Sunday, April 7, 2024

Fractured discourse

When public opinion is divided and media agendas are cluttered, we witness fragmented discourse.  

By Dharma Adhikari

Are you weary of polarised public debates or erratic media reports on topics that have, in recent years, assumed the form of hot-button issues in public opinion? Or are you awed by the public’s spontaneous flirtation with one extreme or the other of such issues?

Nowadays, it is impossible to stay on the sidelines or to not identify with an emotional or ideological thread. I’m talking about the country’s deeply divided frame of mind, about feeling torn between competing narratives, between frustration and hope or simply caught in between.

I am shocked by how the great experiment in the federal republican oligarchy has turned into a rambunctious circus in Kathmandu and across the provinces for its flawed methods and lapses in integrity. Yet I am awed by the vibrancy of our society in general, reflected in the increasingly assertive voice people give to their rights and convictions as well as, for instance, in the authority and efficiency of the hitherto toothless local ward offices.

I’m mortified to be from a country of serial corrupt leaders and their clans who continue to enact yet another scam, embezzlement or exploitative feat with impunity. My apathy stands starkly against an inspiring image of Nepalis as evidently generous in helping strangers, donating and volunteering, a testament to community traditions rooted in daan-dakshina or mela-paat. No wonder many citizens together can afford to freely contribute billions of their hours, weekly or monthly, to rites of passage such as birth, puberty, marriage and death in their communities, demonstrating their honourable, rich social capital attributes.

The number of youths fleeing the country in peacetime bewilders me. Seeing our fallen countrymen and women returning in caskets and the economy held hostage by political instability and by gangs of dalal middlemen, loan sharks and defaulting cooperatives breaks my heart. It is fair to state that the ongoing colossal demographic flight far surpasses any inward human movement since the time of the Licchavis and the Mallas. The Himvat region, which today comprises Nepal, emerged as one of the nine biggest human confluences in ancient times, attracting diverse people from elsewhere. It was later, after the rise of the Gorkhas or during the reign of the Ranas, that people began moving out in large numbers.

At this juncture in history, the axle of emigration has accelerated once more, rotating us at dizzying speeds and instigating socio-economic, cultural, political and, above all, informational churning, both internally and in the diasporas. Any suggestion that the country is becoming empty or that nobody should have to leave the country is overstated. It does not acknowledge the complex interplay of individual aspirations and contextual factors such as lack of opportunities at home, especially in this age of global integration.

Public pronouncements and media attributions often appear diffident, failing to reframe the problem in a more sanguine vein: Nepalis should and will afford to go abroad to travel, explore and see the world, if not to toil. The mythic Samundra Manthan helped gods create their elixir of immortality and this world. Our own churning may also yield something of value. However, we don’t seem to agree if the potion will be buttery enough such that it helps smoothen our differences and remake our beloved country.

Another widely circulated argument in public space is laced with political overtones: Nepalis were better off during the Panchayat era than in today’s federal Nepal. This sweeping assertion leaves me perplexed. Better off in what sense and to what measure?

Predictably, for a provocative question in a digital setting that is conducive to polarisation or confirmation bias, the overwhelming number of responses in social media were vehemently “yes” and, to a lesser degree, “no.” Many invoked nostalgia for a kingdom they described as relatively stable, industrious and maintaining a respectable image in the international arena. Those in favour of the new dispensation cited advancements in freedoms and rights. Often, emotions drive logic, however fallacious, in social media. “I feel they were better off” may equal “they were better off”. Unlike many social media posts, some news outlets did run nuanced reports and commentaries; for instance, a 13-part series by Setopati tried to illuminate both sides of the divide.

Social media and influencers across the ideological spectrum are increasingly part of the emerging reality of intermedia agenda setting in news production and public opinion formation. Their perceptions of bias and selective reporting or commenting by the other side reinforce mutual suspicion and distrust. Of late, a recurring criticism is that news outlets, by and large, appear liberally biassed and are hesitant and even indifferent to following leads on stories about the right, such as anti-secularist activities or former king Gyanendra Shah’s pronouncements, overtures or public engagements. The sum of intermedia influences today has significant implications, for it shapes public opinion and impacts audience engagement and revenue generation.

Considerations of objectivity, fairness and independence in journalism must now encompass how these principles—as well as emerging news values of interactivity and engagement—are negotiated within the media ecosystem.

Do media agendas and public opinions, divided along preferred forms of governance, socio-economic status, ethnicity, race, foreign relations, religion and generational divide even converge any longer? Should they?

When public opinion is divided and media agendas are haphazard or cluttered, we witness fragmented discourse, heightened polarisation, information overload, neglect of crucial issues and susceptibility to manipulation and sensationalism—all readily apparent today.

Published in the Kathmandu Post, 8 April 2024.