Exchanges with a friend

Recently, I had some discussions with a friend of mine. Let’s call this person X.

In a tweet that I had recently posted, I expressed interest in knowing better the history of Tipu Sultan. I am interested in Indian history in general, that the politically controversial nature of Tipu’s legacy makes it worth knowing more about this topic.

X had some strong opinions about this topic and X quickly started confronting me about it. What transpired afterwards was a long X exhausting set of exchanges. It was not all polite and civil and in the end I was declared a brainwashed attention-seeking individual in need of some mental health treatment.

I consider X a good friend, and I have come to defend X often in my social circles against bad-mouthing. X had his own struggles in life and I respect the good times I’ve spent with X. There are several picture of us together in my kitchen and I still wish that X did not think of me this way. But I don’t think I have too much of a control about X’s thoughts about me and any further debates and discussion with X is not likely to be productive, because get lots of stressful taunts in return.

In this post, I’ll discuss some personal criticisms that X has put forth. The point of this exercise is so that I can analyse my personal identity better and work on any of the criticisms that I find valid. I’m not going to promote this blog post anywhere and I do not care whether or not X reads it.

Political bias and my own leanings

Context: X accused me that I am a radical without my knowledge. X asserted that organizations like BBC, Washington post, NYT, Al Jazeera, NDTV are creating to defame India and create a Hindu-Muslim divide. X also argued that Wikipedia is also biased where people cancel each other and I am brainwashed from being exposed to the media. He posted some pictures to explain how media is biased.

Political labels are a useful thing when they help summarize important concepts. I don’t take them at face value, but it’s useful when someone talks about Muslim right-wing and I immediately get the concept.

Political labels are a horrible thing if they are used to dismiss good journalism or dismiss critics. If I start dismissing Nature journal as running some liberal scientific agenda, I will end up missing on a lot of good research. A lot of good journalism has come out of Reuters and NYT. I won’t dismiss it because some people don’t like their headlines about Biden or the Taliban. I subscribe to NYT to follow the Ukraine war. I have some very important Ukrainian people in my life and I was very worried about their family. I have also once written to the editorial of NYT about an article I thought could be improved. I am happy to support a news organization that is answerable to me. I’m not a fan of NDTV, but I don’t think NDTV is supporting Muslim extremism by calling this attacker an IIT Graduate. I’m sure his religion must be clearly recognizable in the article for those who read it. Journalism should be judged by the quality of their research. I think some good quality editorials even come out of Opindia and The Wire, and I don’t hesitate to go through them when I come across it.

These pictures don’t seem to be making any constructive criticisms towards the news organizations, or news coverage in general. Journalism is a scholarly activity, much like writing research papers. Editorials help us understand and connect facts by putting them into perspective. Alleging a systematic campaign of creating bias can be an attempt to discredit everything these journalists do, rather than getting into the nuances of ethical coverage. The purpose seems to be to delegitimize and insinuate, rather than to focus on where the coverage is problematic in a case-to-case basis.

Headlines matter, yes. But it seems like an overstretch to allege that some news organizations are running an anti-India campaign based on juxtaposing a few of these together. Their editorial stances may be biased to better attract certain target audiences, but that doesn’t prove a campaign, agenda or conspiracy to destabilize or defame India. In fact, as Indians we might be even overestimating their concern for India altogether.

Adding more, I don’t think anyone can be unbiased. It’s a pipe dream that I gave up long ago. Everyone has their opinions about matters and I gladly support well-informed opinions. I like to spend time discussing them, so that I can update my own. I also read books, listen to podcasts and read articles that heavily differ from my viewpoints. In the end, I think that’s all I can do. No one is neutral and no one should be. All opinions should matter. Especially X’s opinion, they should matter too. I would have loved to discuss them more had the discourse not been so confrontational.

I don’t agree with my characterization as having been brainwashed. I would call someone brainwashed if they are not ready to listen or talk to people who disagree with me. I certainly don’t think that it is the case with me. I have some very good friends who are BJP supporters and I respect them and listen to them. When I talk with those friends, it’s a very pleasant atmosphere and the discourse is very stimulating. I always learn something new with them.

And I definitely do not agree with X’s belief that I view India as inferior. I like my country and my culture a lot, even if some systematic problems bother me. I think I have all the rights to complain about them. I have been remotely teaching mathematics to some Indian students in a rural part of India for two years now, and I know their situation because I directly talk to them. I don’t need to read news to know what is wrong in India’s rural areas!

Liberal bias and Hindu-Muslim divide

While, I don’t see any reason to believe that there’s a global conspiracy of some international organizations to defame India and support Muslim extremism, I do agree that there are some clear patterns of editorial stances that are aimed towards appeasing a demographic. Headlines have to attract subscribers or advertisers and there should be no doubt that the media content of a news organizations will be a reflection of their consumers.

So while I don’t personally think that any good quality news organization reporting on India would show a soft-corner towards the Muslim extremism, many liberals might show some dispassion towards it and might not talk it as much as Hindu extremism in India. I suspect that this is because liberalism in India is often set to portrayed as a counter to Hindu-nationalism. If you want a large number of people to not hate something, one way is often to talk more about it or the happier side of their viewpoints. In a more philosophical wording, love counters hate.

Do Hindu-nationalists always hate Muslims? Do liberals love Muslims? Is leftist-Media pro Islam? These are charged and vague questions replete with political name-calling, so I don’t want to get into this mess. I believe in discussing nuance in the long-format and I try to avoid judging books by their covers.

Disclosure: I am a Hindu by upbringing, but I’m completely non-religious at the present.

Social media and bias

Context: I suggested that X might have come across these ideas of media bias from social media. I said that Twitter is a polarizing place and X is probably being bombarded by these images from there. I also said many of his taunts remind of the stressful things I have read there

As a student of mathematics, I do understand what machine learning algorithms can do towards exaggerating a bias on social media. This is a very well-documented research topic. Social media uses heavy amounts of linear algebra to optimize content selection that maximizes a user’s engagement, often by playing on their insecurities by making us believe in conspiracy theories, reaffirming and polarizing their beliefs towards extremes. Watch the documentary The Social Dilemma (it’s a bit alarmist though) or read Cathy O’Neil’s more nuanced book Weapons of Math destruction to know more.

About social media, I’m speaking from experience. I was a heavy Twitter user until two years ago. I would, hindsight, characterize myself as a climate doomer from those days. It took a heavy toll on my interpersonal relations (including a little bit with X) and also partly lead to my breakup, about which I had written some blog posts at that time.

About climate change

Context: X accused me that I have been talking so much about climate change in the past, but I started taking flights. That shows that I am a hypocrite who wants to control others

It’s true, I was very anxious about climate change. I wanted to start a local climate movement and I was in touch with several local climate activism organizations. I heavily advocated climate friendly lifestyles to the point that it was annoying and noisy. I annoyed a lot of people about it, and I am sorry.

My opinions about this topic have evolved. I’ve read several books, many articles and podcasts. I subscribe to Carbon brief and gift carbon offsets to my sisters on every Rakhee. I’m now more confident that a 6-8 degree carbon extinction level scenario is remote, and a more realistic 2-3 degrees is what we will be heading towards the end of the century. It is still pretty bad, but a necessary price of development and poverty alleviation.

I still take flights, yes. I try very hard to not to, but I have to meet my partner who lives in a different country. Being an insider on the airplane industry, she in facts works a lot for the sustainibility team of my partner’s employer. I keep hearing of developments in sustainable aviation fuel and other sustainable airplane technology. Crossing the English channel on train is really expensive (typically 5 times more) and also slow. But once there, I have done pretty much all of the tourism there on train. My partner and I plan our trips to so that we minimize carbon consumption (even taking more expensive flights, if that’s the case). I think airways is an industry that’s very aware of criticism.

Veganism is very hard to do. I struggle with it a lot. I don’t deny that I’m the worst example of vegan. I know I have tried to impose the ideals to an alarming degree on this, but I really don’t do this anymore. I’ve accepted that people have different diet choices and that food is a very sensitive topic.

My breakup made me think a lot if I was wrong or hopelessly radicalized on this issue. It was a period of deep introspection, I have come to the conclusion that I am not wrong about this. It’s just that I was too imposing. I have talked to my previous partner recently and there was agreement that the climate activism was not the main problem that lead to the fallout.

I can go on about climate change, but perhaps in some other blog post.


Context: I had organized a local chapter of CAA-NRC protests. X said that I did not even understand the bill and I did this only to gain attention

I am not opposed to the CAA and I also said this during the protest, I remember. I like the idea that India is welcoming refugees (even if selectively). What is scary is if politicians are given the power to disqualify citizenships of existing citizens. Nobody should trust politicians. Nonetheless, I support the NRC in the north-east area of India. If plans to make a nationwide NRC return and religion is going to be a criteria, I most likely could support some form of protest again.

At the time, the “chronology” statements given by Amit Shah really made it look like Muslim people might lose Indian citizenship. If this were indeed the home minister’s plans, everyone should protest against it! I don’t know if the BJP has backtracked on those plans (Modi, Amit Shah made clarifications, but much later) or if it was just temporary minority-baiting. The fear was that some completely botched up NRC would make thousands of Muslims lose citizenship.

I wasn’t the only single person organizing the protest and to be fair it’s barely any protest if all you are doing is reading the preamble of the constitution. Some of my other friends and I had spent countless hours discussing the CAA, NRC, etc and if at all I was misinformed about the CAA then all of them might be.

Honestly I am not in touch with the specifics anymore to argue about the details at this point. Perhaps it could be something I wrote incorrectly or too provacatively which made it look like I don’t know the details of this proposed bill. I’m ready to accept that I might have messed up some technicalities. Honestly, I’m not too proud about this CAA protest that I helped in organizing, I think it was too amateurishly organized and was completely aimless.

I’m generally very public shy. I speak a lot when I’m among friends, but I don’t like giving any public speeches or sharing my political beliefs publicly. I do it on this platform, because here I feel anonymous. If I feel that my identity has been ousted, I will ditch this identity and adopt another. But yes, I am outspoken and often poke fun at others. I don’t think I seek attention any more than a random individual who is socially active.

About mental health and general behaviour

Context: So I was taunted by X that I should get a mental health consultation. X even was ready to sponsor this work as a charity.

I take my mental health very seriously. I’ve had some terrible bouts of struggle, even before my breakup. I’ve worked on myself a lot. It has lead to a lot of introspection in my life and I am proud of what I have managed to achieve so far. There’s still a long way to go. I don’t think it is easy to ask oneself question and critically analyse aspects of one’s own personality. And yet I keep trying.

I know that my behaviour has not been reaction-inciting with some people (including X) in the past. I continuously try to change and listen to feedback. Even X’s feedback is very important to me, despite of the taunts and personal attacks. I did have tendencies to control people and I probably still do. I write about myself, acknowledge my flaws and try to work on it. If somebody still thinks that I am being too imposing, I have failed at improving myself and I must start over.

If I seem provoked or aggressive, then I am sorry that I have failed at my communication. I want to listen to all perspectives. I’m not perfect, and certainly not better than any single individual. I enjoy being thoughtful and pensieve. I’m trying to be as transparent here as I can. If there’s any one important message that I have learnt, it is that we should be absolutely civil and patient with people and their ideas, expecially when there is a possibility of arguments. I encourage my readers to learn from my mistakes.