The Cacophony of a Caged Bird—Elon Musk & The Twitter Saga

On April 25th, Elon Musk entered a $44 billion deal to buy social media platform Twitter. The latter, in keeping with its standards, exploded into a chaotic conversation as everyone on it with any stake in the matter rushed to get their opinion into the limelight. Musk had just been accused of sexual misconduct a mere week ago, and his critics were chomping at the bit to tear him apart. Finally, on 6th July, Musk terminated the deal with Twitter over concerns about the number of bot and spam accounts on the platform. While the deal had a clause to allow this considering surprising new information that went against Musk’s interests, this is scarcely reason to call quits on the deal. Let’s take a deeper dive into the ethically murky world of Twitter and its enigmatic almost-owner.

Part I: The Tumultuous World of Twitter

Revenue and Conflict of Interests

Twitter started out with no clear revenue stream in mind. the CEO, Jack Dorsey, had proposed Twitter as a free SMS service with some elements of social networking. Facebook, the fastest-rising social networking site then, turned a profit in 2009, causing Twitter to react by creating “Promoted Tweets,” which allowed these tweets to be shown higher up on a user’s feed when the keyword, or hashtag, was searched. Twitter differed from other contemporary social networks by using visible tags to create trends, an idea Instagram would later adopt. Marking a tweet with a hashtag allowed it to be linked to other similarly tagged tweets, which would then contribute to creating a larger trend. This trend would be shown to a larger group of people. Later in 2009, Twitter introduced “Promoted Accounts” and “Promoted Trends,” with both functioning similarly, allowing accounts to be suggested to more people, and the content they posted to be shown in more trends. Twitter would later add advertising to the mix, evolving the promoted content model. Now Twitter has three types of paid ways to boost content interactions artificially:

  • Promoted Ads, which are advertising tweets shown to a wider audience. These tweets make the audience feel like the advertiser is engaging in natural conversation, thus giving it a more organic feel. Several otherwise faceless corporations use this to humanise themselves to the public. Wendy’s, KFC, and Burger King are good examples of this.
  • Follower Ads, which recommend the advertiser’s account to more people. This, combined with the blue “Verified Badge,” allows promoted accounts to seem legitimate and trustworthy, allowing them to garner a larger following.
  • Trend Takeovers. Trend Takeovers present a very interesting case. Twitter describes it as follows.

Trend Takeover puts your ad alongside what’s trending […] Don’t just be a part of what’s happening, be what’s happening with Trend Takeovers. […] Each Trend Takeover includes three key components: the #Hashtag, Trend description, and Companion Tweets. Companion Tweets will appear in people’s timelines, help encourage interaction, and maximize scale and impact.

Twitter has no restrictions on the type of companies that can advertise if they aren’t promoting directly harmful products. This allows any company, political or religious group, social influencer, or people with vested interests to veritably create trending topics shown to millions of people. If done right, this can boost a potentially divisive agenda into the public domain, where the starting point of “Companion Tweets” can foster organic expansion as more people get involved.

The other revenue source Twitter has is user data licensing. This accounts for 11% of their revenue for FY 2021. Further details can be seen here in Twitter’s Form 10-K filing with the US SEC. As per Form 10-K, Twitter has a vested interest in maintaining and growing its user base’s attention, which it fights for with other social media and advertising agencies. This means Twitter profits off attention-grabbing, outrage-inducing content, and it actively encourages the promotion of such topics.

Twitter has only been profitable twice in the last 11 financial years. Both the profitable years coincided with the build-up to the 2020 US elections, when political tensions were fraught, though 2020 itself saw them incur the biggest loss in the time period. The most followed Twitter account is Barack Obama, not an entertainer or an athlete, like other social media. While Twitter does not release Trending data transparently, it is no secret that Twitter is the leading platform for political discourse. Twitter is most active when there is political unrest. All these factors combine to show that Twitter and its sponsors have a vested interest in keeping the public angry and divided, for the sponsors to maintain relevancy, and for Twitter to profit.

A Community Based on Algorithmic Intervention

In its early days, Twitter served as a critical tool in disseminating information at rapid rates. In 2009, the Iranian presidential elections were a source of much controversy as winner Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s law enforcement violently clashed with the opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi’s supporters. This resulted in deaths amongst the demonstrators. Ahmedinejad quickly imposed a media curfew on journalists and any outgoing information. In response, protestors took to Twitter to coordinate events and release news of the crackdown to the world.

As people grew to see the importance of a platform allowing massive reach and creating “communities,” Twitter became a symbol for free speech and close-community interactions between larger-than-life figures and their followers. In 2016, right around the equally divisive US Presidential Election that had seen Twitter get a large increase in pointless playground squabbles over political sides, Twitter changed the algorithm of its media feeds. Rather than having tweets displayed in chronological order, a proprietary algorithm that operates behind closed walls would decide what content the user would consume. This saw criticism from people, as they correctly predicted that it would lead to large bubbles of similarly opinionated people who would only ever interact with each other, thus further cementing their biases and behaviours. This is called “echo-chambering,” and it is a huge problem with community-based social media such as Reddit, 4chan, and Twitter, which algorithmically define the content you are to be shown or openly encourage the use of closed communities. 4chan especially has been host to numerous controversies.

Twitter is largely used by Americans,  Japanese, and Indians between the ages of 25-34, as per Statista. This demographic is susceptible to large-scale manipulation via social media feeds creating echo chambers.

Twitter users by country, in millions. [Credit: Statista.com]

As seen with the Cambridge Analytica scandal user data manipulation can lead to massive real-world consequences, and people are very easily swayed by the content they see repeatedly. Twitter’s sense of community and closeness to public figures, the “Verified Badge’s” sense of trustworthiness, the egregious desire to virtue-signal to establish self-worth and gain recognition, and the general reduction of attention-spans and memory lead to an easily malleable demographic with disposable income and political opinions that can be distributed to massive audiences via the Retweet feature.

This research paper by Cheok, Edwards, and Muniru (2017), discusses the biological and social impact of a world submerged in fast media, and the potential use for this new psyche. The cancel culture aspect of Twitter is far too complex for the scope of this article, though it is what Twitter is most infamous for. Cancel culture witch hunts can be severely detrimental for the subject, and while in some cases it has proven to be a useful tool in upending malicious status quos, it fails to have much of a continued impact on topics that matter and often has far-overblown consequences based on biased or false narratives. Twitter is also criticized for the unfair de-platforming of public figures.

The most infamous was the removal of Donald Trump and accusations of the community guidelines teams removing accounts that went against their narrative, even though recent research claims that Twitter favours this side in tweets promoted. The amplification of liberal and conservative voices on US Twitter is still under debate. The “Twitter Experience” can often be unpleasant, with hate-filled echo chambers, witch-hunts, corporate posturing, and a deep political divide in everything.  Twitter has the potential to be much more positively impactful but has devolved into petty squabbling with no direction, leading to Twitter profiting more. In all its ethos, Twitter, Inc. is motivated by its bottom line rather than a desire for social change.

Part 2: The Enigmatic Elon Musk

Musk is no less of a divisive figure. Product of a controversial but rich family, Musk became best known for taking PayPal to a large market, though the product was not his own. Over the course of the coming decades, Musk would build an empire that would be at the cutting edge of technology. Over his 20-year span in the industry, Musk has made his mark as a serial entrepreneur with a taste for success. His companies Tesla and SpaceX have been leading innovators in their fields.

Musk’s OpenAI project, best known now for its DALL-E-2 AI art and Neuralink for its neurotechnological creations actively push the boundary of tech innovation. Musk’s success, though, is just as enigmatic as his public persona. While credited as a co-founder of Tesla, he only acquired that role as the outcome of a legal battle. SpaceX was given a 2006 contract by then NASA Administrator Mike Griffin despite not having a single successful launch. Fortune and connections have certainly favoured the “TechnoKing of Tesla,” which is now his legal position in the company. Whether Musk’s eccentricities hide genius or a scheming fraud has been in much debate on most social forums, especially Twitter.

Musk’s Twitter feed on an average. [Credit: Twitter.com/ElonMusk]

Musk’s connection with Twitter is deep. Musk became a household name sharing memes on Twitter and engaging with his “fans.” Musk also is a master at marketing via social media. His failed 2019 CyberTruck reveal was lampooned widely as an attack on his capabilities Yet, 2020 was the first time Tesla turned a full-year profit. Twitter played a big hand in this as well. Much of Musk’s public success came from him portraying himself as one of the masses rather than a snobbish, detached billionaire.

Musk appeared on Joe Rogan’s podcast smoking marijuana, and hosted YouTube celebrity PewDiePie’s weekly meme review in 2019. Musk sold 10% of his Tesla stock in 2021 ($16.4b), based on a tweet asking the public if he should do that to appeal to growing anti-capitalistic sentiments, while also exercising his expiring option to sell the stock. This was clearly an attempt to kinder some backing for himself in an increasingly fraught social system, while also benefitting from the very system these people were protesting. Analyzing Musk’s behaviour in the public domain makes the saga of the Twitter buyout much more complex from a political and social standpoint.

The Twitter Takeover

As seen before, Twitter is only sporadically profitable, but from a societal perspective, it holds much value. Twitter’s free speech agenda had come under fire recently, and Musk, calling himself a “free-speech absolutist,” wanted to enforce his ideals. Major publications have criticized Elon for being callous and egotistical in his operations, claiming that he doesn’t have a business plan for the Twitter deal. Musk’s takeover bid came hot on the heels of a sexual misconduct allegation by a former employee who was supposedly paid off. While Musk claims that he hadn’t done anything like that, and this was an attempt to slander him, the bid was the perfect storm to follow.

Leftist personalities on Twitter took his takeover as a sign of the end of their “free speech,” while conservative reactions were generally more favourable after Musk hinted at having Trump re-instated. While the politics of the situation caused the focus to shift away from Musk’s problematic personality and actions, Musk’s proposed rule changes for Twitter made him a catalytic facet of the age-old conversation on the limits and usefulness of free speech, especially in light of his refusal to censor Russian telecommunications on his Starlink satellite donated to Ukraine. Bot/spam accounts are a huge issue on any social media. These accounts can be very harmful in amplifying the spread of false narratives and biases, as much as clogging or diluting real, impactful ones.

Musk’s proposed changes of authenticating all users, loosening content moderation, which was previously criticized for being massively left-leaning, and making the algorithm open-source are all generally accepted to be good changes and in the spirit of democratic internet. According to the 10-K filing, Twitter does indeed consider bot accounts to be a financial threat, and their not choosing to disclose this information to Musk is vindicative. Musk made this tweet, claiming Twitter’s lawsuit filed on July 12th would benefit him, does a bad job at explaining his motivations, which would remain a mystery until the court hearing sheds some light on the matter.

Twitter’s share price since the takeover announcement [Credit: Google.com]

Overall, the impact Musk could’ve had on Twitter, and the platform’s importance in contemporary socio-politics was certainly significant. Whether it would have been a net positive has been discussed at length by the denizens of the platform itself, raising the very important question—How much power should one person wield?

Featured Image Credits: Fortune

Conscious Consumerism—An Illusion of Change or a Green Reality?

The year is 2022, and the world is on fire—both literally and figuratively. Pollution and global carbon emissions by individuals and corporations have increased manifold in the past decade. From floating plastic ‘islands’ in the Pacific to microplastics in our food and water, the effects of our carbon and plastic footprints are becoming more and more evident. These in turn, cascade into both long-term health effects on people and the environment and have devastating short-term consequences—rapid climate change. From forest fires and unprecedented changes in weather patterns to unforeseen fuel prices and inflation, the paradigm of this century seems to be one of a transitive dystopia. The need for sustainable development has never been greater.

Sustainable development, in simple terms, is a development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Clearly, this is easier said than done. Such an endeavour entails the cooperation of both individuals and organizations; in other words, society as a whole must come together to accomplish such a task.

[Graffiti artwork on Regent Street, London depicting a shopper with many shopping bags and an ironic “I love Earth” slogan. Credits: Colin O’Brien onepointzero.com]

One way to do this is through “conscious consumerism”, a concept that has seen growing momentum lately, with a somewhat controversial term coined rather recently, but has been in practice earlier than one might think. During the 1800s, black abolitionists started the free-produce movement that encouraged people to buy free-made goods—that is, products not made with slave labour. They even organized “free produce” stores, making it easier for fellow consumers to shop for the alternative. It was one of the first documented acts of solidarity and a rejection of the unjust status quo. By spending their money elsewhere, these activists hoped to do their part in reducing the power of the structures propped up by slave labour. These early consumer activists understood consumer power as a moral and ethical force that had the potential to change the world for the better.

The conscious consumerism we see in practice today is quite congruent to this philosophy, with more of an emphasis on preserving nature. In short, it is a way of sustainable shopping where each individual consumer makes conscious decisions regarding their purchases, in such a way that there are minimal adverse effects on people and the environment. This includes shopping for organically grown produce, supporting local businesses, and overall buying consumer products that do not leave a permanent negative environmental or ethical footprint.

One of the core principles of conscious consumerism is placing the onus on the consumer. It describes a system where the power to limit carbon emissions and help prevent climate change lies with us, the buyers, and not the sellers or corporations. This not only includes purchasing organic produce or recycled products but also making smart and ‘green’ decisions in how we shop and consume. Reusing old products, recycling and segregating waste, and reducing the amount of trash we produce are all part of this philosophy. The hard part about this, of course, is that it requires impeccable cooperation among people from every stratum of society to have any appreciable positive change. If you think about it, if a few hundred or even a thousand determined individuals were to make conscious decisions every time they went shopping, their efforts would still be drowned by the millions of consumers who would choose convenience over responsibility.

A significant factor here is the role of producers, that is corporations and enterprises which are trying to balance their monetary gains against socially acceptable production choices. The public demand for transparency on the products they purchase has sharply increased in the last few decades. Big conglomerates like Nestle and Volkswagen have been embroiled in controversies after being discovered to be fraudulent with their sincerity and integrity regarding environmental concerns. And this too is a trend that has seen an increase in recent times, where a company tries to fool consumers into believing they are eco-friendly when in reality they aren’t. This deceitful practice, termed ‘Greenwashing’ can be as subtle as misleading packaging choices all the way to petroleum companies posing themselves as eco-champions. Either way, greenwashing is a harmful and deceptive way of advertising, and is yet another hurdle for conscious consumers to overcome.

[Credits: The New York Times]

There is also a matter of privilege involved here. The sustainability movement is advertised as something that everyone at every economic level can and should practice. But digging deeper, one can quickly figure out that this “movement” is mainly isolated among the upper classes of society. The reason for this wealth disparity is simple—you need a fair amount of disposable income to afford ethical and sustainable consumption options. Not everyone has the time or dime to research their purchasing decisions and ignore the more inexpensive options for more environmentally safer alternatives. There’s also the problem of ‘Green companies’ charging more for their products since meeting green regulations and paying their workers fair wages increases production costs.

According to the saga of conscious consumerism, every purchase you make is a “moral act”—an opportunity to “vote with your money” for the world you want to see. We are led to believe that if we don’t like what a company is doing, we should stop buying their products and force them to change. We like to think that informed consumers with transparency and information will always make the ethical choice. But sadly, this is not how the largely capitalist world of the 21st century works.

Making a series of small and ethical purchasing decisions, however multitudinous in amount, while ignoring the enormous structural incentives for companies’ unsustainable business models won’t break through the exploitative system that has been established. It merely makes us feel better about ourselves. Proof of this is clearly evident in the data from a 2012 study that compared the carbon footprints of “green” consumers who try to make deliberate eco-friendly choices to the footprints of regular consumers and found no meaningful difference between the two.

[Findings from a recent survey depicting consumer practices. Credits: gwi.com]

While refraining from indulging in fast fashion, ensuring your seafood is ethically sourced, and recycling old newspapers can make you feel better about yourself, it is no substitute for a systematic change, one where corporations and governments are held responsible for their practices. Although some degree of scepticism and cynicism around conscious consumerism is rightly warranted, there are a few diamonds in the rough that we cannot ignore. 

The increasing gap between the profession of conscious consumerism and the practice of it still signals that ethical consumption is most definitely a socially desirable behaviour. People tend to behave in ways that society values—when those actions are within reach. So if it becomes less cumbersome and more affordable for a person to be a conscious consumer, or if societal nudges are calibrated to make ethical consumption a more realistic option and less of an aspirational one, then this gap will most definitely shrink.

So what can you, as a consumer, do to participate in or at least further this movement? One sure-fire way is to educate yourself and others. Read labels and packaging, look for the recycled symbol on new products and use social media to read and spread information about companies that do and don’t follow green practices.

All in all, conscious consumerism is a good starting point for people to start taking action and thinking about how their individual behaviour impacts larger communities, social groups, and the planet.

Featured image credits: The Drum

Looking Beyond Nine-to-Fives—Universal Basic Income, AI, and the Future of Jobs

The work landscape has been rapidly changing for the past decade and the last couple of years of the pandemic in particular.  A number of jobs that were done manually a decade ago have either been rendered obsolete by advancements in technology or have been replaced by some form of automation. At the same time, a great number of jobs have been created in sectors and markets which did not exist earlier. 

The onset of the pandemic saw the “work-from-home” era, economic stimulus checks being handed out, and the “Great Resignation” where a large number of people quit their jobs. This could be seen as a result of the general dissatisfaction people had with their jobs, as well as having sufficient money from stimulus or savings to pursue something more valuable.

A graphic depicting workers quitting their jobs [Source: Vox]

An academic study conducted on 20,000 employed individuals from 40 different countries found that about 25% of them were unsure about the value of their job in society. With a booming AI industry taking over the private sector by automating common jobs and workers facing unprecedented uncertainties in the job market, the future of jobs and the economy at large seems to be unfolding in an entirely new direction. What, in this scenario, could the next step be for our society? What concepts and ideas are starting to take root in the minds of economists and policymakers all over the world? Degrowth, Universal Basic Income, and the rapid automation of jobs are all revealing themselves to be the pieces of the puzzle that forms the economy.

The Age of Artificial Intelligence

Studies like the one mentioned above go on to show that many working individuals engage in work in fast-paced industries where the contribution of their role to society isn’t clear. On the other hand, when it comes to individuals working in the education, healthcare, and defense sectors, the meaning of and need for their jobs is easily evident to them and to outsiders. Why does this difference exist? The answer is simple: machines cannot recreate human traits. Empathy, creativity, justice: these and many more human values fuel jobs in the public sector. In this case, one can ask: would it be better to hand over the “socially meaningless” jobs in the private sector to robots that can do it much faster and more easily than us? The answer seems to be yes, as many industries are steadily heading towards automating whatever jobs they can.

An infographic depicting the automation potential of various sectors. [Source: Fortune Magazine]

If the private sector is allowed to be fully automated by technological advancements, the future for humans would clearly be in service jobs. These historically underpaid and underappreciated jobs would inevitably gain more value in such a society. Teachers, healthcare workers, sanitation workers, and many others engaging in care work can be paid more than their current wages as the private sector becomes more efficient. This would also lead to the formation of better healthcare and education systems. One significant concept that can act as a tool to achieve these changes is Universal Basic Income. It is described as giving every citizen, whether young or old, rich or poor, a fixed amount of money at regular time intervals (weekly, monthly, or annually) that could be used as desired and without being taxed. It is an idea where each and every working-class individual is given a fixed amount of unconditional cash benefits, irrespective of any social or cultural barriers and qualifications. Proponents of this idea advocate for the same on many grounds, such as an aging population with depleting natural resources and the AI boom which threatens the loss of many jobs. This concept has been introduced for trials under many guises such as “Negative Income Tax” and “Guaranteed Minimum Income”. But is this idea worth pursuing? Just like any idea that challenges societal norms, Universal Basic Income also comes with its own sets of benefits and pitfalls. However, it is a plan that can prove to be immensely powerful in ending poverty if implemented well.

The Curious Case of a Universal Basic Income

Universal Basic Income, a major idea that can completely change the work landscape, has been tested in various countries such as Finland, Canada, Kenya, and the USA. Answers to questions about the amount and source of this income are subjective and vary by country. There are many obvious advantages as well as some doubts that can only be cleared when the plan is implemented on a nationwide scale.

The idea of a Universal Basic Income, at its very core, is about giving citizens financial freedom. For starters, providing people with the power to afford their basic needs gives them more time to pursue a job or career that is right for them. A study conducted in Seattle, where a thousand families received a basic income, found improvements in the subjects’ physical and mental health and saw that children performed better in school. Another study conducted in Canada, where hundreds of families received a basic income for four years, found that in addition to the results mentioned above, crime rates plummeted and hospitalisations decreased by about 8.8%. Researchers noticed that there was always a small reduction in working hours as well, where people spent this time doing other useful activities, such as young adults pursuing further education and individuals waiting to secure a better job.

Because a UBI tends to be a relatively small amount (such as $12,000 annually), people remained motivated to work and earn a larger sum. Clearly, the goal of a universal basic income is to establish a basic, healthy, and dignified living standard for everyone in a society, rather than to encourage people to be dependent on it without doing anything productive.

A graphic of a citizen receiving a basic income. [Source: The Conversation]

The main question regarding UBI that still requires careful consideration is: how would we pay for it? It can also be argued that providing a basic income to every citizen does not make much sense, as many earning massive incomes among the upper class do not actually need this financial support. As such, the universality of the concept is questioned by many, even though it helps to eliminate any stigma that may be associated with the reception of this income. Millions of people would have to inevitably contribute towards a UBI by paying more in taxes, leading to inflation in marginal tax rates, and making the implementation of this idea politically challenging.

Another unfortunate drawback to a nationwide UBI is that it leaves behind lesser monetary assets for government-funded programs, such as a universal health care system, that would still be necessary regardless of the existence of a UBI.  Providing every adult with a basic income that they can use as desired would mean that the working population of a country would reduce to some extent as well. Though the aim of UBI is to provide every citizen with basic funds regardless of gender, religion, caste, and societal status, the presence of immigrants creates special circumstances for governments with respect to eligibility.

A graphic showing the reception of a basic income by Indian citizens. [Source: The Economic Times]

A solution that is proposed to beat all such challenges is Negative Income Tax, which can be considered as a form of basic income guarantee. Under this system, any individual falling below the poverty line would be unconditionally supported through a basic income. This income would be funded through taxes paid by those above the poverty line, and hence the basic income received by them would be lesser compared to the income received by below-poverty individuals. Through this scheme, protection from poverty would become a fundamental right, and not just a privilege.

Since basic income would keep on decreasing incrementally above the poverty line, people would always be encouraged to keep their jobs and continue working, as well as reap all the benefits of having a basic income. A study conducted by three US economists has also revealed that a Negative Income Tax based system that eliminates poverty would cost $336 billion at most–a measly 1% of the GDP of the USA.

Dreaming of Degrowth

The concept of “degrowth” challenges the current socioeconomic belief that a system, such as a country, must keep on growing towards greater economic throughput, often done at the expense of the well-being of its human resources and the rapid depletion of its natural resources. The economic power of a country is largely measured in terms of its GDP–Gross Domestic Product. However, as is evident of late, GDP is hardly an accurate measure of the growth of an economy.

This metric does not consider the welfare of the general population, one of the most important criteria to measure the growth of a country. Metrics like the GPI and ISEW that do measure the welfare of the common man, however, have remained stagnant over the last few decades. This shows that, beyond a certain point, fuelling the economic growth of a country does nothing to improve the well-being of its citizens.

A graphic depicting the rise and eventual slowdown of an economy. [Source: The Economic Times]

Automating routine jobs and using AI to improve efficiency frees the population of a country to capitalise on the traits not possessed by their machine counterparts. Emotional, creative, and care work all require unique human traits not reproducible by technology. A society that focuses on building and supporting jobs that are characterised by these traits is the aim of the Degrowth model.

So how does one go about trying to achieve it? It is here that a UBI is regarded as a useful tool to enable degrowth and restructure an economic system rooted in outdated and inaccurate metrics. With the private sector reaching new levels of efficiency supported by AI and automation, and every adult member of the population having a financial safety net to fall back on, it is possible that modern society could progress towards something that existed many millennia ago: a society based on noble leisure.

Featured image credits: Alex Knight, Unsplash

Woke, But Not Yet Awake—Discrimination Faced by the LGBTQ+ Community in Healthcare

The post-90s was an era of dramatic societal change, building an environment seemingly quick to accept, understand and socialise. Advocacy for marginalised communities reached an all-time high. However, it appears to be a surface phenomenon in many ways. It is simple to hide behind a screen and type out a plea for justice for a community without believing and being faithful to the cause and exercising it in actuality. Equal access to healthcare is a fundamental right. The picture today’s society paints, however, is anything but peaceful. This has marked the onset of the so-called Woke Phenomenon.

As human beings, we resist change. We are opposed to any sort of dissimilarity, unable to accept the differences between people and their personal choices, and feeling the uncontrollable urge to infiltrate personal lives and pass commentary on impersonal issues. In this scenario, one finds it difficult to go through life in the absence of proper help. The average teaching imparted to the youth simply perpetuates the opposite sex attraction over same or no sexual attraction. The community is often treated as an added accessory to society: a society which is divided into two human-made factions—the “normals” and the “aberrations”.

Innumerable mental health issues for the community [Image Credits: istock]

The LGBTQIA+ community faces many barriers in their everyday life regarding acceptance and equality from friends, family and society. One would think trained medical professionals with implicit knowledge of biology and the human mind would not be a part of the problem however, the attitude of the medical sector only makes the wall infinitely higher for them to climb.

The Fear Factor

Medical professionals, in many cases, are not equipped to handle the issues and needs of the community as healthcare training is often done on the basis of heteronormativity and gender stereotypes. Patient-doctor confidentiality rules are violated, and their problems are treated as taboos or salacious gossip. Purposefully misgendering individuals and stereotyping them only furthers the innate fear of visiting medical professionals in times of need. More often than not, members of the community are not recognised as equal receivers of treatment and healthcare. Other times they might be heckled, harassed and humiliated for their gender identity or sexual orientation.

Consequentially, the community becomes averse to approaching the healthcare system and getting their medical needs addressed, in constant fear of ridicule, moral policing or even macro-aggressions such as foul, abusive language and assault.

The Increasingly Horrifying Reality

The experiences recorded in the results of a study on the experiences of discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community show that interpersonal discrimination was highly common, including a majority being subjected to slurs. The atrocities faced by the community only seem to escalate drastically as macroaggressions such as sexual harassment, violence and harassment regarding bathrooms were recorded at a shocking rate. Consequently, the community chooses to hide crucial details about certain conditions, which results in doctors not being able to identify the issue, brushing it under the carpet or leading to wrong treatment, which may be fatal.

Statistics show that the community faces mental health burdens at a higher proportion than others as a consequence of constant harassment and the tussle for acceptance as an equal shareholder of society. For queer women and transpeople, unfortunately, the family is often a site of abuse. Policing and suppression of their identities by their family members is highly prevalent. Transpeople are consistently ridiculed and systemically shunned for their gender expression. This takes a severe toll on one’s mental state of being. Life becomes difficult to traverse in the absence of proper help.

The pandemic added to their problems [Image Credits: The Trevor Project Design by Ruth Basagoitia]

Mental health and treatments related to prior experiences depend on how transparent the communications between the doctor or counsellor and the receiver are. If someone is scared to reveal the bigger chunk of their identity in fear of abuse from the people in power, their vulnerabilities can only amplify drastically with time.

The severe lack of medical knowledge about LGBTQ+ issues in terms of health promotion poses a grave disparity in access to proper healthcare. Given that there is no dearth of funding in biomedical, pharmaceutical and physiological research, the lack of concrete information can only be traced to the perpetual innate homophobia, lack of acceptance of opposite sex attraction or transpeople and viewing the members of the community as “add-ins” or “outliers”. The lack of recognition of the community as individuals with equal rights is simply perpetrated by the medical society and shamefully so, as educated and trained professionals should be bridging the gap instead of widening it.

Bridging The Gap

On the grounds of pre-existing research, there exists a massive health equity potential which is not inclusive of data populated from the studies conducted on cisgender, heterosexual individuals. At the very outset, gender identity might seem irrelevant to predominantly respiratory and viral illnesses, but knowing this information can have a significant bearing on a better understanding of quarantine and isolation behaviours. The ability to perform routine health care maintenance, mental health needs, and support networksare all critical to disease transmission and the severity of the clinical course.

Growing evidence clearly illustrates that LGBTQ+ adults have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease such as angina, coronary artery disease, and myocardial infarction compared to cisgender, heterosexual adults due to higher rates of substance abuse induced due to greater exposure to discrimination and violence among many other psychosocial factors.

Disproportionate Occurrences for Major Diseases

According to the National LGBT Cancer Network, gay and bisexual men have been proven to have had a significantly higher incidence of anal cancer, while lesbian and bisexual women have an elevated risk of breast cancer. Respiratory health disparities are also common among the communities, including higher rates of sinus infection, asthma, bronchitis, and chronic pulmonary obstructive disease (COPD), which also has an influence on COVID-19 prognosis.

Social constructs like a person’s gender individuality and its effect on health have been taboo topics. There has to be a new beginning, and that is the proper acceptance of how relevant the interconnection between sexual minorities and their need for categorised health data analysis actually is.

Effect of the Pandemic on Healthcare for Marginalized Communities

The pandemic made healthcare for marginalized communities hit a new low. Sexual activities are already considered a social stigma. The community faces much higher discrimination in this regard. Studies by The Indian Journal of Medical Research show that the HIV virus is 4% more prevalent in the case of homosexuals than in the general population. Yet the barriers are far more daunting for the community as the cost of testing is high, and the prevalence of social phobias makes it even more inaccessible as a viable resource. Of the transgender population, more than half are unable to access proper healthcare for the treatment of STDs, rendering the entire community at risk.

 HIV-positive transgender health workers at a counselling programme [Image Credits: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Annie Banerji]

The lockdown had restrictions on livelihood and access to health care, especially for the trans community. It impacted the proper communication of medicines like Anti-Retroviral Treatment (ART) for people living with the Human Immuno Virus (HIV)/Acquired Immuno Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) and those going through Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) for gender transitioning. India is home to the world’s third largest population living with HIV. Given their damaged immunity, the HIV+ transgender community is even more vulnerable to COVID-19.

Till today transpersons are dependent on conventional and interactive forms of livelihood, which came to a halt due to the lockdown. Transgender people staying with unsupportive family members during the pandemic have had to deal with stress leading to anxiety and depression.

Poor mental health has been linked with behaviour that is detrimental to their overall health, including extended use of substance abuse, smoking, drinking, self-harm, eating disorders and suicidal tendencies.

Health Insurance—Spending the Big Bucks

The Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority of India (IRDAI) has stated rules for insurance companies around the country to be loud and clear about underwritten rules, specifically for transgender applicants. The decision is hugely admired for ensuring transparency and making such social security benefits inclusive and accessible for the community. Under the IRDAI directive, the insurers must not conceal any details of the health insurance offered. They said, “All the insurers are now instructed to publish on their respective websites the aspects of underwriting philosophy and approach about offering health insurance coverage to transgender persons so that they have the complete information on the philosophy adopted by the company.”

Reputed companies like IBM, Godrej Group, Accenture, IT services providers Cognizant and Tech Mahindra and HR services firm ADP offer medical insurance to same-sex partners of their LGBTQ employees. However, many companies still do not extend this benefit to live-in or unmarried partners, even though they can. This is perhaps due to a lack of clear definitions of laws for such couples. A major setback is that gender-reassignment surgery is still considered an essential medical procedure and not covered under insurance by most companies.

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

For a matter as sensitive as this, changes should start off fundamentallyby changing the inherent mentalities of power-rich entities and hence the society in general. One can only define non-abstract shoulds and shouldn’ts by setting rules and regulations such that the marginalized communities aren’t violated. In bigger chain hospital units, funding must be properly used to impart proper knowledge and training to the staff regarding making patients from the community feel comfortable. As for corporates, equality in all literal genders should be carried on. There should be boards to make sure these employees aren’t singled out for their complaints and are given proper healthcare benefits. As citizens, we must encourage all individuals from the communities to seek proper medical help.

Judiciary justice for the LGBTQ community [Image Credits: AFP]

While individuality is attacked and put to the stand very often, what makes the average human population feel threatened, is the existence of unabashed personalities. When we talk about identity from the constitutional spectrum, it must not be a non-customisable binary spectrum.

In the NALSA vs Government of NCT in Delhi case, the petitioners have stated that the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender(LGBT) community, comprising 7-8% of the total Indian population, need to be recognized and protected, for sexual orientation is an integral and innate facet of every individual‘s identity.

It no doubt is clear how abuse and inequity in accessing rights have a domino effect on the holistic progress of the LGBTQ+ community. A person belonging to the said community does not become an alien to the concept of the individual, and their individualism cannot be viewed with a stigma. The impact of sexual orientation on an individual‘s life is not limited to their intimate lives but also impacts their family, professional, social and educational life. Ultimately, the human species over the years have flourished and thrived best with the ‘live and let live’ ideology.

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A Beautiful Mind—Schizophrenia’s Influence on Art

The history of mental illness and that of art can be best described as two tendrils that intermittently intersect across time’s canvas, often to produce awe-inspiring masterpieces. The delicate relationship between art and schizophrenia, in particular, is a prominent nodal point of that symbiosis.

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The focal point of Edvard Munch’s renowned artwork “The Scream”

What is Schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia refers to a spectrum of mental health disorders that involve a disconnection from reality and a lack of coordination between emotions, thoughts, and actions. A person suffering from it experiences hallucinations, delusions, psychomotor incapacitation, catatonic depression, emotive inhibition, and speech defects, amongst other symptoms. 

There is no objective diagnostic test for Schizophrenia; diagnosis is based on observed behaviour, a history that includes the person’s reported experiences, and that of others familiar with the person. Usually, with the correct diagnosis and treatment, most schizophrenics can live fulfilling happy lives, but historically, it hasn’t always been easy or accessible. For artists, it has had interesting intersections; some were tempered in its furnace, while some were lost to it. Perhaps, the same could be said about their art.

These artists chose to challenge their disorientations by etching them in their work as reflections of their mental state perhaps to confront them better. Unfortunately, mainstream stigmatisation and demonisation, coupled with struggles with their affliction, gradually distanced most of them from any audience. Today, multitudes of original experiences remain buried beneath languid brushstrokes, left to the interpretation of less colourful minds than those that created them.

The Enigma of Paranoid Dementia

When Francisco de Goya was born in 1746, Schizophrenia was a mystery disease. De Goya was trained as a court painter in Spain and gradually rose to fame in Spain due to the delicate tonalities he employed in his works. Somewhere between 1792 and 1793, Goya suffered from an undiagnosed illness that left him deaf. This was the tipping in his life as subsequently he became increasingly withdrawn, experienced hallucinations, and developed partial paralysis. It was termed paranoid dementia by his doctors, and it would go on to remain untreatable throughout his lifetime. Goya’s seemingly constant suffering was marked by a shift in his palette as well as themes, both of which took on a dark, gory turn. In his later works like ‘Saturn devouring his son,’ a stark dearth of animation in Goya’s life is visibly reflected. The intricate details of his former paintings gave way to a blunt noisy frame, probably as a form of catharsis to the renowned painter.

“Saturn Devouring His Son”—The most famous of Francisco de Goya’s Black Paintings.

Early Stages of Understanding—Secondary Dementia

A century passed by; the term secondary dementia was now the popular choice to describe Schizophrenia. It further aroused multiple discussions when Vincent van Gogh admitted himself to a mental hospital in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in France. The artist had started painting at the age of twenty-seven, sponsored by his brother Theo, and a contemporary French artist he met, Paul Gaugin. After a brief stint, he had a fallout with Gaugin, following which he cut off his ear and offered it to his beloved. Sources state Vincent took cognizance of his mental state because he couldn’t remember anything about his missing ear the following day and voluntarily admitted himself to the asylum. Intense psychological distress, like auditory hallucinations, intrusive thoughts, and manic episodes dotted the remainder of his short life. Despite that, during his rehabilitation, ‘Starry Night’, ‘Sunflowers’, and most of his renowned works came to fruition. Notwithstanding, his social life took a toll, and most of his works remain unappreciated and unrecognised. Despite the diagnosis and regular sessions with his doctor at Arles, van Gogh ultimately died by suicide. 

File:Vincent van Gogh Starry Night.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Dutch maestro Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night”—oil on canvas, 1889

Premature Mental Deterioration—Dementia Praecox

By the 1880s, Schizophrenia had acquired a new form- dementia praecox, or premature mental deterioration.  Popular illustrator Louis Wain, known widely for his now famous painting ‘Flower Eyes’ that featured in Bojack Horseman, was struck with it in 1887. Initially, he was well-established, and Wain married his sister’s governess Emily Richardson, but soon after, his wife died.  With its early onset, Schizophrenia manifested in a gradual progression for Wain. At first, his erratic behaviour ensured that he descended into poverty, then his hallucinations became more recurrent, and finally, violent outbursts cut him off from society. At this point his mood swings remained untraced to dementia praecox, being grouped under split personality disorder instead. In any case, it was only during his treatment at Napsbury that he found himself surrounded by cats that prowled the asylum grounds. With treatment, Louis stabilised enough and went on to create some of his best artworks involving felines. 

                                                                              A portrait dubbed “Flower Eyes” by prominent Belgian artist, Louis Wain

Tragic Tidings & The Split Mind

The tragedy of Schizophrenia can’t be illustrated better than through the life of Camille Claudel. The muse and lover of Auguste Rodin, Claudel was an extraordinary sculptor whose genetic predisposition towards psycho-social disorders was triggered by her fallout with Rodin. Her brother Paul, jealous of her ingenuity, took advantage of this. As soon as her father died, she was forcibly sent to a mental asylum where doctors concurred that she was suffering from Schizophrenia-now known by its present name. Her absence from mainstream society resulted in most of her works being recreated and copied many times over, by sculptors including Rodin, without her receiving any credit for the same. As a result, Camille’s work was largely unrecognised in her lifetime, as her condition worsened due to inadequate care. Eventually, she died at the age of seventy-three in confinement unworthy of an artist of her stature. This was perhaps the worst impact of Schizophrenia in the recorded history of artists. 

Camille Claudel in 5 Famous Sculptures

Sculpture “Mature Age”—Camille Claudel, commissioned by the French Government in 1895

A Silver Lining Into the 20th Century

The beginning of the twentieth century saw increased awareness and a better understanding of mental disorders. Stigmas had steadily started receding into the shadows when Agnes Martin (born 1912) was diagnosed with Schizophrenia in her 40s. For almost the entire duration of her life, Agnes managed to keep her schizophrenia diagnosis a secret. Perhaps, in this list, she’s the only artist whose personal life didn’t suffer a significant hit. The advancement in the understanding of psychology and psychiatry was an additional bonus. It was later found that her case file classified it as a psychotic anxiety disorder, which was treatable. Her art, on the other hand, through its strictly ordered abstractions, paints a picture of how she tried to make sense of the chaotic influx of disorganised thoughts. It was her belief, and that of those around her that her iconic and organised minimalism was a signature of her tryst with the illness.

The Islands, Agnes Martin, 1961

Sifting through the lives of the above artists leaves us with a crucial question—on the scales of balance, on which side are the artists better off? And if there was a choice between a world where they were untouched by the effects of schizophrenia or one like ours where it shaped their art, which one would they choose? Perhaps to us, the former is objectively the only rational answer, but for an artist, it may be far from it. Edvard Munch famously chose the latter, going on to remark, “My sufferings are a part of myself and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.”

Image credits: Wikipedia;  

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