and Kalikot from mid-western Nepal, showed that among the 88 girls interviewed,
77% were following Chhaupadi when they bled for the first time (menarche) and none of them were allowed to stay in the same room with rest of the family members (especially male members)
70% were not allowed into the kitchen
19% said they were restricted from the schools
76% of them reported restriction in eating and drinking milk and other milk/dairy products.
80% were not allowed inside temples
77% were not allowed inside prayer rooms
64% percent respondents reported restriction in eating holy foods
51% respondents mentioned restriction in eating meat and meat products
28% reported restriction in eating vegetables
About 20% respondents informed that they never attend school during the menstrual period, because of
restriction by parents (28%)
76% said that Chhaupadi was mostly imposed on them by their parents, priests or traditional healers (76 %).
77% women and girls said they felt insecure during their stay in cowshed
65 % women and girls said they cried in each period, afraid from possibility of sexual abuse, rape, snake and animal bites.
Chhaupadi is a matter of grave concern in terms of social equity and women’s health in a sense that it firstly is deteriorating to women’s health as it deprives them of the necessary nutrients they need during their periods. Secondly because it puts young girls and women at risk of pelvic infections and sepsis due to bad menstrual hygiene practices (as they stay away from their mothers and school and have been known to use the same cloth multiple times out of embarrassment) and lastly because it violates their right to live a free and just life. It’s one cruel ritual, second only to the sati pratha.
Despite the practice being prohibited by the Supreme court of Nepal in 2005, it is still practiced by the majority in rural sections of western Nepal. Strong belief preservation in addition to poor infrastructure as in roads, lack of effective law enforcement, paucity of schooling and pathetic literacy rates (especially that of women) being responsible. Multitude of NGOs and INGOs however, have been actively involved in spreading awareness against such ill practices with an aim to abolish the Chhaupadi tradition, some with good progress and some even without any.
The Chhaupadi may be one of the many extreme forms of Hindu menstrual taboo, but one element stays common to both urban as well as rural forms: The concept of women being untouchable during their periods. So it can be fairly said that it is not sufficient to just educate women as we can witness a significant number educated urban women practicing menstrual taboo regardless of their academic qualifications. I believe it is equally important for us all and especially activist women to make an effort to simply debunk such practices and to question them on a constant basis, starting from the city itself. Then only will it be possible for us to simultaneously take effective nation-wide actions to abolish practices such as the Chhaupadi. This has to be in a similar way as to how our society abolished the Sati pratha altogether, i.e starting from the city and the intellectual elite, such that now it is considered immoral regardless of religious belief.
The Global picture and psychological appeal of humans to purity
It’s not just in Nepal and India where menstrual taboo exist. We can find them in one form or another, more or less trying to depict the same superstition or fears across many different cultures world-wide. Just have a look at the two pictures below.
There seems to be a constancy of some sort when it comes to social perceptions about menstruation around the world. Malicious, superstitious or embarrassed perceptions regarding menstrual bleeding are not only limited to less well developed nations and socially backward societies. In developed nations the portrayal in tampon advertising of menstrual blood as blue instead of the actual red, is also an important field of concern to western feminist activists. They claim that such substitution is the result of social stigma associated with menstrual bleeding.
It could be said that menstrual taboo always arise out of misogyny and superstition embedded within the society potentiated by either an inherited culture or religion or both. It may be true to a great extent, but most of the time people tend to leave out one core aspect of human psychology which significantly contributes to preserving menstrual stigma around the world: the psychology of purity and cleanliness.
To understand the point I’m trying to make, you’ll have to read this excerpt from David McRaney’s book, You are not so smart, which briefly explains it with reference to a study in the journal Science.
“A great example of how potent a force your unconscious can be was detailed by researchers Chen-Bo Zhong at the University of Toronto and Katie Liljenquist at Northwestern in a 2006 paper published in the journal Science.
They conducted a study in which people were asked to remember a terrible sin from their past, something they had done which was unethical. The researchers asked them to describe how the memory made them feel. They then offered half of the participants the opportunity to wash their hands. At the end of the study, they asked subjects if they would be willing to take part in later research for no pay as a favor to a desperate graduate student.
Those who did not wash their hands agreed to help 74 percent of the time, but those who did wash agreed only 41 percent of the time. According to the researchers, one group had unconsciously washed away their guilt and felt less of a need to pay penance. The subjects didn’t truly wash away their emotions, nor did they consciously feel as though they had.
Cleansing has meaning beyond just avoiding germs. According to Zhong and Liljenquist, most human cultures use the ideas of cleanliness and purity as opposed to filth and grime to describe both physical and moral states. Washing is part of many religious rituals and metaphorical phrases used in everyday language, and referring to dastardly deeds as being ‘dirty’ or to evil people as ‘scum’ is also common. You even make the same face when feeling disgusted about a person’s actions as you do when seeing something gross. Unconsciously, the people in the study connected their hand washing with all the interconnected ideas associated with the act, and then those associations influenced their behavior.”
Just like the point I made earlier in this blog on the ancients’ perception of hygiene, people in the past most likely related menstruation and the bleeding associated with it as being disgusting or unhealthy or abnormal. I suspect that it is this subconscious priming in par with people’s tendency towards superstitious thinking (i.e post-hoc reasoning; something happened after this so must be because of this) and misogyny prevalent within patriarchal cultures (majority of human cultures being patriarchal) which is responsible for the perseverance of menstrual taboo around the world and Nepal.
Knowing just this should have given us all the more reasons to cease condoning or conforming to such age-old practices. But at least in south asia, the context can be slightly different and most of the time taboo can be glorified or potentiated especially by educated people who look for profound explanations supporting menstrual taboo, assuming about their explanations being scientific.
Pseudoscience, postmodernism, and belief preservation.
No matter how educated people may be, many constantly find biased explanations and reasons to follow menstrual taboo. Most refer to scriptures and ancient literature such as the Vedas, Gita, Upanishads, Pali Teachings, Manusmriti, Quran and the Hadith in order to justify their beliefs or claims. They tend to think that there are many ways of knowing something other than mainstream science and rationality (which they call western or material). They tend to justify ancient practices which have no basis in reality by conjuring up simplified or complex words or doctrines to describe them. Such type of people are known as postmodernists and postmodernism is nothing but an emotional reaction to any kind modernity by romanticizing about the past.
One such blogger, who ironically happens to be a woman, tries to justify menstrual restrictions by referring to words of random sages and ancient practises such as Ayurveda, goes by the name Mythri. The striking fact is that this author and her organization is actively involved in promoting women’s health across many parts in India. Below are some selected excerpts from her blog, Unearthing menstrual wisdom – Why we don’t go to the temple, and other practices:
“I realized that most practices arise from a common ground – Ancient Indian Science, which includes Ayurveda, Yoga, Meditation, Mantra and Astrology. The science of Mudras, a part of Yoga, is also important in this understanding.”
“Western allopathic medicine which is a few centuries old is based on external medication and intervention. Whereas Ayurveda which is at least 7000 years old, is a science of life and a natural healing system, with a deep understanding of the human body and its relation to nature. Ayurveda is based on the principles of three primary life-forces in the body, called the three doshas. Doshas are the bio-energies that make up every individual, and help in performing different physiological functions in the body. The three types of Doshas are Vata, Pitta and Kapha, which correspond to the elements of air, fire and water respectively.”
“According to Ayurveda, menstruation is closely linked to the functions of the doshas. Menstruation is regarded in Ayurveda as a special opportunity enjoyed by women for monthly cleansing of excess doshas; it is this monthly cleansing that accounts for female longetivity. There is a build up of energyin the days leading to menstruation as the body prepares for pregnancy. If pregnancy does not take place and menstruation starts, this built up energy gets dissipated from the body during menstruation. During menstruation,Vata is the predominant dosha. Apana vayu, one of the elemental air functions of the Vata Dosha, is responsible for the downward flow of menstruation. Therefore, any activity that interferes with this necessary downward flow of energy during menstruation should be avoided. During menstruation, women are more likely to absorb other energies in their environment. This forms the basis of most of the cultural practices around menstruation in India.”
“the energy during menstruation goes downwards into the earth, (at the puja table, offerings, altar), the energy is going upwards. This can bring discomfort in the body”
She blatantly states that mainstream science is ‘western’ when empirical observations of nature do not have any cultural affiliations. It’s just because many empirical observations of nature were first noted by westerners that many people out here wrongly associate science with the west. She has given too much room for Ayurveda and ancient scriptures and practices being valid when, in fact, they clearly lack significant rational and scientific elements in their attempts at explaining nature.
Her argument is based from a preconceived bias that the logic behind Ayurveda and Vedas are sound and that they are a ‘different’ kind of Science than mainstream science. But to be intellectually honest, there is only one kind of science: the one that describes nature objectively. Because truth is universal, objective and bears no other alternative.
So I can fairly say that she is wrong.
Allopathic medicine, during the time of Hippocrates also had irrational practices of bloodletting and was based on the principles of ‘humors’, similar to doshas. Chinese medicine also evolved separately and included the concept of ‘energy’ centres similar to ‘chakras’. Contemporary understanding of science and empirical data were poor back then so all cultures had their own ways of interpreting nature, and not all of them were accurate. Allopathic medicine, proved to be the most successful of them lot due to its adoption of logical thinking skills and evidence-based practices. It can be fairly said that allopathic medicine smoothly entered the realm of science to progress when Ayurveda and chinese medicine never did.
It is only now that we have been able to gather sufficient information about the human body. We know much about microscopic cells, microscopic pathogens, nano-scale protein receptors on cells, the DNA inside nuclei and actions of various drugs down to the molecular level for us to prove that the concept of doshas in Ayurveda is wrong. Similarly, as we now know that the main source of energy within a living cell comes from the ATP molecules in mitochondria (cells within cells), we are able to reject the ideas of the chakras or mystic energy. Likewise, it is also incorrect and dishonest to call scientific medicine as treating the patient from ‘outside’. Ayurveda, acupuncture and the like may have fallen into the category of ‘science’ at some point in the past, or to those who followed them, but at present they can be said to be obsolete. Justifying superstitious menstrual rituals and taboo by referring to such outdated practices is simply an intellectually dishonest act which misleads genuinely curious people and the concerned public.
As far as menstruation is concerned, it is a natural process best explained by modern mainstream medical science staying in touch with evidence. It’s nothing but the uterus shedding its cell lining in the absence of a fertilized ovum. There can be found no evidence for this ‘imbalance of doshas’ as proposed by ayurvedic practitioners.
She goes on to further explain about her interview with a certain Guruji (Religious leader). Here, according to her, the Guruji explains why women should not enter temples during menstruation.
“To further understand the aspect of not visiting temples during menstruation, our team travelled to Devipuram, in Andhra Pradesh. We found unique answers from Sri Amritananda Natha Saraswati (Guruji), founder of Devipuram, a temple in Andhra Pradesh which is dedicated to the Devi.
He said “What is pure, we don’t touch. And what we don’t touch, we call it a Taboo. She (a menstruating woman) was so pure, that she was worshipped as a Goddess. The reason for not having a woman go into a temple is precisely this. She is a living Goddess at that time. The energy of the God or Goddess which is there in the murthi (idol) will move over to her, and that (the idol) becomes lifeless, while this (the menstruating woman) is life. So that’s why they were prevented from entering the temple. So it is exactly the opposite of what we think”.
Seriously? How does he even know what this energy is? Can we even measure it? If not then why call it energy in the first place and how is it not different from any other unfalsifiable claim in the market? People such as this guru tend to conjure up esoteric and confounding words in order to create circular arguments to justify their means. Just have a look at this particular explanation she provides in the same blog as to why menstruating women should avoid cooking and eating with others during menstruation.
“As told to us by a pranic/energy healer, eating was considered as a spiritual activity. Many orthodox Brahmins even today chant as they cook to ensure that the food has higher and positive energy in it. During the process of eating food, the lower chakras (read explanation at the end of this paragraph) of our body are highly active. It is to change this, that Buddhist monasteries have a practise of reciting the scriptures during meal hours, so that the monks are focussed on higher chakras. So while eating, people expel negative energy all around. In the normal course of things, we would not feel it. But if a menstruating woman who is sensitive to absorb all types of energies around her is in the middle of a group that is eating, she can get affected by the lower energies (as opposed to higher or spiritual energies, which are beneficial). This is probably the reason why menstruating women were told to stay away from others and eat separately.
“As explained by spiritual and Ayurveda teacher Maya Tiwari, in her book Women’s Power to Heal: Through Inner Medicine:
“Asking women to avoid gardening or cooking during menstruation is not due to the irrational thinking that our menstrual blood is unclean, unhygienic or toxic. The cosmic memory of food – that which is derived only from plant life according to the Vedas – is imbued with prana, a rising energy flowing up from the earth towards the sun and the sky. Conversely, our menstrual blood is instilled with apana vayu, the downward flowing, bodily air pulled down from the body by the magnetic forces of the earth. These two powerful sadhanas do not go hand in hand. Plant-derived food is also kapha in nature, full of youth giving energy that nourishes the body; menstrual blood is dominated by Pitta and Vata, which fosters the cleansing of the spirit. It is most unwise to introduce the rising, energizing nature of our food into our blood, or to mix the downward flowing, cleansing energy of blood into our sustenance, either by preparing food during menstruation, or by slaughtering animals and eating them.”
I read her entire essay with the hope of finding at least something worth consideration, but since she has based it entirely on her bias that ancient knowledge (ayurveda, astrology etc) is scientific knowledge, the whole argument falls apart logically for us to even reach an empirical conclusion. She claims to have unearthed menstrual wisdom, but infact she has managed to cover up actual truth with truck load of dirt, is all I can say. I won’t even care to refute her claim of the downward and upward energy in detail because going by this logic, even urinating, sneezing, defecating, spitting, sweating, shedding of dead skin cells could be considered downwards energy and that even the people who sweat should be barred from sacred places and shunned from the society. It is very absurd and definitely irrational.
Such flawed reasonings used to justify menstrual taboo, that too from someone involved (in her words) in a ‘Trust working on various issues pertaining to women and children such as menstruation, sexual abuse and sexual violence against women’, is quite unsettling as well as troubling. It is mostly people like her who pose the danger of spreading misconception in the public and misleading them.
Menstrual taboo flourish along with other kind of superstition and dogma in a society full of misinformed and mislead people because irrationality often feeds on ignorance. Retrospective explanations from authority and tradition such as that given by people like Mythri could be one reason as to why menstrual taboo is prevalent even among the educated in urban areas. And if we cannot expect the educated to see through their preserved beliefs, how can we expect it from the less educated in rural communities?
What can we do to abolish menstrual taboo?
We need to talk more about menstruation and reproductive health. The talking needs to be done repeatedly unless and until our society as a whole starts to take menstruation as something that occurs naturally and is benign, say like sweating. Everywhere, from cities to towns to rural villages, it is important that we display in public (through public, government or commercial advertisements) that menstruation is something very natural when it comes to women.
To spread awareness might be the initial step, but in order to tackle the intellectually dishonest who try to create a benign perception of such taboo, we need to logically and scientifically examine every claim made by every proponent as far as possible.
We need to reach out to every girl and every woman. All of us, along with women who are concerned with other women’s rights being violated, should make it an effort to engage in debates and argument in all factions of our society just to answer the inquisitive minds and to break the stigma associated with menstruation. It is vital that we deliver the right kind of thinking skills and teach people (especially the children) both in urban as well as rural areas to search for unbiased information on any matter including menstruation so that they can think for themselves and become less likely to condone age-old practices.
Men also have a great role. People tend to think that menstruation is simply a woman’s problem and so it is best left for the women to fight against or to speak out against; and men need not speak out about it. But that is wrong, men do have to speak out against it more often than ever, and have to actively take part in discussions on menstrual stigma or taboo. This is because at this point in history, we need more rational voices than ever before as many complex forms of irrational voices are trying to silence the righteous.
Only then can we effectively abolish the stigma and taboo associated with menstruation. We definitely need to scrap this file and put it in the archives of history, never to open, alongside that of the Sati.
So ladies, in the end, all you have to do is work towards shaping a society which accepts and allows you to bleed freely. Moreover, it would be best for future generations, if you could just as well bleed out the nonsense….
Fact to consider: [Menstrual cycle is seen specifically in Humans, some primates, some species of bats and shrews. In other mammals, uterine cycles are of varying periodicity and thus known by other terms.]
Today afternoon, a deep discussion took place between me and some of my buddies (who happen to be believers) on my atheism and the concept of god. They asked me arrays upon arrays of questions, all of which I was not able to answer in such a short span of time. But through this blog I’ll be trying to answer their questions. At the same time, as I also consider this a good opportunity to make people aware, I’ll also try to make an effort to break down the common misconceptions, misunderstandings, stigma and stereotype associated with and behind Atheism. So readers please be patient with my rather lengthy response….
My friends confidently assumed about me and other atheists like me that when we reach old age, we’d turn back to being theists or spiritualists. It’s not the first time anyone has said this to me; my own father has, repeatedly! However, instead of getting angry, I’d rather welcome this argument.
I call it the ‘Laxmi Prasad’ Fallacy. I named it after Laxmi Prasad Devkota, the celebrated Nepali novelist and poet, because he is probably the most famous example of an atheist reverting back into a theist in any Nepali society. It is a fallacy, i.e a logical error, to assume all atheists will eventually revert back to being theists or spiritualists just because some other atheists, like the celebrated poet, did. Notions such as this are never a valid reason for someone to assume that I’ll choose a similar direction later in my life as well.
It is also very important to realize before arguing that the term ‘atheist’ (नास्तिक) simply denotes a person who ‘lacks belief’ in something. Atheism isn’t a structured or organized system or a cult, its just a mere stance on something. Not at all a belief!
This stance, however, is usually derived in two ways: either emotionally or rationally. The emotional atheists (those who’ve become atheists as a result of an emotional turmoil such as anger for example) are more likely to revert back to being believers, the rational ones (who became atheists after logically and empirically examining the concept of a creator or a higher power) are less likely. Emotion-atheists are likely to do so as their atheism bear little rational ground and is subject to change anytime they face another difficult emotional setback, similar to Laxmi Prasad Devkota, who faced poverty and bankruptcy towards his later years and lived a somewhat miserable life, unlike anyone expects of a legendary poet. I consider myself a rationalist and it was my adoption and practice of rationality that helped me to become an atheist.
Atheists as a whole mostly agree on the topic that god is highly unlikely to exist, otherwise Atheists are the most diverse group of people holding, even among the community, a variety of differing opinions and even adopting different approaches to life and often with different moral principles. An atheist can be both conservative or liberal. An atheist can be either a communist or a capitalist or a socialist. An atheist may not believe in god, but may be liable to believe in other unverified claims such as UFO sightings as well as profound conspiracy theories or any other pseudoscience such as Homeopathy or Reiki or even unscientific notions such as vaccinations causing autism.
For me to explain it from my perspective, take this as an example: a lot of devout Hindus, like my friends here, do not believe in Thor or Zeus or Jesus Christ, some non-endemic deities from dead as well as thriving cultures. So technically they are atheists too when it comes to believing in deities other than those belonging to their parent religion or culture. People such as I just go ’33 koti’ gods further when it comes to not believing.
Now I could face another argument from new-age spiritualists, saying that its just different ways people assign names to the same energy or being which people usually interpret as being god. But again they could be questioned as to what makes them so sure that a certain energy exists and that it is exactly what many people think they believe in? How can we be sure without evidence or any logical argument? Why could’t it instead be any other unfalsifiable claim in its place?
Talking about the concept of a creator, there are different interpretations, but all of them agree about one thing: the creator is somehow magical, we cannot see it, or feel it unless we truly believe in it. Now isn’t that ‘wishful thinking’ backed by an improvable claim? Isn’t it thinking just for the sake of someone wanting something to be true when in reality it is very unlikely? I could go on to propose that human lives are eternally controlled by a golden flying horse ‘in mysterious ways’ and no one could prove nor disprove me as my claim is unfalsifiable and thus cannot be tested by science. If I am supported by a thousand more people over this very claim, then I may as well have founded a new religion.
Now people may argue that they may choose to believe in their beliefs for comfort and not care about factual errors. But that is simply their choice. The act of choosing does not necessarily deem some claim as logically sound or make it likely to be true. I’m not saying that you are wrong when you choose to believe in something, because I cannot wrong any unfalsifiable claim, but I can soundly say that such beliefs turning out to be true is very very unlikely and evidence suggests so too, if somehow tested.
Another argument that I faced was that it is better to follow something that has been going on from ages ago by so many people, instead of dissenting to them and causing a disturbance. This kind of an argument is known as an appeal to the mass/tradition fallacy (argumentum ad populum). Because it is again inconsistent with logic to say that the majority or established traditions are always correct. They may be wrong, and they have been in many occasions, to name a few: on the issue of Slavery in the US and Sati-pratha in Nepal and India. We are always free to challenge popular claims with reason and skepticism.
I’d like to add that when people learn to think for themselves, staying within the bounds of reason and empiricism, they do not need to even believe in a higher power to be happy and morally sound as we very well know that happiness and morality do not necessarily stem only from religion. It is possible for humans to be decent even without needing a god or karma to fear.
Most of us rational atheists accept life the way it is and we realize that since we can never know whether afterlife is real or false, we have one known life to accomplish all that we want to and to live it to the fullest because you never know when life (your’s or your loved one’s) will end. This realization allows most us to be happy without the need for any imaginary comfort because we expect life to be uncertain and accept it. We believe that a lasting happiness in life comes only after accepting the harsh nature of life itself and to adapt our emotions around it. We accept reality.
Rationality isn’t bad, it’s indeed refreshing and liberating. We all use our rational minds while buying a used car, a mobile phone or while purchasing real estate. Rational atheists also apply the same thinking pattern while pondering about our existence and the concept of a higher power or a creator. We tend to regard something with doubt before believing in it. And just as one would never buy a used car of their liking just by believing everything that the car dealer says, without looking for evidence of damage or without logically mapping the dealer’s claims; we rationalists do not buy the concept of a creator or a higher power without objective proof of its existence or functioning. We also tend to apply the same thinking pattern on superstitions, dogma, magical claims and so on….
But the sad thing is, to become a rational person, one needs practice and this is the hard part. Unlike faith, which can arise innately even out of intuition or false perception, Rationality is a learned phenomenon which depends on logic and evidence. Rationality is counter-intuitive. To answer another question my friends asked me, as to why I’m not always able to convince people around me effectively; this is why. It is not always possible for me to ‘convert’ or convince others such as my sister or my parents, because rationality is hard to grasp instantly and not everyone is interested in taking part in discussions. Not everyone I talk to will start to read books on rationality and practice critical thinking straight away even if they like what I am talking about. But we never know the possibility, in the long run, of my constant advocacy for rationality and science being able to change some young minds successfully.
So the question remains. Will I ever go back into the dark? The answer is no. I think I’ll stay a rationalist (or in other words a secular humanist) for the rest of my life as one can only start to open their mind once.
I consider myself a secular humanist, but if we were to go by the rules of Hinduism, a culture-religion complex into which I was born, I am supposedly a Brahman guy from a Hindu Brahman family in a predominantly Hindu populated country known as Nepal. Going further in this ancient and socially-acceptable form of racial and ethnic prejudice, I am supposed to be of an ‘Aryan descent’.
My blood line in terms of paternal heritage as put forth by the archaic logic, is supposedly ‘unaltered’ from the time of a Hindu sage by the name of ‘Atri’ (One of the original 8 baby booming Brahman sages probably dating back to around 800 to 600 BCE) from whom it is believed that an even purer bloodline who call themselves ‘Atreya’ (meaning “from Atri”) were descended. That is where my ‘Gotra’ comes from. Involuntarily asserted and appointed to me giving me the cultural license to become a part of that ‘clan’, the Atreya Gotra. Summing up, I am first known as a ‘male’ child, then as the son of a Hindu man, then as part of an upper caste of Upadhyaya Brahmans belonging to the Atreya Gotra and then only I am to be known just as a person who I am as defined by my achievements and interests.
Such is the reality of our predominantly Hindu societal values. This feudal taxonomy is very well prevalent in many parts of Nepal and India. A child out here is ruthlessly labeled and tagged and indoctrinated by various denominations of this culturally justified ‘tribalism’ even before the child is aware of him/herself.
I can say that it’s a relief now that I have chosen to live my life in a rational, consequential, empirical and humanistic way and I do not have to be bound by senseless cultural norms and taboo whatsoever. Well some might say that I must be, but I am brave enough now to say ‘nope’. It took me almost 4 months to thoroughly investigate into this matter of Gotras and I have come to learn quite a lot about the whole mystery.The sole intent of this blog, however, is to systematically breakdown and debunk the myth and misunderstandings behind the Gotra (sub-caste) and especially the pseudo-scientific notions of marrying within the same Gotra being equivalent to incest and resulting in the birth of deformed and mentally unstable children from it.
So what is Gotra after all?
The Gotra pratha is an ancient Hindu practice, still given continuity and stout validity by many modern day conservative Hindus especially by those who claim to belong to any of the 3 main upper castes such as Brahmans, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas. Ongoing casteism is pretty-well evident today. We can judge just by going through the myriad of matrimonial websites in the subcontinent which prioritize Caste and Gotra even above moral values and education). I will deal with Casteism later in my other blog posts but I will be focusing only on Gotras for now.
The Gotra of people actually refer to their obscure and indistinct lineages tracing back to any one of these original (but with dubious existence) eight Hindu sages: Angirasa, Atri(Atreya), Gautam, Kashyapa, Bhrighu, Vasistha, Kutsa, Bharadwaja. It is believed out here in India and Nepal that marrying within the same Gotra will result in the birth of deformed and mentally unsound children and consequently such an act is deemed impure or inappropriate. Thus the taboo.
All existent Gotras that are present today have been thought to have originated from these eight sages. The total number of established Gotras at present range from an estimate of 49 to 52 depending on the region of inquiry. Though Gotras in North India and Nepal actually refer to the dominant view of paternal lineage, there are some matriarchal Kannada communities in southern India who follow Gotras that refer to a person’s maternal lineage. So by this we can come to realize that the concept of Gotra is not an established standard across different cultures.Societal taboo regarding marriage within the same Gotra remains very strong to this day and exists even within affluent and educated Hindu and Sikh societies in the sub-continent (surprisingly even those who have had some background in biology and genetics, such as medical doctors and nurses, have been known to condone the Gotra pratha and many of its proponent use such arguments from authority (many top doctors and scientists follow the Gotra, why not you? You think you are better than them?) and from masses (If Gotra was not scientific, why are most people still practicing it? How can a few people be right and many of us wrong?) to justify their claims. With rigorous scrutiny, we can come to realize their fallacies effectively as it is not necessary for the people in authority (i.e Doctors and Scientists who conform to Gotra) and the majority to be accurate most of the time. I’m saying we need to accept the fact that there is always a possibility that they can be wrong.
Honor Killings in the name of Gotra…..
The common belief here, I’ll mention once again, is that if two people belonging to the same Gotra were to marry each other then they surely would give birth to an inbred child (owing to the broader definition of Incest by the system) subject to mental or physical anomalies. In doing so, same-Gotra couples and their children are deemed ‘polluted’ and ostracized or ridiculed by most of their societies with greater degree of mandate in rural areas compared to urban ones. Some communities such as the Khap Panchayat and the Jat from northern India have also been known to have committed multiple ‘Honor-Homicides‘ of same-gotra couples. There are true and horrific stories of even fathers and brothers ruthlessly slaughtering their own for the sake of honor.
Following an Honor-killing trial in 2010, the Indian High court scrapped a proposal of Khap Panchayat (who wanted Gotra-pravara to be made mandatory), denied an appeal of innocence to the accused murderers and found them guilty of ‘homicide in the name of unfounded honour’ by firmly declaring that there have been “no Hindu scripture till date that bans marriage between same gotras and justifies honor killings”. Even though it was a favorable action against the fanatics, I still find it odd that an evidence-requiring government body such as the Indian high court even considered to take scriptures as the means to justify the Khap panchayat.
Death sentence was announced to the culprits (I myself do not approve of any kind of capital punishment but now that would be wholly off-topic if I discuss it here) as a way to deter the hostility towards same-gotra couples and also to declare the prejudice behind Gotras as being immoral and unethical. Despite the then efforts of the Indian jurisdiction (and activists and organizations who worked to abolish superstitious customs across India), proponents of the Gotra pratha continue to voice and lobby their heinous motives and opinions (including numerous Indian politicians and God-men). The concerning thing is that there are plenty of recent reports which suggest that such people are gathering momentum following the right-wing BJP and Modi’s historical cruise to the Indian Government. The major problem lies in one of their agenda: To justify Gotra by claiming it to be a legitimate science!
Is Gotra really scientific?
Gotra pratha is thought to have originated somewhere around the 1st millenial BCE, i.e post-Atharvavedic period approximately 600 BCE. The concept of “Gotra Pravara” is relatively new even in relation to the newest of the four vedas, the Atharvaveda. So naturally, none of the four Vedas seem to have ever endorsed prohibiting, denouncing or condemning marriage between people of the same Gotra nor do they even describe the Gotra pratha in anyway. This ensures that the concept is most likely post-vedic.
The book ‘Indian sociology through Ghurye’, by S. Devas Pillai mentions that the 8 sages of the Gotras, were not those of the Rigveda and thus Gotra was a relatively recent invention by them and their kins. This was most probably to prevent inbreeding and narrowing of the gene pool within their Brahmin caste considering their strict endogamous beliefs. This might be in order to forbid marriage outside of their caste, just to maintain the purity of their blood-lines in accordance with their primitive yet genuine attempt to understand human inheritance with the limited set of knowledge they used to have back then.
Their logic looks quite sound from a lay perspective (if the caste system were to be justified in any rational way). Indeed, it’s completely natural of any big ancient civilization for wanting to prevent incapacitating and unwanted traits (such as diseases, disabilities and deformities) spreading. But that still does not give us any basis to take their observations for reality owing to the paucity of empirical observations back then, at least not in the urban part of the 21st century when well-resourced scholarly or scientific articles on inheritence, genetics and anthropology are just a mouse click away! Along with many other contemporary civilizations of that time such as the Hellenic, Babylonian and Persian civilizations (which shared a common linguistic and cultural roots originating from the Yamna/Bactria Magna cultural settlements east of the Ural mountains, central Asia, according to the “Kurgan hypothesis“), the Ancient Indian civilization also strictly prohibited incest and consanguineous marriages. Gotra pratha was just their primitive and unsuccessful attempt at trying to prevent what we now know as recessive phenotype resulting from recessive genes.
Proponents of gotra pratha constantly bring up the argument “Gotra pratha is very scientific because the ancients knew about the recessive gene and knew about genetics so developed the gotra pratha as an effective means to prevent recessive genes from entering any progeny” while defending their case. But they constantly fail to provide evidence to back their claims and moreso even fail to demonstrate the claimed science in scriptures such as the Vedas or upanishads. Throwing out assumptions upon assumptions, shutting themselves to contradictory information, being subject to heavy confirmation biases (looking up for only those information that they ‘want’ to be found and rejecting any contradictory side despite of the latter’s validity and credibility) and presenting with no solid evidence! This is how any conveyor of a pseudo-scientific principle would defend themselves; wholly being devoid of the critical aspect in their thinking and also while arguing or making their case.
But the ancient did realize the harmful effects of consanguinity didn’t they?
The most logical explanation of the ancients’ awareness about the negative effects of incestuous mating goes down to their generation-long practice of animal husbandry and breeding (sadly not Vedic mantras or bramhagyan). The ancient Indians were very much experienced about the fact (after countless observations) that mating two offspring from the same parents would result in the greater chance of birth of deformed, mentally unsound and physically weaker progeny than compared to the progeny resultant after non-consanguineous mating.
They realized that more the consanguineous offspring were inbred, more weaklings would be born and if they were to raise healthier batches of livestock then they were not supposed to mate two siblings or progeny related up to at least the third degree (something like saying ‘third cousin’). The same principles, they must have observed in some rare cases of human consanguinity, and must have applied a similar logic towards incestuous relations in humans, which appears quite a sound practice. Possibly, the Gotras were formulated for fulfilling a similar motive of maintaining their understanding of a healthy trait-pool for long. But we need to grasp the fact that this was even before antiquity, when our understandings of genetics and genomics were far from being nascent, were primitive and insufficient owing to the paucity of organized observation methodology and technology at that time.
Not until Gregor Johan Mendel were we to understand the science behind inheritence and it was not before James Watson and Francis Crick that we were to understand the principles of molecular genetics. So there are plenty of reasons for us to not to conform to this feudal and non-progressive Hindu tradition.
If it was founded to prevent the spread of recessive traits via incest, which is good, why can’t we justify the Gotra then for precaution? Why take chances by rejecting Gotra completely?
Genetically speaking, there is negligible health impact of marriage between two people if beyond one degree of separation (i.e between two 2nd cousins) but passage of recessive alleles is likely nonetheless. Another concept in genetics we need to be familiar about is that even congress between two siblings does not necessarily always result in the birth of abnormal recessive offspring. We are in terms of chances here and in that sense the chances of recessive alleles passing on are high but still not absolute. Increase the degree of separation up by one (i.e 3rd cousins), the chance is drastically reduced. Increase it by a further one degree (i.e 4th cousins), the chance of recessive genes being transfered into the progeny will be reduced further. (Here’s a pdf providing more information on this and a comprehensive explanation by a Stanford geneticist on the subject matter).
So broad is the definition of consanguinity in Gotra and so diluted and diverse has the gene pool of even the people belonging to the one particular Gotra has become that the effects of consanguinity becomes as good as negligible! Talk about thousands of years of intermingling of races and castes and ethnicity! Talk about hundreds of degrees or generations of separation of cousins! Isn’t it obvious?
Furthermore, according to geneticists, as mentioned in Wikipedia (having the reliability of the references checked):
“The percentage of consanguinity between any two individuals decreases fourfold as the most recent common ancestor recedes one generation. Consanguinity, as commonly defined, does not depend on the amount of shared DNA within two people’s genome. It rather counts the number of meioses separating two individuals. Because of the effects of pedigree collapse, this does not directly translate into the amount of shared genetic substance.
It is common to distinguish first-degree cousins, second-degree cousins, and often also third-degree cousins. Since comparatively few people can trace their full family tree for more than four generations, the identity of fourth-degree cousins often cannot be established. Also, at a genetic level, half-fourth cousins typically do not exhibit greater genetic similarity with one another than with any other individual from the same population.”
Despite of the scientific information presented above, many people (with the exception of few cultures) would not want to knowingly marry their cousins. That now is a whole new discussion topic as the perception and definition of incest varies across different cultures. Musims, Jews and many ethnicity in Nepal (i.e Gurungs) and India are known for allowing marriage within their family (cousins). My concern with consanguinity in this blog was just to explain the passage of recessive alleles/genes in reality.
Evidence from animal breeding and studies on human inheritance of traits however still point out that the closer the marriage is to 1st degree relatives, the more likely it is for the recessive genes to pass on to your children and thus the increased likelihood of genetic or chromosomal defects. So consanguinity while remaining a matter of choice might still do you more harm and on that scientists do to some extent agree with Gotra proponents.
“It is has been known that the risk for birth defects in the offspring of first cousin matings has been ‘increased’ by 5-8% compared to the increase of only 2-3% in non-consanguineous marriages” as one research paper says (see here). Consanguinity of any degree is known to be rather deleterious when compared to non-consanguinity. So yes, it is wiser to stay away from your cousins, though distant, as much as possible, when it comes to marriage. What scientists do not agree upon is the definition and extent of consanguinity put forth by the Gotra pratha as well as the archaic scriptural mandate it tries to enforce on people. The latter of which is against the very principles of human rights.
But the claim that the Gotra pratha is able to prevent consanguinity effectively is very questionable. Thanks to the multiple logical fallacies within the system (see below), and the support of numerous anthropological, genomic, genetic and historical datas; we can safely conclude today that the Gotra system bears no validity whatsoever and is not justified by anything other than superstition, ignorance and ethnic prejudice.
Can we debunk Gotra-pratha effectively?
Yes we can!
There are indeed plenty of resources available online for us to be able to do so. Some of the most convincing reasoning and logical examinations have been presented and explained below (click on respective hyperlinks for more information).
Case 1: The gotra of a male child is supposed to remain permanent whereas that of a female child is temporary. After the girl’s marriage, following certain complicated ceremonies, her Gotra is permanently changed into that of her husband and were she to become a widow and to be married again (supposing the now banned ritual of ‘Sati‘ did not come into effect back then, or say this marriage took place in a less harsher yet gotra-following society), she could not marry someone belonging to her husband’s gotra but could yet marry another man bearing the gotra of her Father. Logic has been clearly destroyed here!
Case 2: There have been many historical accounts of masses upon masses of Kshatriyas (a caste respectable but considered lower than Bramans who are considered the highest amongst all caste) converting into Brahmans through rituals of fire sacrifices known as ‘yagya‘ or ‘yagna’, which allowed them to acquire any one of the original 8 gotras depending on their star signs and were required by norm to give continuity to this system from then on. The gene pool has already widened here after the assimilation of numerous Kshatriyas and thus the validity of the ‘pure’ genetic continuum of gotras has been as good as void. Gotra severely contradicts the Mendelian and non-Mendelian laws of inheritance.
Case 3: There have been plenty of stories, historical accounts or accounts from puranas where impotent kings or noblemen had their wives impregnated, having their consent, by other noble sages or a priest. (e.g. Sarandayani from Mahabharata, Mayadanti the wife of Sudasha Kalmashpadh (Ram’s anscetor), King Pandu allowed his wife to be impregnated by supposed Devatas, The Pandavas (five sons of Pandu) had one wife as Draupadi and many more other such tales). The genetic distinction of the ‘purity’ of the lineage of the Gotras was already obscured during the dark ages within 10 to 20 generations or so (evident from multiple paternal lineage contributing to any one Gotra) and it is common sense to say that the Genetic authenticity claimed by all of the 49 or 52 Gotras as of today and their ignorant proponents are meaningless and non-existent. The concept of Gotra is clearly not logical, let alone scientific. The concept collapses on its own logic!
Observational Evidence: There have been many linguistic, anthropological, Genomic and Gene-mapping researches into the origins and migrations of the various ethnic groups of the sub-continent. If the purity of lineage as claimed by the Gotra-proponents were to be true, all individuals belonging to a particular gotra would have to display a certain set of genomic characteristics unique to that group when compared to other groups. But a study (click for abstract) conducted by geneticists at Harvard, which is a near-concluding research into the genetic origins of people living in India, suggested that none of the caste or sub-caste had any genomic characters unique to the group and showed that there were considerable degrees of intermingling between indigenous Dravidian races and Migrating races from central Asia and Bactria Magna cultural groups (supposed ‘Aryans’), such that every individual belonging to any caste system as of today has Genomic characteristics from both the two major racial groups.
In short, the sub-continent hosts a population which is indeed a ‘buffer’ or a ‘mixture’ between the ancient major races and none of us here are ‘pure’ Aryans or Dravidians. It clearly suggests that there is no biological distinction between the multiple castes and sub-castes and not at all regarding the Gotras because both system appear to have originated rather later in history, even in relation to the very sacred Vedas and their origins. Neither Gotra nor Caste bear any genetic relevance whatsoever at present. (Click here for a simpler explanation of the study.)
What can we conclude then?
We can conclude confidently that one need never consider Gotra or caste while choosing partners.
It should be noted that unless two people are cousins related by blood, they need not have to worry about marrying each other.
If there are concerns about inherited or genetic diseases running within families, or of Rh blood group differences in between, then a couple should opt for genetic counselling and screening if feasible.
The chances of same-Gotra couples giving birth to a child with chromosomal and genetic defect is no different from the chances of different-gotra couples giving birth to a child with genetic defect, as suggested by evidence.
There are many complicated factors that come into effect while considering birth defects and anomalies, but Gotra is just not one of them!
In this digital age of communication, where information is so readily available, one should always research thoroughly before coming to any conclusion. To adopt an unbiased view about any matter of interest, it is of utmost importance that one should give equal weight to both sides of the argument and only justify the position that is rational, ethical, logical and of course, supported strongly by evidence! There are countless hoaxes and scam articles all over the web, and not all indexed research papers are appropriately peer-reviewed, so it is vital that we should learn to identify credible and authentic sources for unbiased information. Because no matter what any ignorant culture says in any part of the world, science and rationalism are always there with the slogan “Eppur Si Muove!”
So enjoy your lives with the ones that you love and always keep in mind that love is unconditional and Gotras and Caste are justified by nothing but discriminatory, racial and ethnic prejudice. No human reserves the right to obstruct another human’s right and happiness, not maybe even your parents! And any individual, good or bad, has the right to live. Period!
Live long and prosper!
The following notes are suggestions for further reading from blogger SUIRAQUA as it is in his/her blog that tries to debunk the Gotra-pratha.
(1) For a recent scientific study of the genome of Indians that effectively dispels the traditional notions of caste and subcaste, look at this scientific article (Nature, 2009 September 24; 461(7263):489-94), and its corresponding Commentary in Nature by Aravinda Chakravarti, of Center for Complex Disease Genomics, McKusick–Nathans Institute of Genetic Medicine, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
(2) Study of the allelic and haplotypic structure at a specific dopamine receptor gene (DRD2) locus among five North Indian “upper-caste” populations has indicated a major genetic contribution from Eurasia to North Indian upper castes, apart from the common genetic unity of Indian populations (Am J Phys Anthropol, 2010 Apr; 141(4):651-7), further evidence that the alleged ‘purity’ of the gotra is a myth and cultural construct.
(3) A review by PP Majumdar of the Human Genetics Unit of the Indian Statistical Institute concludes that “… south Asia has also been a major contributor to the gene pool of southeast Asia. With the availability of new genotyping technologies, diversity studies encompassing a large number of populations, both tribal and caste, need to be undertaken at the genome-wide level to validate the inferences of previous studies, and to understand patterns of micro-evolution of populations of this region.” (Curr Biol. 2010 Feb 23; 20(4):R184-7) Genomic studies indicate that Southern and Northern India had differential inputs of genes from central and west Asia, as well as Africa – likely leading to differential impacts on the genetic structures of castes of different ranks. This admixture makes it almost impossible “to tag a population or a set of populations as being descendants of the earliest settlers of south Asia, especially because none of the more ancient lineages can be definitively associated with any specific group of populations, such as populations belonging to a linguistic group.”
Astrologers (ज्योतिषी) universally claim that there exist some wave-energy (विद्युतीत तरंग) relations between planets of the solar system and individual Human beings (some like ‘Dr’ Sunil go even further to state the same for plate tectonics and earthquakes) which they say is what makes their ancient disciplines work.
You can get into their nerves when you go on to politely inquire into their reasonings with arrays of rational questions such as:-
– “What is the average or usual frequency of this wave?”
– “What is the nature of this wave?”
– “Can you measure this wave you are talking about?”
– “If you can’t measure or detect it, how do you know it exists?”
– “Which part of the body acts as the receptor of such waves?”
– “What are the respective frequencies of waves from the different planets?”
– “Why are Neptune, Uranus, Pluto, Ceres along with millions of asteroids in the asteroid belts not taken into account? Do they not affect Human lives if such relations exist?”
– “How is your prediction better at it than the event happening due to chance?”
– “How do you take into consideration the periodic axial tilt of the Earth which changes the viewing angles of the constellations?”
– “What is the basis in your discipline to take planet Earth as the centre of the universe when evidence clearly shows that it is not even at the centre of the galaxy?”
– “Would you like to contribute to genuine scientific knowledge by agreeing to take part in a controlled experiment to test the prediction power of your discipline?”
They’ll either be offended or defensive straight away, not accepting any sort of intellectual critique. They’ll refuse to answer your questions. All because they very well cannot, staying within the boundaries of reason.
“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
– Carl Sagan
“What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”
– Christopher Hitchens
So I can justly and rationally say that Astrology doesn’t work and is not significant in reality. Unless of course you are deeply passionate about remaining gullible!
(Refer to the image below. It’s an article on ‘Vastu Shastra’, branch of Hindu astrology dealing with superstitious architecture, from a national newspaper. The author claims in Nepali that ‘keeping broken televisions or electronics inside our homes will increasingly make the women angrier and will adversely affect health’ without any basis. Why women in particular?)
“Sticks and stones may hurt my bones but words can never hurt me.”
– An American proverb
Imagine a society where in a national daily an advertisement shows an artistic image of a young naked couple holding each others’ genitals and yet the newspaper board or the advertisement agency face no complaints nor prosecution from its subscribers or readers. Imagine again in that very society a blogger that seriously condemns and profanely ridicules an established faith system with art, offending a certain group of believers, can live every day without the fear of being attacked physically and can sleep well at night. Imagine that out here movies and documentaries are uncensored and the viewers themselves filter to avoid what they do not want to watch or hear. Comedians can make fun of anything and people simply choose to watch it or not; even if they do watch and not like it they can shrug off and walk away.
Academics and philosophers in this hypothetical society can freely present and exchange ideas on even the darkest of cultural taboo and still not be legally accused of violating moral standards. People here can freely ridicule the government to the point of making anti-national remarks and still not be punished. After expressing their views in one way or the other, no one is harmed, neither legally nor psychologically not at all physically. Two or more consenting adults of any sexual orientation whatsoever can freely have sex anywhere they want to, even on a public park, and they won’t be taken into custody. People here, imagine, have the guts to offend, the strength and courage to withstand offense and the nobility to understand and value the freedom of expression. In such a society the proverb above can be effectively satisfied in practice.
Now would such a society ever exist? It’s hard to tell, as any human society is a dynamic model of organization and is in a constant state of flux in one way or the other. We can surely estimate the course a certain model of a society takes, but never determine accurately as to how it will look, say a hundred years from now. Does such a society, with no restriction on speech whatsoever, really exist? In accordance with reality, I’ve got to say: Nope! No society has ever existed in the past nor have they at present, that do not limit expression or speech in one way or the other.
Some may argue about many western nations being epitomes when it comes to absolute freedom of expression and speech. But the reality again, is pretty different.
Even the United States, whose constitution is one of the first in the world to endorse and protect free speech through the first amendment, has exceptions to free-speech when it comes to speech threatening national security, incitement, condoning child pornography, libelous speech, copyright/plagiarism, commercial secrets/speech, and violation of government confidentiality pact and espionage. It’s apt to use the US as an example because both the government and majority of the populace proudly advocate freedom of expression and free-speech. (Evidently as per one Pew research, surveyed US population were the most accepting of free speech on average, when compared to other nations.)
Many big European nations like France and Germany also support and advocate free speech in theory. France, out of the lot considers itself the beacon of free expression and rightfully so given the rich culture of unrestricted or seldom censored art and cinema the French produce. But it is fair enough to say that even they restrict speech when it comes to hate speech, libel, holocaust denial and anti-Semitic expressions (take for example the sanctions imposed on footballer Nicholas Anelka when his goal celebrations resembled an anti-Semitic ‘Quenelle‘ gesture). Germany also goes on further to ban baby names such as ‘Hitler’ or ‘Osama Bin Laden’, be it for them to save the child from being bullied or ridiculed for bearing weird names, but it technically still amounts to an act of limiting speech.
Through this essay, as a consequentialist, I hope to surgically examine the very concept of free speech. To do so, we need to first remove any biases we have both in favor of and against free speech; also in order to encourage a sensible discussion on the topic. I will be discussing whether or not free speech needs to be absolute and whether or not the principle can be said to be another dogma as many of its opponents claim.
No such thing as free speech?
“If liberty means anything, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
– George Orwell
Consider the quote above. In the liberal sense, being able to speak and to express oneself without restriction or restraint seems to be the core philosophy of freedom. Typically my secular and liberal friends might argue in favor that it would be better and easier to challenge established notions and belief if speech were to be completely unrestricted. Others might want to doubt this and even go on to say that “too much freedom may not be a good thing”. We can find valid points in both sides of the argument. Coming back to Orwell’s quote above, I think he may even be overstating as most writers in their aphorisms often tend to do so. It may be a good rhetoric to defend free speech, but in a sensible argument may not stand so strong to prove a point as it misses out on the drawbacks completely. The word Liberty, in my opinion, has been vaguely described by Orwell as it doesn’t consider the possibility of ‘the right to tell people what they do not want to hear’ ending up in harming people. Liberty can be perceived differently by different groups of people. To point out the bias, he very well seems to have perceived it from a liberal western standpoint, one which other cultures may not be able to visualize in a similar manner. So being only defensive, I believe, may not be enough to rationally discuss the very concept of free speech.
Freedom is important, but to what extent? Free speech is an appealing driver of liberal values, but again to what rational extent? How can we make a distinction as to when freedom to speak may amount instead to the freedom to act? It is important that we try and answer these questions and it is equally important to recognize the point where we can draw lines and how we can do so. Keeping this in mind, we first need to realize the fact that when it comes to free speech, it will always be limited in one way or another whether we like it or not. I’ll explain, but it is very important to read the entire essay before reaching towards any conclusion. Leaving it half-way might only help misinform you.
What use is free speech to Robinson Crusoe?
Now consider this open-ended question posed by the sub-heading. What use indeed is free speech to an individual like Crusoe who is stranded on a deserted island all by himself with no human companion anywhere nearby in order to start a conversation? He can shout out all he wants into the ocean, even talk to himself, but for whom to listen?
I’m using this analogy to help me explain that speech always takes place in some social context. Speech is typically made by humans for otherhumans. Otherwise it could be rendered socially worthless. Speech is constantly influenced as well as dependent on some social situation. It’s very important for us to grasp this concept. Being an essential part of Human interaction and communication, speech is always limited, consciously or subconsciously. Many times beyond our control no matter how much we try not to. At this point however, it is vital for us to not confuse what I’ve just said with subjugating our voice to established social values. Which, of course I personally do not endorse. I’ll clarify later in this essay.
Context of self-limitaions
Here are some minimum situations where speech is always best self-limited (obviously this is not an exhaustive list):
Organized discussions. Whether you are liberal or conservative, whenever it comes to formal debates or legal proceedings, speech will have to be limited for the sake of order. Otherwise the whole setup would become a verbal pandemonium; i.e if everyone started speaking all at once, whatever they wanted whenever they wanted. There would literally be chaos.
Professional disciplines. It would be impractical in any hierarchical organization, say for instance in military, if the institution were to adopt freedom of speech and carry out their free will and not follow orders. Or say in a corporate or the health sector where employee or staff have to follow a chain of command for the company/institution to function systematically. You’d definitely not choose to make an offensive video of your professor or a colleague for a presentation as it would not lead to a sensible discussion in the professional sector but would instead create a diversion not constructive to the professional purpose. You very well can, but you simply won’t. Outside of it, maybe you may.
Courtship. Even if you are an advocate of absolute free speech, you’d often choose your words carefully on a first date! You may notice initially that your partner has an ugly mole on their forehead which you think is disgusting. But you choose not to point that out loud as it may offend him/her, for you to want a successful date night; with the exception of course if you know that your partner wouldn’t mind. So in this particular social context, your intention is usually to impress your date for the purpose of courtship so you chose to restrict speech by yourself. Of course we are not talking about the exceptions in the form of frank relationships.
Confidentiality and Contract. You sign a legal document or a formal pact with a party so as to not disclose a harmless yet vital company/organization plan or recipe for the sake of doing business/work. For example, employees are mostly bound by contract to not leak company secrets, if they do then they may be sacked for violation of a contract. To give another example, doctors usually restrict speech and maintain privacy when it comes to sensitive patient information and patient’s want of confidentiality, only except for the purpose of privileged communication where they can discuss cases with their professional colleagues, maintaining privacy, if it’s a matter of academic interest or is that of a public health concern. Of course both the scenarios may be subject to change if it’s got anything to do with public security, health or collateral damage.
This was to say that speech is as natural to us as we have the vocal cord and we always tend to let it loose or even limit with relation to the social context at hand, usually expecting a certain social response in return. We also need to note that although we always do not speak whatever we want to; we are, however, always free to speak as we like and even liable. We are free to think as we like to and obviously no external force can stop us from formulating a thought inside our heads.
No matter what our thought is, we come to deal with other people only after we express it. Speech, like thought, is indeed free in the biological sense. And unlike most actions, it can technically never be prevented by an authoritative figure. For example, if any authority wants to put a ban on cell phones for some reason they could simply ban imports, take down cell towers, close down service providers and destroy existing phone units. But any authority can never make it practically and completely impossible for people to speak out their minds. For that they’d have to either suture people’s mouth shut or simply remove the part of the brain responsible for speech and communication! Action is always taken on the speaker, if any must be, only after they have spoken or expressed themselves. They could be punished retrospectively, but never practically in prospect! In simpler words, no one can prevent you from crying out “Fuck” in the middle of a school assembly. However, action may be taken on you only after your teachers have heard you saying that out loud.
Some of the context in which a person is compelled to limit speech against will have been listed below (These are most of the time problematic and are liable to initiate violent conflicts or may result in tragic loss of lives):
At Gun point. If you are kidnapped by an unknown group with an unknown motive and they put you at gun point, then you might yourself choose to restrict your choice of words wisely to try and reason with them as much as possible in order to try and survive. If you mock them and question their courage or provoke them, then maybe you may have lesser chances of finding a way out of it. Here, you have every right to criticize them but you’ll choose not to and limit speech voluntarily if you want to guarantee your safety.
Fear of government/authority imposing sanctions. Many people, even if they feel right, do not speak out their opinions and do not express themselves for the fear of being prosecuted by authority.
Fear of public prosecutions, sanctions, ostracism, and outrage. Many people, even if they feel right, do not speak out their opinions and do not express themselves for the fear of being prosecuted or ostracized (i.e fear of being called and wrongly labelled racist, sexist, ‘islamo-phobic’ or in case of Nepal ‘Anti-Madheshi’ or ‘Anti-Janajati’) by the public or the socio-cultural group of which they are a part of. This can also be called political correctness.
At last, two fundamentals present themselves whenever we come to discuss about free speech.
No one can stop us from speaking, but ourselves;
Even though we can speak whatever we want to whenever we want to, we usually don’t, in relation to the social context at hand.
The social context can be those where establishing a positive rapport/relationship is personally important or essential.
Sometimes, we limit speech out of fear for our safety and social well-being
Fear of the government/authority.
Fear of public prosecutions or sanctions.
So far, one thing is almost certain. There is indeed such a thing as free speech, but it seems very likely that there could be no such thingas absolute free speech. Now let’s move on to the next segment.
The Harm Principle
Many philosophers, leaders and lawmakers over several years have tried to provide solutions to the free speech conundrum. One successful figure of them lot is definitely John Stuart Mill through his 1859 book On Liberty. He was an English philosopher, who defended free speech but also simultaneously introduced the concept of the Harm principle. He states:
“If the arguments of the present chapter are of any validity, there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered.” [Chapter II, On Liberty]
By this, he clearly defends speech by telling us that it is best if any idea is allowed to exist, no matter how offensive or immoral they may be considered by the contemporary zeitgeist (social time-frame). He further adds:
“If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing (the majority of) mankind.”
He suggests that it is best if we allow even one dissenting individual, let alone a group, to voice their concerns or disapproval. He argues that there could always be a possibility for that one person or the minority to be correct in place of the majority. He believes such is the value of speech that not even one voice deserves suppression as every idea could be precious at some point of time even if not at present. And this notion is to some extent appealing because any kind of social progress definitely means offending or dissenting some kind of deeply held sentiments. We can look back, for example, at the wide prevalence and acceptance in human history of slavery, witch hunts, apartheid, prosecutions of homosexuals, discriminatory voting rights, imperialism and in Nepal’s context dowry and Sati pratha (burning alive of newly widowed women along with their deceased husbands); all of whose value have become next to obsolete at present. Maybe because some people (or person) at some point in the past dared to question them.
On the contrary, Mill also suggests in Chapter 4, Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual, that there needs to be some sort of regulation on speech within a society for it to function systematically. He recommends putting restrictions on speech in order to prevent harm, to the speaker as well as others.
“the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” [Chapter IV, On Liberty]
One famous analogy Mill uses in his book to explain the Harm principle is that of the Corn dealer. He suggests that while it may be acceptable to accuse through media that a particular corn dealer has been starving the poor. It may not be acceptable, however, to make the same claim in front of an angry mob outside the corn dealer’s house who cannot be controlled and are in the verge of storming into his residence and lynching him. This is because the latter statement could very well result in harming the corn dealer. So it is best to limit speech such as in this context to prevent harm. Go back to the part where I had mentioned that at gun point, you are mostly bound to carefully limit your choice of words and thus speech for the sake of your own safety. While that was yourself limiting your own speech, Mill, on the other hand, is advocating for restrictions to be imposed by an authority on such harm-prone speech.
Speaking objectively in his terms, freedom is rationally best limited when it comes to the issue of harm. No matter how progressive we are, when it comes to harming others or ourselves we usually tend to draw a line and righteously we should. But we need to be distinct on whether we are talking about the freedom to commit or the freedom to speak; and also be clear with our definition of the word harm.
Argument on applications of Mill’s Harm principle
It would be fair enough for me to say that the harm principle in itself is not sufficient to regulate speech. Some argue that Mill’s definition of ‘harm’ is very vague and brief, when in fact it should have had a broad array of meanings. Mill does not go into detail to discuss what exactly he means by the term ‘Harm’. His focus appears to be more on physical harm and he tends to leave out economic, psychological as well as legal harm. To counter Mill’s narrow definition of Harm, one could counter his very corn dealer analogy, and say that accusing the corn dealer through media that he starves the poor, without substantial proof, could indeed harm his business and result in harming the corn dealer and his family financially and maybe even psychologically. Mill has failed to recognize other forms of speech such as libel, incitement, blackmail, dishonest propaganda and hate speech that may have the potential to do more harm than good.
So anytime we try to apply the Harm principle to limit free speech it is vital to ask ourselves “what type of speech can actually cause harm?” To improve the argument on behalf of Mill’s harm principle, we could very well broaden the definition and go on to say that any speech or action that is liable to violate someone’s basic human rights could be said to be Harmful. So in this blog, for simplicity, violation of someone’s rights, is considered Harm. In that way we may argue effectively.
Applying the harm principle on Pornography
Pornography is censored or prohibited in most parts of the world as it is considered obscene and immoral by many. This is indeed a very good example for us to discuss and understand Free speech and the Harm principle. Now as morality is a dynamic concept, always on the change, it could be inconsistent with the harm principle to ban pornography on moral grounds as one person’s perception of an act as moral may not fit into someone else’s book of morals and offending someone may not be considered as harm as it may not violate the rights of the viewer. We also need to take into consideration the fact that some speech that is offensive to someone, might be amusing to someone else. Next clause is obscenity. People may find pornography obscene, but pornography is intended actually to cause sexual arousal in the audience or subscribers. And similarly, someone finding it obscene may not amount to harm as per Mill.
Alternatively, one could argue that pornography violates especially the rights of women and maybe even minors who may be forced to have sex before the camera. Categories such as revenge porn, Voyeur and ex-girlfriend porn may also violate someone’s right to privacy. And there are sex slaves and trafficked sex workers who may be forced into the porn industries as has happened in places such as Thailand and India. Rights are violated as people may have been forced, compelled, blackmailed or tricked into porn. So as per Mill, it may be okay to limit porn as it appears to violate someone’s rights in some way. In that sense we could also argue back that it may be better to regulate the industry itself rather than to ban it because there are also individuals who voluntarily participate in the industry as they can see the increasing demands and maybe even good income, and it may be next to impossible to filter out which porn is violating the rights of which actor/porn star and which isn’t.
It is also very true that in places where pornography is strictly restricted by law, the industry has not perished completely but have managed to flourish, although in a criminal manner; therefore giving rise to a vicious cycle of organized crime and human trafficking. It’s a case similar to America’s ‘War on Drugs’ and the debate on whether recreational drugs should or should not be banned [Video by Kurzgesagt]. Regulating the industry may filter the violation of rights gradually while at the same time might provide a safe, healthy, taxable and standardized platform for the interested to take part in and even for those who demand pornographic content.
On the other hand, almost all of us, including liberals, certainly would object to child pornography as it deals with violating the rights of people under the age of consent. But what if there are over-age actors portraying underage characters in porn? What then? Rights are surely not violated in such cases (again it is difficult to ascertain who, what, where, when and how), and the only issue remaining is of such content offending our moral standards. The harm principle applies here only if actual children are involved and not if overage actors playing the part of children are. And to filter wrongdoing, again regulation (as in compulsory regulation by registration of all porn actors, directors and producers), rather than ban seems appropriate.
Based on Mill’s harm principle, people finding such materials offensive, repugnant, immoral or obscene are not considered valid grounds for banning pornography altogether.
Applying the Harm principle to hate speech
After reading through many papers and articles and going through many discussions on free speech, I have come to realize that Hate speech is one tricky area when it comes to discussions on free speech and censorship laws.
It’s difficult to justify against hate speech in a Millian manner because most of the time hate speech may not be associated with direct harm or violation of rights. For instance if some child at school yells out profane and racist insults at another child, then according to the Millian way, it would not be considered a direct harm to the child as the child is physically intact and his/her rights have not been violated. Like I’ve already mentioned above, Mill clearly does not consider the psychological burden of this speech on the targeted child. He does not consider the possibility of that child’s self confidence being hurt by the hate speech and as a consequence, him/her suffering in grades and performance in school.
Many might like to exclude hate speech towards children, from being protected. Simply because such are aimed at people who are not emotionally and psychologically mature enough to handle criticism or insult. In that sense, maybe banning weird baby names in Germany may be for a valid reason, to prevent psychological harm in children by preventing ‘possible’ bullying or harassment. But again in terms of Mill, it may not constitute as harm. (Some may even argue that it would be better if we actually popularized the concept that bullying and harassment is wrong, instead of banning names). It may be the case, if we can clearly show that the child has been harmed psychologically, but how can we again ascertain that for every individual who comes under some kind of hate speech? Not everyone show signs of an upset psyche.
At this point, some may even argue that it is better to teach our kids to face critique and face their problems in a tolerant and rational way than to be emotionally weak and break. But on the other hand, while this way might be effective for many, we also need to acknowledge the fact that not every child is psychologically equipped for this. We could start a whole new debate, but that is beyond the scope of this essay. Unless and until we are able to show that the child’s rights have been violated, the state (in this case school authorities) cannot impose sanctions or punishment on the speaker as per the Harm principle. And even if we do sanction the speaker, it will always be retrospective and the damage already may have been done.
So clearly the Millian way may not look like the best way to approach the free-speech conundrum as it may not be able to tackle speech causing harm that is not physical. Critics of the Harm principle usually state that it is too narrow a standard upon which to set limitations to speech.
Let us consider hate speech in the context of stand up comedy still applying Mill’s reasoning. For example in the case of a French Comedian Deudonne M’Bala M’Bala who made a statement that he’ll stuff Quenelle up every Zionist’s backside and popularized the ‘Quenelle Gesture’ (shown above) which many considered to be anti-semitic. Due to his comedic statements, he has now been banned in France from making any sort of public appearance. A simple act of offending a particular group with a gesture has led to this man being barred from performing in the public.
If the Millian principle had been applied here, then M’Bala may not have faced prohibitions as a hand gesture does not necessarily violate rights or cause harm to the audience or property. It just offends a particular audience, in this case orthodox Jews and Zionists, which according to Mill, is not to be considered into the inclusion criteria for limiting speech by authority or government. Here, the argument from the psychological harm clause may not apply as it is not directed at an individual but rather towards a community. But technically, there is a problem in banning M’Bala M’Bala, as Anti-Zionism is not always necessarily antisemitism. This can be seen by the presence of significant Anti-Zionist Jews across the globe as well. So all in all, M’Bala M’Bala’s punishment seems irrational in this sense as clearly, the offense taken was relative.
So we have come to learn, I hope, that the Harm principle as proposed by John Stuart Mill may not answer all the clause and loopholes within the free speech argument, but it sure does help in some scenarios nonetheless. The main point of it all being in order to set an inquiry as to when a government of a free society can take action on an individual for the things he/she have said?
In a nutshell, it could be fairly said that the Harm principle fails to address most of the emotional and psychological aspects of the argument (as in emotional upset such as dejection or offense). Whether this is a good or a bad point is rather subjective.
The Offense principle
Since the harm principle set the threshold for limiting speech too low, another notable philosopher, Joel Feinberg, came up with his own kind of solution to this puzzle. He introduced the offense principle, mostly as a guide for the public to react to various forms of expression and for authorities to decide and set standards as to which kind of speech needs to be restricted. Many may not agree with Feinberg, but let us examine the Offense principle from both the sides just as we have done that for the Harm principle above.
If we consider physical harm like Mill does, then maybe freedom to commit is better limited but it won’t still be clear why would it be reasonable to limit speech? Does speaking by itself harm people? If it does then how do we draw a lineas to what indeed is harm and what is offence? If there is harm, what makes up direct or indirect harm? It’s important for us to try and answer these questions. And with the offense principle, Feinberg has at least tried to answer them.
To sum up his principle, he proposes a solution in which he claims that in order for us or the authorities to be able to limit someone else’s speech, some factors must always be taken into account. Restrictions should depend on:
Extent of the speech
Social value of the speech
Motives of the speaker
Number of people offended
Intensity of the offense
General interest of the community at large; or for the ‘greater good’
Avoid-ability of the speech; i.e the ease with which it can be avoided, which remains the most important factor of them all
Now these points are surely debatable but they sure do help to solve certain problems and loopholes in the free speech conundrum. At other times, they seem too far-fetched and rigorous when it comes to restricting speech.
Argument on application of the offense principle
Like I have mentioned before, speech cannot be prevented but actions on the speaker can be only taken retrospectively. Now an authority or a society can surely try and make it more difficult for a person to express potentially offensive ideas by imposing sanctions or by simply threatening prosecution. This is usually done with the assumed logic that if we make it difficult for someone to express contrary or offensive ideas, it will be less likely for them or others like them to express offensive ideas or to make offensive public statements.
But history has shown often that imposing restrictions and sanctions on people who express dissent does not necessarily stop them or others like them from expressing restricted but shared ideas. Take for example the various revolutions across the globe for independence from imperialism and colonialism, take for example the Arab spring, the civil rights movement, suffrage movement, anti-apartheid movement, existence of atheists in Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh even amidst the threat of severe punishments and death, rise of progressive voices in Iran and the like (and in case of Nepal the fall of Monarchy and rise of the Republic). All happened because the authorities (or the public) failed to suppress speech entirely. That is why ‘avoidability‘ of speech is proposed as an important factor by Feinberg. In a nutshell, if you don’t like someone’s expressed opinions or ideas, simply avoiding it will prevent offense. In this way, the person expressing it is pardoned of prosecution. The person likely to be offended may not be offended if the content can be avoided.
Feinberg elaborates the avoidability factor very eloquently with the ‘book analogy’. He argues that books need not be banned as they are very easy to avoid. If you do not like a genre or a particular writing, you can avoid it instead of calling for the book to be banned, because there is always the possibility that some others might find it amusing or appealing.
But some people are offended just because of the knowledge that this book ‘exists’. But Feinberg has put forth that being offended by something that is avoidable is supposed to be logically less serious than being offended by something that is not avoidable.
Bare knowledge does not seem to be sufficient grounds for us to ban something. We will look into it in detail below.
Applying the offense principle to pornography
Similarly, let us apply the offense principle to pornography. Extent of pornographic material: At this age of the internet, it’s very extensive and widely and easily available. Social value: Not put in high esteem but the audience who ask for porn are usually the audience who want to be gratified by such content and most of the time meaning no harm to others whatsoever. Motive: To cause arousal in the targeted audience. Number of people offended: Many, depending on the context (more people are likely to be offended if porn is displayed out in public hoarding boards). Intensity: Variable. Some porn watchers might consider erotic coupling not offensive while incest or BDSM genres may be offensive to them. Many may consider all of them offensive. Some may be offended by the usual objectification and demeaning portrayal of women in porn as ‘sluts’ or ‘whores’. General interest of public at large: Porn industry when regulated is less likely to do much harm to the public than when not regulated. When porn is banned, the industry may go underground and may be devoid of proper regulations which may possibly lead to surge in organized crime and human trafficking rates. Avoidability: Very avoidable!
So according to the Offense principle, porn need not be banned completely if it is allowed only up to private use and not displayed openly in public. That would avoid many people from being unnecessarily offended; pornographic contents still being legally available for the interested to access in private or in groups of significance. It gives room for effective regulations as well as legalization of the porn industry.
Applying the offense principle to hate speech
Let us take Adolf Hitler’s autobiography, Mein Kampf, for example. Similar to that on pornography, the question arises whether it should or should not be banned. Taking the Avoidability factor into consideration, it is very easily avoidable. When talking about the speaker, the motives are clearly xenophobic, racist and antisemitic; some may argue that such works will inspire a new generation of Neo-Nazis, but we cannot know that for sure and it may be better left for the readers to decide. There is always the possibility that some want to read it just out of their intellectual curiosity or to simply study about a notorious dictator. And also as discussed above, that bare knowledge is not sufficient grounds for us to ban a book, the Mein Kampf very well should also avoid being banned.
But let us take a scenario when a person keenly dresses as Adolf Hitler and shouts out Antisemitic insults towards the settlers and advertises Mein Kampf through a loudspeaker in a predominantly Jewish settlement. Now let us again consider the above mentioned factors with relation to this case. The extent of this speech is such that it is aimed particularly and specifically at the Jewish settlers. So the offense that is done is more acute even though the number of people affected is relatively low, but the intensity of the speech is high as it deals with propagating direct hate. Social value of this speech is very low, it would be clear that the settlers would not want to hear such speech and that it would not contribute towards a constructive argument. Likewise it’s not of much use when considering it even in terms of the general interest of the public at large as throwing out insults will in no way benefit the public. The Motive behind this speech is clearly hateful. The speaker is intentionally trying to spread hateful remarks. And lastly when talking about its avoidability, this kind of speech is very difficult to avoid.
When we assess the above scenario from Feinberg’s perspective, it looks better to limit hate speech than to not. So it could be said that the Offense principle allows us to limit something that causes immense emotional and psychological upset and cannot be easily avoided. Avoidability of the expressed content is clearly the backbone of the offense principle.
But not everyone is in consensus. There are those who are concerned about limiting speech and those who are concerned about not limiting speech at all. Even though the kind of speech has changed along with our changing moral values, this debate has persisted from the very beginning of the concept of Democracy.
There are those at one spectrum who argue that imposing any kind of limitations on speech will make it easy for a society to slip into censorship, tyranny and fascism; hence they believe there should be no limitations imposed on speech at all. Then there are those at the other spectrum who argue that not limiting speech will lead to an inevitable slip into chaos, anarchy and lawlessness.
Both such spectrum can be fairly said to be ‘slippery slope’ arguments. A slippery slope argument is any such in which people argue that when one idea is allowed to happen then a particular consequence is bound to occur so that idea should not be allowed in the first place. Here at the two spectrum, the idea is either limiting speech or not limiting speech at all.
The problem with such reasoning is that they avoid sensible discussions about the practical issue at hand by diverting attention towards extreme hypothetical situations behind which there seem to be no credible evidence. Because those who do argue from such extremes, at either end, often do not have sufficient evidence to demonstrate that limiting speech will make us slide towards tyranny or either that in not limiting speech we are slipping into anarchy and chaos.
Such argument will never bear any fruit for us to reach towards a solution. It will just stain an otherwise sensible discussion and sway it into an unsubstantiated conjecture. So it is vital to always argue from the middle-ground, not being biased towards any pole.
Now where do I stand on this? Frankly, I should say that I do not know!
I wouldn’t want to be too deterministic on this subject matter as a whole. What I can say for sure, after studying about it, is that the debate on whether or not we should impose restrictions on speech (or any form of expression) is not static. Just as our social, moral and ethical values are not static. We can never have a ‘one-time-discussion’ that settles everything.
Personally, however, I’d like to take into equal consideration, both the Harm as well as the Offense principles. There is no ‘one or the other’ logic for me. I think Stuart Mill is able to explain the limitations on speech based only on harm (i.e violation of rights as in physical, legal harm) and Feinberg is able to elaborate on the deficits of the former and to effectively propose a solution in the form of the Offense principle. People do consider these two principles mutually exclusive, for some people it’s either Mill or Feinberg which I think is rather naive. I’d rather consider them two mutually inclusive subsets of the same whole. I’d like to put it this way: If we could compare speech to a democratic constitution, Mill’s harm principle can be said to be one main ‘article’ and Feinberg’s Offense principle could be said to be the necessary ‘amendment’ in order to move forwards.
Another area that is rather tricky when it comes to speech, which I have chosen not to discuss in detail just to shorten my already lengthy essay, is Political correctness. The scope of this essay was indeed just to deal with the debate on whether or not to impose limitations on speech. Sometimes, political correctness may also undermine the real issue at hand, but in this political world, of slick diplomacy and tactics, some may even consider it useful and necessary. This, I think, should be a whole new topic which needs to be examined from both sides and maybe an inspiration for another of my essays. But let us not go into it in detail for the moment.
In the end, I hope I have been able to examine freedom of speech effectively in spite of my professional and intellectual limitations on the subject. Speech is as important to us humans as it is inevitable. Any sanction can only be imposed upon the speaker retrospectively, but sanctions cannot effectively ever be prospective. Consider this quote below.
I am also clear that it is worthless to have a discussion on the value of speech, if we first do not look at it from a social context. As stated above, a man stranded on a deserted island can have absolute freedom of speech, but when you pick him up and place him in a community full of people, absolute free speech seems less relevant. As I have also mentioned earlier in this essay, speech is always rationally limited in one way or the other depending on the values of a particular society and the time-frame in which it exists.
Another necessary thing is, for this debate to never really end. We should always be able to talk about it openly in an unbiased manner. Some may say that to be able to speak about speech openly, there first needs to be the guarantee of free speech, which I agree with, nonetheless. So my whole essay is void, unless we consider it from a progressive democratic perspective, which would allow such discussions to take place at all. This is to say that the discussions in my essay may not be valid in an autocratic, theocratic, feudal, despotic or a hegemonic society which usually suppress dissenting and contrasting ideas and opinions.
But the discussion here is not only about censorship, it’s also about how to ‘draw a line effectively’ in order to limit or not to limit speech. This ‘line’ we are talking about, is most of the time rather obscure if not vague and constant rational discussions are always necessary to dilute any polarity that may arise if one extreme overpowers the other.
As a skeptic, I would propose that even free speech itself should be questioned just as censorship also necessitates questioning. For me (as I often say through my blogs), no question is a stupid question, no idea is above criticism and no human life is below dignity.
[Disclaimer: For most of my essay, I have decided to outline my thoughts in a similar style as that in the Freedom of Speech entry in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. This is because I found the structure appropriate and suitable for my effort to explain the arguments surrounding Free speech in my own simplified language. I am also assuming the possibility that my audience may not be well aware of the Harm or Offense principles. You could also fairly say that this essay is a kind of simplification of the SEP one. All thanks to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy team as they constantly try and explain numerous philosophical puzzles, standoffs and hurdles in an unbiased manner.]