The Pride of piecemeal engineering : An open letter to the wcc

Dear Friends at the WCC

Seared by the news this morning, and knowing well that all of you are as burned as I am by it, I let my mind wander to graze and find its own source of comfort. It wandered, to my surprise, to a completely unexpected place: to some writings of a well-known philosopher of science, Karl Popper. More specifically, to Karl Popper’s vision of social intervention, which he called ‘piecemeal engineering’. Put very simply, ‘piecemeal engineering’ refers to taking small, even modest, cautious, self-critical steps towards some desired social goal of fighting a ‘concrete social evil’.

This method recognizes openly that our social interventions may have unintended consequences. It says that we have to be prepared to proceed through trial and error and further improvisation so that they may be minimized and dealt with when they appear. In other words, we have to be open to the idea that the effects of human interventions are not entirely predictable and that the work of creating social change, therefore, is not only a long haul but also ridden with setbacks that may be completely unexpected. Most important for us, if the experience of fighting for social change is tortuous and slow, that is not because we are weak or a failure, but because unintended consequences are built into the very nature of social change.

Popper contrasts this to what he calls ‘Utopian social engineering’ which refers to large-scale attempts to tear down and rebuild social institutions according to some blueprint of ideal society that we may choose. The Utopian approach (according to Popper) is like fixing the destination beforehand, recognizing it as final and fixed for all times and places, and deciding and taking the shortest, easiest route to it. My own reading of the piecemeal approach views it as a journey which does have a more or less clear destination, but is open to the prospect that it may change. Also the route chosen may not be the quickest, but perhaps the one that minimizes costs of all kind — maybe the least violent. Naturally, this kind of journey is not only slow, it may actually be a necessarily unending one — but never pointless. In my youth, the Utopians used to tell us that ‘concrete’ social evils like gender violence and caste discrimination will be resolved when the Utopia of social justice is finally established, but this sounded less and less convincing.

Some of us may be ‘utopians’ — we would really like to tear down the structures of injustice and build better ones — but in practice, almost all of us are ‘piecemeal engineers’ who are more concerned about fighting persistently the worst ‘concrete’ evils and injustices in society . With of course a faith in liberal democracy even as we see it being violated even by the very institutions expected to safeguard it. We were however not entirely lacking in Utopian vision: only that it is tempered with compassion, a sense of maithri, and non-violence. It is important that we remind ourselves in moments of such frustration that we are political, in this special way.

Why am I saying this? I think this stream of thinking was triggered by the reference to the ‘avenging angel’ by the court with regard to the public prosecutor seeking justice for a wronged citizen. Even though it was directed at a specific person in a specific capacity, I felt it was hurled at all those who sought justice for the wronged. Are those who fight concrete evils through courts — especially as the advocates of the wronged — ‘avenging angels’?

Revenge is definitely neither dignity nor justice, even though that is what everything from popular demagoguery to Netflix shows on honor tell us. As citizens we approach court in the first place because we seek justice and precisely because we do not revel in vengeance and rely on extra-judicial powers (‘angels’). The description ‘avenging angel’ actually pushes all those who stand with the wronged out of the very domain of politics itself. Through it we are characterized as slaves of violent passion seeking revenge. Our work as movers of social change, of whatever kind, utopian or piecemeal is denied implicitly.

In my view, we should simply reject this characterization and instead, assess the empirical, visible, concrete effects that our interventions have produced. Before WCC, none of the organizations in the film industry recognized gender even minimally as a problem to be dealt with. Now, however namesake it may be, they have set up some sort of mechanism internally. This of course does not solve the problem but is definitely an acknowledgement of the problem. Before WCC, women with aspirations to directorial careers were simply ignored. Now, even if to spite the WCC perhaps, some feelers are being sent to prospective women directors and some even welcomed and de-fanged by the powerful. Yes, it may appear to us that this is an effort by the wrongdoers to break our ranks and a sign of internal weakness, but it is undeniable that the women directors are being considered somewhat better, in however perverse a way. Before WCC, the casting couch was a matter for the gossip magazines at best. Now it is a matter of public discussion and the shame associated with it is much less. Before WCC, women workers in cinema subservient to the powerful were total non-agents. Now, ironically enough, their agency within these circles seems to have improved because of the WCC’s social interventionist work.

History is a bitch. It may bring justice but rarely in ways that fully satisfy those who seek to make history.

Secondly, I do think we should ignore such slurs, intentional or otherwise, from powerful institutions which seem to be actively engaged in undermining their own dignity. In fact, some of the most glaring examples of what might look like ‘vengeance’ in contemporary India are to be found precisely emanating from these very institutions, directed against critics ranging from high-profile lawyers to comedians.

While we cannot stop them from this self-degeneration, the best we can do is to recognize ourselves as piecemeal social engineers whose utopianism is tempered by compassion. And realize that we are actually far more evolved as human beings that either the wrongdoers or the institutions that turn a blind eye to them. Only that self-realization will give us the strength to stand with the wronged.

In the long view of history, it is our standing with the wronged which will make all the difference, not the pettiness of paid officials of the state.

Much warmth and in solidarity,

J Devika.

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