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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 48, November 19, 2011

The Alchemy of Change

Monday 21 November 2011, by Uttam Sen


Several pertinent issues came to the surface in Press Council Chairman Justice Marakandey Katju’s interview with Karan Thapar and its effects, notably well-argued pieces, among them Siddharth Bhatia’s analysis in The Asian Age (“Justice Katju’s remarks not wide of the mark”, November 3, 2011). A tweet said: “Most of the articles opposing Justice Katju’s interview actually end up proving whatever he said about the media…”, for example, a headline wondered “Has Justice Katju been appointed by Josef Stalin?” Justice Katju had lamented the growing distancing of the media content from the reality. On his part, Bhatia had recalled the wider intellectual compass of the preceding generation of journalists. Both are absorbing, if ultimately convergent, approaches and invite objective elaboration. Justice Katju was considered candid to the degree of insensitivity as responses to the TV conversation bore out. Bhatia, while reite-rating the argument, also bemoaned today’s falling standards.

To indulge in a minor analogy, the songbird is safe in his cage but by definition does not have the freedom of choice to determine his movements. The sparrow is free, perhaps with the illusion of choice, among other reasons because bigger birds of prey could well restrict his movement, but at the end of the day is theoretically at liberty to flap his wings. This delectable metaphor occurred in the column of a veteran posting his impression of a people who have made rapid material strides as an emerging nation. The sparrow arguably belongs to an ambience that could well have obtained in the same country in less regimented (or competitive!) times or in others without the equivalent underframe, where people are notionally freer agents but vulnerable to wider vicissitudes, the latter being the price for not actively contributing to the accretion of collective power and security.

Journalists from another time who have had the benefit of “history, literature, political science, philosophy, economics” and so on, could well have been the songbirds with the sparrow’s facility to fly. (One is not sure whether they included those pushed into minimalist positions by the force of circumstances.) The reason was a humanities’ tradition providing general know-ledge and intellectual skills that in some neck of the woods ran truly and breathtakingly free and deep. Freedom of choice was quintessential, far surpassing the mischief that was designed to create subordinates in the service of the hegemon. The liberating influence of genuine intellectual instruction turned out to be greater than the thrust of colonial machination, though there were products from the country of origin genuinely imbued with the principle of liberty. The heritage did not behove arbitrary thought or speech, the signatures of impulse, bias and eventually, authoritarianism. Education and the Press were the principal agencies of that liberation.

From the late sixties to perhaps the late seventies the ground located behind actions and events to foster a principle or policy quite literally provided relief for the principal objects in the foreground (for example, political extremism and its leadership, reform, co-option and so on). There was not only advocacy of measures beyond the norm in politics but a countervailing philosophy and literature, for example, that humans existed in a meaningless, irrational universe and that any search for order by them would bring them into direct conflict with it, carried forward to the individual’s sense of disorientation and confusion in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world. That “meaning” is breaking out today, as it gives the world pause for thought: sustenance and well-being common to all purposes as the bottomline, immanent in the interplay of many complex arrangements. The focus would realistically lie in the process rather than the outcome of transi-tion, likely to ensue through compromise and adjustment, arguably making the end result unrecognisable from what was initially envi-saged. For example, China has found its place in the sun, but as a global workshop. The ideolo-gically orthodox in its own ranks, among others, considers the country caught in a mercantile web, again subject to a change that can never be precisely defined in advance. Human society in general has settled for incremental progress in the end.

The point could be made that in India and the external world the silent middle class majority fortunate to go to the “institutions of higher learning” in that period but spared the mercurial, if ephemeral, brilliance of their more illustrious peers who made the headlines, lived through their times and emerged with the images, ideas and emotions that are proving to be grist to the mill today. Even the post-colonial establishment and social leadership played their part with a benign disdain of what they considered fairly harmless pseudo-intellectual extravagance; but the residuum of the debates on freedom and servitude left a creative legacy with universal relevance.

CERTAIN objective conditions, including the currency of humanistic values, favoured the liberal disposition till the early seventies. The present generation, particularly in the media, is confronted with a situation in which the standards of right and wrong have grown equivocal and judgment of human welfare uncertain. Without an accepted code of conduct, higher salaries, often off-set by correspondingly rising costs and expectations, have made life otherwise inexplicably unsustainable The branches of knowledge concerned with human thought and culture are casualties themselves; language is taught and acquired for strictly functional ends (like landing BPO jobs), as is the study of the social sciences when they have not been scrapped altogether. In a time of the joint/extended family’s widespread decline and the emersion of the nuclear household, individual income priorities cannot be dismissed out of hand either. But it should not have been astonishing that without an appreciation of the humanism that informed these areas, students should be either ignorant or averse to values or welfare!

But this is not about another awesome and imagined national failing. The malady is a sign of the times, possibly a subject in itself. The discretion of media owners and journalism/communications schools is infallibly protected by the law and encouraged by the market. There is reason to be hopeful that determining or modifying factors like those being discussed will make them change tack of their own accord. The process can be expedited by initiatives emanating from popular expression itself.

The reference to Stalin would be well-taken if and when we veer to the other extreme and are about to throw out the baby with the bath water, namely, the admittedly scattered intellec-tual exercises, human interest coverage and wholesome entertainment that often make up for the rest, in the cause of a necessitarian rather than libertarian agenda. There is even scope for reassessing notions guiding society as a whole. Performance under divergence between natural/indigenous law/custom and secular/cosmopolitan/ Western benchmarks which often assume a parity and function that do no necessarily exist or apply, is posing a predica-ment. Discourse like the present one contains the potential of synchronisation if options are explored.

For the current purpose, if the Press Council Chairman, his supporters and detractors across- the-board are in earnest, they must surmount a limited professional field and take discourse, with a view to remedy, right on to the spaces where thought and expression can be made to count again! When social relations are changing, managing the transmutation will require the powers of an alchemist, as is clearly evident, unless widened to address and embrace the entire social fabric. A technological innovator like Steve Jobs had stressed the importance of the Humanities (his life provided compelling evidence that conviction and commitment inspired the cutting edge); a natural consequence of the debate would be the revival of “the stories, ideas, and words that help us make sense of our lives”.

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