Sunday Levity: Escalation control lessons from a kindergartener

Teachers preclude anarchy in the kindergarten

“Remember the new girl in my class?” the kindergartener said. “She hit me.”

The father, being a student of conflict, was naturally interested in conflict among students. The kindergartener had caught his attention.

“And what did you do then?” he asked.

“I told the teacher. And the teacher scolded her,” the kindergartener replied, expecting appreciation. The father worried that this kid was falling into the maternal sphere of influence. It was time for a lesson on deterrence and balance of power.

“You should have hit her right back”, he said. “And then complained to the teacher.”

“What?” She half-suspected that the father was pulling her leg. Noticing that he was serious she went on. “But I told the teacher and the teacher scolded her and told her never to hit me again.”

The father moved to press home the most important point. “If she knows that you’ll hit her back, she’ll think twice before hitting you. Even when the teacher is not around.”

“What if she hits me harder?” The father vaguely remembered something about the new girl being bigger in size and older than the rest.

“Well, then, you hit her back just as hard.”

“Pappa, but then we’ll be fighting…like boys!”

And she ran out of her father’s study.

Related Link: Lessons in strategy from a kindergartener

Doing it at ungodly hours

China’s unfriendliness is revealing

A sign of the nature of a relationship between countries is the manner in which they officially communicate displeasure. So when the Chinese government calls in the Indian ambassador at 2am, to hand her details of plans by Tibetan protesters to disrupt the movement of the Olympic torch in India, you know what the Chinese think about the nature of bilateral relationship. China might have reason to be angry. That it chose to be demonstrate unfriendliness reveals that it believes the proper way to handle India is through overreaction and bullying.

India responded by cancelling Commerce Minister Kamal Nath’s trip to China. The unwritten rules of the game would have suggested tit-for-tat: that the Chinese ambassador be summoned at 2am and handed some inane document. (But where’s the joy is having to meet a Chinese diplomat at 2am? Asking Mr Kamal Nath to cancel his tickets was easier. In any case, the Chinese ambassador, expecting to be called in at an ungodly hour, must have spent the night in his suit, waiting for the call that didn’t come. Not calling him, arguably, was more punishing than calling him in)

China has escalated its diplomatic offensive. The first round was when Premier Wen Jiabao issued a disguised warning. In the second round, the disguise has come off. But it’s a bad move: as the UPA government’s decision to call off Kamal Nath’s trip shows, bullying is the worst strategy China could take against India. Even its mouthpieces can’t generate enough propaganda to prevent public opinion from massively turning against Beijing. China would do well to conduct its business at normal working hours.

Update: Read Tarun Vijay’s op-ed

My op-ed in Mail Today: Free speech checks intolerance

Mr Thackeray’s actions are an opportunity to understand how competitive intolerance might be defeated

Excerpts from my op-ed piece in today’s Mail Today:

The state itself —and increasingly under the UPA government — has, in addition to caving in to intolerance, frequently indulged in unnecessary conscience-keeping that is at once laughable and abominable.

Raj Thackeray obviously knows this. His recent invective against “North Indians” living in Maharashtra is only the latest escalation in a grand arms race being played out across the length and breadth of the country. If the political system rewards those who mobilise people along parochial lines, the popular media obfuscates divide-and-rule politics by wrapping it in the language of vote-banks, secularism and social justice. So the juggernaut of competitive intolerance rolls on, unchecked.

So doesn’t this mean that we need curbs on freedom of speech? Couldn’t much of the violence been prevented if Raj Thackeray’s party magazine had simply been banned and television news channels censored?

Not quite. Newspaper reports and incessant coverage by television channels only brought the drama into our drawing rooms. But the banning of its house publication would not have deterred Mr Thackeray’s sena in its mission, for the action channel for political mobilisation and street violence works independently.

On the contrary, laws abridging freedom of speech have created incentives for the political use of intolerance.

Faced with a choice between taking “action” against an offending writer or facing down a mob of rioters, it is likely that a rational government official — from district magistrate to home minister — will choose the former. It works this way because the government official has the choice.

This choice offers those charged with maintaining law and order a convenient escape route. The Maharashtra state government, for instance, could pretend to be taking “action” by arresting Mr Thackeray and Abu Azmi for their incendiary speeches, after the damage had been done.

The only way to maintain law and order is to bring the violent to justice. But after the drama of Mr Thackeray’s arrest, the Maharashtra state government is unlikely to pursue the task of going after the thugs and their local leaders with any seriousness.

The upshot is that doing away with restraints to freedom of expression is not merely a matter of principle. Because those restraints often come at the cost of leaving criminals unpunished, getting rid of them is a practical necessity. [Mail Today JPG]

Update: Download the original essay in PDF form

Sunday Levity: Lessons on strategy from a kindergartener

Checkers, candy and rules of the game

This Saturday, the father thought, he would complete a few more chapters of the book he was supposed to reading. But before long, the kindergartener was back in the room.

“Let’s play checkers”, she said. “I like checkers”. [For the uninitiated, her likes change roughly every 45 seconds]

“Okay”, said the father, putting away the book.

She took out the board and the coins. Then she noticed a tube of candy on the table.

“Can I have a candy, please?” she asked, sweetly. [For the uninitiated, she does this every 45 seconds, until the tube is empty]

The father worried about what the mother would say if she found out that the father had allowed the kindergartener to have yet another candy. He had to think fast.

Firmly, he said “Do you want to to eat the sweet or play checkers?” He complimented himself for coming up with this masterstroke. She could either eat the candy and leave him in peace, or play checkers and let him show his wife that contrary to popular belief, he was serious about discipline and all that.

“I’ll want to eat the candy first, and then let’s play checkers.” The reply strangely made him feel rather proud.

“Let me teach you how it’s played. You need to place your coins (she wanted the red ones) on these squares like this. I’ll place mine at the other end. Then we move…and if I jump over your coin, I’ve ‘killed’ it, and it goes off the board. The objective of the game is…”

Before he could finish, the kindergartener was neatly taking her coins off the board, and placing it behind her.

“Wh..what are you doing?” he asked. “How can we play the game if you take your coins off the board?”

“If my coins are going to be killed, I don’t want to put them on the board”, she said.

The father thought she had won. And he could read the book now.

“Let’s play Memory”, she said. “I like Memory.”

Call the team back!

India must pull out of this series…for the sake of good cricket

The Catapult makes an important point about geopolitics in a post on how India was subject to all-round cheating in Australia:

In a way this is symptomatic of the way India approaches its foreign relations, trying to belong to institutions and abide by the rules of a world order shaped by other powers to suit their own agendas and hoping that its “good behaviour” will be recognised and rewarded rather than like China which threatens to undermine it unless it is satisfactorily accommodated in the global power structure. And no prizes for guessing who is getting the better bargain. [The Catapult]

The Indian cricket authorities have been content to try and exploit the economic opportunities that result from India’s market power. That they failed to ensure that umpires and referees didn’t cheat the India team says something about BCCI’s attitude towards the ‘politics’ of the game.

Queuing up outside the the ICC’s office with an appeal in hand is not the thing you do after something like this. It would serve the interests of Indian cricket (and that of cricket itself) better if India were to just call the team back and call off the rest of the series. Why?

Because it’s not merely about revoking the three-match ban on Harbhajan Singh. But because the BCCI must ensure that atrocious umpiring and match refereeing don’t recur in future.

Bad umpires and ungentlemanly behaviour are much better deterred by calling the series off. This is a far more credible signal precisely because it is a costly signal. So far, the BCCI has not distinguished itself in this episode—torn as it is between its role as the dominant controller of the Indian cricket market and the steward of the Indian cricket team. It issued half-a-threat and then half-retracted it. In doing so it revealed its intentions: that it is not really serious about backing its cricketers or ensuring that Indian teams don’t suffer in future. It just wants the dismal show to go on…

It is not for BCCI to worry about geopolitics. It is not the time to strike some “wishy-washy” compromises. If the BCCI cares for Indian cricket, it would do well to bring the players back home. [Update: As expected, BCCI tries and contents itself with a compromise]

Related Link: The Other Side on Monkeygate: Things BCCI can do