When Ad Hominem & Hypocrisy Met For Coffee

Ad hominem was itching. For a round of verbal warfare.

Anticipating a riveting joust, Ad hominem roamed around, armed with the choicest weaponry from the word arsenal. Knowing his temperament, wary folks chose wisely to distance themselves from his homilies.

But not Hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy was often found advising others to avoid crossing paths with Ad hominem. But staying true to his name, he did the opposite. With a deliberate effort, Hypocrisy loomed large in Ad hominem’s line of sight, and proposed a conversation over a cup of coffee.

Ad hominem launched into a violent takedown. He railed against the current state of the world, and the nature of its inhabitants. He squarely blamed humans of being cultists of Hypocrisy.

They waxed eloquent about touchy issues with thoughts that generally reflected those of the next in the cult. The next, in turn, reflected the thoughts of their nearest neighbour, and so on. Neatly, as if a clustering algorithm had aggregated the like-minded. Each professed to be unique and yet were clustered together. Many appeared in one way under the public eye, while mystically shedding their skin in the private confines of their dwellings. Liberation could spread its wings the fullest within the stifling confines of concrete.

Hypocrisy acknowledged with a lordly sneer.

Ad hominem continued. Even nation states were fans of Hypocrisy. They preferred to dress it in the fine linen of realpolitik. They lied, and were lied back to in return. They revelled in protocol infused roundtable diplomacy, bilateral, trilateral, multilateral diplomacy, multitude of summits in exotic locations, and yet, seemed to get nothing done. Those in power vehemently condemned their counterparts of the things they indulged in themselves. Hypocrisy was alive and well amidst them.

Hypocrisy jumped at this, rudely interrupting Ad hominem’s monologue.

He countered that nation states didn’t seem to get anything done since they frequently blamed others of Ad hominem’s namesake problem – ad hominem fallacy. Rather than focus on the issue at hand, concerned parties got down to attacking the narrator. This potent weapon of taking down the protagonist shifted the problem of having to bring down their potent arguments. Those in power vehemently condemned their counterparts of the things they indulged in themselves. It was ludicrous to give credence to their arguments. Hypocrisy said this proved they were disciples of Ad hominem.

Hypocrisy also took the opportunity to counter Ad hominem’s charge of the issue cultists. He pointed to their opponents. They always seemed to bring to question the character of the inciter as a time-tested means of destroying their argument. This was classical ad hominem fallacy behaviour. In a throw up between Ad hominem and Hypocrisy, the former won hands down.

Bystanders marvelled at how the two tried hard to help the other win honours.

Things turned ugly soon after.

Ad hominem said Hypocrisy proved true to his character, in uttering such absurdities. Ad hominem blamed Hypocrisy of hypocrisy.

Not one to take things quietly, Hypocrisy parried and retorted Ad hominem of falling prey to his basic nature. Hypocrisy blamed Ad hominem of ad hominem fallacy in his attempt at discrediting Hypocrisy.

Bystanders marvelled at how the two tried hard to help the other win dishonour.

How things had changed so quickly.

Some saw a reflection of both in each other.

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“It’s Psychology, Stupid!”

Psychology has a queer property. It assumes easy malleability in times of tragedy. Fear is probably among the easiest emotions to trigger in human beings. A tragedy serves as a stimulus, setting off ripple reactions in various directions. A typical pattern follows. The initial outbreak is generally met with expert voices and government officials confident of averting a major crisis. Then as the monster begins devouring prey in increasing numbers, stoic denial gives way to frenzied disaster management. The public, meanwhile, find their own ways of combating the tragedy…

The following instances draw attention to the primary and secondary effects of a tragedy/crisis. The nomenclature is used loosely, as the choice of ‘primary’, ‘secondary’ is largely a matter of definition. Additionally, the post puts the spotlight on price action in certain goods in the after-math of a crisis. These events serve to highlight the philosophical-sounding rationality-irrationality paradigm. What is rationality?

Japan, 2011

Even as media glare and the globe’s attention is focused on the Fukushima site nuclear radiation problem, a quiet frenzy is underway in an unlikely outlet – Iodine pills.

Primary effect: Before the tragedy, the world at large had hardly heard of these two words. But Fukushima has served as a catalyst for a marvellous rally in the price of iodine pills. A 10-tablet pack that hitherto cost $10 now is bid up to $550 (and counting); a 55-fold gain in a matter of days for a pill whose utility nobody is sure about. Interestingly, demand for these pills has emerged in geographies not even remotely close to Japan.

Secondary effects are often more interesting. The limited supply of iodine pills has triggered a scramble for iodine solution that is used to treat cuts. Reports purportedly circulated in China, Hong Kong and Philippines, exhorting people to paint their neck and private parts with iodine solution. Apparently, this helps guard reproductive essentials from the penetrating gaze of nuclear radiation. Amen.

There’s a hierarchy of uncertainties at play. No one is sure if iodine is the life-saving elixir. No one is sure about death caused by the radiation. But somehow the former seems less uncertain than the latter. Would you rather pay $500 to give yourself an apparent chance of survival or do nothing and wait for who-knows-what?

Tragedy numbs the brain and as survival instincts take over, people clamour for the first exit that has some chance of keeping them alive. Never mind the rationality. Perhaps it is irrational to do nothing under the circumstances.

Swine Flu, 2009

As the pandemic spread its tentacles to other parts of the globe, tragedy stoked fear, again.

Primary effect: Tamiflu became the buzzword. The world focused on it, as the elixir that would annihilate the wretched swine flu virus. When procurement became difficult, public attention turned to something ubiquitous – the good old face mask.

Face mask sales spiked and prices followed as demand far outstripped supply. Malaysia saw a 10-fold rise and many other geographies saw prices spike 4-to-8-fold. This, despite expert voices pontificating about the uselessness of masks in keeping swine flu at bay. Experts, who?

Secondary effect: I recollect a news-piece from Russia that fed off the face mask mania. The region of Khabarovsk apparently imposed a ‘mask regime’. Anyone not wearing a mask was liable to a fine. The cost of a mask (post-levitation) was less than $1. The fine, in contrast, was ~$20! Additionally, your lax supervisor had to shell out over $100 for not monitoring you effectively. 50% of the local companies made decent collections as a result of the above scheme. Swine flu had meandered through various linkages and had helped companies conjure up novel ways of adding some top-line, the temporary nature notwithstanding. Someone, somewhere always emerges richer from a crisis.

Face masks gave people a sense of security. I confess to foolhardily refusing to wear a mask through the scare. My reasoning was, if everyone else was wearing it, I had little to fear by way of man-to-man transmission, although it still left me exposed to virulent airwaves. My bravado was probably misplaced but here I am, alive and writing…

SARS, 2003

N95 became the in-thing. Especially, once WHO put its heavy stamp of authority on the mask’s usage. Prices rose 5-fold and smuggling was rampant…

Ok, I’ll give in to temptation. I’ll round out with one example from the financial world.

Japan, 2011, triggered a rush-to-safety in the investments world. Equities and risky assets took a knock as market participants piled in to perceived risk-free havens. The Japanese Yen was a prime beneficiary. Concurrently, equity volatility (a measure of investor fear) spiked.

Fear is an interesting emotion. Human psychology manifests in fascinating ways in both the social and financial spheres. In each of the above episode, a catalyst exacerbated the effects of a stimulus, playing on the emotion of fear. This, almost always, triggers bubbly price rises in certain goods that appear to defy reason. Human being’s behaviour seems out-of-whack, but is it really so?

It’s all in the mind.