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Three Levels of Seeing
by Hamsini Shivakumar| New Delhi, India
Tuesday, 25 March 2014
tags: asia, categories, consumer culture, culture, fuzzy sets, making sense, semiotics, socioeconomics
‘TRINARY VISION’ & EVERYDAY BUSINESS ETHICS AMONG INDIAN RETAILERS
I recently had occasion to interact closely with a number of wholesalers and retailers in textiles, a very old and established trade with business relationships going back three generations between textile mills and retailers. I then used a semiotic perspective to analyse some of the discussions that had taken place with them on the phenomenon of knowingly selling fakes from their stores to their customers.
I started by looking into the context of everyday business operations in India. While there are laws, rules and regulations, actual business practice and everyday business ethics are more governed by social regulation. By social regulation, I refer to the voice of social and community authority, viz, elders and the collective consensus on an issue as to its ethical rightness or virtue. Social regulation works through evoking three kinds of fears – divine retribution when the Gods are displeased, offending and hurting elders and thus inviting their wrath/ punishment and finally, offending the community, resulting in expulsion and exile.
Working every day within the context of social regulation, every businessman sees three levels of behaviors and practices in any given moment as being available to him. These may alternatively be seen as three paths on which he can walk. At the top one path is the path of virtue – virtue is also strongly linked to ideas of purity of intent/motive and non-self interested action taken vis-à-vis the other party involved in the deal. While this is the zone typically assigned to saints and mystics, even business people are capable of acting at this level. Those who do so command a huge level of spiritual power and moral authority over their fellow business-people. For the sake of alliterative labeling, we can call this the zone or path of purity.
At the next level or second path is the zone/path of pragmatism and permission. This route evolves through a collective consensus among the members of the local community and it refers to the extent of permissible deviation from the path of virtue. In the case of fakes, it could be the extent of stock that retailers would carry of fabrics with a fake ‘Made in Italy’ label that are actually manufactured in China or elsewhere. When they sell this stock, they knowingly mislead the customer that they are selling them fabric that they present as being genuinely made in Italy, when it is not. Or it could be to do with the extent of dilution of a quality standard in manufacture. As long as they stay within the ‘permissible’ range as understood through collective consensus, they have safety in numbers and they know their fellow business people will not lose respect for them. Also, they are not compromising their longer term agenda or reputation as good people to do business with – either among customers or among the business community.
At the bottom the third path is the zone of villainy. Acting from this zone or walking on this path will surely invite curses (gaalis in colloquial Hindi) and calumny from fellow business people. Actions in this zone would include resorting to out and out cheating, violence, threats, treachery, blackmail, reneging on agreements (not necessarily the contract in its legal details) as well as reneging on financial dues and settlements. When a business man acts from this zone, he has either compromised his ethics beyond repair or is risking doing so.
Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik in his book, “Business Sutra – a Very Indian Approach to Management” also makes reference to this simultaneous seeing of three levels of action choices. He describes the three levels as Bhagawan, Deva and Asura. Asura (which loosely translates as a demon) signifies actions that arise from the zone of villainy. Deva (which loosely translates as a B-level God) indicates actions arise from the zone of awareness. Bhagawan (which loosely translates as a truly Divine being) signifies actions that arise from the zone of a higher spiritual being. Bhagawan actions are those that are worthy of emulation and worship.
The Indian Eye often sees presence and absence in objects, entities and phenomena not just in terms of dualities or binaries but as ‘trinaries’. They could be three columns (parallel vertical paths to walk on) or three levels (parallel horizontal paths to climb up from level to level). The eye spots the co-existence of A, B and C as three distinct possibilities in the same realm. So, in the realm of ethics, there is the co-existence of God-like, Human and Demonic behaviors. In other cases, the hybrid of A & B is seen as a distinct path in itself. For example people may be solo Christians, solo Hindus and hybrids – also worship in Churches while following a specific Hindu God or a Sufi Saint. They can be strict vegetarians, strict non-vegetarians and hybrids – vegetarians at home while being meat-eating outside the home. There are combinations that are valued as a valid third element e.g. sweet-sour, bitter-sweet. There is a valid space for ambiguity, the grey zone, the ‘third-way’, the ‘nuances and shades’. The eye sees all three as valid vs. seeing the third as a negotiated compromise or a dialectic synthesis of hard oppositions, viz operating from a binary vision?
Does this simultaneous ‘trinary’ vision call for the development of additional tools of semiotic analysis specifically applicable to some forms of categorization in Indian culture? Looking beyond Indian culture to global culture, the growth of the internet, social media, gaming and digital interfaces are blurring the lines between real and virtual and creating a third zone that exists simultaneously. The development of robotics and artificial intelligence is doing something similar to the human and machine binary. Has the time then come for a new semiotics of the ‘trinary’?
© Hamsini Shivakumar 2014