The rise of TV intellectuals

28 November 2007

Attention seeking ‘TV intellectuals’ are increasingly replacing real intellectuals in the Sri Lankan media. These ‘intellectuals’ are often featured in group discussions on TV and interviews on the radio. The usual format involves a group of chairs set in front of the camera. In one sits the host while the others are occupied by various ‘intellectuals’ who a) blame all problems on the standard ‘bad-guys’: the West, businessmen, modernity and the younger generation, and b) are more concerned with demonstrating their (alleged) intellect and learning rather than educating the public (notable exceptions exist).

These are not debates. No dissenters are invited to the panel. No opposing viewpoints are entertained. There is no one to challenge the dominant viewpoint. The ‘discussion’ is really a group of individuals patting each other on the backs in the absence of any meaningful resistance while play-acting at being intellectuals.

Arguments are brought in to explain why every aspect of our culture is somehow superior to the western versions, be it language, society, customs, sometimes even scientific progress. For example, a university academic appearing on a certain TV show took several obscure phrases from Buddhist scripture and interpreted them as descriptions of light modulation (LASERS), knowledge of the difference between the speed of light and the speed of sound, and knowledge of distant interstellar objects. This absurdity is frightening as it came from a PhD holder. Neither the host nor the callers chose to challenge the claim.

The West is represented by examples taken from the worst and the most deviant segments of western society and is compared against imaginary local virtues. The West is painted as decadent, drug-dependent, TV-addicted, consumption-driven, AIDS-infested and materialistic for Sri Lankans who have never set foot outside the country or have no accurate knowledge of western life. Sri Lanka is painted as a country of ‘cultured’ and ‘hospitable’ people molded by Buddhist values. This illusion, however, is not entirely robust. All but the most delusional Sri Lankans know the following unspoken truth: all the ‘vices’ that exist in the West exist here too. Only in the West it is done in the open; here we do it in hiding. Drugs and pre-marital sex are the best examples.

Excluding a few notable exceptions of genuine intellectuals, most TV intellectuals are transparent in their motives. The entire exercise is an attempt to compensate for self-esteem deficiencies by playing a make believe game of erudition: the stereotypical TV intellectual adopts a slow, deep, saint-like voice and assorted mannerisms that are conspicuously not present off-air. He also tends to quote religious scripture and provide religious rationalizations for his arguments in at attempt to both demonstrate his ‘holier-than-thou’ status and to inoculate his arguments against criticism. The technique, pioneered by a recently founded religio-nationalist party, is now alarmingly common: the argument is presented with a religious coating. Any attempt to counter the argument is portrayed as an attack on the religion. For example, the said political party publicized all criticism against it as ‘threats to the religion’ or ‘attempts to split the Order’. It is only one of the tools in the pop-intellectual’s repertoire.

The callers who gravitate to such TV shows are often a variant of the same type of attention seeker. Most such callers unknowingly embarrass themselves on air by attempting to demonstrate their own intellect instead of posing questions. Before or after a token question which they do not expect to be answered anyway, they launch into long monologues in an attempt to mimic the pseudo-erudition of the panelists themselves. Often, they have to be interrupted by the host. It is difficult to determine what is more embarrassing: the shows themselves, or the fact that they continue weekly with little or no public laughter or outcry. As a gauge of viewer intellect, the popularity of these shows is saddening.

It is the duty of a true intellectual to broaden the public’s minds and open them to newer, bolder ideas that they would otherwise fear to consider on their own. Yet these pop TV intellectuals are doing the exact opposite in an insidious way: even crude, prejudicial viewpoints are given intellectual ammunition in the form of obscure, convoluted arguments that the average person cannot decipher. Viewpoints that would not even hold under a mere common-sense attack, such as racism, religious supremacy and oppression of individual freedom, now have pseudo-arguments to back them up.

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Polarization & Swing Voters

26 November 2007

For any market place to work properly demand must be proportional to the QUALITY of that which is demanded. If we think of voting as an economic activity, then clearly we in Sri Lanka have a market failure, in that our preference for a political party (the demand) does not seem to be strongly tied to its performance in government (the quality of the supply).

Sri Lankans’ irrational loyalty to their preferred political parties, their blindness to the blunders committed by politicians of their respective parties while only finding issue with blunders of the opposing party, is hampering the proper operation of democracy.  Sri Lanka does not have a sufficiently large swing voter base compared to developed nations. Where party loyalty is inelastic, an election does not make sense. Instead, you merely have to take one census of party loyalty and base all future political appointments based on that proportion. This is the value of swing voters. It is the swing voters who punish politicians who fail to deliver.


Education and Maturity

5 November 2007

The goal of education is to equip children with the ability to effectively function as an adult. I believe this process involves two things:

1) Endowing practical knowledge and skills
2) Cultivating a proper mindset

Most crises are due to a lack of the latter than the former. When we think of the former, we think of things like the sciences, humanities, arts and practical/technical skills. Arguably, our (Sri Lanka’s) education system may be deficient in dispensing these to the general population. Yet we see time and again that, even in cases where a good education is present the person tends to be deficient in other ways. In fact, one may observe that certain personality/character deficiencies are MORE common among the highly educated than the average person. This may very well be due to an imbalanced education: education where the improvement of skill and knowledge is sought at the expense of mindset.

While many educators would agree the need for both knowledge and mindset, there are differences in opinion as to what should constitute mindset. Socialists/communists/totalitarians would like to create a citizen who is docile and holds the good of the state and the ‘will of the people’ above his own. A religious dogmatist would like to create a citizen who is pious, selfless and commits himself to unquestioning servitude in the name of that particular religion’s highest good.

Therein lies the danger of this second goal of education. If we are in any way uncertain as to how we should approach it, we should not approach it at all. A purely knowledge/skill based education is better than a one that creates an improper mindset. We should avoid “mild brainwashing” at all costs.

Maturity

We may attempt to discover aspects of the proper mindset by considering what the goal of education is: to equip a child with the ability to effectively function as an adult. By this, we see that one necessary aspect of the required mindset is MATURITY. The hallmark of maturity is the ability to do what one knows is beneficial despite one’s emotions; and conversely, the ability to not do what should not be done, even under compelling emotions. As children, we all learn BASIC maturity: that we cannot have every toy we see in a shop window; that we need to study even if we do not like it; that we cannot eat sweets for breakfast. Beyond this, differences of individual maturity begin to emerge. Some will refrain from cheating, even if they feel like it and opportunities present themselves; others will not; some will afford equitable treatment even to those they personally dislike (other ethnicities, for example); others will act on their dislike; some will make it their own responsibility to earn their livelihoods; others will prefer handouts, and will work only because the alternative is starvation.

One of the ways in which this country’s destiny may be changed is to endow the next generation with maturity: train them to not act on destructive emotions; teach them that nobody is fully immune from destructive emotions (e.g. hatred/dislike of other ethnicities/religions; fear of government); teach them that the discomfort of enduring such difficult emotions without acting on them is the price we pay for civilization (as opposed to living in the wild); teach them that with practice, such discipline becomes second nature and cease to feel like ‘discipline’. Perhaps then we may see and end to our ethnic crisis and our economic crisis.