How do you measure peacefulness?

The study was conceived by Australian technology entrepreneur Steve Killelea [in 2007], and is endorsed by individuals such as former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the Dalai Lama, archbishop Desmond Tutu, former President of Finland and 2008 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari, Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, economist Jeffrey Sachs, former president of Ireland Mary Robinson, former Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations Jan Eliasson and former United States president Jimmy Carter. The updated index is released each year at events in London, Washington, DC, and at the United Nations Secretariat in New York.

This is a passage from the Wikipedia article on an entity called the ‘Global Peace Index’, which “measures the relative position of nations’ and regions’ peacefulness”. Indices are flawed but useful. Their most significant flaw – and it’s quite significant – is that they attempt to distill out of the complex interactions of a host of factors a single number that, compared to another of its kind, is supposed to enable value judgments of ‘better’ or ‘worse’.

For example, an academic freedom report published in 2020 gave India a score of 0.352 and Pakistan a score of 0.554. Does this mean all academic centres in India are less academically free than all of those in Pakistan? No. Does this mean Pakistan has 1.5x more academic freedom than India does? Not at all. Indices are useful in a very narrow context, but within that niche, they can be a force for good. There’s a reason the puffy-chested Indian government gets so worked up when the World Press Freedom Index and the Global Hunger Index are published.

In particular, indices are most useful when they’re compared to themselves. If India’s press-freedom index value dropped from X in 2020 to Y in 2022 (because the government is going around demolishing the homes of dissenters), it’s a snapshot of a real deterioration – a problem that needs fixing by reversing the trend (less by massaging the data, as our leaders have become wont to do, and more by improving freedom for journalists). But there’s an index on the block whose usefulness by all counts, even in the self-referential niche, seems dangerous. This is the Global Peace Index. The 2022 edition was published earlier this week, and based on which a Business Insider article lamented that violence was costing India just too much money (Rs 50.36 lakh crore) and that this is why the country had to get a grip on it.

A crucial thing about understanding peace (in a given place and time), and which lies squarely in the domain of those things that indices don’t record, is how peace was achieved. For example, India’s freedom struggle might have pulled down the country’s score on the Global Peace Index but at the same time it was justified and led to a better kind of peace for the whole region. Peace is not just the absence of violence but the absence of conditions that give rise to violence, now and forever, in sustainable fashion. This is why it’s possible to justify some forms of violence in the pursuit of some constitutionally determined forms of peace.

Recently, a couple of my friends, who work in the corporate sector and whose shared philosophy is decidedly libertarian, argued with me over the justification of protest actions like rail roko and bandh. They contended that these activities constituted a violence against the many people whose livelihoods required the affected services. However, their philosophy stopped there, refusing to take the next logical step: it’s by disrupting the provision of these services that protestors get and hold the governmnent’s attention. (Plus the Indian government has the Essential Services Maintenance Act 1968 to ensure not all of the affected services become unavailable.) Why, through his Dandi march, M.K. Gandhi sought to encourage people to not pay their taxes to the British government – a form of economic violence.

To be sure, violence isn’t just physical; it’s also economic, social, cultural, linguistic; it’s gendered, caste-based, class-based and faith-based. The peace index report acknowledges this when it highlights its ‘Positive Peace Index’ – a measure of “the attitudes, institutions and structures that create and sustain peaceful societies”; Its value “measures the level of societal resilience of a nation or region”. According to the report’s website, the lower the score, the better.

But then, China and Saudi Arabia have lower scores than India. This is bizarre. KSA is a monarchy and China is an autocracy; in both countries, personal liberties are highly restricted and there are stringent, and in many cases Kafkaesque, punishments for falling afoul of state policy. The way of life imposed by these socio-political structures also constitutes violence. Yet the scores of these countries are comparable to those of Cuba, Mexico and Namibia. I would rank India better because I can (still, with some privileges) speak out against my government without fear of repercussions. Israel’s score, in fact, is lower than that of Palestine, while Russia has a marginally lower score than does Ukraine. It’s inexplicable.

The India-specific portions of the peace index’s report also illustrate the report’s problems at the sub-national level. To quote:

Some of the countries to record the biggest deteriorations [in violent demonstrations since 2008] were India, Colombia, Bangladesh and Brazil. … [India] ranks as the 135th most peaceful nation in the 2022 GPI. The country experienced an improvement of 1.4 per cent in overall peacefulness over the past year, driven by an improvement in the Ongoing Conflict domain. However, India experienced an uptick in the violent crime and perceptions of criminality indicators. … In 2020 and 2021, Indian farmers protested against newly introduced laws that removed some guarantees and subsidies on agricultural products.

First, the report has obtained the data for the ‘level of violent crime’ indicator from the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). The EIU’s scoring question for this indicator is: “Is violent crime likely to pose a significant problem for government and/or business over the next two years?” It’s hard not to wonder if, from the right-wing’s point of view, “violent crime” includes that perpetrated by “urban naxals” when they protested against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath thought so before he was forced to refund Rs 22 lakh he had collected from the protestors. The Delhi police thought so when its chargesheet for the 2020 riots was composed of people whose houses had been burnt down, whose bones broken and whose temples desecrated – and people who had called on the police to arrest BJP leader Kapil Mishra for instigating the riot. How do you figure “perception of criminality” here?

Second, the report discusses the protests against the three farm laws in a paragraph about “violent demonstrations”, in the same breath and without any qualifications that the protests were peaceful but turned violent when its participants had to defend themselves – including when the son of a national leader ran some of them over with his vehicle and when their attempt to enter Delhi was met with a water cannon and a lathi charge, among other incidents.

The farmers were demanding higher minimum support prices and lower input costs – hardly the sort of thing that requires violence to fulfil but did because Prime Minister Narendra Modi had no other way to walk away from his promises to Ambani/Adani. Who perpetrated the real violence here – the national leader who doomed India’s farmers so industrialist tycoons would continue to fund his campaigns of communalism or the farmers who blocked roads and highways demanding that he not? Was the ‘Bharat Bandh’ that disrupted activities in several crucial sectors on March 28, 2022, more violent than the “anti-people policies” of the same national leader that they were protesting?

A peace index that can’t settle these questions won’t see the difference between a spineless and a spineful people.

Analysis Science

The real story of ‘The Old Guard’

Spoiler alert: Don’t read this post if you intend to watch The Old Guard but haven’t done so yet.

The Old Guard, an action film starring Charlize Theron among others, released on Netflix on July 10. In a scene in the film, Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) delivers two undying men to the CEO of a pharmaceutical company (Harry Melling) only to watch the CEO, demanding that their proof of immortality be “indisputable”, stab them to death and then watch their wounds heal. After he’s had his fill, the CEO orders the men to be taken away to a lab for ‘tests’. Before he leaves the room, Copley walks up to the CEO and attempts to remind him that “this” – referring to their arrangement, pursuant to the CEO’s stated intention to mine the immortals’ genetic material for life-saving drugs – “is about science, not profits or sadism”.

The Old Guard has received good reviews, as you might know if you’ve already watched it, but perhaps the film’s entire story could have been non-existent were it not for Copley’s naïve beliefs, no?

At another point in the film, Copley talks about entering into his deal with Merrick, the CEO, because Copley’s wife’s death of ALS taught him that genetic gifts that could alleviate “needless suffering” should be shared with humanity, not hoarded by a few. A noble sentiment – and I almost fell for it until being jolted back by another character, who reminds Copley that the gift wasn’t his to give. In The Old Guard, it’s four white people who have been forced to give, but the argument is strengthened by the fact that it’s an apt metaphor for the real world, in which it’s often the people of the developing world, and in that world the most marginalised, doing the ‘giving’.

In effect, the film’s story is about Copley’s mistake and Copley fixing that mistake – except the mistake doesn’t seem defensible to me as much as it must have been born out of a long-standing ignorance of a bunch of issues, from self-determination to science’s need to be guided by politics. When Copley tells Merrick that “this is about science, not profits”, I laughed out loud, and my scalding hot tea poured out through my nose when he added “or sadism”. What kind of person arranges to violently capture four people who really don’t wish to be caught, puts them in chains, and brings them to a pharma company believing it’s neither for “profits” nor “sadism”?

Even more broadly, when has science ever not been for sadism or profits? Vast swathes of modern science as we know it – since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the entry into consciousness in those moments of the science-military nexus, exemplified by the apoliticism of Enrico Fermi that, in the final analysis, had deeply political ramifications – have been for profits and power, if not directly sadism.

Modern medicine is not at all free of pain either. Even within the limited view of physical violence, drug trial protocols require a set of preclinical trials to be conducted in ‘animal models’, and many researchers who work with animals also grapple with mental health issues, for example in the form of compassion fatigue. Only in this decade or so have we begun to grow organs in the lab or virtual environments in computers to simulate the actions of different drugs, and even these solutions are eons away from entering regular practice. And then there’s the brutal history of medical and psychological experimentation that, at various points in time, overlapped disturbingly neatly with the day’s most significant human rights abuses.

If we considered violence of other forms as well – including but not limited to rationalists who wield ‘science’ to delegitimise non-scientific ways to organise and make sense of the world and to terrorise the followers of other traditions; to the West, which, “rather than improve conditions of work where necessary, or make a provision for proper career structures where they are lacking so as to attract local graduates, … has found it simpler and less expensive to import foreign doctors to work under conditions which locally trained doctors would not accept” (source); to even imperialist trade agreements that suppress local enterprise in favour of foreign imports – neither medicine nor the institutions responsible for its development are at all free of violence.

This said, I’m not railing against Copley here as much as his writers, Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernández. Even considered in toto, The Old Guard affords Copley the resolution of his moral crisis by facilitating the rescue of the ‘caged’ immortals – but in so doing legitimises the separation of scientific practice from cruelty and abuse. But as history has revealed on multiple occasions, science as so many of us would like it to be is so frequently not what it actually is. As a human enterprise, it’s dirty, fraught and contested. Most of all – likely to the chagrin of those who still believe there can be a functional line between science and politics that wouldn’t be to science’s detriment – it is negotiated. And the more we persist in our efforts to install the scientific enterprise on a pedestal, as being even if only in idea to be untainted by social and cultural considerations, the more we diminish its influence on society, the more we overlook its use unto oppressive ends and thus the more we empower those who do so.

Instead, what Copley should really have done after being contacted is deduce preemptively that Merrick is cruel and therefore Merrick’s practice of science is bound to be cruel, sign the contract (to keep the deal from going to someone else) and then stealthily undermine Merrick’s plans while also protecting the immortals. Then, once Merrick has been killed off (in order to make it a good action film), the immortals volunteer to have their genomes sequenced and the corresponding results uploaded onto a preprint server, and then recall all their time on this good Earth to write anecdotally well-supplied books about the real history of science.