The Mirror-Image Fallacy

I was watching Zoya Akhthar’s Dil Dhadakne Do yesterday. I guess the whole point of the movie was a belaboured one about how super-smart, intelligent women like the one played by Priyanka Chopra are suppressed by the patriarchal Angry North Indian Male (a distant cousin of the Angry White Male). One of the scenes that sets off the third act shows a frustrated Priyanka yelling her head off at a bunch of rich, North Indian aunties for gossiping about hookups among their litter of Ralph Lauren clad offspring. “Get a job!”, she yells. All transformed from Doormat Girl to Angry Indian Female. Stop gossiping. Focus on self-improvement. Study hard, begin startups and ‘Make In India’ for the greater glory of humankind. But she and her other social media lecturing counterparts forget one thing. Some aunties don’t want to become self-made women. Most, actually. Some are content with buying Fendi bags and gossiping about youngsters. Priyanka’s character’s solipsism believes that the whole world is like her.

This reminded me of a prescient article on the Mirror-Image Fallacy by Charles Krauthammer from Time 1983. I read it a while back and the sheer brilliance of Krauthammer’s thoughts stayed with me. I tried to find a link on the internet but couldn’t find one. So I typed it out for you. Word for word from the hard copy of his book ‘Things That Matter’. It deserves some space on the internet.

The Mirror-Image Fallacy
Charles Krauthammer in Time, August 15, 1983.

“As is evident just from the look on his face,” observes The New Yorker in a recent reflection on the Lincoln Memorial, “[Lincoln] would have liked to live out a long life surrounded by old friends and good food.” Good food? New Yorker readers have an interest in succesful soufflés, but it is hard to recall the most melancholy and spiritual of presidents giving them much thought. New Yorker editors no doubt dream of living out their days in gourmet pastures. But did Lincoln really long to retire to a table at Lutèce?

Solipsism is the belief that the whole world is me, and as mathematician Martin Gardner points out, its authentic version is not found outside mental institutions. What is to be found outside the asylum is its philosophical cousin, the belief that the whole world is like me. This species of solipsism – plural solipsism, if you like – is far more common because it is far less lonely. Indeed, it yields a very congenial world populated exclusively by creatures of one’s own likeness, a world in which Lincoln pines for his dinner with André or, more consequentially, where KGB chiefs and Iranian ayotollahs are, well, folks just like us.

The mirror-image fallacy is not as crazy as it seems. Fundamentally, it is a radical denial of the otherness of others. Or to put it another way, a blinding belief in “common humanity,” in the triumph of human commonality over human differences. It is a creed rarely fully embraced (it has a disquieting affinity with martyrdom), but in a culture tired of ancient distinctions as that between children and adults (in contemporary movies the kids are, if anything, wiser than their parents) or men and women (“I was a better man as a woman with a woman than I’ve been as a man with a woman” says Tootsie), it can acquire considerable force.

Its central axiom is that if one burrows deep enough beneath the Mao jacket, the shapka or the chador, one discovers that people everywhere are essentially the same. Eleven-year old American anthropologist Samantha Smith was invited to Moscow by Yuri Andropov for firsthand confirmation of just that proposition – a rare Soviet concession to the principle of on-site inspection. After a well-photographed sojourn during which she took in a children’s festival at a Young Pioneer camp (but was spared the paramilitary training), she got the message: “They’re just … almost … just like us,” she announced at her last Moscow press conference. Her mother, who is no longer eleven but makes up for it in open-mindedness, supplied the corollary: “They’re just like us … they prefer to work at their jobs than to work at war.”

That completes the syllogism. We all have “eyes, hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions.” We are all “fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer.” It follows, does it not, that we must all want the same things? According to Harvard Cardiologist Bernard Lown, president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, that’s not just Shakespeare, it’s a scientific fact: “Our aim is to promote the simple medical insight,” he writes, “that Russian and American hearts are indistinguishable, that both ache for peace and survival.”

Such breathtaking non sequiturs (cardiological or otherwise) are characteristic of plural solipsism. For it is more than just another happy vision. It is meant to have practical consequences. If people everywhere, from Savannah to Sevastopol, share the same hopes and dreams and fears and love of children (and good food), they should get along. And if they don’t, then there must be some misunderstanding, some misperception, some problem of communication. As one news report of the recent conference of Soviet and American peace activists in Minneapolis put it, “The issue of human rights sparked a heated discussion . . . and provided participants with a firsthand view of the obstacles to communication which so often characterize U.S.-Soviet relations.” (The sadistic sheriff in Cool Hand Luke was more succinct: pointing to the rebellious prisoner he had just brutalized, he explained, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”) It is the broken-telephone theory of international conflict, and it suggests a solution: repair service by the expert “facilitator,” the Harvard negotiations professor. Hence the vogue for peace academies, the mania for mediators, the belief that the world’s conundrums would yield to the right intermediary, the right presidential envoy, the right socialist international delegation. Yet Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, to take just two candidates for the Roger Fisher School of Conflict Resolution, have perfectly adequate phone service. They need only an operator to make the connection. Their problem is that they have very little to say to each other.

There are other consequences. If the whole world is like me, then certain conflicts become incomprehensible; the very notion of intractability becomes paradoxical. When the U.S. embassy in Tehran is taken over, Americans are bewildered. What does the Ayatullah want? The U.S. Government sends envoys to find out what token or signal or symbolic gesture might satisfy Iran. It is impossible to believe that the Ayatullah wants exactly what he says he wants: the head of the Shah. Things are not done that way any more in the West (even the Soviet bloc has now taken to pensioning off deposed leaders). It took a long time for Americans to get the message.

Other messages from exotic cultures are never received at all. The more virulent pronouncements of Third World countries are dismissed as mere rhetoric. The more alien the sentiment, the less seriously it is taken. Diplomatic fiascoes follow, like Secretary Shultz’s recent humiliation in Damascus. He persisted in going there despite the fact that President Assad had made it utterly plain that he rejected efforts by the U.S. (the “permanent enemy”) to obtain withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon. Or consider the chronic American frustration with Saudi Arabia. The Saudis consistently declare their refusal to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state in the Middle East, a position so at variance with the Western view that it is simply discounted. Thus successive American Governments continue to count on Saudi support for U.S. peace plans, only to be rudely let down. When the Saudis finally make it unmistakably clear that they will support neither Camp David nor the Reagan plan nor the Lebanon accord, the U.S. reacts with consternation. It might have spared itself the surprise if it had not in the first place imagined that underneath those kaffiyehs are folks just like us, sharing our aims and views.

“The wise man shows his wisdom in separation, in gradation, and his scale of creatures and of merits is as wide as nature,” writes Emerson. “The foolish have no range in their scale, but suppose every man is as every other man.” Ultimately to say that people all share the same hopes and fears, are all born and love and suffer and die alike, is to say very little. For it is after commonalities are accounted for that politics becomes necessary. It is only when values, ideologies, cultures and interests clash that politics even begins. At only the most trivial level can it be said that people want the same things. Take peace. The North Vietnamese want it, but apparently they wanted to conquer all of Indochina first. The Salvadoran right and left both want it, but only after making a desert of the other. The Reagan Administration wants it, but not if it has to pay for it with pieces of Central America.

And even if one admits universal ends, one still has said nothing about means, about what people will risk, will permit, will commit in order to banish their (common) fears and pursue their (common) hopes. One would think that after the experience of this century the belief that a harmony must prevail between peoples who share a love of children and small dogs would be considered evidence of a most grotesque historical amnesia.

From where does the idea of a world of likes come? In part from a belief in universal brotherhood (a belief that is parodied, however, when one pretends that the ideal already exists). In part from a trendy ecological pantheism with its misty notions of the oneness of those sharing this lonely planet. In part from the Enlightenment belief in a universal human nature, a slippery modern creation that for all its universality manages in every age to take on a decidedly middle-class look. For the mirror-image fantasy derives above all from the coziness of middle-class life. The more settled and ordered one’s life—and in particular one’s communal life—the easier it becomes for one’s imagination to fail. In Scarsdale, destitution and desperation, cruelty and zeal are the stuff of headlines, not life. Thus a single murder can create a sensation; in Beirut it is a statistic. When the comfortable encounter the unimaginable, the result is not only emotional but cognitive rejection. Brutality and fanaticism beyond one’s ken must be made to remain there; thus, for example, when evidence mounts of biological warfare in faraway places, the most fanciful theories may be produced to banish the possibility.

To gloss over contradictory interests, incompatible ideologies and opposing cultures as sources of conflict is more than antipolitical. It is dangerous. Those who have long held a mirror to the world and seen only themselves are apt to be shocked and panicked when the mirror is removed, as inevitably it must be. On the other hand, to accept the reality of otherness is not to be condemned to a war of all against all. We are not then compelled to see in others the focus of evil in the world. We are still enjoined to love our neighbor as ourselves; only it no longer becomes an exercise in narcissism. But empathy that is more than self-love does not come easily. Particularly not to a culture so fixed on its own image that it can look at Lincoln, gaunt and grave, and see a man ready to join the queue at the pâté counter at Zabar’s.


Too Much Oestrogen Is A Dangerous Thing

A recent report in the paper states that women’s breasts are getting bigger and the expert opinions they’ve glommed from the Daily Star state it’s due to an increase in female hormones caused by pollution and man-made chemicals in the environment.

If that is true then expect to see flights to Bangalore fully booked by flat-chested women from all over the world.

However, like everyone with a brain, I distrust anything the TOI prints. The editor must have googled ‘breasts’, found this article and passed it on to his sub-editors with the memo ‘Cover story for tomorrow. Unless Amitabh Bachhan has a new post on his blog.’

So I have another forkful of scrambled eggs, finish my tea and turn the page, choosing to not worry about oestrogen anymore.

Later in the day, I happen to be looking up prominent people in the Indian literary scene. Don’t ask. Something related to my day job. Too tedious to get into. I come across this blog written by a published female Indian author, Mridula Koshy.

Here are some excerpts. I quote verbatim.

“Torn petals of marigold drift between us. My heart is a stranger I watch take a step and then two, and the arm carves a smile there, in the belly, now spills a mass, dark into the dust.”

“Time is an accordion that never opening, closes.”

“Eagerness in our quivering knees. She leads us between yellow walls. Twist, she barks. Slop pots empty from overhead. She is nose lost in fetid piles. We are curious. So this is her bliss. Everywhere small lights quench. Sigh and rustle, man and woman embrace. The moon slides across the carom board sky. Onward the joy. Bound, stumble, prostrate. Feel it passing over us, gray lace, the trailing of night’s hem.”

The TOI, for once, was right. This oestrogen overload thing must be true. Nobody with a regular level of female hormones could construct transferred epithets of such staggering womanliness. Did you read that bit about the “arm carving a smile”? No amount of substance abuse can result in that. This author obviously has a yet-undiagnosed condition.

Wodehouse readers will no doubt recall the caricature that PGW created in Madeline Basset who believed ‘every time a fairy hiccoughs, a wee baby is born.’

Stylists and lyrical writers occupy a grey area in literature. On the one hand you have Shakespeare, and allowing personal bias, T S Eliot.  To the Bard is attributed such gems as ‘Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war’, ‘the winter of our discontent’ (Not Churchill, as many believe), ‘Salad Days’ and the classic ‘Woe is me’. He left us with an overflowing vault of phrases to turn into clichés, use in inspiring speeches and patch together in movie dialogues. So, thanks to the Shakemeister and a handful of others, to which I can even add Rushdie, we can all shout a big ‘Hooray for Stylists’.

On the other hand, you have writers of odious tripe, sentimental bilge about torn petals of marigold who are acclaimed for their stylistic virtues.

“Here is a natural stylist, with an easy, accessible turn of phrase…Hers is a determined, stealthy eye, born of fierce concentration, often conjuring up a rustic quiet: ‘Now her pregnant beauty startles him like the fish that rustle and slip past his shins in the flooded fields of paddy he bends over to seed.”

Rajni George, India Today, June 22, 2009.

Thing is, when I picture people writing stuff like that, I picture them in a tranquil (I hate that word but it’s apt) setting with aromatherapy oils slathered over themselves, stroking a peacock, listening to James Blunt. Before you read too much into it, I’m not making any more gay jokes here. This is about chick jokes. Let’s get our prejudices right.

So the question is, how much femininity qualifies as an acceptable norm? Where do we draw the line? In Ms Koshy’s case, clearly she needs help. They need to immediately cart her into a trauma unit and suck out as much oestrogen out of her as possible, before she grows a beard. And, obviously, keep her far away from pollution and man-made chemicals in the environment.

First published in KIRIK 03, May 2010

For whom the wedding bells toll

There comes a time in every Indian’s life when he or she is called upon to perform the first virtuous duty of adulthood. Getting hitched to the mate of their parents’ dreams. As coming of age rituals go, this is no mean task, since it involves putting aside pretty much anything you might find acceptable in a life partner.

These petty preferences must be cast aside in deference to the greater cause of fulfilling the righteous filial fantasy of throwing the ultimate Indian party and extorting heirs on demand. Failing which, one must come to terms with being labeled the Black Sheep who must be saved by The Family and Friends of The Family.

‘My God, already in your thirties!’ the sundry aunty will exclaim shrilly, ‘Come, come, you have to get married now and give us all a reason to get together again!’

‘Aiyyoooo, you youngsters these days!’ the ambient family elder will wheeze dramatically each time the gossip dies down at family gatherings, ‘All I ask is to see you settle down before I die, that’s all!’

‘When are you giving us some Good News, eh?’ the ever-pregnant cousin will beam, her one-year old and three-year old cuddled into her expansive bosom.

Reasonable as all these requests were, I agreed to play matrimonial roulette primarily because my father needed a post retirement project to focus on after he was done renovating the house. That I ended up throwing off the meddling mob was a completely unexpected bonus.

Given that I am of a mindset euphemistically labeled as ‘modern’ in the Indian marriage market, my father turned to the internet as the most suitable medium to go husband-hunting for me.

The first few weeks of this new hobby went well for both of us. My Father investigated and shortlisted the most promising marriage portals basis their advertising slogans, their reputation among Family Friends and the size and variety touted by their ‘cosmopolitan’ sections. Thereafter, he and I creatively crafted my profile to introduce myself without revealing anything at all.

Just when I thought all the hard work was over, the matrimonial portals began sending in the clowns. Ever since we clicked on ‘submit’, my inbox has been spammed by a motley assortment of suitors who, in retrospect, have always had three things in common.
1. This is the only way they get to meet girls
2.This is the only way they get to talk to them.
3. This is what they do after work and on weekends.

One of the first men to make an impression on me was Cool_Looks_007.  He even sent in a picture. He had clearly made a special effort to have this portrait made, because he posed in a silky hot pink Chirag Din shirt against a maroon curtain, with his hair neatly parted just above the left ear and carefully combed across his shiny smooth pate.

After being selected for the attentions of Hi_Hello101, Iambest4u, Wild_Vasu, Idealguy_No1, XF5425 and Rocket Singh, I realized that the Indian Wife Hunter often exhibits a catchy turn of phrase online. While there is always the garden variety Desperate Guy who wants to make ‘friendship’ with you, me, or anyone else who’ll have him, and the occasional Pervert, there is also the Pushy One. What do you mean let’s meet for coffee first? Didn’t your father tell you that my Mother has tallied our horoscopes and the astrologer has given our match 9 on 10?.

Then, there’s the Professional (Please find attached my resume, cc your father.), the Smarmy One (When do I get to hear your surilee voice?), the Sap (Don’t you sometimes wish for someone whose hand you can hold at the end of the day?), the Shy Guys (Our son doesn’t even talk to his female friends and colleagues.)

Most memorably, there was Raghu_2008 who I’m guessing, is still declaring his virginity in the hope of attracting an equally chaste bride. “I am proud to tell you that even in these days, I have saved myself for the one who is made for me.”

My all time favourite however, is the Nice Guy, simply because he’s the one who gets the Meddling Mob’s goat.

‘But there is nothing wrong about him!’

‘Sure. But there’s nothing right about him either.’

First published in KIRIK 02, March 2010