Monday, 14 December 2015

Why India banned the 'Satanic Verses'.

Inder Malhotra has an article in the Express today about how and why India banned Salman Rushdie's controversial novel 'Satanic Verses'.

'Around the time Rushdie’s book was published, Rajiv Gandhi was being inundated with strong representations from Muslim leaders of all parties, including the Congress, protesting against horrendous anti-Muslim riots in Meerut, Hashimpura and adjoining areas in UP. During these, not only were the killings heavy but also some victims were blinded. The highly provocative movement for the construction of Ram temple at Ayodhya had aggravated the situation. It was in this grave atmosphere that a note, informing him that since Satanic Verses was not published in India, several applications for the import of Rushdie’s book also landed on the prime minister’s desk. He called in his information adviser, G. Parthasarathy, who advised that the matter should be referred to the Union home ministry that was responsible for what is officially always called “law and order” despite Nehru’s repeated suggestion that the phrase “peace and tranquility” would be better.

'A couple of days later the PM heard on Doordarshan that the import of Satanic Verses had been banned. Parthasarathy’s RAX phone rang and he found that the call was from the PM asking him whether he had seen the news on Doordarshan, and if so, how the ban order was announced. The answer was available immediately. C.G. Somiah, then a highly-spoken-of home secretary, explained that under the government’s rules of business, it was his duty to deal with every major problem concerning law and order. On reading Rushdie’s book in its entirety, he added, he came to the conclusion that to allow it to be circulated in India in the existing law and order situation would be not only wrong but also dangerous. The home ministry issued the necessary orders. Rajiv evidently thought that this was the end of the matter.'

There are two points which can be made in this connection.

1) The political background was irrelevant. Rushdie's book wasn't connected to either anti-Muslim atrocities in U.P nor had anything to do with Ayodhya. The fact is a prominent opposition M.P, former diplomat, Syed Shahabudin had written an open letter calling for the book's import to be banned. By itself, this meant that no application for its import could be granted without ascertaining if prima facie it was noxious under the relevant act and, moreover, if it posed a threat to internal security.

2) The decision to ban or allow the import of a book is not made at the level of the Prime Minister. If the Home Ministry receives representations opposing the import of a book, it makes a decision based on certain objective criteria. These can be challenged in a court of law. However, it would still be open to anyone to approach the Court to ban the book and order copies destroyed on some other basis- in this case Hate Speech Law Section 295(A)- which was brought in after the scandal caused by the publication of 'Rangila Rasul', a book which was reminiscent of the Satanic Verses because of the inclusion of salacious material in connection with episodes in the life of the Prophet of Islam. Indeed, that's why Khushwant Singh, who trained as a lawyer, advised Penguin India not to publish the book.

This raises the question of Rushdie's open letter to Rajiv Gandhi- which the author now admits was 'cheeky' and 'arrogant, not to say hilariously ignorant- Rushdie called Khurshid Alam Khan an extremist and a fundamentalist!- and the dilemma faced by a democratic country under the rule of law when attacked by so-called 'public intellectuals' who affect not to know the Law and who pretend that Politicians are all powerful.

Rushdie wrote as follows to Rajiv Gandhi- 'A further official statement was brought to my notice. This explained that ''The Satanic Verses'' had been banned as a pre-emptive measure. Certain passages had been identified as susceptible to distortion and misuse, presumably by unscrupulous religious fanatics and such. The banning order had been issued to prevent this misuse. Apparently, my book is not deemed blasphemous or objectionable in itself, but is being proscribed for, so to speak, its own good!

This really is astounding. It is as though, having identified an innocent person as a likely target for assault by muggers or rapists, you were to put that person in jail for protection. This is no way, Mr. Gandhi, for a free society to behave.

The Indian Govt had been kind to Rushdie. Rather than saying baldly that the book contravened Hate Speech Law Section 295 (A) and that its import had been banned in consequence, the bureaucrats sought to give Rushdie a fig leaf.  The fact is, quite soon after, the British Police had to take Rushdie into hiding for his own protection. By then, of course, even Rushdie could see that such a measure was necessary to preserve his life. What is alarming is that a man born in India and who had lived in Pakistan could not understand that his book provided material for Islamophobes as well as serving as a pretext for mob violence by Muslim activists. Rushdie could scarcely have been unaware that mobs in Pakistan had burned down the British Council Library because of a tasteless joke by Auberon Waugh about the birth of the future Messiah and the peculiar shape of the trousers men wore in the region. In the twenty succeeding years, Political Islam had gained rather than retreated. Yet Rushdie wrote a scabrous book and expected to be taken seriously as a Public Intellectual- one, moreover, as he reminded us in a pompous TV interview he gave at that time, who had studied Islamic History in Cambridge.

Rushdie does offer a possible legal defence relevant to a prosecution under Section 295. Here it is-
'The section of the book in question (and let's remember that the book isn't actually about Islam, but about migration, metamorphosis, divided selves, love, death, London and Bombay) deals with a prophet - who is not called Mohammed - living in a highly fantastical city made of sand (it dissolves when water falls upon it).

'He is surrounded by fictional followers, one of whom happens to bear my own first name. Moreover, this entire sequence happens in a dream, the fictional dream of a fictional character, an Indian movie star, and one who is losing his mind, at that. How much further from history could one get?

'In this dream sequence I have tried to offer my view of the phenomenon of revelation and the birth of a great world religion; my view is that of a secular man for whom Islamic culture has been of central importance all his life.'
This defence could work if the reader could believe that the crazy movie star could himself have had the hallucination narrated. An American or German might think, 'okay, maybe Indian movie stars from humble backgrounds grew up listening to stories about their Religion similar to what is depicted in the book. Indian Judges, on the other hand, have direct access to the vernacular traditions re. the Prophet. Furthermore, the prosecution could call actual Muslim film stars from humble backgrounds and establish that the hallucinations Rushdie fathers on his protagonist are not such as might arise as a result of mental illness. Rather, they are meant to impress the reader as a type of Revelation. 
Rushdie refers to Hazrat Salman Farsi- a special hero to Ajamis (non Arabs). Why on earth does he conflate this impeccable character with the reviled Ibn Sarh who was not Ajami? Would Rushdie have uttered a similar slur on Hazrat Bilal (who was Black)?
The problem here, from the legal point of view, is that a lot of Rushdie's writing is of a low grade 'scenes a fair' type, which, though a defense against the charge of plagiarism, is no good at all for a plea basing itself on aesthetic value or scholarly integrity.

Rushdie said- 'When Syed Shahabuddin and his fellow self-appointed guardians of Muslim sensibilities say that ''no civilized society'' should permit the publication of a book like mine, they have got things backwards. The question raised by the book's banning is precisely whether India, by behaving in this fashion, can any more lay claim to the title of a civilized society.'
A Civilized Society is one under the Rule of Law. In India, Democratically elected Legislatures had approved or extended Laws against Hate Speech.
Banning Rushdie's book was the Civilized thing to do for the Indian bureaucrat concerned because it was enjoined by a Democratically enacted Law and was clearly in the Public Interest.  Protesting against an unjust law or seeking to redefine the Public Interest is equally, if not more so, incumbent on members of Civil Society. However, there are civilized ways of enforcing or protesting Laws. Indian bureaucrats did their duty in banning a book but did so in a Civilized manner such that the least possible damage was done to the author's reputation.  Rushdie, by contrast, though adopting an Olympian tone, protested the ban in the least civilized manner possible- viz. by telling stupid lies and putting forward obviously fallacious arguments. The proper way to change the Law is to bring a test case on a genuinely worthwhile piece of literature. Sadly, Rushdie is yet to produce anything that meets that description. 

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Alan Gibbard, Semantic Normativity & Ontological dysphoria

Economics was once known as the 'dismal science'- its study appeared to hold little utility other than in salutarily lowering expectations and reconciling the productive classes to a miserabilist horizon.

Then, during the Second World War, some young Americans, not from established elites, got a chance to use their mathematical or analytical talents to redirect or even boost domestic production as well as to improve military tactics and strategy. What they were doing wasn't something wholly new- in the past, highly experienced men with 'expert cognition' had developed heuristics, some of which had been given a mathematical treatment. This time, however, Pure Mathematics had reached a critical mass such that exponential development in some fields- e.g. Turing's Enigma or Von Neumann's Los Alamos- completely altered the horizon in every other in a mutually intelligible manner.

Thus, after the war, though the contribution of women was still not acknowledged- indeed, historically, Economics has been the most misogynistic of the Social Sciences- the WASP establishment had to retreat in the face of some extraordinarily brilliant and prolific, often working class or refugee, Jewish scholars whose social optimism went hand in hand with a willingness to recast the foundations of their discipline on terms as rigorous as Mathematical Physics in the assurance that this would unleash human productivity in a manner more unequivocally positive than the Manhattan Project's splitting of the atom.

Rising prosperity during the Fifties and even into the Sixties, led to a completely altered public perception of the Scientific status of Economics. There followed a golden age, culminating in a Nobel prize being created for what had become, by default, the Queen of the Social Sciences, if not Philosophy's young and as yet promising Regent.

But this dizzying apotheosis was swiftly followed by a dramatic reversal of fortune- the 'Stagflation' of the Seventies- featuring a dialogue of the deaf between Keynesians and Monetarists, while Hayekians and Marxists prowled around like hyenas picking off the wounded- which brought Economics into secular disrepute but did so at precisely the time when advances in Information Technology and Dynamic Programming- as well as the increasing availability of 'big data'- had the potential to put flesh on an empirical, evolved under uncertainty, regret-minimizing, Mathematical Skeleton quite different from the Utility Maximizing Adam Kadmon of Arrow and Samuelson and Hurwicz and Baumol.

However, the ghastly interregnum between Economists pretending they were Physicists and Physicists steamrolling over Economics was not without its own landmarks such as the Gibbard-Satterthwaite and Myerson-Satterthwaite theorems which link mechanism design to evolutionary biology in an illuminating manner such that we realize Preference Revelation is not a hurdle to be surpassed but something Evolution has baked in to ensure enough hedging against uncertainty obtains. This is not to say that faith in a 'Revelation Principle'- i.e. the belief that if an outcome can be implemented by an arbitrary 'black box' mechanism, then it can also be implemented by a white box mechanism based on true preferences- might not be Muth Rational- i.e. something all agents are better off affirming.

Alan Gibbard- who first articulated this principle- is not however now an Economist but rather a glittering gem in the diadem of Academic Philosophy- a discipline which has suffered an even more radical depreciation in general esteem. He argues- following Kripke- that 'claims as to what something means are normative claims.' In other words, he refutes the notion that meaning is something objective- the solution to a coordination problem- which can be discovered by a purely alethic process- e.g. looking up words in a dictionary or working out the Schelling focal point or solving for the constrained optimum on a Social Welfare function. Rather, meaning is the instantaneous change in the action set brought about by its own acceptance. If this 'instantaneous change' accords with Gibbard's 'Revelation Principle'- so useful in incentive compatibility and mechanism design- then there is some point of view from which Gibbard's 'meaning of meaning' is also the solution to a coordination problem. If, however, people have an incentive to lie to themselves- perhaps to escape a computational cost or to baffle a parasite or predator which, otherwise, would be able to predict their behavior- then we have some Newcomb's problem or Kavka toxin type reason for believing this might not be the case.

Philosophically, one may still doubt whether 'lying to oneself' is meaningful. One method of circumventing this problem is to say that people may have a preferred ontology which is not at home in this world and so their truth-makers express ontological dysphoria, which- in Gibbard's system- could be called action states.

Consider what happens when two people meet up and first of all both agree that 'mutually beneficial trade is a good thing', and then one of them goes on to say 'the previous statement has a practical meaning- viz. you ought to trade me that pen you are not using in return for this calculator that I've no need for'.
I suppose the other could retort- 'The Myerson-Satterthwaite theorem suggests otherwise!' and that would be a 'knock down' argument.
In practice, the other party may refuse a transaction of the sort outlined above out of an obscure sense that in an uncertain future he may regret the transaction. The problem is, his interlocutor may say, or feel, that this agent is being a 'meanie'. Moreover, this interlocutor may refuse, at a later point, a univocally beneficial trade simply to 'punish' the meanie. In other words, there are hysteresis effects and reputational problems here which complicate things. 'Cheap talk' is being turned into a 'Costly signal' by an illicit mechanism.

Gibbard gives a philosophical defense against this sort of illicit mechanism but, unlike the Myserson-Satterthwaite proof (which links up with real world behavior under uncertainty in a fruitful manner such that new types of assets or exchanges can be mutually agreed) it is not intended to be categorical.
As he tells 3AM- 'The obvious approach to the meaning of meaning claims, though, is to try to define the concept of meaning in naturalistic terms, in terms that can fit into a purely empirical science. A central question for me, then, is why I reject treating meaning as a concept within a purely empirical science.
'As early reviewers of the book point out, I’m rather perfunctory on this question. I don’t come up with a knock-down argument that analyses in scientific terms won’t capture the meaning of meaning claims. In a way I don’t want to: as I say at one point in the book, I’m not convinced that treating the concept of meaning as a normative concept will be the most illuminating way to approach the theory of meaning'

Thus Gibbard on Normativity isn't like Myerson-Satterthwaite in settling an argument once and for all. Rather any hoped for similarity would lie in the fruitful avenues of further exploration which are opened up. At Gibbard says- 'A chief aim of the book is to try to show how fruitful a normative approach can be in identifying what might be at issue in questions of meaning.' 
Since most people find the math used in the Myserson-Satterthwaite proof a bit daunting- though, once grasped, it immediately suggests new and useful approaches- it would be great if there were a simple meaning to Gibbard's thesis, more especially as he tells us it would be fruitful.

Take the following dicta, as quoted by Tim Williamson-
1) 'The meanings of the words in a sentence combine to explain which inferential oughts apply to the sentence and the evidential conditions under which one ought to accept or reject the sentence. A word’s meaning what it does consists in the pattern of oughts that enters into such explanations. (p. 114)
The emphasis on explanation makes this seem a functionalist view of Semantics from a Normative perspective- not a Semantic Normativity. As such, it might encourage us to equate Game Theory with meta-ethics. However, this is not at all Gibbard's view.

2) ‘The point of normative claims is to tie in conceptually with action’ (p. 227).
 For example, ‘I can’t consistently believe I ought right now to leave my burning building and decide to stay. Naturalistic thoughts, in contrast, lack this conceptual tie to action’ (p. 224). 
As Tim Williamson points out, Gibbard's agent who thinks 'I ought to leave my burning building' has to distinguish whether this is a naturalistic thought or a normative claim. Only in the latter case does he actually have to leave the building. One way of making sense of this is to say that there is a Bayesian process going on. If you often have the thought 'gotta get out of this burning building' and you never do and nothing bad happens then, probably, there was no Gibbardian normative claim there at all. You just take too many drugs or else the fire alarm keeps going off and you have a vivid imagination or something of that sort.

3) This is Gibbard's reflection on Kripe's classic passage re. Meaning as Normativity-
Kripke  actually said 'what I intend to mean'- i.e. this was a hypothetical not a categorical imperative- but this does not alter Gibbard's point which is that normativity always has a conceptual tie to action.

 As readers of this blog may remember, I have previously argued that 'the other side of Hume's Guillotine is that belief in an 'ought' causes us to arbitrarily restrict the domain of what 'is'.
Gibbard, links the action space of an agent with Normativity. If ontological dysphoria is an action then Normativity is its high road because of the conceptual tie between thought and action Gibbard posits. Thus every admitted 'ought' leaves us less at home in the world.

Could Gibbard's first sentence, quoted above, bear the interpretation I have just put on it? Perhaps Meaning is Normative in the sense of mapping to changes in the agent's degree and type of ontological dysphoria- i.e. being a function of the mismatch between her ex post conceptual action space and that associated with the ex ante Bayesian-Nash semantic equilibrium- and this is fruitful in that we can now understand semantic processes as being like Newcombe problems with Kavka toxins releasing or damning up capacitance diversity on a high uncertainty landscape.

Alternatively, we can think of the conceptual thought-action tie peculiar to  Gibbard's system as analogous to his Revelation Principle because consistent discrimination of naturalistic from normative statements is a sequential equilibrium. However, in at least one case- viz. where regret minimization is incentive incompatible- his meaning of meaning may be gamed in an ontologically dysphoric manner such that mere Meta-Metaphoricity is its own bilateral context. Thus meta-ethics has no privileged diegesis nor intensional langue nor ideal type parole.