Knee Jerk Binariness and the Slice of Bread

Rana Bose

When a doctor with a rubber mallet hammers your knee and it hits the right spot, your knee jerks out. The patellar tendon. But, surprise! The doctor is not testing your local electrical connectedness around the knee cap. He/She is testing the compression on your spinal column. The doctor is looking for connectedness in a complex weave of nerves, muscles, tendons, discs and bones. We think our knees are doing a good job, when it flies out.  We are happy with obvious responses and binary choices. Hit and kick. The doctor is looking for something else.

Take for example, on how we must normalize after Covid-19.  “In the case of the coronavirus, whose RNA consists of about 30,000 genetic bases or letters, it mutates about twice a month. These minor mutations tend not to change the potency of the virus. But they provide clues for genetic detectives to chart how they shift subtly over time, allowing them to create sprawling “family” trees, or phylogenies, that show how the coronavirus has spread from one part of the world or country to the next.” See here, how computational biologists have been tweeting about the enormous variations in the types of mutations. .

But we want to normalize! And we want to do it now! Now or never! We want herd immunity, now. The problem sticky suction cup of the covid-19 monster, which latches on to our receptors and effectively into our lungs, has several score variations. And now folks are saying that other variants had been in circulation a month before in Europe, without any Wuhan connection. So, in essence there is no unique Covid-19 monster we must deal with. There are several score of them. And it isn’t another influenza virus!  When it comes to opinions and verdicts, we react nearly spontaneously. Tout de suite. We do not like double takes. No prevarication. We want replies that are simple and straightforward. No ifs, no buts. No looping arguments, no conditional statements. We must have stock responses.

When we see that the government is not forthcoming, and we are increasingly confined and we want our questions answered now, we come to the footsteps of City Hall or the State Legislature, in the country adjoining us, that is. Guns loaded, to make sure we are heard. If we do not get it right away, it is another example of a pervasive state, or a group of politicos, dilly-dallying with our already frazzled nerves, psychically manipulating us towards confusion and effectively ensuring that our rights are surrendered. Live free or die!

When we are down and out and confused by the harvesting of data points everyday, even the solutions and answers bother us. The coup de grâce, the blow to the head of the enemy, must still come from our vision of the world, even when we are lying down or lazy, mostly uninformed, unorganized, unequipped and uninvolved in so many ways.  Thus, right-wingers want to get out of quarantine or self isolation, stop wearing masks and see the phased-in process as a communist conspiracy. Left leaning folks, on the other hand, who have not been keeping themselves informed enough, (and do not seem to have guns!) about issues other than their immediate concerns or career directions, also jump into the fray with absolutist pronouncements. Just stay at home and shut up!

We tend to address all these urgent issues, with our obvious leanings!  Meaning our emotional affiliations or as some would say our ideological commitments. Elections of course are the prime theatre space where and when a large number of us wake up and write petitions, join campaigns and dismiss all others.  And this has been the historical experience of most of us. We have very few other experiences where a successful non-electoral approach has brought about long-standing fundamental social change. We wake up during this time by taking up electoral milestones as pivot points, --the end of the pand-emic-onium-- (made up word, of course) is sought by all—but by some with a certain energetic nervousness for normalization.  The need for straightforward and clear cut two-bit binary options, the need to take positions promptly in the face of a crisis, the necessity for ensuring that our long-held allegiances are maintained demonstratably, the need to throw the switch immediately, when required---- are all an extension of our emotional and ideological affiliation and unpreparedness. Left wingers are also desperate for normalization, at least in their emotional refernces.

We do not always want to know the implications of our choices-- ten years down the road. We want to know ---what is to be done imminently. We prefer binariness over quantum complexities.  We like orderly sane choices on a single plane, instead of coming to grips with the three-dimensional madness-- a swarm in a multi-dimensional space. And, implicitly, we are also quite amenable to being ordered around, temporarily—but only by a command hierarchy that displays an intimidating liberal optique—it helps the shepherding process--the buy-out of ideas, until we repeat the same mantra to all. When it comes to elections, we insist that it be conveyed simply and binarily.  Yes or no, stay at home or run around outside, black or white, left or right, Trump or Biden, live free or die.

It does not really matter if subjectively we have a preference or a comfort factor associated with either a pasty, dribbling, confused, expired dollop of fungus-ed hummus as against a square-lipped, pouty, spit-showering, fungus-laden orange marmalade, on our piece of sliced bread. The issue is that what fits our model of taste, opinion and political nervousness is confined to the comfort of biting a slice of bread, the piece of objective reality, that we have grown accustomed to. Or, it could be a pita bread or naan bread or roti. It is that slice of wheat product that is our problem. Not the hummus, not the marmalade. It is the slice of bread that we have normalized on, that is of poor quality, no nutritious value, full of unwanted chemicals, chewy, and needs to be tossed out.  And it involves going back to the fields.

In the situation with Covid-19, as well and with a database that did not come made-to-order (we are talking about the variants in an upper respiratory tract where zillions of replicating virus cells seek out receptors to latch on to), the idea that binary choices and decisions are comprehensive and adequate, is simply reckless. Finding the zero point of each variable is quite difficult and with several variables it becomes more difficult. Uncertainty and probability and other entropic effects are quite prevalent in cognitive processes. They undergo entanglement and therefore the process of arriving at a clear-cut conclusion, involving such an immense database, requires combining the large variations in objective finding with subjective leanings (our political affiliations) of the decision maker. Decision making is the sum of an objective utility factor and a subjective attraction factor. Negentropy is nice. But, with viruses and political systems, as well, it is simplistic to look for binary response systems and the end to chaos.  Change the bread I’d say.

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May 17, 2020

Rana Bose

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