Challenging the ‘google society’

Ismail carefully unearths the Jordanian Zarb delicacy, prepared from a makeshift underground oven, brushing the orange Wadi Rum sands gently aside. Traditionally dressed in a salwar kameez and an extended keffiyeh drawn to protect his bearded face from the desert’s elements, he begins to chant Bedouin tribal songs.  His moonlit image cut against the backdrop of one of Earth’s greatest wildernesses symbolizes the stark contrast between Western stigma and his endearing hospitality.

In an increasingly interconnected, kinetic and information rich ‘google society’ making quick judgements has become integral part of our daily experience. ‘Thin-slicing’ in psycho-philosophical study is used to describe our supposed ability to make decisions in certain scenarios using only fragments of information. If we can achieve this then our judgements about the people, places and situations we encounter, based on snap perception, can be liable to the media, our upbringing and social circles-and therefore biased.

In 2002 George Bush’s ‘axis of evil’ speech refocused the West’s supposed enemy, and the ‘war on terror’ realigned our behaviours towards different faiths through passive reinforcement.  Often our media had an underlying tone, offering a sense of unilateralism, or an ‘us against them’ connotation which became harmonised with Ismail’s image.

Whilst we may subconsciously just be more cautious around someone of Ismail’s appearance, sometimes the subconscious has taken on a dangerous reality. Almost exactly 11 years after the 9/11 attacks 7 Sikhs were shot dead at a temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, USA by a ‘white supremacist’.  ‘I was born and raised in this country. I played little league baseball. My mom was a soccer mom. I’m a diehard Yankees fan. I’m an American,’ Amardeep Singh, a co-founder of the Sikh Coalition, lamented in an August 2012 Guardian report on the atrocity.  It illustrates how powerful the glut of media images actually were-injecting a stigma into peoples’ minds.

Our upbringing also shapes our view of the world, and therefore our choices. Joining a local family in Wadi Rum, a few kilometres from the ancient city of Petra, for a traditional Jordanian Mansaf feast- exemplified how our values and disciplines can be inbuilt from childhood. The son, Malik passionately recited a famous Islamic idiom, ‘sharpen the mind, harden the body, soften the heart, and be of service to others.’ The daughter, Sairah, mirrors her mother’s generosity, offering hot sage teas. Hospitality and munificence is part of Jordanian identity, and is perpetuated by parents passing on these values.

However we are also exposed to our parents’ dispositions. Not only can we be born into a religion, we can be born into a certain way of thinking, or on a certain side of a conflict. Following the announcement of a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel in late November this year, images of boys as young as six were shown wielding automatic weapons, AK47 assault rifles and handguns in celebration in the West bank city of Hebron. The graphics illustrate the cycle of violence in the region, but highlights more widely how we can be biased and indoctrinated by our upbringing.

Adherence to social convention is an innate part of human nature. Ideas and beliefs can replicate as they gather wider social acceptance. From 2008 to 2010, the spate of violence against Indian students in Australia, dubbed ‘curry-bashings’ by the Indian media, raised questions about xenophobia in Australian society.  According to The Age, a Melbourne newspaper, there was a 46% drop in Indians applying for student visas for Australia from July to 31 October 2009 compared to the same period in 2008. The growing Indian student presence may have sown the seeds of xenophobic beliefs and then spilled over into violence amongst a small sect of Australian society.

Similarly, there were questions over the global media reaction to the events-including claims that the Indian government had embellished the issue. This view has steamrolled in Indian society, with the reduction in Indian student visa applications, and with Bollywood star, Amitabh Bachan’s rebuttal of an honorary doctorate from Queensland University of Technology. Acceptance of the prevalent view can cause situations like this to perpetuate, and stereotypes to formulate-until they become self-reinforcing.

With the volumes of different messages around us, we have a tendency to accept those most useful to us, to enable us to function within society. We can begin to discard auxiliary thought which challenges these conventions. A recent study by psychologists Sparrow, Liu and Wegner ‘Google effects on memory’ contains findings illustrating that when people have access to readily available information sources, they remember fewer fact and less information because they can rely on ‘searches’ to acquire it. The internet effectively becomes our ‘transactive’ memory where we store our information.

Thin-slicing has become both more integral and pivotal in our lifestyles without us noticing. It is often easier to ‘search’ on the mass of consolidated information at our fingertips, revert to our upbringing or what our social circles believe to inform us rather than reaching for the new.

Ismail reappears from the desert darkness holding woollen blankets and covers the tired desert travellers, who lay asleep facing the glowing stars by the fire. We must engage in the information age without impeding our sense of self-discovery, so that we can continue to embrace various perspectives and see people like Ismail in a different light.

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The two Indias

As dusk falls on the Rajasthani ‘Pink City’ of Jaipur, the once sunlit vistas of Amber Fort fades-and a celebratory ambiance descends on nearby Chokhi Dhani village. The scent of incense fans the air, a ‘dhol’ beat wanes-and then strengthens repeatedly, as the chink of folk dancers’ dresses synchronize in the foreground. A symbol of North Indian culture and a tourist resort, Chokhi Dhani reflects the synergy between the old and contemporary India.

Roy Brown, former President of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, opened the Emerge 2010 India student conference at St Gallen University in Switzerland with his keynote speech on ‘the two Indias’.  He dramatically reflected on the religious charlatan allegations directed at the now deceased Indian guru, Sathya Sai Baba, as a symbol for what may hold back an emerging India.  In a country where there were 24,206 reported rapes in 2011, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, there may be some unfortunate validity to Brown’s sentiment that deeper socio-cultural factors could be holding India behind.

In December, Jyoti Singh Pandey was brutally gang raped in an abhorrent but shamefully not too irregular crime. Her case was unique in being brought to the fore by social media, creating the critical mass sufficient to bring it past the red tape of Indian bureaucracy, unlike countless other cases.   The case has raised the question of any deep-seated deficiencies in India causing people like Jyoti’s murderers to behave so heinously.

Flying into Mumbai airport, over the Dharavi slums one notes the obvious shack laden landscape below, devoid of adequate sanitation, but amongst which lurks vast TV aerials, in a somewhat visual antithesis. Idolisation is an innate part of Indian culture, from deity worship, to the worship of cricket and Bollywood stars. Star plus, an Indian TV channel estimates that it has 80 million weekly viewers in India. The portrayal of women in media could have a significant impact on reality for a poverty-stricken Indian populous idolising success.

Traditionally women have been cast purely as a sign of beauty, which provides contrast to an India coming to terms with an increasing female presence in education and workplace, in a highly patriarchal environment. Inadvertently such portrayal emphasises the value of women to be seen and not heard. Despite improvements including greater female presence in parliament,  and foremost the election of India’s first female President, Pratibha Patil, Thomson Reuters  ranks India as the ‘fourth most dangerous country’ in the world for women.                                                                                                                                                                                           This will continue to be at conflict whilst India accustoms itself to a ‘westernisation’ to parts of its culture. Recently CNN reporter Mallika Kapur investigated whether the sexualisation of Bollywood is to blame for the poor treatment of women.  Whilst Bollywood plots often plays on the hopes and aspirations of those forgotten in India’s economic growth story it becomes clearer that in a now media driven world ‘the way men think needs to change, not what they see’ adds Bollywood actress, Chitrangda Singh ahead of her next film Inkaar, which is about sexual harassment at work.

The teachings of gurus such as Asharam Bapu, who this week was lambasted for reportedly saying that ‘guilt is not one-sided’ in Jyoti’s rape case, can also come to conflict in India’s changing modern social landscape.  Evening ‘Puja’ beside the River Ganges where the banks are adorned with petals and ‘pandits’ carrying out prayers, as waves of candlelit lotus flowers float downstream , has become a synonymous image for Haridwar in India. Religious figures are sometimes questioned for their motives, and whether they are merely extracting the money of the faithful.  To many, their teachings of faith and hope become a major part of daily life.  Their lessons of altruism, equality and devotion are important to spiritual development in an Indian society sublimating into western influences.
However some teachings and beliefs can conflict in the contemporary India, reflective of Brown’s opening speech. The prevalent role of Karma for example, or cause and effect, has frequently played scapegoat as an inherent cause for the perpetuation of a caste society in some parts of India-which places the blame of poverty on the fault of the poor.  Placing the fault elsewhere for poverty or crime, as in the case of Jyoti’s murderers, prevents India from progressing, and tackling the key issue-challenging backward perceptions.

There are traditional societal influences still placed on women, including dowry.  Despite passing the 1961 Dowry Prohibition Act, there continue to be many cases of dowry-related domestic violence and suicide. It is also possible cause for the high level of reported female infanticide and sex selective abortions in India. Child marriage also continues to be a concern in rural India, where a ‘State of the World’s children’ report by UNICEF in 2009 showed that 40% of the world’s child marriages occur in India. These aspects of Indian culture may still have some inertia in shaping male attitudes and the treatment of women as objects in some parts of India today.

Whether we place emphasis on India’s socio-cultural traditions to explain current maladies begins to miss the point. India can assimilate into the modern world by adopting a culture for progress and challenging these existing perceptions. Jyoti’s case has spurred a mass of female activism, and refocused the necessary questions on Indian society.

As the fire lamps burn out on another night of celebration in Chokhi Dhani, the rest of India is awakening to find a balance between the old and new.