Our country is characterised by the sheer diversity of its sights, smells and, above everything else, sounds. As a nation, we love to talk and our public spaces, including those of the media, are noisy. This is as it should be because this is a democracy and debate is the essence of a thriving democracy. In recent times, we have been arguing at the top of our voices about the increasing restrictions on precisely that — our right to speak loudly and fearlessly about anything that we consider to be important.
Prime-time TV, print media, social media forums and even our private addas are noisy with our opinions about the budget, the latest financial scam, sexual predators in Hollywood, and other things. Rightly so, because we are in a democracy and it is our fundamental right to express freely.
However, our virtual public spaces seem to resemble a “real” public space anywhere in India — crowded and noisy, where people speak and perhaps hear each other but rarely listen. The din of voices raised in argument threatens to drown out everything else; the deafening noise is edging out those feeble voices which cannot assert themselves or make themselves heard. As the nation debates, small, insignificant lives are lived out in tragic ways and nobody pays any attention. Women are thrown out of trains, farmers commit suicide, a six-year-old is raped and killed when she goes out to relieve herself — lives which are considered inconsequential in the larger scheme of things, with which we perhaps sympathise and forget.
We simply do not get the space to think long or deep about them because this is the age of information overload where the method of imparting news appears more like a fusillade and the nature of news is such that it has to be tracked every second. News stories bombard you with information, effectively wiping out all that you had heard or seen a few seconds earlier. Debates get louder and more vociferous while public memory becomes shorter and shorter.
The lack of memory disables the ability to keep a sustained interest in any story. Many reports that hit us with a bang taper off without even a whimper and we hardly notice. Barely are our heads out of the floodwaters of the Vyapam scam when another tidal wave of the Panama Papers hits us. The nature of news has become such that we are carried away by another wave which renders us unable to even look back on the earlier one. These debates are necessary and crucial to the sustenance of democracy, but what we also desperately need are silences that allow us to digest and critique the information we are bombarded with.
The lack of silence is paradoxically a silencing force, because it ensures that nobody is heard above the din. The ability of debates to smother any feedback is such that it is effectively becoming another censor that prevents meaningful or constructive discussion on any topic. Democratic debates are thus ironically becoming the most effective ways to throttle a sustained discussion on topics which can prove inconvenient to the power centres.
This works more effectively and insidiously than an official censor, all the more dangerous as it maintains the façade of participatory democratic discussion. The term “participatory” is also a moot point, given the fact that the so-called open spaces of primetime TV can carefully pick and choose the participants they want and manipulate the discussion to lead it to the conclusion they wish to arrive at. The print media, too, do not lag far behind in such manufactured consent, as they can choose to publish or not publish what they want to.
In their attempts to outsmart each other in terms of news coverage they too do not have the time or inclination to follow up on earlier stories that might be more relevant or important. Consequently, these debates on electronic and print media merely rake up a lot of noise without constructive feedback or sustained follow-up, making it merely white noise that distracts attention from important matters and nothing more.
This is why it is crucial to have periods of relative silence or leisure which allow us to absorb what we have heard and possibly act on that. As Simon and Garfunkel sang in “The Sound of Silence”, we are turning into people “talking without speaking/ People hearing without listening”. When do we realise that each of us is being incited to speak to ensure that none of us is actually heard? More importantly, how do we act upon this knowledge to strengthen our democratic institutions?