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Blinded by spotlight: How the intellectual became a TV pundit

"Intellectuals have connived with a culture of intolerance, accusation and controversy-stoking that creates hysteria as an extreme form of conformity," writes Harish Khare in a Hindu op-ed on the Ashis Nandy controversy. Where my piece on media culpability took to task our abetment of a culture of censorship, Khare turns the finger at the very public intellectuals who are now wringing their hands over "the creeping culture of intolerance." [Read 'Why the intellectual is on the run' here]

In the less interesting parts of his essay, Khare makes the familiar case that Nandy is a "collateral victim" of a TV-driven debate culture:

This happens every night. Ten or 15 words are taken out of a 3,000-word essay or speech and made the basis of accusation and denunciation, as part of our right to debate… In our nightly dance of aggression and snapping, touted as the finest expression of civil society and its autonomy from the ugly state and its uglier political minions, we turn our back on irony, nuance and complexity and, instead, opt for angry bashing, respecting neither office nor reputation.

The idea that the national discourse has been coarsened by the influence by television shout-fest format is neither new, nor limited to India. More  unexpected is the stab at the intellectuals themselves — many of whom participate night after night in the very same culture of accusation they denigrate in innumerable op-eds and essays elsewhere.

Defining the essence of the public intellectual, Khare writes:

At any given time, it is the task of the intellectual to steer a society and a nation away from moral uncertainties and cultural anxieties; it is his mandate to discipline the mob, moderate its passions, disabuse it of its prejudices, instil reasonableness, argue for sobriety and inject enlightenment. It is not the intellectual’s job to give in to the mob’s clamouring.

But, unfortunately, that is what our self-designated intellectuals have reduced themselves to doing: getting overawed by television studio warriors, allowing them to set the tone and tenor of dialogue… When intellectuals and academicians like Ashis Nandy allow themselves to be recruited to these “debates,” even if they are seen to be articulating a dissenting point of view, their very presence and participation lends credibility to the kangaroo courts of intimidation.

Having stepped onto more hazardous territory, Khare quickly retreats into discretion: Perhaps these intellectuals are "overawed" or unwitting accomplices, unaware of the consequences of their presence on these shows.

Or not. Here's what Khare prefers not to spell out:

One, the late night TV talk show roster represents a closed social clique of A-list journalists, celebrities, socialites and academics. We see the same faces — with small — over and over again. So much so that most major news network TV panels more often resemble a 'friends and family' programme.

Representational Image. Reuters

Representational Image. Reuters

Two, the clutch of intellectuals who qualify for membership is smaller and less representative because it is disproportionately determined by geography. Almost anyone who gets on these panels is either in Delhi, or did their turn on the Delhi circuit at one point. US news channels too have their share of pet experts but the pool is larger, more diverse and spread across the nation — as are the top-rated universities who produce these star academics.

Three, far too many of our public intellectuals have become professional talking heads. Greater part of their time is spent on air than in research or publishing, ie burnishing the very academic credentials that qualify them to speak with authority.

And, hence, four, they are no longer experts called on to speak only on their area of knowledge, but catch-all opinionmongers selected for their ability to deliver outrageous sound-bytes and single-mindedly represent a predetermined position on any given issue.

Five, academics much like actors — and now journalists — are in the business of celebrity branding. Visibility matters more than the quality of the published work, or its argument.  However, given the shameful salaries and funding in the social sciences and arts, one can't blame them for seeking the only form of success that new India offers, ie money and/or fame.

Six, it isn't fair either to only shame the TV news outlets for this state of affairs. We also don't have the large numbers of talented social scientists and cultural critics to create a rich and diverse chorus of voices on social and political issues. And for this, the blame lies as much in a society that is too obsessed with its IIMs and IITs to nurture and finance a true ivory tower of ideas. There is a serious and unaddressed brain drain in arts and social sciences as most who seek a sustainable, academic career in these fields inevitably migrate West for the sheer paucity of opportunities.

The result of all of the above is an impoverished, cyclical national debate that does a great disservice to democracy.