5 Dec 2014

Are we still humans? Some thoughts on "progress"

Loyal reader MG Chandrakanth* and I had an interesting email chat on our changing relations with each other, in India and the US over the past 60 years.**

It begins with this email from him:
I compare my family between now (2014) and then (1955, when I was born). My parents were both primary school teachers with humble earnings and took care of 3 children, I am the youngest, my sister and my eldest brother. Family commitment was the key, every one looking after every one else. Joint family served as insurance with zero premium. Amidst poverty we were very rich, spend substantial time in listening, learning classical dance and music, yoga, family rituals (we call puja), visiting temples and relatives, attending weddings, performing all religious functions at home, inviting people for these gatherings etc. I have never seen children away from parents in their young or old age. Old age homes were nil. We enjoyed playing with our relatives, parents, siblings, we quarreled yet, family harmony was there. Sharing poverty was fun. We could visit any body's family any time with /without invitation, no problem.

Now, in 2014, I am substantially rich but I have virtually lost everything. I am now Professor with great UGC (unv grants commission) salaries, Having lost both parents, Both daughters highly literate. I now have health insurance, in lieu of joint family, financially secure, a TV, internet, mobile, gadgets to measure blood pressure. I also have the associated obese body, substantial mental worries to be endured, not cured. I see advertisements in TV on old age homes, children living in independent family set up, joint families have vanished and are vanishing even in villages. Family affection to be found not with ease. Sharing prosperity has become a challenge. No one has time to listen, especially if we visit friends, relatives in the evening, the TV serials occupy their time and space. Now we need to call and go.

What I did not see in 1955, but see in 2014 is sometimes astonishing !
  1. Unmarried couples living together
  2. Married people who chose not to have children
  3. Divorces
  4. Gays and lesbians
  5. Valentines day celebrated
  6. Children admitting parents to old age homes, denying they are sons/daughters.
  7. Little or no commitment to family
Sometimes I wonder from where these 7 ideas came from? Certainly they are not from the third world.
To this, I replied:
Your words are meaningful as an expression of "times change." The curious thing is how younger Indians are so quick to embrace "foreign" ideas.

One issue -- that you mention several times -- is how people swap non-financial choices/activities for financial ones (e.g., take care of parents vs old people home; telling stories vs television). I agree with you that these are perhaps false economies

Oh, and I am SURE that gays/lesbians have existed in India for ages.*** They were just secretive about it. Is there some way in which their "openess" is causing trouble, or is it just "new"?
He replied:
Regarding gays and lesbians as well as neutral gender, in India there is a strong taboo. In addition taboos existed for living together, divorces, and all other relations other than respecting the institution of marriage. Disrespecting the institution of marriage is resulting in chaos in society here. I had never seen the spree of old age homes earlier, murders for gain of old people knowing that their sons/daughters are abroad with virtual no security for the old people at home. These changes are increasing social tensions.

In developed countries, for example, we see no filth or garbage outside the homes, since every thing on the road, public places are neat and tidy since people act like citizens with responsibility. However the same people inside their home often do not keep their families neat and tidy, since we see divorces, living together and all non-traditional or non conventional relationships not respecting the institution of marriage and showing commitment to family. This may be more applicable perhaps to the US and to a lesser extent in Europe.

When I came to the US for 3 years (1987-1990) from a conventional traditional village background, the exposure was certainly flabbergasting! I will narrate an experience which happened at UC Berkeley. There is a small wooden bridge close to Giannini hall that I was crossing in a drizzling rain, and I slipped from the bike and fell down on the bridge. So many students and faculty walked on the bridge, but none -- not even a single student or faculty -- came to me and lifted me. I was bleeding, but I picked my self up and went to class. I entered after class had begun, and no one objected. After some time, I could not continue due to pain and left class in the middle, but no one bothered.

What is happening in the US? Are we humans? I feel a human is a person who is not just for himself or herself but also looks around and offers a helping hand wherever necessary. I think ultimately man /woman is becoming selfish... If a man is efficient, he is worried about himself and today, similar to Charuvaka of Hindu philosophy. He needs to move on to equity (myself + yourself today) and on to sustainability (myself + yourself, today and tomorrow).
To this I replied:
Private spaces in India are very clean, but public spaces are not (tragedy of commons). Public spaces in wealthier, functional countries (e.g., Netherlands, not Saudi) are cleaner b/c they have overcome the problem (tax and pay cleaners), but their private spaces may be messier due to two working parents, etc.

On caring, I'd say that Americans have been distancing themselves from "family" for a long time, gradually. The difference is dramatic if you come directly from India...

Humans have been self interested for a very long time, but now many have the financial, technical and social ability to "be independent" of others. This is a two-edged sword, as freedom gives us the benefit of independence at the same time as it gives us the cost of social distance. I think that people underestimate the value of interdependence to our psychological well-being as well as its importance in bringing people to share in the effort and rewards from protecting collective goods such as urban public spaces, the environment and even political rule.
Your thoughts?

* Professor and University Head of Agricultural Economics, University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore, India

** This well-written essay also discusses these topics, e.g.,
There is a finite chance that in our single-minded obsession with ideological and religious differences we shall turn the world into a dark, cold and uninhabited place. Controlling the likely sources of conflict will involve an extraordinary degree of mutual understanding... Scholarship itself is ultimately a cooperative venture and is crucially dependent on trust. We should proclaim that fact. The involvement with others occurs in every aspect of our lives. We should denounce the view that this is merely a constraint on individual ambition. Cooperation should be seen for what it is, an essential and pleasurable part of being human.
*** India is also vast in its cultural variety


DB said...

Prof. MG Chandrakanth's basic question of "Are we Still Humans?" is really debatable issue. Looking at the way Indian's lifestyle are changing with financial and technical progress, there is a need to change the basic definition of 'Humans' in Indian context. All kinds of financial instruments are ruling in place of social values causing damage to the basic human relationship. One of the Kannada comedian (Mr. Gangavathi Pranesh) remarked the change in social relationship as follows.

"In Bengaluru we can still find joint families - as both Husband and Wife are living together"

So we need to change the definition of Joint family!!

Some how I feel all so called progress is leading humans (!) to live in 'fake world'.

IU said...

I love this exchange. I'm from Latin America, live in the US (6 years now in NYC and DC), and spend almost half my time in India due to work. I see and feel these changes very closely. In a way, I think Latin America is between the US and India when it comes to family and social norms.

I feel I could write or talk for hours about this, but let me share just two points. One is the role of media. I feel that the power of music, film, and tv on influencing aspirations of (in particular) young people is huge. I notice this regarding sex, divorce, alcohol/drugs, relationship with elders, consumerism (which is linked to needing more money, then working harder, then less time for family/friends..), etc.

The second point, which is somewhat linked to the first, is the growing culture of selfishness. This is a huge contrast bw the US and LAC/India. Thank god I was never left bleeding on the street (in fact, I find most ppl in the US quite helpful), but it's crazy how much of the default advice is "career over relationships", "think about you first", "love yourself", "you can be anything", "if you don't think about yourself nobody will", etc, and don't get me started with the obsession of putting your name on buildings, chairs, sidewalks, etc. It always surprises me how socially acceptable it is to be so overtly self-centered.

I have to say though that overall it's not clear to me this is for the worse, it's just change. For instance, I'm sure that life today is MUCH better for women (half the population!!), minorities, lower castes, gays, and non-conformist types in general.

I could keep going on and on...

Anonymous said...

To me "traditionally family" means women do all the work around the home and whatever the men in their family tell them to do and do not have an opportunity to make many choices about how they want to spend their life. You give women an education and most choose to have less kids, make their own money, move away from home, and carefully select a life partner. Perhaps when more men have the opportunity to do all of the house cleaning, raise all the children, and have no financial control over their household, women in our society will gain more respect. When women gain more economic and political power in our society, it is likely that our society will move towards a more humane and peaceful existence.

TR said...

Great conversation. I'm so happy that people make time to discuss these big things despite day-to-day hassles and pressures...

Pallavi Bharadwaj said...

All posts from today's newsletter are so interesting, especially this debate. Shared on fb!

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