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.