A social mirror

Many years ago, when I was an intern, there was this statement Dr Maiya made during one of our pediatric ward rounds. Dr Maiya was a person we were all terrified of, and the fear was perhaps born more out of a deep reverence for him, for he was perhaps the gold standard for a pediatrician. A short-statured man of few words, he would never raise his voice when we displayed our stupidity, but his measured words of criticism were enough to make us wish we never existed. He pardoned lack of knowledge and gave us a chance to build on it, but lack of wisdom was unacceptable to him. And so, whenever he put forth questions to us on our ward rounds, the words would somehow die in our mouth even when we thought we knew the answer. On one such occasion, he put forth a question to one of the postgraduates. The postgraduate answered confidently, and as is the case with all of us sometimes, he spoke on, beating around the bush, hoping that speaking would be looked upon more favourably than keeping silence. The truth was that he had made statements related to the topic that was the theme of Dr Maiya’s question, but he had not addressed the core of the question at all. I still remember Dr Maiya’s face as he listened patiently, his composure unchanged, and at the end of it, we held our breath as we waited for the verdict.

In three years of post graduation, all you have learnt is to speak more number of words.

He left it at that. In that little statement, there were a million unsaid words we could hear. Quantity with no quality. Words without content. We all hung our heads.

Ironically, his words reverberate in my mind when I look at Indian society today. Be it the education sector or politics or healthcare or media, they are filled with hollow, empty words….so devoid of a core. Today, I am able to read into the message that was the crucial component of Dr Maiya’s expectation from us as future doctors- our responsibility and accountability to our patients. It was impossible to impress Dr Maiya with knowledge; you just didn’t stand a chance. There was only one way to appease him- to think of yourself as the least important person on earth and to develop a genuine curiosity in your patient. Today, I understand the rationale behind why his ultimate emphasis was on building that virtue and wisdom that is obsolete in the modern world- the awareness that love and humanity must form the basis of patient care…..and not our desire to prove ourselves. And I think that applies not just to the healthcare sector, but to all sectors.

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There were those days of responsible and civilized journalism that once set standards for how interviews, dialogues, discussions and debates must be conducted. They made a clear distinction between the sentimentality that characterizes our domestic arguments as opposed to the civilized nature of our discussions on a public forum. They taught us to express our disagreement in a civilized manner, putting up our reasons for disagreement, while respecting the opponent’s individuality and dignity. They also taught us the most important virtue that is lacking in the modern world- to listen before we react…the art of receptivity.
Today, we listen to reply and to defend our point of view….we don’t listen to understand.

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For those who grew up on the journalism culture that Prannoy Roy stood for...

Why I write this now is because we need a generation of news professionals to be inspired. Many of my generation were lucky enough to have our first exposure to people like Madhu Trehan and Prannoy Roy whom we saw take some difficult calls and decisions that reinforced our faith in the news media. Which is why I worry for those whose first exposure are the Sudhir Chaudharys of the world. That becomes the standard you will set for the rest of your life.

Prannoy Roy has provided inspired moments for a generation and no matter how much criticism is poured now and in the future, there is a whole crop, which based on first-hand experience, believes in what journalism can and should do. We’ve seen the sun shine at its brightest even as pretenders bask in the reflected glory of its golden glow as the sky becomes more crowded and noisy. Sometimes in life an opportunity comes along that gives you the choice of putting your money where your mouth is. How you act at that moment matters. And that’s what legacies are about.

http:// http://www.newslaundry.com/2015/05/06/why-prannoy-roys-lifetime-achievement-award-matters/#

Where journalism and media once focussed on public accountability, they are now commercially driven ventures that skilfully use the human psyche to market the junk they create.

To top it all, we also have social media now. The public extension of our so-important personal world 🙂
We do a favour to the world by posting statuses every minute, never compromising on the sentimentality and drama that successfully creates a fanclub on the other side of the screen. We are backed up by a thousand likes and we have transformed into self-proclaimed celebrities overnight. Our opinion on every issue is no less important than that of experts in the field. We rave and rage on social media, for we have all the time to passionately argue with people across the globe, mock and laugh at them, never stopping till we have verbally defeated them, and proved ourselves right. We are the gold standard and we can’t be wrong. Then we smile and lift our heads in pride, for this is nothing short of a heroic war we have fought….and we have won. A feather on the cap of our already inflated ego, which is ready to burst.

This was our reaction to Aamir Khan’s statement on the rising intolerance in this country.

This was our reaction when Dr K.J. Yesudas spoke on the importance of modest dressing and simplicity in the context of Indian women.

This was our reaction to the ‘kiss of love‘ campaign.

Many weeks after the ‘kiss of love‘ campaign, there was a beautiful debate on this issue. It was an eye-opener because it pooled thoughts from different angles on the same issue, and we would never have thought about some of those on our own. The experience of life counts. We youngsters are often impulsive, and sometimes lack of a deeper insight into all aspects of a venture can end up creating more harm than good, despite our good intentions.

The tragedy in all the above cases was that our sentimentality drowned our sensitivity. The resentment, anger, ridicule, sarcasm and humiliation that was meted out to Yesudas or Aamir Khan far exceeded the content that people might have wanted to express. We love reacting, and reacting has become our national pastime. We believe in reacting with much hue and cry, as opposed to acting silently and persistently for the creation of a better world.

For me, it is impossible to react in that manner to someone I have deeply respected over years….someone who has visibly and significantly contributed to the nation over a lifetime. There can be difference of opinion, but such reaction laced with mockery, resentment, anger and public humiliation is immature and unacceptable in a civilized world.

http:// http://m.indiatimes.com/culture/who-we-are/11-things-india-needs-to-introspect-about-this-independence-day-244185.html

Arguing on social media is not strength; it doesn’t cost anything. How many of us would find the strength for advocation of education of women at the Taliban’s gunpoint, like Malala did? That is an illustration of true strength.

We certainly must be the most tolerant nation on earth. For we tolerate the destruction of nature, the assault on our farmers, the cruelty to animals, the oppression of women, the poisoning of our food with pesticides…and so much more. The only thing we are intolerant to is criticism. We cannot bear criticism for we can never be wrong. The right-wrong margins are so sharp in our heads. Social media has contributed further in transforming us into narcissists, incapable of self-introspection.

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India no longer feels like the beautiful India of the 80s and 90s. The newspapers are full of stories of intolerance. The recent story of a labourer who killed a woman only because she refused to give him the amount he demanded. The man who set fire to the coach of a passenger train in the early hours of morning to kill his wife who had boarded the train and with whom he had an argument. The auto driver who killed a girl because she refused to marry him. The ‘moral police’ mob that troubled two female students who were talking to their male classmates at a bus stop.
And this is supplemented by our experiences in day to day life. People ready to react at the slightest provocation- a reaction that is disproportionate to the trigger. Perhaps it varies from place to place. I feel less defensive in Bangalore as opposed to Kannur. But my mother says the Kannur of 80s and 90s was not like this. At the same time, I have also met some of the nicest people here in Kannur- true humanists to the core.

At the end of it all, what is important is to reflect on this transformation. Over my years in Kannur, I have learnt that an outrageous reaction to the social violence we face on a day-to-day basis, will not achieve anything. For that is like chopping the branches of a tree when the disease is in the roots. We must understand that the personal violence that each of us manifests to varying degrees is the outcome of the social violence we have endured. ‘Reaction’ in a conventional sense is not the answer to social violence. Reflection and action is the answer. And when we reflect, we realize that there are harsh socioeconomic factors that have oppressed many segments of our country on a chronic basis, breeding silent rebels that resort to social violence at the slightest opportunity. The huge socioeconomic divide in our country creates a toxic environment for the deprived segments of our society. They are exposed to chronic negativity in the form of discrimination, deprivation, humiliation and much more. They lead lives devoid of dignity, and it is but natural for many of them to find a way out- an alternate source of motivation and self esteem. They find this in violence.

From something as benign as reacting outrageously and disproportionately to a celebrity’s statement to something as horrifying as the Nirbhaya incident, the root cause is the distorted human psyche fostered by a toxic environment. These episodes shall worsen in a consumerism-driven world where ‘money’ is portrayed as the success symbol.

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The answer to all the above issues lies not in reacting, but in acting- in working towards improvement of socioeconomic conditions in our country, and more importantly, on the human psyche. Treat every human being with dignity. Teach every human being the art of discovering his internal wealth within himself. Set a living example of an alternate model of success and happiness, far removed from materialism.

The day we portray the human spirit as far above materialism, we can perhaps be optimistic about a better tomorrow.

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5 thoughts on “A social mirror

  1. Very well put, Vidya. And absolutely relevant at this point. “We certainly must be the most tolerant nation on earth. For we tolerate the destruction of nature, the assault on our farmers, the cruelty to animals, the oppression of women, the poisoning of our food with pesticides…and so much more. The only thing we are intolerant to is criticism.” Truth.

  2. Can’t agree more, Vidya. Although I am not sure if these super rich stars(with all that govt. provided security cover) really have anything to feel threatened by this intolerance. “The day we portray the human spirit as far above materialism, we can perhaps be optimistic about a better tomorrow.” — Totally with you on this and I think the first step toward that direction would be an equal distribution of material wealth and comforts. Not sure how tolerant the elite class would be with the idea, though!

    1. Uday, as you say, it doesn’t make sense when a celebrity says he feels threatened by intolerance. One wonders what the common man should then feel. But that makes it all the more important on the part of the public to react with maturity. We took the media’s bait and perhaps they benefited the most out of all this.

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