Culture Op-eds

Why we need *some* borders between us

Borders are often a bad thing because they create separation that is unconducive for what are generally considered to be socially desirable outcomes. And they’re often instituted to maximise political outcomes, especially of the electoral variety. However, as electoral politics – and the decisions politicians make leading up to elections – become increasingly divisive, the people’s perception of politics, especially among those belonging to the middle classes, simultaneously becomes more cynical. At one point, those engaged in less political activities could even begin to see politics as a meaningless enterprise engaged solely in furthering the interests of the powerful.

This is a wholly justified conclusion given the circumstances but it’s also saddening since this cynicism is almost always paid for by writing off all political endeavours, and all the borders they maintain – and it is even more saddening now, in this time of protests, riots, apathy and deaths among the poor of hunger, of all things. This particular point is worth highlighting more now because space, especially human spaceflight, is in the news. Elon Musk’s SpaceX recently launched two astronauts to the International Space Station in history’s first crewed mission by a non-governmental company (that still subsists mostly on government funds).

For many decades, creators, engineers and officials alike have billed space as an escape, particularly in two ways. First, as a material volume of the universe that humanity is yet to occupy in any meaningful way, space is a frontier – a place other than Earth where there are some opportunities to survive but more importantly which could present a fresh start, a new way to do things that apparently benefits from millennia of civilisation on Earth that has only left us with great inequality and prejudice. Second, as a vast emptiness composed of literally nothing for billions of kilometres at a time, space imposes a ‘loneliness tax’ on Earth that – as many spaceflight entrepreneurs are fond of saying – should prompt us to remember that “we’re all in this together”.

However, the problem with both perspectives is that they gloss over borders, and when some borders disappear, our awareness of inequality disappears while inequality itself doesn’t. A common refrain aspiring spacefarers like to pitch is of the view of Earth from the Moon, accompanied by a gruff but nonetheless well-intentioned reminder that borders are of our own making, and that if we got rid of them and worked in humanity’s best-interests as a whole, we’d be able to achieve great things.

I call bullshit because without borders to constantly remind ourselves that invisible lines exist in the ground as well as in our minds that a Dalit or a black person can’t cross, no Dalit or black person – or even many women for that matter – can enter the spaceflight programme, leave alone get to the Moon.

More broadly, what many of those engaged in less-political work see as “unnecessary borders” are really discomfiting borders, a fact that became immutably apparent during India’s #MeToo uprising on Twitter in October-November 2018. Then, the mass of allegations and complaints pouring in every day indicated, among other things, that when inequality and discrimination have become ubiquitous, affording men and women equal opportunities by way of redressal can’t make the inequality and discrimination go away. Instead, women, and indeed all underprivileged groups, need affirmative action: to give more women, more Dalits, more black people, more transgender people, etc. access to more opportunities for a time until both the previously privileged groups and the newly privileged groups are on equal footing. It’s only then that they can really become equals.

A popular argument against this course of action has been that it will only create a new asymmetry instead of eradicating the old one. No; it’s important to recognise that we don’t need to eradicate privileges by eradicating opportunities, but to render privileges meaningless by ensuring all people have equal access to every new opportunity that we develop.

Another contention, though it doesn’t dress like a contention, is that we should also discuss why it’s important to have people of diverse identities around the table. But to me, this view is awfully close to the expectation of people from underprivileged groups to justify themselves, often more than those from privileged groups ever have for the same or equal positions. Instead, to quote Tarun Menon, of the National Institute for Advanced Studies, Bengaluru: “Deliberative democracy” – “a form of democracy in which deliberation is central to decision-making” (source) – “is key to any well-ordered democratic society, both because it helps ensure that a variety of concerns are taken into account in democratic decision-making, and because it grants legitimacy to decision-making by making it participatory.”

This is why borders are important – to define groups that need to be elevated, so to speak; without them, our economic and political structures will continue to benefit who they always have. And this is also why borders not used to achieve socially desirable outcomes are nothing but divides.

More importantly from the spaceflight bros’ point of view, when the borders we do need are erased, space will mostly be filled with white men, and a proportionately fewer number of people of other racial, ethnic, gender and caste identities – if at all.

Featured image: Daria Shevtsova/Pexels.

Life notes Scicomm

Limitations of the Finkbeiner test

This post was republished on The Wire on January 8, 2018.

The Finkbeiner test, named for science writer Ann Finkbeiner, was created to check whether a profile of a female scientist published by a mainstream news outlet was produced in the first place because its subject was a woman. It’s a good check to make when writing about a professional scientist’s work; if you’re going to write the piece because the subject’s a woman and not because you think her work is awesome, then you run the risk of presenting the woman as extraordinary for choosing to be a scientist. However, more than being a good check, it could also be too subtle an issue to expect everyone to be conscious about – or to abide by.

As The Life of Science initiative has repeatedly discussed, there are many systemic barriers for India’s women in science, all the way from each scientist having had few role models to admire growing up to not being able to stay in academia because institutional policies as well as facilities fall short in being able to retain them. And apart from working towards making these deficiencies known to more people, women have also been leading the fight to patch them once and for all. As a result, talking about successful women scientists without also discussing what needed to fall into place for them could ring hollow – whereas the Finkbeiner test seeks to eliminate just such supposedly miscellaneous information.

For example, a 2015 report by Ram Ramaswamy and Rohini Godbole and a 2016 article by Aashima Dogra and Nandita Jayaraj both stressed the need for affirmative action on part of the government so more women are retained in scientific pursuits at the higher levels. This means science journalism that focuses on a working woman scientist because she belongs to a particular gender and not on her scientific research at the outset becomes useful in the eyes of young scientists but also quickly fails the Finkbeiner test. Does this mean the piece becomes detrimental? I’d think not, especially because it would certainly serve the function of holding the people charged with instituting policy and infrastructural corrections accountable.

For another example, I’ve learned from several The Life of Science profiles that one reason many of the women who have become successful scientists with faculty-level positions were backed up by supportive families and partners. One profile in particular – of Mayurika Lahiri – stood out because it discussed her research as a cancer biologist as well as her achievement in setting up a full-fledged daycare centre in IISER Pune. However, the Finkbeiner test penalises an article on a woman scientist if it discusses her spouse’s occupation, her childcare arrangements or the fact that she could be a role model.

Two notes at this point. First: Some women might not like to be characterised in a way that the Finkbeiner test says they shouldn’t be characterised as. In such cases, the journalist must and will respect their choice. Second: To be fair to The Life of Science, the Finkbeiner test is intended only for mainstream publications and not specialist projects. At the same time, this caveat could come off as short-sighted because it aspires to make a stronger distinction between changes that remain to be effected for (India’s) women in science to have it as good as its men already do and the outcomes of those changes that have been implemented well. Persistence with the former results in the latter; the latter encourages the former to continue.

In countries where women receive more institutional support than they do in India, it’s possible to expect meaningful insights to arise out of applying the Finkbeiner test to all mainstream profiles of women in science. In other countries, the test could be altered such that,

  1. A discussion of women’s needs is treated on an equal footing with their science instead of having to ignore one or the other – This way, writers will have an opportunity to make sure their readers don’t take the pervasiveness of the conditions that helped women succeed for granted while also highlighting that their work in and of itself is good, and
  2. Profiles of male scientists include questions about what they’re doing to make science a non-problematic pursuit for people of other (or no) genders, if only to highlight that men often have a mission-critical role to play in this endeavour.

Featured image credit: bones64/pixabay.