Amusing Ourselves to Death

Jan 28th, 2011 | By | Category: Ethics

Amusing Ourselves to DeathAmerican cultural critic Neil Postman published a book in the 1980s, ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death‘, in which he argues that societies become easily manipulated and people lose their rights to totalitarian governments when media emphasizes entertainment over information. He witnessed this phenomenon in an American society that was more concerned with professional athletes and Hollywood actors than the poor of their country or the wars their government were involved in.

Postman theorized that this media emphasis on entertaining at the expense of informing the masses is a silent form of manipulation. By keeping the people uninformed, the masses do not notice that they are on a path to losing their freedom. Actually, they are enjoying themselves so much that they are distracted from reality. This type of media has been termed ‘infotainment’ by scholars.

With examples like Veena Malik as a ‘top story’ across the media, Ansar Abbasi’s diatribe against Fashion Week, and the daily media obsession with corruption while jihadi groups strap bombs to teenagers and send them out to murder innocents, countless of our fellow citizens are still displaced after the devastating floods, and groups like Pakistan Literacy Project must continue to fight illiteracy in the masses, it is fair to ask if we are also ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’. Former newspaper editor Kamila Hyat observes signs of the problem in our increasingly ‘infotainment’ oriented media as what she called Our obsession with the inane:

The furore raised by actress Veena Malik’s appearance in an Indian reality TV show and her depicted relationship with a Hindu man seems to have driven anchors and some columnists in the country into a kind of frenzy.

The actress has been lambasted for ‘unIslamic’ conduct, for violating cultural norms and for venturing into India in the first place. While the ‘Bigg Boss’ show Veena appeared in must count as an especially mindless piece of inanity which has been widely criticised in India too, her right to take part in it should not really be under question.

She chose to do so of her own free will, hurt no one else by doing so and, of course, anyone following the antics was quite free to simply turn to another channel or keep away from the internet websites carrying content from the show. There is no reason why the whole matter should have aroused such a moral frenzy.

The attention devoted to what is, or should have been, a non-issue stems from the conservative, middle class morality that has spread across our television channels. It is also linked to the desire to attract viewership; a bearded member of the clergy pitted against Veena to attack her mode of dress or and her ‘morality’ apparently achieves just this.

Of course a Pakistani man cavorting with a Hindu man would not have raised so much as an eyebrow.

There are countless other examples of the same kind of morality at play. Far more comment than was warranted has been drawn, for example, by the dance performance of a popular theatre actress at a charity raising event at the Government College University in Lahore. This should have been a matter only for the university administration and the student body.

Gradually, a certain kind of ‘cultural correctness’ is being disseminated by our TV channels which have, in this process, also succeeded in turning non-issues into issues. We hear, for instance, endless debate on political squabbles, the president’s corruption and all kinds of other matters. But in this process ‘real’ issues are pushed far into the background.

While anchor after anchor holds forth in typically animated fashion about events we have heard discussed over and over again, the fate of flood victims, the high rates of malnutrition across the country and the rapidly expanding unemployment are rarely even mentioned.

The question of what makes news has become an increasingly crucial one. While corruption is an issue, there must be question as to whether it is really the only issue facing us, or if there are also others that deserve to be brought to public attention.

The TV hosts so outraged by Veena Malik’s behaviour seem to have few qualms about airing clips from the controversial show in their own programmes. Perhaps they are after all not as concerned as they would seem about protecting people from the ‘evil’ of Indian programming.

We wonder too why outrage is reserved only for some issues and not for others. The clerics, and others, who have appeared on TV denouncing Veena Malik seem to have been left unmoved by other incidents, which take place at home and not across the border.

A short while ago, a horrific story appeared in the print media of a young woman lured away from the General Hospital in Lahore to see a ‘pir’ who she was told could cure her sick husband. The woman was then tied up in a forest in southern Punjab, ‘auctioned’ to the highest bidder and subjected to weeks of rape and torture before being ‘re-sold’.

She was able to escape only as the floods swept across the area. Her harrowing tale seems to have left everyone unmoved and not provoked any moral outrage from the good men who host the TV talk shows that millions watch.

There are other examples. In December 2010 a nine-year-old Christian girl was raped by a Muslim. This behaviour was not slammed as ‘un-Islamic’. A few days ago a child of the same age was assaulted and murdered in Multan.

Such events of course take place regularly and inspire little more than the odd newspaper story.

Many other cases go unreported. And while there is much talk of ‘Islamic’ values the fact that women are compelled to prostitute themselves or men are forced to steal to put bread before their children seems to disturb the equilibrium of very few.

Indeed, everywhere in our society horrors unfold. According to the Edhi Foundation 1,000 infants, most of them girls, were murdered last year. Some may have been illegitimate. Others counted simply as a mouth families could not feed.

Small children, and their mothers, can be seen in many places searching through garbage heaps for food they can consume. Doctors working in communities report seeing women and children who are simply slowly starving to death. These facts do not drive clerics, columnists or commentators to the kind of frothing-at-the-mouth rage that Veena Malik has provoked.

This hypocrisy has serious implications. It reflects on some of the reasons why we have been unable to solve our most pressing problems. To do so requires that, first of all, we face up to the facts and not get obsessed with irrelevant matters such as the Veena Malik affair.

We need to focus on the many real issues which face our society. Our obsession with the kind of ‘morality’ we see at play everywhere in the media and at other places will simply not help solve any problems. If we think at any length on why the Veena Malik affair should concern anyone but herself it is hard to come up with answers.

Yet we have had a blaze of focus and comments on her deeds that tie in with the most retrogressive views running through society on relationships with India, cultural ‘norms’, the behaviour of women and the question of what constitutes morality.

It is sad that we have been reduced to this.

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