'Culture Cops' and the mass media
The evidence of the pernicious influence of today's mass-media
empires is overwhelming. But, lacking a
historical consciousness that includes technology, modern India
is thoroughly unprepared to tackle the excesses they promote, says
Venkatesh R. Iyer.
01 July 2004 -
If communication is the backbone of human social identities, values and institutions, dramatic changes in the means of communication have the most profound impacts on social, cultural, economic and political questions. One has only to look back at the sweeping changes brought about by the techniques of long-distance communication since the growth of the electric telegraph in the second half of the 19th century to appreciate how profound the effects of modern communication have been all over the world.
Revolutionary as the means of long-distance communication were to many people of late 19th century, to us their effects may now seem mild as compared to the global impacts of the mass-media technologies and empires that have come into existence during the second half of the 20th century. No king or emperor could dream of wielding even a fraction of the political power that the barons of the mass-media now wield. What is most troubling is that the general populace has little or no capacity to make the mass-media accountable. This situation has only worsened over the past dozen years or so, with the proliferation of satellite television and the rapid growth and consolidation of corporate power in the mass-media.
In the epilogue to her remarkable book, When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century, first published in 1988, Carolyn Marvin writes that the early electrical technologies - the electric telegraph and the electric light - were central to the new era of "cognitive imperialism", in which "Western civilization was the center of the stage play for which the rest of the world was an awestruck audience."
More recently, Tom Standage, a journalist, has written a most appropriately titled book, The Victorian Internet, in which he has provided an absorbing account of the economic opportunism, militaristic preoccupations and technical rivalry that characterized the period during which the electric telegraph came into being in the mid-19th century. The book also includes a gripping description of the enormous socio-cultural and politico-economic consequences that followed the arrival of the telegraph. The title of the book gives an excellent indication of the importance that Standage attaches to the impacts of the telegraph, and the similarities that he sees with the present phase of technological euphoria. In his words:
The similarities between the telegraph and the Internet - both in their
technical underpinnings and their social impact - are striking. But the story of the telegraph
contains a deeper lesson. Because of its ability to link distant peoples, the telegraph was the
first technology to be seized upon as a panacea. Given its potential to change the world, the
telegraph was soon being hailed as a means of solving the world's problems. It failed to do so,
of course, but we have been pinning the same hope on other new technologies ever since ... The optimistic claims now being made about the Internet are merely the most recent examples in a tradition of technological utopianism that goes back to the first transatlantic telegraph cables, 150 years ago.
"The optimistic claims now being made about the Internet are merely the most
recent examples in a tradition of technological utopianism that goes back to the first
transatlantic telegraph cables, 150 years ago."
In India, neither the Left and Right ideologues, nor the professional historians and journalists, have shown any serious interest in helping the public develop a historical consciousness that includes technology, and particularly those technologies that impact human communication. This, in turn, allows the mass-media to make ridiculous claims about being 'the fourth pillar of democracy', and to distort the fundamental assumptions about 'the freedom of expression'.
In the period since the early 1990s that has seen the tabloidization of many well-known newspapers in India, The Hindu has thankfully stood its ground. But, the arrogant prejudices and moral ambiguities that characterize many lesser newspapers can also be found in The Hindu from time to time. If the arguments offered in a recent editorial in The Hindu, entitled Culture Cops, were to be taken to their logical conclusion, the implications are that the Indian public must defer their moral sensibilities to those who run the mass-media. Since the nature and reach of the mass-media has been undergoing a sea-change since the early 1990s, another implication would be that the Indian public must allow its senses to be endlessly assaulted by posters, advertisements, and the rapidly changing technical means of audio-visual communication.
When means overwhelm the ends, the outcome is societal decadence characterized by despotism. In the contemporary context of the technological means of mass communication, the arguments offered in the Hindu editorial amount to an endorsement of technological despotism. How is this compatible with the claims of democracy? Shouldn't genuine democracy imply that the public be in a position to regulate and direct technological means towards socially acceptable ends? Is not such public regulation of particular importance in matters that deal with the means of communication that have the most profound social, cultural, economic and political impacts? What is the public to do when it finds itself with no ability to regulate the means of public communication?
A corollary to the arguments offered in the Hindu editorial is that while the "culture cops" (the self-styled defenders of Hinduism) may not "impose their bigotry on the rest of the country", the globalized mass-media may impose its moral depravity far and wide! In other words, we must allow ourselves to be ruled by the arrogance and hedonistic proclivities of the few who own and direct an increasingly global mass-media. The hidden social contract we are being asked to ratify bears a striking resemblance to that employed by the Roman empire in its decline, when successive Emperors sought to keep the urban citizens in a state of inebriation through an endless spectacle of gruesome violence and debauchery in the Roman arenas. As long as the crazed spectators cheered "More! More!", the Empire was safe.
Mass-media such as television, the modern newspaper, radio and cinema, are by their very nature highly inequitable, and owned and operated by those with extraordinary access to capital and technology. Thus, it stands to reason that the freedom of expression of individuals cannot be arbitrarily extended to mean "freedom of expression for the mass-media".
"Freedom of expression" is often offered as the chief rationale for a media-moderated future. But, what about the 'freedom of expression" of those who are not commercial film producers or media barons? No social freedom is absolute. Freedom of expression is a noble ideal as long as it pertains to means of communication that are equitable. No one is arguing against the freedom of expression of individuals using the means of communication that are available to all. On the other hand, mass-media such as television, the modern newspaper, radio and cinema, are by their very nature highly inequitable, and owned and operated by those with extraordinary access to capital and technology. Thus, it stands to reason that the freedom of expression of individuals
cannot be arbitrarily extended to mean "freedom of expression for the mass-media".
That those who control the mass-media are constantly engaged in efforts to 'manufacture consent' has been highlighted by Noam Chomsky and others. At no time has this been in greater evidence than in the past decade, where an elaborate campaign of consumerist propaganda and cultural indoctrination, aimed squarely at juveniles and youth of the non-Western world, has become amply evident. Even within the Western world, the psycho-social effects of the mass-media (and especially of television) had become a subject of much discussion by the 1970s. In his highly acclaimed book, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, first published in 1978, the advertising-professional-turned-media-critic, Jerry Mander, wrote:
Television is a form of sense deprivation, causing disorientation and confusion. It leaves viewers less able to tell the real from the non-real, the internal from the external, the personally experienced from the externally implanted. It disorients a sense of time, place, history and nature.
Mander's most trenchant criticism of television is that it undermines even the limited notions of democracy that we now have. This is a criticism that he also levels, more generally, against all attempts to project technological changes as being irrelevant to discussions on democracy. Mander's observations are even more relevant now when we are being constantly asked by the mass-media to celebrate the revolution ushered in by cell-phones, ATMs and the Internet. In his words:
The great majority of us have no say at all in choosing or controlling technologies. These choices, as I've described, are now solely within the hands of this same technical-scientific-industrial-corporate elite whose power is enhanced by the technology they create. From our point of view the machines and processes they invent and disseminate just appear on the scene from nowhere. Yet all life adjusts accordingly, including human systems of organization and understanding. We don't get to vote on these things as they are introduced. All we get to do is to pay for them, use them and then live within their effects.
As indicated earlier in this essay, those protesting against certain films, posters, advertisements or television programs can also cite "the freedom of expression" in asserting their right to protest against what they see as cultural imperialism, and indeed, cultural terrorism. While it is one thing to criticize public protests that turn violent, the outright dismissal of these protests as efforts at "cultural policing" smacks of intellectual dishonesty. Besides, how is one to measure the impacts of psycho-social violence? It is easy enough to see the damage caused to a few cinema halls by protestors. But, are not the damages caused by the cultural and psycho-social violence of pornography, perhaps to an entire generation of impressionable juveniles and youth, incomparably greater and long-lasting?
The means and methods of protest available to public protestors are far more democratic than those that are available to commercial-film producers and other media barons.
Given the reach of the mass-media, it is good that that there have been at least some attempts at regulation in the public interest through bodies such as Censor Boards or Press Councils. But, with the explosion of mass-media technologies and advertising since the early 1990s, the role of these bodies has been greatly undermined. In any case, in the final analysis, the people of India have neither elected the mass-media nor the Censor Boards. Therefore, there is no reason why the Indian public should allow either the mass-media or the Censor Boards to define the boundaries of its sensibilities.
In these far from ideal circumstances, the protestors who take to the streets, whatever their political or religious affiliations, may be the only effective checks that the public can bring to bear on the mass-media's arrogant excesses. We may not endorse the actions of protestors when they resort to violence. But, when we do criticize these forms of physical violence, let us also have the honesty to recognize the far more insidious, perverse and pervasive forms of psycho-social violence that sections of the mass-media now perpetrate with impunity. Let us also not forget that the means and methods of protest available to the public protestors are far more democratic than those that are available to commercial-film producers and other media barons.
One hopes that in the months and years ahead there would be greater awareness about how the consumerist mass-media, particularly in its visuals forms, has come to pose a grave threat to public health. When there is such public awareness, we may hope to see widespread efforts to ensure that children and youth are inoculated against the ill-effects of the mass-media at an early age by better parenting and through media education programs. But, there is little indication that such efforts have begun in India or elsewhere in the sub-continent. That this is so, despite the overwhelming evidence of the pernicious influence of the mass-media empires and the technological despotism that they promote, is a sad reflection of how shallow the public discourses on democracy, culture, religion and violence have become in the Indian sub-continent in the post-independence period.