Recently I saw a webpage that told the story of a veiled Muslim woman complaining, at the checkout counter of a supermarket in Canada, about Veterans’ Day and Canadian involvement in Iraq. The story ended with the cashier asking the Muslim woman to go back to Iraq, the place she had emigrated from. The cashier even offered to help her pack and finance her ticket back.
It took me no more than a minute to figure out that this was a fake story. The same story, with the scene changed to the US, Australia, and the UK, has been posted during the past eight years on many websites made for the gullible.
There are enough TV channels for people to access information: why don’t they look for balanced reporting?
Within hours of its posting, a couple hundred thousand people had “liked” and shared the Canadian story. Responses, mostly from Americans and Canadians, spewed hatred for Muslims, with a strange combination of extreme arrogance and utter ignorance. “Leave my country. Just go,” said one. My feeling of unease was no different from what I get when I meet Muslim or Hindu fanatics.
Ten years back, I had lunch with a well-known public-policy analyst in Vancouver. In his view, nations have so many conflicts because people do not have access to full information. They are force-fed what entrenched interests in government and big media want them to believe. He told me that our job is to disseminate information in the most balanced way we can, to fight corrupt interests.
My argument was that there are enough TV channels for people to access information: why don’t they look for balanced reporting? He went on arguing that the alternative channels are not popular enough for people to access; our job is to help these alternative media improve their standing.
His charisma and experience convinced me to agree with him.
On another occasion, however, I had a talk with a scholar in which I was able to present a different view. My idea was that there are a large number of people who care nothing about philosophy. They care about their 9-to-5 job, evening beer, and twice-a-week sex. I had no exact number, for there are no statistics on it, but I claimed anything between 50% and 70% fell into this category. These guys don’t have bad intentions. They just want to carry on their lives unhindered. If not provoked and indoctrinated, they don’t have many views of their own. They normally do what the authorities tell them to. They believe what they are asked to believe. They go shopping and buy small cans of Coke — whereas, in their position, I would buy big bottles from Costco. I have nothing against them. Part of me even envies them, for their capacity to live in the moment without worrying about the future.
There is another perhaps 5% to 10% of the population that would have belonged to the above, except that they developed a sort of activist mindset and a high sense of the self and its “rights.” If they went to the university, they never studied; they spent all their time partying and drinking. They never really understood what research is. In a democracy, they have views and truly believe that they matter, irrespective of whether the people who hold them can produce a rational analysis or not. Soundbites are their philosophy. They never bother to look at the major contradictions that lie just below the surface of their ideas. Suffering from a sort of impotence, they also carry hatred toward people who are better off than they are. In an ideal world, none of them would have been admitted to the university. They would have saved resources and allowed the flow of wisdom to be less polluted. But the cocktail of their ignorance and arrogance allows them to speak up very confidently in public. They have the psychology of Marxists, even if they don’t call themselves Marxists. They are modern collectivists but ironically tribal, always with an enemy in mind. They are the ones who “liked” the above story of the Muslim woman in Canada. These are the kind I call fanatics, rabble-rousers.
The fanatics are the agents setting the theme and tone of society’s emotions. They decide who is next to be hated, based on simplistic soundbites of climate change, communism, capitalism, people in faraway places, etc. They don’t really get anything personally out of their unfocused, unexamined agitations; they are pawns in the hands of the warmongers, politicians, lobbyists, pursuers of corporate interests, and so forth, who contribute some of the 5% of clinical sociopaths in the population. Alas, they also agitate and affect the opinions of the 50% to 70% who are basically uninterested in politics and in philosophy.
The scholar convinced me that these people — sociopaths and fanatics — were mere products of their circumstances and that all we needed to do was provide them with love and understanding, to nudge them into a rational way of thinking.
And yet . . .
I grew up in the small city of Bhopal in India, under a socialist system. There were a couple of newspapers, both of them private but for all practical purposes controlled by the state, and two radio stations, both operated directly by the government. I had no concept of what television was until my last year of school. For all practical purposes the outside world did not exist. Our access to information was rare and so extremely difficult that we had developed extreme competencies in looking for rumors, analyzing them for inherent flaws, and filtering out what was likely the truth. After some event occurred, it was often days before we saw the official news reports, but we had usually worked out what was happening with a very high level of accuracy.
There are a large number of people who care nothing about philosophy. They care about their 9-to-5 job, evening beer, and twice-a-week sex.
Today, despite hundreds of TV channels, smartphones, WhatsApp, Facebook, etc., the reality hasn’t changed much. In Bhopal, those who don’t care still don’t know. Those who think they know, but don’t know, look for information to rationalize what they want to believe in — as they did before. The proportion of those who really want to know the truth still know it, and this number hasn’t changed despite proliferation of information.
During the last decade, the situation in Vancouver hasn’t changed either.
I am back to my initial position on whether the media is responsible for our lack of information and our social conflicts. Depending on what our paradigms and worldviews are, we either look for the truth with curiosity to change our views, add to them, and give them more nuances; or we look for what helps us rationalize what we already believe in, unprepared to go through the pain of changing ourselves. Big media and big government may be crooks, but they are merely symptoms of our failure as a society to be eternally vigilant.