Tuesday, October 13, 2009

We're connected, but not enough (October 11, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

In his semi-autobiographical novel Summertime, shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, the South African-born writer J M Coetzee painted a vivid picture of the white Afrikaner mentality in the heydays of Apartheid in the 1970s. Personally appalled by the iniquities of Apartheid, Coetzee initially believed that far-flung rural communities, insular small towns and a language that wasn’t spoken anywhere outside South Africa made for the Afrikaner ‘‘misreading of history’’ and their inability to detect the winds of change across Africa.

On reflection, however, Coetzee felt this explanation was ‘‘misleading’’. The Afrikaners, he wrote, had ‘‘read no history at all. On the contrary, they turned their back on it, dismissing it as a mass of slander put together by foreigners who held Afrikaners in contempt... Alone and friendless at the remote tip of a hostile continent, they erected their fortress state and retreated behind its walls: there they would keep the flame of Western Christian civilization burning until finally the world came to its senses.’’

It is probably unfair to single out the much-derided Afrikaners for retreating from the big, bad world into a Never-Never Land built on righteous certitudes. The desire to preserve, at all cost, a cherished way of life against the encroachments of modernity and godlessness, is a feature of many communities. This may partly be explained by pride in indigenous value systems and a sense of contentment with a familiar world. But, as is apparent from the Afrikaner experience, the dividing line between self-pride and intolerance can be very thin. The Afrikaners had every reason to be proud of the achievements of the early settlers, their ability to transform the bush into rich farmland and the community’s collective doggedness during the Boer War. However, community pride also came with the conviction that blacks lacked enterprise and were incapable of self-government. In the Afrikaner perception, blacks were an inferior race.

It is reassuring that the world has moved on from the days Hitler trumpeted the ‘‘master race’’ and Apartheid ideologues cited theology to justify crude racism. With more international travel and better communications, the earth has become smaller. Peoples and communities still take pride in their own worlds but at least their perception of others isn’t always bound in ignorance and stereotypes. But there are significant exceptions. Religious dogmatists, cultural xenophobes and racists keep popping up in the unlikeliest of places, from Afghanistan’s wastelands to the cyber world.

Despite an epidemic of political correctness, prejudice is flourishing. To expect otherwise is unrealistic. As long as humans have strong likes and dislikes based on culture, beliefs and tastes, there will be prejudice. Yet, there is a crucial difference between prejudice and intolerance: one is benign, the other malevolent.

When it acquired mass popularity some 15 years ago, the internet was seen as a means of bringing the world closer. The web bridged distances, nations, hierarchies, information walls and tariff boundaries. Its consequences were revolutionary, as profound as the invention of the printing press. By giving every individual with an internet connection the notional right to engage with every corner of the globe, the web also became an invaluable instrument of democracy. With blogging, every individual now has the means to skip intermediaries and disseminate his thoughts globally.

With such an onrush of hitherto untapped creativity and access to so much information, the world should have experienced a colossal intellectual explosion. Unfortunately, compared to the potential, the gains have been relatively modest. The world may be better connected and better informed. But have these led to a better understanding?

The answer is a categorical No. Far from dismantling barriers, the ultra-democratic web world appears to have been hijacked by activists cast in the mould of Coetzee’s bigoted Afrikaner. Far from promoting interaction between writer and reader, public affairs websites have been overwhelmed by hateful abuse and bigotry. Race and religion, the two pillars of yesterday’s intolerance, have been unashamedly resurrected and supplemented by slander. Sober debate and civilised bantering have been replaced by extremist sloganeering and organised bullying. It is particularly intriguing that many of the offenders are people who have one persona for the real world and an ugly personality that manifests itself the moment they sit before a computer. No wonder sensible (and sensitive) people recoiled in horror: they have either become passive net users or migrated to Facebook and Twitter where you can choose friends and followers.

The more things change, the more it remains the same. The Afrikanerdom Coetzee experienced in the 1970s has changed, and for the better. But a new trash has inherited the ghettoised paranoia and self-righteousness of the past and stepped in to subvert one of mankind’s greatest achievements. The worst offenders are in the US but Indian abusers are not far behind.

Sunday Times of India, October 11, 2009

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