Of depravity and mimicry

What are our young people following?

Why do our university students remain unperturbed when their double-decker buses move through the wrong side of the road? Why do they fail to perceive that showing such a reckless disregard for traffic rules has brought disgrace on them and their institutions? Recently a few students of one of the leading public universities of the country became so unruly as to assault a police sergeant when he tried to perform his duty by not letting the university bus pass through the wrong side. We sadly observed that some students studying in the university to be enlightened have not learnt to loathe vulgar displays of power. It is necessary to investigate the incident and take legal action against the students responsible for the misdeed. At the same time, we need to confront the question as to why such crass behaviour is instilled in many young people in our society. We cannot afford to remain oblivious to the underlying causes of indiscretion and mindlessness seen among the youth at this time.

Traffic congestion is one of the most appalling problems of Dhaka city at the moment. Recently a World Bank sponsored international conference informed us that 3.2 million working hours are wasted everyday in Dhaka city due to traffic jam. The economy suffers the loss of several billion dollars per year because of this. When many people remain held up in heavy traffic in this city at different times of the day, it is often seen that certain vehicles presumably carrying VIPs, drive through the wrong side of the road. Policemen on traffic duty do not stop these cars even though these are committing a major traffic offence. Billboards are seen on Dhaka streets stating that violation of traffic rules is a punishable crime. But when certain influential individuals ignore this statement unashamedly, the general public who are stuck and suffering on the right side of the road become resentful. Surely, they do not expect such a blatant disrespect for the law by the privileged people in a democratic society. 

When politically and administratively powerful individuals set good examples to many others, it is certain that the general people start to emulate such good behaviour. Similarly, the arrogance and depravity of the privileged few serve to create social circumstances where the less advantaged people feel motivated to mimic morally corrupt acts. It is not difficult to impose penalties on a few young people, but will the administration make sure that even the VIPs cannot act beyond the law in our society? Shall we see that the police are taking legal action against the powerful people guilty of breaking the traffic rules? If the common people are not given good examples to follow, can we expect that goodness and discipline will prevail in our society? A statement of Karl Marx is relevant in this regard: "it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness." Can we say that the social trends which are in vogue nowadays in our country make people, especially the young, recognise the value of the real components of the good life such as knowledge, wisdom and morality? 

"If attempts to emphasise consumerist culture continue to get priority, we are bound to witness a dearth of thinking individuals. If young people do not learn how to think deeply and critically it is obvious that they will fail to question and reject immoral behaviour.

In 1989, journalist Shahriar Kabir visited Albania. On his return he had published a travelogue. The book informs that the entire population of Albania at that time was only 32 lakhs but the country had 1700 public libraries apart from national archives and libraries of academic institutions. There was no area in the capital Tirana without a book shop or a library. In contrast, only a few book stores and libraries are seen in a handful of areas in Dhaka city where the population now stands at 1.8 crores. Although book stores are not commonplace in Dhaka, we are witnessing in various areas of the city the rapid growth of fast food restaurants and shops selling mobile phones, fashionable clothes and cosmetic products. Alluring commercials serve to fix the subliminal message deeply in young people's minds that consuming such commodities is far more important than reading books in order to become happy and smart. The majority of television dramas and films produced in our country nowadays tend to prioritise puerile humour and shoddy entertainment in order to attract the lowest common denominator audience. For Media Studies scholar Marshall McLuhan, commercial media resembles ad agencies "in constantly striving to enter and control the unconscious minds of a vast public, not in order to understand it or to present these minds, as the serious novelist does, but in order to exploit them for profit."

By placing an emphasis on the values of a consumer society, such films and advertisements entice people to put in efforts to indulge and satisfy their materialistic impulses. They divert people's attention away from burning and deep-seated social problems because their main aim is to maintain the status quo. Thus, through the dissemination of standardised and superficial cultural products, the society starts to breed a kind of people who are not trained to think critically. Their constant exposure to distracting and frivolous media elements hardly helps them develop intellectual complexity. Thus, they are unable to distinguish between right and wrong. Novelist Nabarun Bhattachariya from West Bengal once said we should not be surprised seeing the increase in the number of reported rapes in our society when commercials, television dramas and films constantly titillate the imagination of the people. Mass media play the most crucial role in shaping the attitudes of young people in contemporary society. The internet is now widely available, but has the society made the youngsters perceive the necessity of exploring thought-provoking cultural ingredients? Without an understanding of the importance of intellectual depth and refined taste the information galore would not be of any help. We may think of the words of an English poet: "Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? And where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"

If attempts to emphasise consumerist culture continue to get priority, we are bound to witness a dearth of thinking individuals. If young people do not learn how to think deeply and critically it is obvious that they will fail to question and reject immoral behaviour. Their inability to understand the essential nature of moral duty may cause them to imitate the debased attitudes seen in the society. It is certain that the failure to develop a critical consciousness among citizens will result in growing shallowness and social degradation. Unless the social and cultural milieu inspires people to adhere to idealistic principles, we cannot expect that self-seeking and depraved motivations will cease to exist.

Naadir Junaid is Professor, Department of Mass Communication and Journalism, University of Dhaka.

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