Broadly speaking, it is important for every citizen in our country, and indeed any country across the world to be concerned with the political affairs of the state. After all, politics affects everybody and everything we do. Our schools, colleges, health care, public infrastructure and even social cohesiveness comes down to the policies enacted by the political leaders, who in democratic countries are elected by you and me. Therefore, during elections we impact politics and then for the rest of the tenure, politics impact us. The hallmark of a healthy society is the ability of its citizens to know what and indeed who is good to best represent the larger society’s interest – even if it is in direct contradiction to one’s own interest. In order for each one of us to do this, we must be intellectually and spiritually independent. What do I mean by intellectual independence? Intellectual independence comes from the ability to make careful, informed decisions about ourselves and the society around us. Spiritual independence comes from the knowledge that each of our inner yearnings are unique and different. Both of these go hand in hand.
And I want to talk about this independence or rather the erosion of it in recent years. Today, we find a very polarized world in almost all spheres, but especially in politics. Why has this polarization occurred, especially when we have large levels of literacy and education? You cannot have stark polarization along left-right lines unless you have ‘herd mentality’ among people. That is to say, a large section of society have identified themselves with a certain ideology or a social construct. The assumption of any identity means that one is not aware of who one is and simply gives in to a larger cause or a larger belief system. In some places religions do this. In current world affairs, politics is doing this. Either way, when an individual has pawned one’s mind to the greater current, it leads to mass indoctrination. People seem to have lost the ability to think independently and come to informed decisions by themselves. Why have people lost their independent thinking ability? Who or where is the influence most strongly coming from?
I think we all know the answer. The rise of 24×7 television news and 60x60x24x7 social media has resulted in a constant stream of information and opinions on all of us. The need to read the news is an old habit. Educated people did that in the past by reading the newspaper daily. However today, we are in an era of news on steroids. News has invaded every second of our life, every sphere of our life. And most news is political in nature and heavily influenced by polarized left-right aligned media groups. Social media is no different. While, social media can be used as an excellent tool to voice opinions, the manner in which it is presented to us is certainly not unbiased. It promotes social media “stars” who have more followers and displays posts that have larger shares and likes. This creates a snowball effect where one ideology rapidly proliferates through people’s minds. The strength of an idea is measured only by the numbers and not on its veracity or profundity. Further, most of this is in 160 characters or less. Don’t we all remember the time we shared a post by simply reading the headline? This is dangerous to our society. It is like launching a rocket without knowing what is in it and where it is headed. Social media, also gives us the illusion that we are important “influencers” in the political discourse. Armed with half-baked facts, statistics and usually a very shallow understanding of the subject, people become “clickivists” (click activists) from the comfort of their couches. This in itself is not bad, but most of these influencers have never spent time understanding core issues. We see this pattern repeat with TV presenters who hold very strong positions, but are not experts on politics or any social issue. A presenters job is to present and let the experts comment on the important issue. As a social media user, my job is to point to facts and not necessary interpret them (unless of course I am an expert on that matter). This proliferation of pseudo-experts, who in turn shape society is dangerous.
Therefore the rise of instant news and instant newsfeeds, have amplified divisions as opposed to ameliorating them. What we need is calm. Space. Silence. In developing both intellectual independence and spiritual independence we need to have the ability to read something and spend at least the same time in reflecting on it. I have personally used this principle while reading books. I read a chapter, close it, close my eyes and reflect on it. This reflection is a critical part of knowledge assimilation. Or else, one risks becoming a leaky tank – water in, water out. Reflection, is critical to develop intellectual and spiritual knowledge. And this needs space away from “influencers”.
It isn’t that social media or television is bad. This is another extreme viewpoint taken by some. In general all technology are merely tools – they are morally neutral. That is to say, they are not inherently good or bad. But the manner in which they are used makes them so. A knife can be used to murder someone or used to dice vegetables to feed our families. A cell phone can be used to call a friend to be with them or can be used to shout at your relatives. All technology has a place in our lives. But it is not the only life. When reality is replaced by virtual reality, when social life is replaced by social media, then we start seeing fractures in our societies. And this is what is happening today in America and indeed all across the world.
So what can we do? Simple. Reclaim your independence. Being born as a human being, we inherit a huge blessing from creation. We have a sophisticated mind. We are the only species that is capable of self reflection. This is the most important thing that separates us from animals. How much of our daily lives do we give to this differentiator? We spend so much time eating – so do animals. We spend so much time talking and chatting – so do animals. We spend so much time entertaining ourselves – so do animals. We spend so much time socializing – so do some animals. We need to certainly do all of this for it makes life full. But we also need to think independently, away from noise and away from influences. Some of the greatest creative insights in humanity – art or science – has been born through creative introspection. This is something, each one of us must cultivate. Psychology shows us that the need for meaning is innate to man and that this is a journey that each one of us must embark on by ourselves. Nobody can walk this for us – not social media influencers, our friends or family, our gurus, scientists or TV anchors. We and we alone must walk this path of deliberate and reflective reasoning. In that lies our salvation. In that lies the strength of society. Only then, can we see a society that is not as divided as it is today.