Identity and Anonymity

At the dawn of the COVID-19 pandemic, my family and I, just like everyone else, were trying to stay in our respective homes across three different countries and a dozen timezones. Hungering for connection, trying to fight back the boredom, and striving to make the most of dad’s premium zoom subscription, we decided we would start a short story club that met once a week. Every week someone selected a reading that the group would then discuss on Saturday afternoons (or Saturday nights depending on where you were). When it was my turn to pick the literature, I knew I wanted a work by Jhumpa Lahiri. I am always able to locate myself in her writing – perhaps because she discusses the Indian immigrant experience quite a bit. I also wanted something I hadn’t read before and material that was free and easy to access online. All of this led me to The Boundary by Jhumpa Lahiri, published in the New Yorker in 2018. 

Tragically, our little club followed the fate of many other groups as much of the early COVID connection enthusiasm gave way to zoom fatigue. We are now on an indefinite hiatus. RIP. However, The Boundary and one particular idea in it stuck with me, which I will endeavor to elaborate on. Now might be a good time to pause and go read the story, but that shouldn’t be necessary to engage with this post.

The Boundary tells of a family that cares for a vacation rental in the countryside and a family from the city that is vacationing in that house for a week. The story is a first-person narrative told from the perspective of the youngest member of the family that cares for the house. And as with our personal narratives, it feels like a highlight reel of the big and small things the narrator thinks are worth keeping a record of. The events in it feel like they are happening at the pace of life and like a lot of Jhumpa Lahiri’s work, it has a bit of a melancholy tone. 

In the story, the author touches on themes of family, immigration, privilege, and much more. While all these ideas weave in and out of the narrative, they all seem to be in service of the central theme of identity. Lahiri however, is an artist and she isn’t going to be so callous as to come right out and say it. Instead, she leverages anonymity – an unlikely tool that is arguably the antithesis of identity – to at once comfort and confront the reader. Wielding anonymity, she is able to deftly highlight her narrator’s struggle with identity and the reader’s as well. 

Lahiri’s broadest use of anonymity covers the entire arc of the story. As we read on we start to realize that she has chosen not to provide us with any information about where the characters are or where they are from. Location is generally an important descriptor in the writer’s tool belt. It helps establish the culture the story operates within. Creating a world for the reader to immerse themselves in using their preconceived notions about places and the people in them. Lahiri does not rely on that crutch here. She instead paints a vivid picture of a tranquil, idyllic, humid vacation town on the beach that could be anywhere in the world.

The author takes great care to obfuscate cultural detail. There is a point early on in the story, for example, where the narrator says of the two little girls in the visiting family “I learn their names” and leaves it at that. There is no release. The names are not provided to the reader. This is one of the most explicit instances of her thrusting us into the world of anonymity she is trying to create. We are left to be the detective trying to figure out where they are from and who they are because we hunger to know the backgrounds and identity of those we meet. We want to put a face to the people. A place to their surroundings. We look for clues, try to follow the breadcrumbs of the “July rain” and “archeological sites, ruins”, and “tomatoes and lettuce” growing in the garden. But we come up empty because Lahiri has carefully constructed a world that is generic in its familiarity. What she instead wants us to find, is that we can place several different dominant and subject culture/subculture relationships into the lives and location of the families of her story. She is exposing the commonality of culture and human nature in a kind of homogenized post-colonial world. We are left to question ourselves. Who do we picture as the caretakers and who do we picture as the vacationers? Where do we see ourselves in the story? And crucially, why do we have this urge to assign a local identity to the characters?

Recently, on a re-read through The Boundary as I was writing this post, I realized that on my first couple of readings, I was identifying the narrator as a girl, even though that is another piece of information that is obscured for us. To me, this experience further demonstrates the power of anonymity in art as a mechanism for bringing the observer to face their biases. It appears something about the tone or experiences of the narrator caused me to assign them feminine identity. Perhaps it was because the author of the story identifies as a woman. Regardless, the assumption was unfounded and the story created the space for me to analyze and reflect on my instincts with respect to designating an identity to an individual.

While there is discomfort in being confronted with our biases and in the lack of information, the anonymity turns into a gift as Lahiri uses it to create space in the canvas so we can see ourselves in the story. The fact that this town and the people in it could be from Sicily, Parati, or Goa means that readers can easily place themselves and people that look like them in the story’s context. We often see anonymity used in art in this way. It is a routine tool in song lyrics and poetry. The ‘I’s and ‘You’s and ‘We’s and all other pronouns represent anonymous placeholders poets leave in their work for us to insert ourselves into. Nina Simone’s “Let me fly away with you” or The Beatles’ “I wanna hold your hand” leave clear well-defined spaces for any listener to insert themselves and others into the narrative. Instrumental pieces and abstract art take this a step further, leaving a completely open terrain for the consumer to locate not just themselves, but thoughts/emotions/ideas/spaces/anything into the landscape of the art. 

A societal scale use of this form of anonymity can be seen in Isabel Allende’s House of the Spirits. The book, which covers a time swath of a hundred years in its arc, is set in an unnamed Latin American society with a land-owning entrenched conservative polity and a liberal class-conscious opposition. It talks of corruption and suppression of political activity for people belonging to lower classes. It talks of young firebrands and old poets with their songs that unite a nation. It talks of idealistic young people fighting for a brighter future. It talks of conservative obstructionism and military dictatorships and genocidal megalomaniacs. It talks about acts of resistance – big and small – that set the wheels of revolutionary struggle in motion. In this way, Allende uses anonymity to convey the almost identical nature of revolution and people across space in modern society as well as the loss or destruction of national identity needed to initiate radical reform. It also serves the purpose of refocusing the story away from the place and onto the characters. Shining a light on the identities of the people that make up society rather than society itself.

​​Lahiri’s use of anonymity also reveals to the reader the narrator’s perception of themselves. We get information about everyone in the story except the narrator – like a non-existent observer. This provides insight into the narrator’s own struggle with identity. As is often the case, this struggle leads to a diminishing of the self, a hiding in the shadows. An obfuscation born from self-preservation that renders oneself anonymous. The narrator’s reveries like “The owner lives abroad, but he’s not a foreigner like us.” and “I don’t look like anyone else” indicate the out-of-placeness they feel in their current environment. That coupled with their experience beyond the confines of the vacation rental and their father’s abuse by the locals reveals that the narrator is perhaps concealing identity because they are uncomfortable with it or consider it to be a liability. Coupled with the struggle of fitting in as an immigrant in a foreign society is the narrator’s struggle with fitting into their own family. They romanticize the locals who come to vacation on the property as they describe their own absent mother and verbally impaired father “After I was born, when he saw me for the first time, he couldn’t say a word”. The narrator is often vulnerable with us, owning up to their fantasies, and telling us intensely personal stories. Leveraging their position as the sole perspective offered to us, the narrator uses the “I” as a shield to talk about everything around them while revealing very little about themselves.

Throughout the story, there is tension about who the characters are, what we are told, and what we want to know. Right at the end there is an implication of another “I”, another identity. We are reminded of other perspectives to the events of the week when the narrator finds the journal entries left behind by the mother of the vacationing family. Do these notes tell us things the narrator did not? How does the mother see herself? Which parts of her self does she choose to express or conceal? As you would expect, there is no reveal. Lahiri leaves us with this final arousal of our curiosity as she reinforces the questions about information, anonymity, and identity that she wants us to consider.

Call Me By My Name

The day I moved to the United States to start school in the small mid-western town of West Lafayette, I had a funny interaction with my roommate’s mother. He was a 6-foot-5 Indiana boy, and his mom was helping him move in. I walked into the dorm room, a little wide-eyed and very confused, and Introduced myself. “Hi”, I said, “I’m Savinay”. “Hi”, she said and looked at me for a moment. “Do you go by Sav? Can I call you Sav?” she asked. A little shocked that that particular contraction of my name had never even occurred to me, I responded “Um, no. Just Savinay”. “Everyone’s going to call you Sav.”, she said matter-of-factly. I ignored her and defiantly went about unpacking my things. She was right.

___________________

I went to a show at The Curran Theater in San Francisco. It was a play called Eclipsed, a story about five women and their struggles in Liberia around the time of the Second Liberian Civil War. It was a heart-rending production. At the end of the show, before the credits, the director came on stage and asked the audience to repeat after her the names of women missing or killed in Liberia because of the war. “Names have power” she said. I stood there in awe, chanting the names of these women; feeling the energy with which this final act filled the theater. It was an electric experience.

Names have power. A study from the Institute for the Study of Child Development revealed that the parts of the brain that respond to hearing your name are the same parts of the brain responsible for emotion, empathy, and developing theories-of-mind. Another study found that hearing their name caused a spike in brain activity for subjects in a Persistent Vegetative State. These are amazing findings. Furthermore, I posit that names hold much beyond these forms of neurological power that can be measured with MRIs and brain scans.

Names derive much of their power and meaning from the historical and cultural knowledge they hold within them about the communities they come from. Names come from ancestors, they come from mythology. They come from an army of relatives agonizing for months over the perfect name. In some cultures, the stars get a say too.

For the individual, the name – given or chosen – carries within it their identity. Names carry the memories of a person’s entire existence, they carry within them memories of loved ones saying their name, or hopes of how they want to be remembered. The name imbues the individual with the power it possesses. Names give strength, they give place and purpose.

If we can acknowledge to any degree the power of a name, then why are we so quick to dismiss them? Setting aside the more insidious explanation – that the power of the name is why we dismiss them – and assuming best intent in people. So often I’ve heard people say about names of people or places: “I won’t even try to say your name because I’m going to butcher it.” or “I’ll never be able to say that right”. It baffles me, because what I hear is “You are not important enough for me to take 5 extra seconds to bother with who you are, so let’s talk about something that matters”. 

I am compelled to ask myself, what kind of society are we creating where we refuse to afford people or cultures the basic respect of making the effort of pronouncing their names (or words) correctly. 

This idea that giving up is better than being wrong has its place in a broken value systems prevalent in modern society that encourage ignorance over failure, and comfort over curiosity. Beyond the fear of failure and ease of dismissal, such behavior has failed to adapt to the demands of life in a multicultural society. You can’t claim the benefits of globalization without putting in the work to preserve the multiculturalism that is the chief export of globalization. Such self-centered, non-globalized values encourage protecting the self from minute discomfort at the cost of another’s self-respect and identity as well as at major cost to what little cultural diversity colonialism hasn’t washed away.

Take a moment.
Imagine the personal struggle, the pain of leaving everything you know to join a new community. You don’t know many of the pop culture references, you have trouble building rapport with individuals in this new community, you ‘have an accent’. Now imagine having to go through this same interaction of being denied your name over and over again. It happens a lot. Several times a day. And the whole time you’re just trying to fit in and mold yourself into a person that will be accepted. You shorten or change your name over months and years. Not because you want to, but because others seem to want you too. Because being callously denied your identity is exhausting, so you don’t even give them the chance. It takes an emotional and psychological toll that maybe you laugh off and repress. It is a constant disrespect. A loss of agency. A loss of history. Forced assimilation. It is a form of cultural oppression.

If you are reading this and thinking “I’m not an oppressor, I love and respect all people equally. I might have done this in the past, but i didn’t mean anything by it.”, then unfortunately for you cultural oppression can be unintentional and still be cultural oppression.

So, how can we be better? And how can we do this right?

The physical difficulty is not genetic, it is cultural. We are programmed from a young age to be able to hear and say certain sounds that frequent the languages we have grown up with. As a person who grew up speaking mainly Hindi and an Indianized version of English (or Hinglish as we call it), there are certain English sounds that were unfamiliar to me when I first moved to the States. Specifically the slurred ‘R’s and the rounded ‘W’s. As well as certain inflections and colloquialisms like “I know, right?!”. It was like learning to say a few new letters in the alphabet. It took some effort but it wasn’t a herculean undertaking. 

I am constantly caught off guard by people’s names, especially when the name involves a certain intonation, or a clicking or guttural sound. But after a couple of tries I do usually figure out how to do it right. And I am not a linguistic genius, so here’s what you need to realize:
On a biological level, realize that we are the same species of animal. We have similar mouths. We breathe the same air the same way. On its way out of our similar lungs, we can will this air to vibrate our vocal chords. If we hold our mouth and tongue in the same shape when vibrating our vocal chords, we are going to make the same sound. All that’s missing is the will to try and a little bit of practice.

Crucially, this is about empathy and respect. You have to really listen. You have to come from a place of kindness, and from a place of being willing to learn. It is okay to be wrong, and it is okay to ask people to repeat themselves as long as you are making the effort. Say “I’m going to keep trying until I get it right because I respect you and you deserve that.”.

And if you can’t remember any of that, just remember the golden rule:
Say people’s names the way they say it.

In our ever-shrinking world, this is going to become more prevalent. As physical borders become less relevant and cultural export grows, we are going to be faced with opportunities to step outside our comfort zone and embrace the dynamic creativity of the societies and people that share this planet. Let’s make the world a safe space for dialectical diversity. Multiculturalism, much like the environment, is a limited resource and we have to cultivate it if we are going to preserve its richness and diversity for future generations.

Let’s make people feel more welcome in our communities.

Suh-vin-ay Nah-ng-uh-lee-ah – in case you were wondering.

Sources:
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1647299/#R5
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2077408/
https://www.insidescience.org/news/whats-best-way-learn-new-sounds-foreign-language

In Defense of Consensus

Living in an intentional community with twelve mindful and critically constructive people has been a rewarding experience. One of the things that we talked about as a group when we met in the planning stages of our community was our desire to operate under a consensus based decision making framework. It is arguably the most important contributing factor for the long term survival of our community. It is what has kept us going for 3 years in the high turnover rental market of San Francisco.

Recently, someone shared an article with me on the limits of consensus. I can’t help but respond because while I understand that the author is talking about the difficulties in using consensus as a decision making structure in labor organizations and movements that can have hundreds or thousands of people, they fail to make that clear in their article. In order to strengthen their argument, the author overlooks or minimizes many of the benefits that consensus can offer regardless of the size of the organization. Here I aim to state some of those benefits as well as to provide a more nuanced view of consensus.

Primarily, I disagree with the author’s assertion that democracy somehow encourages “the fullest debate and discussion” while consensus tries to minimize debate for fear of hurting compromise. First, the whole point of consensus is that the ideas and feelings in the room come to light and are debated and acknowledged because we can’t move on until everyone is in agreement. Democracy on the other hand seems to squash debate the minute there is a majority on an issue in the interest of saving time. Secondly, from my experience and from taking a quick account of the world, democracy seems to be more about politicking, positioning, and hidden compromises by the people in power rather than healthy factual debate. But, you might say, the problem is not with democracy itself but with how it is implemented and practiced. And I would say exactly the same thing about consensus. Organizations need to have a healthy consensus based decision making process in order for it to work in a constructive way.

Members need to be informed on what consensus is and need to wield it as a tool to have all voices heard rather than a weapon to get their way. The organization bears the responsibility of conveying this to its members. And when possible of recruiting members that believe in and understand the concept of consensus. I believe the author is incorrect in their assumption that the situation where an individual or a minority hold up procedures endlessly to get their way is the norm rather than the exception without providing any supporting evidence.

I see the author’s argument that consensus-based decision making environments make people feel like they are being forced to agree. But this seems to further underscore the one-dimensional take on consensus that the author is applying in the writing of this article. Members in a healthy consensus need to be able to abstain from the decision making process. There are processes for consensus that allow should allow for disagreement or abstention with commitment to the decision made. And this in my mind is better than a situation where one group is allowed to overrule a smaller group.

Furthermore, I strongly disagree with the authors framing of compromise as a situation where everyone loses something rather than an outcome where everyone gets something they want. Compromise in a healthy way encourages individuals to look for the possibility in a polarized situation. Often people have excellent reasons for being on any side of an issue – and spirited debate should not be just about getting more than half of the people on your side, but rather about engaging in the conversation as a learner and being open to modifying your position based on the nuances of the issue that you might not have contended with before.

In this way (in my opinion) consensus often has the upper hand over democracy. Consensus enables a minority to take the time necessary to show the majority the blindspots or biases that led them to their initial opinion on an issue. It stops the rule of the majority from becoming tyrannical depending on the issue and how borders between the majority and minority are constructed.

I understand why it would scare or frustrate people. It can be difficult and tedious. It involves work. Not just when there is a decision to be made but constant meta-work on the process for decision making itself. But for all of this work you get a community that is more engaged with and critical of itself. And that is a gift.

 

A few thoughts on Education

My journey through my thoughts in the last year has led me to a conclusion that seems obvious. That a lot of the problems we face in the world today can be solved in the next 20 years if we can teach children to think critically. Teach them not only how to consume information, but how to question. Not only to learn, but to celebrate being wrong. Not just to produce, but to create.

This is a tall order, of course. This wisdom has been out there for decades, there is nothing new here. Every idealistic teacher has thought of this and much more, I am merely scratching the surface. Yet it seems like we are still stuck in the same world we were in at the time of the industrial revolution. Teaching students the same tired old things with the same tired old methods.

There are reasons why issues persist in our education system. Education is a public good and governments and bureaucracy are involved with the dissemination of knowledge and the literacy of the population. This inevitably slows things down as education vies with other public and private interests for money and attention. Furthermore, the methods of publishing and distributing information until recently have been primitive and expensive, so we needed text books containing knowledge deemed ‘important’ that were distributed all over the country. This then leads to the one-size-fits-all education system appears to be a well oiled machine for churning out human calculators and good Consumers-with-a-capital-C that can all see a way to achieving ‘the dream’.

Except ‘the dream’ is changing, and the way to get to a good future for yourself is changing. But the way we educate our population doesn’t seem to be changing. Producing out doctors, lawyers, engineers, and accountants isn’t good enough anymore. Those jobs are gone. Or they will be soon. Besides, the current system of education alienates half the population at the outset by catering to a very specific learning style and forcing children to fit a generic mold. We have to allow for all children to be thinkers and tinkerers and creators. We have to allow for all children to be equally successful. And the system isn’t designed for that. But it can be.

So why do we have the ability to solve these systematic problems now that we haven’t been able to solve for the last fifty years? The power has shifted into the hands of the creator. Here the ‘creator’ is anyone with a good idea and a computer. It is allowing for private players to enter an industry that for a long time has been expensive and mired in regulation. Additionally, because of the rise in computing power and the ubiquitousness of computers we have the technology and ability to provide learning platforms that can cater to an individual’s needs. The one-size-fits-all model doesn’t need to exist anymore. We can encourage learning on an individual basis to account for individual needs and the needs of our times.

Teachers are doing such great work and paying teachers more would be a quick and easy solution to most of our woes. But that relies on governments getting their act together which is not something we can control. What we can control is the creation and distribution of cheap, easy to use, and widespread technology that is better able to assist the teacher and student.

The work happening in the field is progressing fast and is going to be exciting to watch.