Different Strokes|Jun 13, 2003 7:20 AM| by:

Souls under Morphia

Imagine some educated adults, male and female, occupying positions where they can influence innumerable people, making exclamations of protests like this: “The lady expects me to bathe and be clean!” or “She says that I should not walk naked!”  Such a situation sounds preposterous, doesn’t it?

But the strange times in which we live, this is happening – almost. The Health Minister, Mrs. Sushma Swaraj has offended the sensibility of some newspapers by saying that abstinence and faithfulness are as important as condoms for prevention of Aids, so much so that they are screaming out their protests. A major newspaper, before carrying its sarcastic report (prepared by a lady) on its front page on this audacious call by the minister did not even wait to find a proper translation of a vital word in a slogan authored by the minister: “Sanyam aur suraksha, Aids se raksha.” While Suraksha means protection, it is interpreted by the reporter as faithfulness and the minister is taken to task for being unrealistic. In its prime editorial the same newspaper expects us to stomach this wisdom: “The bulk of our population is below the age of 25, in other words sexually active. To expect them to curb their natural urges and practice abstinence is a recipe for disaster.”

Disaster? For whom? Whether the youth would abide by the minister’s counsel or not is left to them. But if some of them practise better control over themselves, they are certainly not going to cause a disaster for themselves; nor is their abstinence going to be disastrous for the society. Then? Could it be disaster for the condom manufacturers who vie with one another in achieving vulgarity in packaging?

Rapidly and steadily our print and electronic media – though not absolutely all – are waging a war against human dignity. A cricketer is married in Bangalore. For two or three nights a major TV channel goes on lamenting with the imaginary girl population of Bangalore – that many would lose their sleep or their heart-beats because the eligible bridegroom is lost to them. It does not realise that it is belittling the dignity of the girls of Bangalore.

Some years ago a nineteen-year-old girl fell to her death from a sixth storey flat in Mumbai – a sad news made sadder by the disclosure that she was drunk. But she happened to be a film actress and like several members of her profession, had done her best to entertain her patrons – the public. Needless to say, no idealism or ethics inhibited her gestures and movements. But must the TV channel find her death an occasion suitable enough to present to the viewers an assortment of salacious and voluptuous clippings from her movies? And that was done by no purely profit-hungry channels, but by Doordarshan. True, exploiting the dramatic potential of news, when visually presenting it deserves merit, but must that rule or technique be so ruthlessly applied even to a death in an unfortunate circumstance?

Drawing and maintaining a line between the ethically attractive and attractive alone is not a difficult proposition, only if the audience were keen to see that it was observed. But we are perhaps drugged enough for the line to have become blurred before our vision. We are slowly forgetting to expect things that are truly creative or artistic, what is capable of appealing to our finer sensibility and give us some refined joy. We are, in a planned way being conditioned to accept the gross, the debased and the depraved as the only synonyms of entertainment. The hydra-headed Hedonism let loose by the vested interest is trying to lick up our artistic sanity. This collective degradation was described by Christopher Lasch in his Culture of Narcissism published some two decades ago. He observed that the 19th Century trust in and allegiance to the different authorities, religious and mundane, had irreparably weakened. On the other hand nothing greater had taken their place. Narrow self-concern and self-love had occupied the emptiness thus created. Promoters of the so-called self-help literature had thoroughly exploited the situation and had contributed to its further deterioration. They taught us the techniques of appearing charming without really being charming for a guidebook cannot change one’s nature any more that a smartly advertised shaving cream can win for its user a fairy.

This kind of romance with one’s false self leaves no scope for any empathy for others. Consequently the natural flow of mutual empathy dries up. Like Narcissus who fell in love with his own reflection on the waters and frustrated in his attempts at possessing it ultimately killed himself, the culture of Narcissus we are cultivating is smothering our sense of dignity. Once this is complete, respect for values dry up; love evaporates leaving behind a crude deposit of lust.

The vulnerable young, naturally, imbibes this practice of self-gratification rapidly. What was known as the Lakewood Scandal ten years ago, exposing the perverse escapades of a club of High School athletes that awfully embarrassed the parents of an American city, carried a clear message for countries like India which have fallen prey to the culture of titillation. Parents of the Lakewood boys accused ‘television, movies and rack lyrics’ for the shameful episode, but were they till then innocent of the effect of these stuff on the minds of their wards or on their own minds? Everybody knows about the misuse of the media, but there is no collective moral pressure to check the licentiousness. Debra Haffner, Executive Director of Sex Information and Education Council of the U.S. then said of the boys arrested, ‘They get tremendous status from aggressiveness, but no one teaches them how to live in a real world.’

The unreal world is fast replacing the real India too. We have begun to be more and more aggressive in our advertising campaigns and in every other visual presentation, for we must compete with and imitate the elegant programmes of trans-Indian origin. This is the crucial moment when we must ask ourselves if to ‘sell’ better is the goal of life and if we cannot prove elegant without pampering the instinct of aggression, which the spirit of civilisation is expected to surpass or sublimate.

‘Culture itself is neither education nor law-making: it is an atmosphere and a heritage,’ wrote H.L. Mencken in his Minority Report. When we complain of cultural degradation, we forget that atmosphere and heritage are factors for the quality of which we are collectively responsible. The conspiracy and collaboration among the consumerists of all brands, who also directly and indirectly control the media, cannot wreak havoc in our life all by themselves. They constitute one party. We the people are the other party. We cannot be deceived unless we deceive each other. Our folklore tells us of a contract between a merchant and a poor milkmaid – according to which the merchant was to supply the woman a measure of rice and the woman was to supply him an equal measure of milk, every day. One day the merchant complained to the village Panchayat that the milk the woman supplied was getting lesser and lesser in weight. The investigation by the Panchayat showed that since the milkmaid did not have a weighing stone, she weighed her milk against the very parcel of rice she received from the merchant.

The lowering of the standard of what the media gives us is perhaps in proportion to our readiness to lower our taste. We must remember Geroge Santayana’s warning as a creative challenge: ‘Culture is on the horns of a dilemma. If profound and noble, it must remain rare; if common it must become mean.’

But we can, by all means, strive for a culture at the collective level, which is noble, if not profound.

Manoj Das

(Manoj Das is an internationally known creative writer. He is the recipient of India’s national recognition, the Sahitya Akademi Award and the nation’s most prestigious literary award, the Saraswati Samman. As a social commentator, his columns in India’s national dailies like The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, The Hindu and The Statesman, revealing the deeper truth and the untraced aspects behind current issues, have been highly appreciated.)

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  • http://Website Parmanand Churiwal

    The comments of Sri Manoj Das ‘Rapidly & Steadily our print & electronic media – though not absolutely all -- are waging a war against human diginity’. Truly reflects the anger and anguish of the educated, cultural Indians, with a traditional aesthetic sense.