Sunday, December 10, 2017

Why does Ishiguro say Stevens the butler is a monster?

Remains of the day” is this year’s Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro’s one of the famous novels. It is about a buttoned-up British butler, Stevens, looking back at his life towards the end of his career. The character is beautifully depicted by Anthony Hopkins in the movie also titled “Remains of the day”. Throughout his work as a butler, Stevens had placed higher value on professional duties than on personal feelings and served his employer faithfully. Hence, I was surprised when Ishiguro referred to this mild mannered character as a kind of monster in a conversation with a fellow writer. Why would Ishiguro say that? Let’s see in this article.

Ishiguro’s comment comes in a conversation published in New Statesman (June 2015) with the writer Neil Gaiman titled “Let’s talk about genre”. Here is what Ishiguro says:

Creating an incredibly stuffy English butler in The Remains of the Day, I was very aware that I was taking something that I recognised to be a very small, negative set of impulses in myself – the fear of getting hurt in love, or that urge to just say, “I don’t want to figure out the political implications or the moral implications of my job, I’m just going to get on with my tiny patch”; those kinds of little urges we all recognise in ourselves – taking those and exaggerating them, and turning them into a kind of monstrous manifestation. The butler doesn’t look like a conventional monster, but I always thought that he was a kind of monster.
He then quotes a line from a fantasy novel by Neil Gaiman:

I’m reminded of something Lettie says in The Ocean at the End of the Lane: “Monsters come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them are things people are scared of. Some of them are things that look like things people used to be scared of a long time ago. Sometimes monsters are things people should be scared of, but they aren’t.”

In case of Stevens, the butler, Ishiguro is referring to the last category – monsters are things people should be scared of, but they aren’t. Now, what does Stevens do that qualifies him as a monster of this kind? This is 1920s and 30s. Stevens’ boss Lord Darlington doesn’t like the way the Germany gets treated after the defeat in the First World War. Hence, he is sympathetic towards Germans. He wants to help them. In the process, without fully aware of what he might be doing, he ends up supporting the Nazi movement. Stevens is the central character when it comes to taking care of all the guests at the Darlington Hall. He is not bothered what kind of political meeting is taking place at the Hall; he is doing his job with utmost faith. In fact, he believes that the real dignity of a butler lies in doing the job well by paying attention to every detail and keeping his employer happy. Of course, his boss is supporting a monstrous act and Stevens consciously ignores it. That makes him a supporter of a monstrous act and hence a monster himself.

In another interview titled “The texture of memory”, Ishiguro explains that butler is used as a metaphor here. There is a butler in each of us. Here is how he explains it:

In some political and moral ways, most of us are butlers (2:30). By that I mean, even in democratic countries, we find ourselves oddly far removed from the real power. Most of us do jobs – good jobs, little jobs. But most of us don’t run countries or multinational corporations. We fit in somewhere, if we are lucky, and we learn to do a little job and try to do it to the best of our abilities. Usually we offer up our contribution to somebody upstairs. We hope that the contribution is going to be used well. But we often can’t be sure. We offer it up to a company, or an employer, or may be a cause or a country. But in that sense we are all rather like butlers. So I was attracted to this figure who wanted to be so good at being a butler; everything was about serving his employer. But he thought it was beyond him to question how his contribution is being used. That leaves us all open to discovering at some stage that perhaps we contributed to something we don’t particularly approve of. But for most us that is our fate. We live in small worlds.

Once we get busy polishing up our image to fit into a system, we are lost in our small world. We systematically, without being aware of it, are ignoring to see the bigger picture. And once we are lost in our small world, the world made up of a set of beliefs and values, we are a victim of self-deception. We are creating stories, elaborate stories, to justify our acts and our existence. People trapped in self-deception are potentially monsters. Who knows what they may end up supporting? Be careful, you may be a monster too.

image source: en.wikipedia.org

Friday, December 1, 2017

Why does Daniel Kahneman refuse to advise individuals?

I have been a big fan of Daniel Kahneman and his work for over a decade. And the admiration has only grown over the years. However, there is an aspect of his position that puzzles me. Kahneman has been consistent in saying that his work on biases, beautifully captured in “Thinking, fast and slow”, is not of much use to individuals. Because, he feels, his thirty years of research hasn’t helped him become better at decision making. And yet, I find Kahneman demonstrates high degree awareness of potential biases in his thinking while answering interview questions. Isn’t that awareness an important element of good decision making? And could that be a result of internalizing his work? So, why does he refuse to advise individuals? I would like to explore it in this article.

 First, let’s see Kahneman’s position – Here is an excerpt from his interview for Council on Foreign Relations streamed live on April 18, 2017  (video embedded at the end of the article) – he was asked (15:41):
Q: You have people in this room who make a lot of important decisions, consequential decisions every day. So tell them how to improve their own decision making. We are going to do a little self-help here. How do they improve their own decisions?

Kahneman: When you talk to an individual, I refuse to answer that question. Because how little studying this problem has done for the quality of my decisions.

Q: You don’t think you make better decisions after the last thirty years?

Kahneman: No.
And then he turns to discuss organizations and how they can improve their decision making. And leaves the question of helping individual decision maker unaddressed.

Why does Kahneman refuse to advise individuals? We get some idea as he explains how he sees our thought process works in the beginning of the same interview (1:10). He says:
The claim in the book is that we are conscious of our conscious thoughts, we are conscious of our deliberations. Most of what happens in our mind, happens silently. And the most important things in our mind happen silently. We are just aware of the result, we are not aware of the process. The processes that we are aware of tend to be deliberative and sequential. But the associative network that lies behind all that and that brings ideas forward into consciousness, we are not really aware of.
Since we are aware of only the result and not the process, how could we ever improve our decision making? The cognitive biases that we carry are perhaps so deep rooted and intertwined with our memories in such a complex networked way that we have no access and know-how of improving them. Having said that, I find Kahneman himself extremely conscious of his potentially biased thinking process. For example, when someone asked him (26:20), “Do you feel good history is possible or are we doomed to confirmation bias?” Kahneman begins his answer by saying, “It is hard for me as an outsider to define what good history would be like.” That’s accepting ignorance of the definition of good history upfront. When someone else asked him (42:50), “Does diversity make for better decision making?”  He begins by saying, “Well, I really have no expertise in that and I am relying not even on primary sources…” and then gives a view. That’s admitting lack of expertise upfront. Later on while addressing a question on climate change denial (50:30), he admits that he believes in climate change because he believes in National Academy of Sciences which, in turn, believes in climate change. So his belief is based on what people he trusts believe in. It is an example of a Nobel Laureate scientist explaining the non-scientific manner in which his belief system works.

Now, this self-doubt is evident in not just one interview but all of Kahneman’s interviews that I have watched. And I have watched at least half a dozen hour long interviews. This kind of checking the quantity and quality of information before giving an answer is a hallmark of his thinking process. His intuitive answers may be susceptible to biases but his alertness about the possibility of a bias is very strong. And it is hard to believe that it is not influenced by his work.

Of course, interviews may not be a stressful situation for Kahneman. And, as he says in his book, the real test of your alertness is in stressful situations. He mentions in the book – “Questioning your intuitions is unpleasant when you face the stress of a big decision. More doubt is the last thing you want when you are in trouble.” So perhaps I am generalizing about Kahneman’s thinking process based on how he answers interview questions. And that may not be correct generalization.

I differ from Kahneman in following way. I feel that I may not be aware of the exact biases taking place in my fast, automatic, intuitive thinking process. However, if I carry awareness that it could be wrong due to inherent biases, that’s enough for creating an opening to listen to other views. And “Thinking, fast and slow” carries the potential to send that message to individuals. And it’s possible to cultivate alertness even in stressful situations. At least, that’s my experience. And, of course, I could be wrong!



Image source: YouTube video embedded above