The all-pervasive dumbing down

Democracy and anti-elitism need not and must not degenerate into idealisation of mediocrity

mukeshkacker

Mukesh Kacker | January 12, 2012



Look at the national scene unfolding before your eyes and you are sure to be submerged by a spate of negativity: high inflation, plummeting rupee, general economic decline, government in limbo, policy paralysis, corruption and most other ills associated with a flailing state. There are endless debates – in print, on television, in private parties and also on public platforms – on each of these subjects, ad nauseum.

Yet, if a visitor from outer space were to visit our country today he would observe a common element at the bottom of all these different and seemingly unconnected scenarios – an all-round decline, both by design as well as latent, in quality, standards, ability, comprehension and general cultural values, a zeitgeist phenomenon referred to as ‘dumbing down’.

Any human society, at any stage, is equally endowed or beset with bright ones and lemons and so it is not the case that our society today finds itself without the bright ones. The irony of the dumbing down phenomenon is in a perverse logic through which the society either consciously ignores its bright ones or, if it does recognise them, conditions them to dumb down.

If the government of the day is an apology for governance, the prime minister is a caricature of a comic character. His invisibility is almost a virtue and his reputation as an economist more likely to invite jeers than claps. Perhaps it is a lesser evil to be a comic figure because we have ministers whose performances would be more in the nature of horror stories.

A few weeks back a prominent editor of a leading English daily likened our ministers to specialist doctors in an effort to condescendingly dismiss the bureaucrats as junior doctors fit only to carry out standard operating procedures. While not taking up any cudgels on behalf of the bureaucrats I am amazed by the naiveté of the editor to remain unaffected by the horrors perpetrated by these ‘specialists’ in countless ministries – railways, women & child, civil aviation, coal, mining and food to name just a few.

Then we have a Reserve Bank which, horror of all horrors, indirectly ends up supporting the speculators engaged in talking down the rupee, by not only openly admitting its powerlessness in intervening in the forex market to prop up the rupee but also declaring its intent not to do so. This is unforgivable dumbness!

After having killed growth by trying to fix supply-side constraints by a humongous rate increases, the least these bright ones could have done is to support the currency by positive signaling. I suppose whoever taught them economics is to be blamed. The higher bureaucracy is a classic case of poverty amidst plenty. Despite the presence of scores of extremely bright and competent performers, it’s largely the lemons that keep rising to the top, with notable exceptions of course. Much of the blame for the ills or shoddy performance of the government can be attributed to extremely poor, biased and non-transparent selection to higher posts in ministries, public sector enterprises, public financial institutions and regulatory bodies.

On a much wider canvas the evidence of ‘dumbing down’ is everywhere to be seen. The values or rather the lack of them that characterise the young of today and the new standards of ‘success’ based on money and visibility have led to a general decline in the ability to recognise and desire greatness and quality.

In ‘Where the Stress Falls: Essays’, Susan Sontag writes that she dreads “the ascendancy of a culture whose most intelligible, persuasive values are drawn from the entertainment industries” and which has spelt the “undermining of standards of seriousness”. This has also led, she says, to the “concurrent ascendancy of the tepid, the glib and the senselessly cruel”.

One only has to look at our own media and TV to understand what Sontag means. ‘Who said what’ is more important than ‘what is’ in our newspapers. Printed news, to a considerable extent, is personality oriented with a lot of interviews and exchanges masquerading as ‘news’. TV, on the other hand, does not even bother to pretend ‘seriousness’ with either the avowed glorification of celebrity culture or the proliferation of asinine soaps and reality shows. TV anchors compete with politicians and film stars in celebrity stakes and are loud, brash and rude even in serious discussions, confusing their self-assumed celebrity status with intellectual worth.

However, to be fair to the media it must be said that the media only mirrors the society and is quite evidently a victim of the ‘dumbing down’ phenomenon rather than a creator of its dumbed down values, though the jury is still out on this issue. Some analysts feel that today’s ideals and values have been created by the visual media, given its reach and hypnotic effect on the young. In such gloom, one might be tempted to infer, the only knights in shining armour are the captains of India Inc. Well, you only have to listen to the Niira Radia tapes to hastily retreat from that inference!

There are also those who say that dumbing down is a figment of imagination of the erstwhile elites. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Democracy and anti-elitism need not and must not degenerate into idealisation of mediocrity. It is only in the swamp of mediocrity that a polity loses its direction. I am reminded of medieval poet Surdas’ lament: “Moorakh moorakh raj karat hain, pandit phirat bhikhari, Udhon karman ki gati nyari” (Fools prosper while the knowledgeable have become paupers. Is that karmic destiny, O Udhav?).

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