Thursday, February 21, 2013

Squares-Root of Revolution

When we think squares – we think a perfectly symmetric geometric shape. The name which invokes a symmetric imagery has been at the center of many disruptive developments across the world. Removed from the theoretical geometric space and brought into practical urban public spaces, these squares all of a sudden became household names and ushered in unthinkable revolution. I know human beings react differently to different type of spaces and pseudo-scientific fields like Feng Shui or Vaastu Shashtra might also have some inputs regarding shapes and energy levels. All said and then Squares have become epitome of humanitarian struggle against indifferent authority. Squares in urban spaces was an European concept that have been improvised and adapted by other schools of city planners and architects. Many improvised and adapted versions of public squares have had presences in many countries outside of Europe.

In the modern times, lot has changed due to continual human struggle against disturbing but established and accepted notions/norms. We witnessed people, questioning a form of economic development championed by capitalist, protesting against age old form of governance, challenging people in power to formulate rules for benefit of larger section of population, upholding the morality of a State in execution of its duty; and many more. Again, at the center of most of these protests are Squares. Squares that today have become synonymous with human struggle for a dignified living. 

 The squares that have become popular for the platform it gave for people to speak and be heard and hold anybody in authority accountable are:
  • Tiananmen Square – Beijing China – Student uprising 1979
  • Shahyad Square – Tehran, Iran – Anti-Election protests 2010-11
  • Times Square – New York, USA – Occupy Wall Street 2011
  • Tahrir Square – Cairo, Egypt – Arab Spring 2011-12
  • Al-Tahrir Square – Sana’a Yemen – Arab Spring 2011-12
  •  Shahbag Square – Dhaka, Bangladesh – Protest for justice against war crimes 2013

These are the ones that one can recall without much effort, am sure there are more. Place de la Concorde or the French Revolution square comes to my mind. A square at the center of as significant a historical event as the French revolution in the 18th century.

Ofcourse, only history can be the true judge of success or failure of such protests/revolution, We live in times where there are inequities and many other social evils that question the very core of human beliefs. However, we should take heart in the fact that, whenever people have come together and voiced their concern unanimously – those voices, through conviction and constancy of purpose have brought unprecedented change. Squares could be mere co-incidence!


Thursday, February 14, 2013

Speaking Free

Freedom of speech/expression is the mantra of our times. Everywhere and anywhere somebody is either using it or violating it or abusing it or getting upset by it. People are debating about it, fighting over it and even getting arrested for it. Suddenly it is being held aloft as the most coveted possession of a democratic state and as something to be safeguarded at all costs. Some, who exercise it, take a moral high ground and feel offended if they are stopped from exercising it or are blamed for excesses. News channels, often blamed for excess, are the new self-proclaimed champions of ‘Freedom of speech’; most appear to know the constitution inside out and take a moral high ground on related matters. Also thanks to social networking sites, many more unlikely champions have emerged and gain some following as well.

What is freedom of speech? Is it really a hallmark of democracy as it is made out to be? Are my rights violated when I am not allowed to express? What if somebody gets emotionally hurt or insulted because of my right of freedom of speech?

Let us look back at our day to day lives. Do we really ever feel at any stage that we cannot express what we want to express? Whether it is our coffee shop/tea stall casual chat or living room casual discussion or dinner table discussion – do we really feel that for some reason we are not free to express what we want to say? I am sure I don’t have to answer these rhetoric questions.  I have been to China and have many Chinese friends; did I in any interaction feel they were not free to express what they wanted to say? No! On the contrary they were quite expressive. Expressive to the extent of telling me their view points about the Cultural Revolution and the student uprising at Tiananmen Square, not a hint of stifled freedom of speech.  So our fundamental right as a human being without having to follow a constitutional diktat seems to be intact. Ofcourse nobody can deny that, there is certain amount of self-policing, at times voluntarily, to avoid hurting sentiments of people who we are expressing our views to. Nonetheless, we all, no matter where we are born, are free to speak! So the question repeats again – what is freedom of speech that we are breaking our head over?

Now imagine if any of the opinions expressed by us in a private conversation was to find its way to a publicly accessible forum/medium! Suddenly do we feel our heart stop or we stopping in our stride? I think herein could lie the true definition of Freedom of Speech. Are all the opinions expressed in private conversation ok to be expressed in a publicly accessible forum? Would we express everything in public what we say in private? In expressing our opinion in public we always run the risk of saying something that is unacceptable to some. These are the things that test the tolerance level and also expose hypocrisy of a society. Thus I feel that, Freedom of speech exists in all countries irrespective of the form of governance it has; the main issue is of tolerance and double standards. 

What one feels is what one should say. If done in a private conversation nobody bothers.  If done in a public forum then the said word has repercussions. Tolerance level of the society decides the threshold; beyond that point it could be considered as deliberate attempt to spread vile and hatred. However not saying what I feel about things and instead to say what would be widely accepted on a public forum exposes the double standard and hypocrisy in a society. It is a fight between Tolerance level and Double Standards. In case of a non-democratic Government Tolerance levels are very low and double standards extremely high. In the case of a perfect democracy Tolerance levels are very high and double standards very low. Most of the countries are, obviously, between these two extremes. 

Social networking sites present a new type of dilemma. They are private yet they are public, they are public yet they are private. These sites are neither in the mold of a traditional public forum nor are they equivalent to roadside tea stalls/coffee shops. Expressed opinions here are private, yet are public. With plenty of government organization/officials joining such sites in official capacity, makes the medium that much more interesting. Opinions expressed on such sites with the type of following they command can, theoretically, lead to instantaneous repercussions and at times to immediate backlash on the expresser of the opinion. Everybody ofcourse is free to express their opinion, however the medium is so unprecedented and the repercussions so much unstudied that there is an apprehension. The dilemmatic nature of the medium doesn’t make it any easier either. So the dilemma has led to lowering of tolerance levels fortunately though, it has not led to increase in double standards. On the contrary it has brought it down by an extent. As the medium matures and repercussions become clearer, I am sure, certain amount of self-policing would come in. As has happened in a personal one-to-one conversations.

I should also mention that achieving a balance between Tolerance levels and Double Standard cannot be a matter of chance nor can it be achieved overnight. It has to be deliberate and would be a slow and steady process.


Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Despised at home Loved Abroad

America is often referred to as the land of opportunities. Many have made use of the opportunities on offer and struck it big. There is a strong unmistakable entrepreneurial spirit that is omnipresent, especially if you are in a place like the Silicon Valley and I felt it was difficult to remain immune from it. . I had the privilege of being at the heart of Silicon Valley and see many of those organizations who from their humble beginnings in a garage or a backyard, went onto become large multinational conglomerates and household names across the world

Infact when in this country, one realizes that there are many more large corporations, probably just as bigger as the American firms we know, and yet they never left the shores of USA to explore business opportunities elsewhere. Exemplary customer service and good products have ensured a strong business in the US. Nothing in the Silicon Valley even remotely hints of any recession. Restaurants are running full, retail outlets are bustling with customers, and roads are busy with traffic.

Amidst all these observation, the most interesting and surprising observation I had was that of a paradox! A paradox, that appears to exist in the general American psyche.  A paradox that is as funnier as it is surprising! Let me explain. As we know there are many hugely successful US enterprises who have not only done exceptionally well in America but also in many of the countries where they also setup their operations in. Among them, not all but, few handful of organizations are reserved for ‘awe’, ‘love’ ‘affection’ and ‘Pride’ in the American Psyche. Many American organizations have to face tremendous and widespread public hatred at home and here in lays the paradox. These hated orgs, make no mistake, are huge and successful across the world. The paradox becomes even more interesting when many of the orgs that are hated here are loved overseas and seen synonymous with the American Culture. 

It is a syndrome of “Despised at home, loved elsewhere” (no I am not talking about husbands). Any American worth his or her salt wouldn’t like to be seen doing anything with these despised organizations! A middle class American wouldn’t like to be seen shopping in Wal-Mart, eating in McDonalds or Pizza Hut and driving Dodge. Even if an American is doing all of the above he wouldn’t like to be caught doing it! The case of Wal-Mart is worth a special mention here. Not only is it widely hated but I felt it also shows the class-divide in an American society. There are three classes, as per me, a Class that shops in Wal-Mart by choice, a class that shops at Wal-Mart by compulsion and a class that stays away from Wal-Mart under all circumstances. Infact the ones shopping by choice make all attempts to show they are doing it out of compulsion, the ones who are doing out of compulsion wouldn’t like to be caught in the act! Known for poor business ethics, poor work atmosphere, low pay and plethora of cheap Chinese made goods, I haven’t seen or heard any other org singled out for such choicest abuses, widespread hatred and yet be No1 (No.2) Fortune 500 company! Therein lays the Paradox!

There are many more such examples. Ofcourse not all large organizations are hated, though their record might be no different than Wal-Mart. There are few that are nonetheless reserved for widespread Awe, love, affection and what every American would like to identify with or take pride in. Apple, Starbucks, Cosco are some names that I could immediately remember based on the interactions I had. There are status symbols everywhere and America is no different, however the paradoxical nature of these symbols is what made it very interesting to observe. I need to update one of my previous blog about FDI(sigh!)

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