Vantage point

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Take a deep breath, Shashi

I responded to Shashi Tharoor's sari piece (no, he isn't India's Guiliani, I mean his piece on saris) with a flippant post because that is what it deserved.

The other Tharoor op-ed that caused waves was the one on cricket in the New York Times. It was one of those articles which almost makes you pity the writer.

The one amusing thing common to both the pieces is that they seem to be written by a 1st year PhD student of some social science. No, I don't mean in terms of the frailty of the arguments they make. I know many 1st year doctoral students who can make some pretty solid arguments. I am refering to the forced injection of some social scientific theory into his arguments.

In the first year of a PhD program, we read a LOT. We are literally swimming with ideas, theories, conjectures about the abstract world of social sciences. Some theories seem more fascinating than others. So there is always a tendency to explain everything around us by applying concepts discussed in economics, sociology, psychology, political science and management. It almost becomes a reflex. And in doing so we tend to forget what Freud is supposed to have said - sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Both of Tharoor's pieces take on two utterly trivial issues and needlessly and forcibly submerge them into a lot of pop social science. Indian culture, American culture, national character, Gandhi (the first rule of the Op Ed Club is, you have to invoke Gandhi), and all sorts of unnecessary concepts are pulled out to take hair-splitting to giddier heights.

Women are discarding the sari, not because of some deep-rooted attitude shift, but because they want convenience. And Americans don't like cricket because they don't like cricket. Complexity has got nothing to do with it. They don't like soccer. Nor (field) hockey. And believe it or not, they are not too crazy about watching taekwando either. Which is what Americans would probably have been bashed for not liking had Tharoor won and Moon lost the SecGen elections.

Since I am indeed a 1st year PhD student, I am going to exercise my birthright and do some pop social scientific analysis of why Tharoor is being such a dick.

Is he just taking out his frustration at the United States for not supporting his candidature? Or is it something deeper? Why this naked regret that Americans don't follow cricket? Does it arise out of a deep rooted inferiority complex which gets mollified only when the Americans give their approval? No! In all my wisdom, based on my 8 long months in the PhD program, I will now hold forth on this topic.

My proposition is that it is due to the pre-eminent political and cultural domination of America, which is almost brahminical in nature. 300 million Americans dominate a planet of 6 billion. The superiority of the 5%. Brahmins are also 5% of the Hindu population and dominate the community politically and culturally. Brahmins such as Tharoor thus feel an odd sense of kinship with Americans. So when Americans don't give a rabid rat's rear-end about cricket, something the brahmin has a zealous passion toward, it creates cognitive dissonance (Festinger 1956). When people are exposed to information that increases dissonance, they either ignore it, misinterpret or deny it (Festinger, Riecken, & Schachter, 1956; Batson, 1975; Burris, Harmon-Jones, Tarpley, 1997).

Tharoor has clearly taken the path of misinterpretation. Rather than just accept that Americans don't like the sport and move on, he has worked very hard to deal with his cognitive dissonance by building up a crackpot theory which blames the American national character. In fact he says cricket, a sport where there are a dozen ways of getting out, and where the turf, rain, the sun everything combine to produce rich complexity is not suited for a "homogenized McWorld".

In doing so, he displays not just flawed reasoning, but also sheer ignorance because there are a dozen ways of getting out in baseball as well. And the turf, soil, sun, rain and all that are vital to golf, another richly complex (arguably even more complex and giving rise to many more possibilities) game which lasts for a few days and yet is attended by huge crowds in the US.

His assertion that cricket is a more "virile" sport is not very dissimilar to a man in a mid-life crises buying a Porsche. And the last para of his article, where he says, "You may as well learn to accept that there are some things too special for the rest of us to want to waste them on you", is something a 10-year old on a playground might say.

So Shashi, take a deep breath. Get a hobby which does not involve writing op-eds. Even join the Manmohan cabinet. Anything to help you deal with your cognitive dissonance. But the next time you think up a question like "Why don't the Americans like my favourite sport?" or "Why do so many Indian women not wear saris like they used to, back when I didn't have to dye my hair?", and decide to launch into a polemic about it, remember. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

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