The importance of language

If you have been following some of my recent Facebook posts about languages and history, you might be wondering what they have to do with The Pyramid of Corruption. Well, the connection is diversity. Those posts were essentially the unconscious assertion of my love for diversity, especially linguistic diversity. It must be protected and allowed to assert itself. India tends to suppress linguistic diversity for not only modern but also historical reasons.

I have dedicated an entire chapter (Ch. 3, Diversity and Corruption) to discussing how the mishandling of diversity can be viewed as corruption – the abuse of public power for private gain. This corruption increases with the diversity distance between the private (the government) and the public (the people), which is a measure of how different the two are.

I also argue that linguistic diversity is the most important type of diversity when it comes to modern nations, especially in multi-lingual nations such as India. Needless to say, we need to handle linguistic diversity without allowing for any language to assume power over others and abuse it for its own gain. Language is extremely important in modern nations. Let me quote from the book a bit to make my point (Ch. 10, Language and Corruption):

Language […] does play a role of central importance in the business of a nation, because it enables the gear-wheels to mesh with each other. Language is that link which enables a most basic feeling of kindred between two individuals: the one that arises when they are able to exchange their thoughts and feelings using the spoken or written word. This feeling of kindred makes a linguistic area ideally free from corruption stemming from the mismanagement of linguistic diversity, for, ideally, there is no linguistic diversity within it which can be mismanaged. Practically, of course, there is always some linguistic diversity even within the most scrupulously created linguistic area, and there will be corruption inasmuch as it is mismanaged. But scrupulously created linguistic areas are by degrees better than arbitrarily created administration zones and language policies which mishandle linguistic diversity—and in politics, one must settle for the best option available.

While language-related corruption acts as friction for the national machine and thereby renders its work difficult, good language management acts as a lubricant which makes its work easier. Language makes the gear wheels of the nation—the people—create meaningful motion in one another. Without it, the machine would either come to a grinding halt or move in wrong directions. This language, however, cannot be any language, but the language that all the people who are part of the machine can use for communication and cooperation. Those gear-wheels that do not speak the language of the machine are automatically rejected as incompatible with the work of the machine; they would not be able to turn other gear-wheels or be turned by them. It is in their self-interest to organize other gear-wheels that speak their language and get another machine going, instead of getting included in existing machines as gear-wheels with inferior meshing capabilities.

The language of a people is an extremely important tool for education and employment of that people, and it is nonsensical to believe that a foreign language can replace it. A foreign language can act as the medium of education and employment for a few, but not for all, and is a perfect recipe for building an Aryan Pyramid with the speakers of the foreign language on the top and everybody else assigned their level of inferiority below the top, right in the land of the people under question. It is only when education is misunderstood to be the transmission of information from foreigners, and employment is misunderstood to be the gift of the means of livelihood by foreigners, that a foreign language seems to be absolutely fine for education and employment.

It is for these practical reasons that language forms the basis on which nations get created in the world. Europe, in particular, provides the most striking example of nations created on the basis of language, and this is because it is in Europe that nations were first properly understood to be systems of politics and commerce run by organized self-interest. It is for the ‘mechanical purpose’ of materialism that nations are founded, and it was in Europe that this fact was first understood. In Europe, language actually works as a meshing agent within each nation and not merely as a nominal agent of demarcation between other nations. And, unlike in post-colonial nations such as India and those of Africa, the nations of Europe do not import foreign languages to mesh a select few gear-wheels and make them run the national machine: they use their own languages.

‘You’re not thinking; you’re just being logical’

Here’s an interesting extract from Maurice A. Finocchiaro’s book, Arguments about Arguments:

In his autobiography, physicist Otto R. Frisch tells the following revealing anecdote about Niels Bohr. Bohr, we are told, “never trusted a purely formal or mathematical argument. ‘No, no,’ he would say, ‘You are not thinking; you are just being logical.'” It would be arbitrary and uncharitable to interpret Bohr’s point as implying that being logical is not a form of thinking. Rather, it seems obvious that he is distinguishing between two types of thinking, logical thinking and another kind which might be appropriately labeled as critical thinking.

Niels Bohr’s point actually applies to all types of thinking, even political. So, political thought is also of two types: logical and critical. Logical is going by the book, sticking to the rules. While many would like us to think logically, it ends up killing the critical thinker in us. If you’re only logical, you’re more of an advocate of law. What if the law itself is not worth being followed? What if the book has serious flaws? What if it has been written by others, not us? These and other questions are not addressed by the purely logical thinker. The establishment always wants you to think within the box. The box is golden for it and it rewards the most logical of thinkers. But it is the critical thinker who thinks outside the box, and in doing so, reforms it.

The necessity of (operational) corruption

In The Pyramid of Corruption, I don’t discuss operational corruption, which is the usual corruption you hear of in the news. The book is about India’s primitive corruption, which is ‘abuse of public power for private gain’ of a completely different kind, embedded into the very foundation of the Indian nation. I talk about abuse by the system, not of the system.

If you want to understand operational corruption, I think Shiv Visvanathan’s essay titled The necessity of corruption, which I discovered just yesterday thanks to Shri Akshara K.V. of Ninasam, is a good starting point. He argues that corruption (he doesn’t call it operational corruption, but that’s what it is)…

…performs three services. Cognitively, it is a knowledge economy, in fact the first of the great modern knowledge economies. It provides life-giving or life-denying knowledge about access or entry. Second, it is a ritual service, where the tout and the clerk provide a priest-like knowledge of the system which is formidable in its intimacy. Third, the tout familiarizes one about the system, domesticates power in a paternalistic patron-centred language, creating a pastoralism of a parallel kind. For example, it redefines access as ascription, rather as an achievement or legal rationality. It embodies power, especially the power of intermediaries so the system acquires concreteness. Who you know determines how you enter. The Punjabi English question ‘koi approach hai, koi contact hai?’ sums up the rules and techniques of entry. Power rather than becoming abstract and remote becomes approachable.

In short, instead of blindly blaming those who indulge in operational corruption, and believing that everyone is morally degraded, Shiv Visvanathan makes the only known attempt to understand why the phenomenon exists. I have myself remained aloof from the topic because I have always felt that primitive corruption is much more important to understand and deal with. I am often asked how primitive corruption and operational corruption are related, but my answer has been “I don’t know, I haven’t studied it.”

However, this much I know: the ideas for dealing with primitive corruption which I give in the last chapter, if implemented well, will automatically reduce operational corruption. For example, if the Centre holds only defense and external affairs portfolios, there will be no question of cronyism there. It moves to the states but the intellectual task of understanding operational corruption becomes much less daunting at the state level for the simple reason that the number of parameters to deal with is considerably smaller.

Bad eggs don’t help

In a brilliant talk titled Does the news do us any good? Alain de Botton, a Swiss-British writer, philosopher, and television presenter in the UK, says:

The thing about the news is that it’s obsessed by bad eggs. It’s obsessed with the Watergate paradigm which associates everything that’s wrong in society with a few bad eggs… who’ve done some things wrong… and you can try and identify them… and then put handcuffs on them… and then take them to jail… and all will be… well. The thing is that most of the things that are really wrong with our society… you can’t bundle someone in a prison van and take them away. There are systemic problems that arise not from evil or crookedness but from lazy thinking, lack of inspiration, etc. The news is very bad at seeing systemic problems…

This is, in some sense, my point of departure in The Pyramid of Corruption. Those were times when there was so much hype about the Anna Hazare movement that I was forced to think what really corruption is all about. Will all be really well if the bad eggs are identified and sent to jail? And then I realized that we are so used to blaming individuals about our political problems that we tend to forget that they’re systemic.

The definition of corruption as ‘abuse of public power for private gain’ has nothing in it which requires us to attach it only to individuals. I argue that entire groups of people can indulge in it. The very foundation of the modern Indian nation is afflicted with such group corruption. I call it India’s Primitive Corruption. It’s impossible and pointless to point at individuals – contemporary or past – and blame them for it. We have to get out of this individual-bashing mindset to understand what’s fundamentally wrong with the Indian nation.