Thursday, February 17, 2011

Media & Percepts


Here is a serious question that sounds silly, or a silly question that sounds serious: Did Devi Prasad Regmee’s slap really make Jhalanath Khanal our 34th prime minister?

Not just the whole country but the victim-turned victor himself seems to feel that, in deed, the answer is a big YES. And the media is gleefully hoisting that affirmative banner, making the statement even taller and louder.

Now, unless everyone is kidding, I cannot see how the smack could be so deterministic. You may consult the laws of causation, and except perhaps for the Aristotelian “efficient cause”, the external entity (read “the slap”) from which the effect (read “elected PM”) happened, the Western school of philosophy offers little explanation. The closest I came to something of a satisfactory response was our own abstract formulation on Karmic fruits, that a person’s actions mysteriously cause certain positive or negative effects in his or her life.

Turn to formal logic: “Necessary cause” (slapping is necessary for being elected PM), “sufficient cause” (getting slapped is a sufficient condition for being elected a PM), and “contributory cause” (slapping does not result in electing a PM, although it produces such an effect). I found its last variant a little relevant but have not still been able to figure out how the smacking actually contributed to Khanal’s elevation to the topmost public post.

Apparently, then, the more important question we should be asking is why some people adhere to non causa pro causa (Latin for “non-cause for cause”). A little more reflection and I find this type of causal fallacies everywhere in the world around us and in our lives: We signed the two-party agreement because we seek all-party consensus. Load-shedding will go away some day because we have the hydro power potentials. It also gets pathological: This government, this city or this country is not going to make any progress because I say so! I heard on TV a former government official gloat about the fact that he bunked his office so many times because he could do so! Forget multi causality in this age of fast-mood or food. And this one is the world classic, I hope you agree: We attack Iraq because it has WMD!

Confusing cause with effect or contributory cause with a necessary cause does not simply point to our distorted awareness of the world or misplaced attitudes; it speaks deeply about the impact it may have or has had on our conducts and their outcomes, in other words, the causality of our being.

The ancient Greeks invented the term--tautology--to describe a statement that is true merely by virtue of saying the same thing again and again. This staccato in style has become the meaning. Passion has assumed the role of reason and perception that of conception or reality. “Common sense” has little to do with sound or prudent judgment and today it almost universally implies popular perceptions, largely because the modern media of communication have the power to totalize, homogenize and fashion “truth” by creating a continuous, lasting and total environment, as the French social Scientist Jacques Ellul would argue. The facts don’t count much; forget the evidence. Meaning is illusion; embrace the form.

There are many examples of media competing in the perception race, most notably, the SMS polls on television channels and newspapers. With prominent newspapers like Kantipur launching their own polls, one would expect them to mediate informed public opinions and genuine public participation. However, I cannot tell how the bright, young editor of the daily or his veteran publishers came to decide putting out the regular, front-page poll that is simply unrepresentative, unscientific, and is unrevealing in its sampling but at the same time it sways public opinion by virtue of the newspaper’s prominence and wider reach. Not just the public, in fact, I came across a few experts who backed their statements by confidently citing the newspaper’s mid-January poll which showed 83 percent of voters favoring Baburam Bhattarai as the next PM.

We don’t know how many mobile phone users text their votes, but what we do know is this: Politicians and policymakers have a legitimate reason to be resentful of such polls. Nepal is now in transition, a time of extreme polarization familiar to any post-conflict society. The media are there to serve as primary channels for public deliberation and mediation, and these truly are uncommon times best left to professional communicators who manage to separate concepts from percepts, reality from appearance, public participation from public manipulation.

The distinction here is between percepts or mental images with all-embracing sensations and concepts or mental processes that involve thinking and language. No wonder, for all their proclivity to sound bites and images, spectacles and dramatics, forced by market logic and professional routines like deadlines and space constraints, percepts are up for grabs simply because they don’t involve (much) thinking, which also means you don’t have to ask tough questions or do any serious talking back. And we think we have to respect that since in a democracy people themselves decide between what they want and what they need.

And there is this somewhat valid argument that news media do not offer much that is worth thinking about, anyway. But “perceptions” about their work remain powerfully stamped in their users’ mind. An outside view from a cultural distance offers a unique perspective on our inside reality. Recently, I had a chance to interact with an envoy from a European nation. He visualized our news flow with periodic, sudden bursts of shocking headlines and stories, never to hear about them again (lacking any follow-up, typical of our media). Really, what happens to what happened?

Lessons from other countries with a history of conflict offer caution. In the context of post-conflict, the lack of proper follow-up means lessons lost in injustice and reconciliation. Unfortunately, the role of media in a conflict-setting is often undermined globally. Peru, which suffered a twenty-year conflict between the Shining Path Maoists and government forces, largely failed to utilize the media in the peace process. In fact, researchers have documented that the highly polarized media there, through slants and spectacles, skewed the perception among the public about the conflict and later its resolution. It was more of a problem than help.

In Nepal, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of Nov 21, 2006 and the Interim Constitution (2008) committed to “complete press freedom” but no official strategy was put into place or support offered to the media to cover the transition with a focus on peace-building. Many journalists lost their lives in the line of duty. Media merely became a source-driven machine, always after personalized dramatics in Kathmandu, “lies, damn lies”, misplaced perceptions, and rarely after agenda of peace (of course, as they choose to define it for themselves). Yet, compared to many other post-conflict countries, the media’s flaws in Nepal by and large remain more subtle than blatant.

Viewed from a long-term perspective, what happened after over two hundred years of this nation’s birth best describes our experience. We are living in this particular time of momentous events, events that we can witness and access instantaneously, thanks to new technologies. Never mind we don’t always understand them for there are too many of them and far too complicated too. So we try to overcome them via short-circuitry. And what better way than the media to help us in this?

Yet, again, the danger is we may be unwittingly fooling ourselves. Subtlety is not without danger, especially for an increasingly ad-driven, commercialized mainstream media of Nepal. Ellul argued that mass media, though unintentionally, create a “uniculture” and promote homogeneity and uniformity affecting the total psychological and opinion environment of a society. On the other hand, this “integrative propaganda”, virtually unnoticed (like water to fish), allows us to make sense of society as we perceive it. That is the little understood percept, without the concept, watered all over us.

Wet and seduced, I still can’t help feel, as opposed to believe, that Mr Regmee actually caused PM Khanal.

Published in the Republica, Feb 16, 2011.