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Migration is a mirror held up to all nations: Insights from migrant writers

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Authors:Ash Narain Roy and Aishwarya Parihar*

Great Indian poet and first Asian recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature Rabindranath Tagore’s words are highly instructive for our discussion on migration and its manifold manifestations. He said, “No one knows at whose call so many streams of men flowed in restless tides from places unknowns and were lost in one sea.” In fact, one could argue that the great dispersal of homo sapiens out of Africa and throughout  rest of the world marked the beginning of humanity itself.

Migration has taken place since the dawn of time. Seeking safety, shelter, food and human freedom, people have sought to escape hunger and persecution in search of a better life. History is a struggle between those who tried to overcome boundaries and fences and those who tried to restore them; those who erected walls and those who dismantled them. The native people were wary of recognizing national borders. The nomads and early settlers, ranchers and hunters had different notions of what constitute borders, authority, territory and identity. Quite often borders are political and historical, not geographical. The rivers, mountains and deserts don’t separate, they unite. On the other hand, the French and British cut Asia Minor to bits as if they were dividing a cake.

As Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie says ingeniously, “human history is a history of movement and mingling…We are not just bones and flesh. We are emotional beings. We all share a desire to be valued, a desire to matter. Let us remember that dignity is as important as food.” Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid and author of Exit West takes the issue on a very different plane saying how human beings undergo many migrations and how we are all migrants today, even those of us who have never moved.  British novelist Hanif Kureishi says a migrant is stripped of colour, gender and character. She/he has been made into something an alien and an example of the undead  who will invade, colonise and contaminate. In a way, nobody is actually a native.

As British-Somali poet Warsan Shire puts it, “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of shark. You only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well.” Time has come to recognize this reality. It is equally important to focus attention on the forces that motivate the young people to risk death, slavery and sex trade in the hope of a safer life.

The coronavirus pandemic will further aggravate the migrant crisis all over the world. The International Organisation for Migration says that travel restrictions due to the pandemic have left people on the move “more vulnerable than ever.” It further says that “There are thousands of stranded migrants all over the world  because of the closing of the borders.” The world stands on the brink of a food crisis worse than any seen for at least 50 years, warns the UN, urging governments to act swiftly to avoid disaster.

The global economy could shrink by up to 1% in 2020 due to Coronavirus, a reversal from the previous forecast of 2.5 % growth. The economy may contract further if the pandemic is not brought under control. According to various estimates, coronavirus could push about 400 million people into extreme poverty. And its impact will be most severe in developing countries. The Eurozone economy will shrink by 8 to 12 % this year. The pandemic has triggered a recession twice as deep as after the 2008 financial crisis.

 The Western world too faces a moment of new reckoning. The 2008 crisis exposed its real flaws and weaknesses. After the coronavirus pandemic, the scab has been peeled off and the wound is worse than one thought. No country is an island of prosperity which can live in perpetual advancement. The developed world needs new ideas and action and a new approach to managing the future.

What is worrying is that the Covid-19 health crisis may alter the parameters of discussion on migration and mobility. At a time of populist upsurge, political elements are exploiting the crisis for political gain using migration, globalization as scapegoats. Blame games and conspiracy theories have gained new currency.

The Runnymede Report on Race and Immigration says that the history of migration can’t be separated from that of the empire. Large number of Britons moved to colonies due to economic hardship, land dispossession, ethnic and social cleansing, labour exploitation and wealth loss. The gap was filled by African, Asian and Caribbean communities. A predominant number of migrants today have similar reasons to seek a better life in Europe and North America.

A migrant also fits the British anthropologist Mary Douglas’ definition of dirt as “matter out of place.” A migrant becomes less than human by being out of place, unwanted where he/she is working, and unwelcome at the point of origin.

Our world is fast becoming a ‘No Go World.’ Fear is redrawing our maps and infecting our politics. Remote zones of insecurity are becoming central to the new world disorder.  Rich countries are reinforcing their borders and severing contact points with the zones of insecurity. What is also emerging is what journalist Todd Miller calls ‘Empire of Borders’. Big powers are now exporting their borders around the world. They are extending their zones of security beyond their physical borders. To them, borders are the last line of defence, not the first line of defence.

The world is distressed by the double whammy of the migrant crisis and the Covid-19. The pandemic represents a new battlefield in international politics that will determine the rise and fall of nations. It is also a contest to determine what type of state and society will prove to be most resilient. Countries that have robust democratic institutions and high levels of social cohesion and that can handle the migrant crisis and climate crisis imaginatively will do well. It is a new defining moment. Not confronting the warning, countries and societies risk becoming lost in the labyrinth of moral bewilderment. Tomorrow could be too late.

Literature as a Lens of Analysis

This paper analyzes the contemporary migrant crisis in Europe and elsewhere employing literature as a tool of dissecting the different nuances of what Brazilian scholar Menara Lube Guizardi calls “the age of migrant crisis.” Literature is the quintessential reflection of society and has served as a critique of the socio-political events from time immemorial. It has pioneered the revolutions that have shaped the world into what it is today.

As Turkish writer Elif Shafak says, a writer’s job “is to ask questions about different issues. By raising honest questions, literature makes invisible visible and make the unheard more heard”. Migration is a major topic in literary works. Also, writers are good at making new maps of reality.  Salman Rushdie says in ‘Imaginary Homelands’ that “our identity is at once plural and partial. Sometimes we feel that we straddle two cultures, at other times that we fall between two stools.” The excluded and the prohibited are always marginal to our collective imagination. 

The migrant literature has emerged as a genre of its own.  It’s literature above anything else, the narration of the essence of humanism that lends insights into the conflicts, conspiracies and complexities of individuals.

Migrant literature has manifested itself in a plethora of forms: cautionary tales of dystopian fiction, memoirs, graphic novels, prose and children’s literature. In these variations are enmeshed the different themes related to refugees and migration such as displacement and statelessness, conflict-ridden homes, racism, Islamophobia and xenophobia, loss of identity.

Insights from Migrant Writers: Mehta and Lalami

Suketu Mehta, New York-based author and one of the finest thinkers and writers on migration, comes from a family which, in his own words, has moved all over Earth, from India to Kenya to England to the US and back again and is still moving. His words resonate with every human and the children of every human who attempted the audacious road of escaping misery that life had become and dreamt of passing on a better one to their children. It might as well be criminal to dream of that, for such a journey is on a path of miseries itself.

As Mehta says, if a migrant or a refugee is somehow able to make it through the barbed wires to the point of destination, his heart brims with the hope of finally having a better life. For if the hearsay is  to be believed, the destination must be a paradise. That is what they claim too, that’s what the fuss is about, protecting it from your savagery and your barbaric family, you migrant. He says,

“Look, in a few years, with luck and hard work, you, too, can rise here.”

Mehta draws our attention towards a hardcore truth –how every 30th human is living in a country they were not born in. The turn of the century has made displacement via harsh climate change, war-torn continents and gross political instability leading to ethnic persecution of peoples. As we go forward from here, it only appears that we are only getting closer to a dystopia. We are nomads of circumstances. As he puts it succinctly, whether you’re running from something or running toward something, you’re on the run.”

What greets these travelers at the borders is uncertain.  An economic migrant might  not be good enough to be granted clemency of circumstances, his case not severe enough. On the other hand, a refugee might be a fearful, brutish alien.

Refugees settle for less at their new destinations. They make peace with cleaning the bedpans at a hospital regardless of having qualifications of a doctor. That is simply out of question and there are rules in place for nations to protect their own people of this thievery. Rewarding the country providing you with a safe haven by stealing the jobs of their people is a big no.

The “foreigners” become the easy target as possessors of criminal attitudes. Suddenly, all the failures of the criminal infrastructures in place, are all on the refugee. The refugee amidst the saintly population, so to say. As Mehta says “Mug shots of dark-skinned criminals, whether Moroccan or Mexican, somehow strike more terror in the Western imagination than those of homegrown white rapists.” The leaders of some of these “superior” nations are propagating this tale, because “blame it on the outsider” is an easy out.

 Why are all these migrants from these poor countries, coming to our prosperous nations that we built, they ask loudly. It is because “we are poor because of you.” The game is rigged indeed as Mehta grieves, “This is how the game was rigged: First they colonized us and stole our treasure and prevented us from building our industries.”

The powerful argument that Mehta makes is that migrants and refugees are shunned because they remind us of our worst fears.

We reject the refugee in the orderly nations because he is the sum of our worst fears,…. he is a reminder that the same thing could happen to us, too.”

A haunting sentiment is corroborated by Moroccan-American novelist Laila Lalami when she says, “I am an immigrant. Someday you might be one, too.” It is high time we shunned the antiquated ideas about migration and refugees. What awaits in the coming decades might become a cause for role reversals, with the temperature of Earth permanently rising with each year, might be an invitation to uncountable calamities. These, in turn, will only cause displacement, conflicts and more displacement.

Sitting at our homes right now, of the fear of the unknown, we might as well take a moment to pay attention to what she’s urging:

“Those who are safe from displacement — at least for the moment — must confront the roles they want to play in this unfolding global story.”

Grasping the Matter: Nostalgia and Choicelessness

In Americanah, Chimamanda Adichie explores some grim realities of modern-day migration. In the central protagonist, Ifemelu, we see some of Adichie’s nostalgia, they both hail from Nigeria, move to the US for educational pursuits, opinionated and clever young black women in America. Adichie carefully voices the narrative of a willing migrant separate from that of a refugee. Why are the miseries of migrants downplayed? Why are their experiences disregarded on the scales of severity? In representing this, along with Ifemelu, another central character Obinze becomes an important tool.

Obinze is Ifemelu’s high school sweetheart. They both part ways in pursuit of a better life, they are well off individuals in their homelands who move to the west for “the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness.” That’s the dilemma that wilful migration poses to their critics, they can just dismiss the gravity of circumstances attached to economic migration.

Migrants experience a constant state of unbelonging. Even after having lived in America for more than a decade, Ifemelu struggles to identify as an American, forever an outsider looking in. From this point onwards, however, even her home in Nigeria is far left behind and she has become an outsider there as well, returnee of the great West, a perceived Americanized black woman, an Americanah. The concept of home becomes an abstract, internal feeling of longing.

Dinaw Mengestu extends this emotional feeling of unbelonging in his portrayal of Sepha Stephanos in his novel Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears. Mengestu himself had to flee from Ethiopia during the communist revolution of 1974, which claimed the life of his uncle, Stephanos also came to the US after having fled from the Ethiopian red terror. Mengestu’s metaphorical usage of Washington and Addis Ababa to denote “arrival” and “departure” respectively, must resonate with migrants and refugees alike. Stephanos expresses his palpable difficulty living in America and how can it possibly be done if he could never really depart from Ethiopia, his home. There’s so much psychological struggle associated with the eternal suspension between the two feelings that needs addressing.

“What was it my father used to say? A bird stuck between two branches gets bitten on both wings. I would like to add my own saying to the list now, Father: a man stuck between two worlds lives and dies alone. I have dangled and been suspended long enough.”

As  Randa Jarrar, in her novel,  A Map of Home, says, growing up for Nidali “moving was a part of being Palestinian”. The home becomes portable, an idea, travelling as the migrant goes.

“Our people carry the homeland in their souls”.

For a greater chunk of migrants and refugees, war-torn homes are an unfortunate reality that they are on the run from. They get a sense of home even through painful memories. At the back of the store that Stephanos runs, he and his friends, also stuck in similar circumstances and suspended in the memories of home,  play a game called name an African dictator and the year he seized power. This is a greater resonating feeling, one that transcends borders much like the migrants.

Thanhha Lai draws on similar feelings of her own childhood through the protagonist of her novel Inside Out and Back Again, a 10 –year- old Kim Hà who had to flee Vietnam with her family after the fall of Saigon and ends up in Alabama. The characters Stephanos and Há are different in every aspect but their longing for their conflict-ridden homes in the memories that scar is common.

“No one would believe me but at times I would choose wartime in Saigon over peacetime in Alabama.”

Through literature that focuses on the narratives of migrant children, writers bring another critical site of observance– the experiences of displacement at an impressionable age. These are more prone to go unnoticed as these kids often don’t have the faculty to voice their plight, but the careful, patient observance of literature helps unfold these.

Lai’s Há experiences dislocation at an unfamiliar country and immense frustration of not being able to understand the language. A smart kid who is not able to perform well at school because of linguistic barriers has her doubting her own intelligence. Adding to these woes is the sense of alienation, of being a misfit, of looking completely different than everyone else and on top of that is the misery of being bullied for it, shatters young minds.

Dina Nayeri’s own account as an Iranian refugee in Dubai, then Italy and finally after granted asylum in the US, in her book The Ungrateful Refugee, confirms the coming of age plights of migrant children. Nayeri experiences an immense pressure to give up everything that makes her Iranian, is violently bullied and verbally ridiculed at school.

“The first thing I heard from my classmates, however, was a strange “ching-chongese” intended to mock my accent. I remember being confused, not at their cruelty, but at their choice of insult. A dash of racism I had expected – but I wasn’t Chinese; were these children wholly ignorant to the shape of the world outside America?”

This is why it becomes important to consider the accounts of the children while treading the subject of migration mired with complexities. Nayeri explains how growing up in Iran, the sound of the bomb explosion, the feeling of imminent death remained an everyday event, only to be faced these traumatic instances where a migrant seeks respite. As a young girl, alienated in her surroundings while always being reminded of that alienation, she observed her mother’s predicament whose life had become compromise and testimony. Even more devastating aspect of her story is how they must relive the war happening at their homes, always being demanded to resound their escape story and their identities simply cornered to that escape.

“I remember sensing the moment when all conversation would stop and she would be asked to repeat our escape story. The problem, of course, was that they wanted our salvation story as a talisman, no more. No one ever asked what our house in Iran looked like…,”

Nayeri expresses a valid disappointment that rather than given the chance and the resources to thrive, they have to spend their lives justifying their presence or be labelled an ungrateful refugee. The writers bringing their own migrant experiences, further reach out to a lot more others whose stories need to be told, just as Nayeri does for these “travellers in residence” as Maeve Brennan once called. That’s where the essence of literature is rooted after all, in telling stories that need to be told.

Thematical Linkages Bridging the Writings

All the books and writings discussed above are woven with a common thread like alienation and loneliness and a sense of homelessness that give rise to fragmented identities. The migrants belong nowhere. The sense of hollowness and dislocation that migrants feel serves to highlight the uprootedness of today’s citizens of the global village, migrant or native.

The similar sense of unbelonging portrayed by Adichie through Ifemelu is found in Mengestu’s Stephanos and Lai’s Há. Ifemelu’s movement stems out of hunger for opportunity, Stephanos’ is a painful exile, Há accompanies her family out of a conflict-ridden Vietnam. The causations behind the movement of each of the central characters are different, they come from different countries, out of different circumstances, yet a young woman’s sense of never been able to belong to America even after years of living and neither in Nigeria anymore is similar to a man’s permanent state of suspension between Addis and Washington and a 10-year-old girl’s sense of lost home, without finding solace in the newer surroundings.

 To Adichie, home exists in migrant’s memory. In Suketu Mehta’s account home is an idea. In Jarrar’s portrayal, home travels with the migrant. Stephanos longs for his lost home in Ethiopia reminiscing through memories that are painful.  Há’s innocent mind seeks a tumultuous Saigon than a peaceful Alabama. A similar longing is present in Nayeri’s nostalgia of her home in Iran despite conflicts.

 The othering of the migrant is also a common thread in all writings. Ifemelu is discriminated due to her dark skin, Há feels like the odd one out amongst other kids with her dark hair on olive skin, Nayeri feels the need to change everything about her Iranian appearance as a teenager. It is simply not that such intense questioning of their outer appearance is something that arises only out of self-awareness but because of the treatment by the hosts that comes attached to it.

  Mehta also says that the dark-skinned migrant is an easier target, assumed as the culprit and easily blamed for the terror. The migrant also suffers from self-doubt besides being marked unintelligent. Ifemelu fails to get a job even though she’s qualified, Nayeri is bullied at school.

 Conclusion

In a time of hardening borders and the fear of and contempt for the other, it is hard to imagine that the sea once served as a link between nations and societies. We need to continue telling the stories of common people, stories of continuities, not the stories of elites and their battles, the way they interacted and shared similar ways of living. These stories are a powerful way to deconstruct stereotypes and prejudices we might have about the other. Centuries ago, it was the Europeans who were crossing the sea to reach India and the Americas. Today the tide has turned.

In view of the ongoing pandemic, fast deteriorating climate crisis and the global outrage spurred by the death of George Floyd, blaming the migrants for all the ills and the demonization of the ‘other’ have become a less comfortable conversation. If nations and societies don’t deal with the migrant crisis with compassion and imagination, it will assume cataclysmic proportions whose amber will consume everyone. A combination of developments has created space and time to heal. But the lens with which the world views the issue must change. The world is “bruised and bleeding”, says Tony Morrison. But we must “refuse to succumb to its malevolence.” There are many borders to dismantle, but the most important are the ones within our own hearts and minds. These are the borders that are dividing humanity from itself.

Some borders become a wound that refuses to heal. There are wounds that never show on the body that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds. Migrants are often the victims of ‘radical otherness’. Othering has been used through history as a justification for boundary setting, wall fencing and for oppression based on colour, gender, nationality and religion.

It is possible to transform our ‘teething borders’ into tender fences provided we heed the cri de coeur of the indigenous poet Craig Santos Perez:

Let us bridge each other

Across the wounded borderlands,

Until those once forbidden are now

Family, and those once prohibited

Are now protected.

*Aishwarya Parihar is a Global Studies Masters student, studying under the Erasmus Mundus scholarship  currently at Leipzig University and the University of Vienna for the coming year.

Ash Narain Roy did his Ph.D. in Latin American Studies , Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. He was a Visiting Scholar at El Colegio de Mexico, Mexico City for over four years in the 1980s. He later worked as Assistant Editor, Hindustan Times, Delhi. He is author of several books including The Third World in the Age of Globalisation which analyses Latin America's peculiar traits which distinguishes it from Asia and Africa. He is currently Director, Institute of Social Sciences, Delhi

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New Social Compact

Meritocracy in the Age of Mediocrity

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Authors: Ash Narain Roy and Sophia Thomas*

Meritocracy, political theorist Hannah Arendt famously says, “contradicts the principle of equality. Without equality, it is no less than any form of oligarchy.” Until there is equal opportunity for all, meritocracy will only be a facade. In the best global universities ranking in 2019, eight of the 10 best were American in terms of academic research, academic reputation, international collaboration, publication and citations. The US, thus, may claim to be an “aristocracy of talent”. In reality, it is what French sociologist Jean Baudrillard says a land of “utopia achieved”. In the name of meritocracy, inequality has grown. As President Obama said during his presidential campaign, “a strong middle class can only exist in an economy where everyone plays by the same rules from Wall Street to Main Street.”According to Oxfam, the richest 1 % today has as much wealth as rest of the world combined. The richest 62 people in the world have as much wealth as the poorest half of the total population.

Meritocracy is the new aristocracy. It is a myth perpetrated by the rich and the elite. Meritocracy as it is being practiced is a great delusion and a smokescreen for a system which is rigged. It is another form of plutocracy. Industrial sociologist Alan Fox poses a question rather succinctly, “Would you give more prizes to the already prodigiously gifted?”

Meritocracy has figured prominently in both ancient Western and Oriental political theory and practice. But the earliest practical example of meritocracy finds mention in ancient China. Daniel A Bell, author of The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy, says that China has a long history of debates over political merits and a concept of “elevating the worthy.”  Confucius and his followers saw worthiness in relation to morality.(Bell D. A., 21-23 May 2014)

China is known to have invented the civil service examination system. For over 1300 years, Bell says, public servants have been selected in China through the public service examination which is in line with Confucian tradition of meritocracy. As Confucius said, society should select those who are both virtuous and capable of public service. Bell describes China as a “vertical democratic meritocracy”. From Confucius to Mencius, there have been debates throughout Chinese history “how to select able and virtuous political leaders”.(Bell D. , 2015)

Zhang Weiwei, Fudan University professor of international relations refers to shangshangce, the best of the best which is the Confucian tradition of meritocracy whereby “competent leaders are selected on the basis of performance and broad support after a vigorous process that includes screening, opinion surveys, internal evaluations and various types of elections.”(Weiwei, 2018)

 Plato in The Republic says, only a small number of people, the philosopher-kings are naturally suited to rule because only they are able to know how. They alone have the ability to make morally informed political judgements and the power to rule over the community. However, it is common knowledge how Athenian democracy later evolved into what  Herodotus called, “the one man, the best”.

 India’s has been a case of meritocracy trap. Its much-maligned caste system saw its worst perversion with Brahmins becoming a class with prerogatives and access to sacred knowledge. It perpetuated the presumed supremacy of one small group against the ‘inferiority’ of others on the basis of ancestry.

Age of mediocrity

Meritocracy in the age of mediocrity and reckless demagogues has become even more farcical. Today one sees an assortment of mediocrities all around. The educated members of government, parliament and bureaucracy appear too happy to submit before the autocrat. Voters across the democratic world too have remained ignorant despite rising educational levels.

Ironically, mediocrity in the post-modern world is new genius. With the rise of mediocrity, a bubble of mediocrity has been created and citizens have slowed down their aspirations. Mediocratic and demagogic leaders have patronized mediocrity and fraternalized sycophancy.

Technology and technological violence have resulted in our mediocrity and cultural-intellectual morass. As Adrian Chiles says, “long before the machines get too clever for us, we ‘ll all be too stupid for words.”.(Chiles, 2021)

This has prompted some scholars to go beyond meritocracy. Jason Brennan in his book Against Democracy argues that it is entirely justifiable to limit the political power that the irrational, the ignorant have over others. Plato had first articulated such a view.(Brenan,2017) John Stuart Mill also favoured  giving more votes to the better educated. Some suggest extra votes for degree holders, a council of epistocrats,  with veto power, while others prescribe qualifying exams for voters. From around 1600 to 1950, people in Britain who had college degrees, had an extra vote.

Is epistocracy the answer? Is it even desirable? What about those not qualified to be in power? Epistocracy is antithetical to democracy. Jennifer Senior, New York Times columnist, writes that 95 % of Representatives “have a degree. Look where that’s got us”. In the 17th Lok Sabha, lower house of Indian parliament, 394 of 545 members have at least a graduate degree which is almost three times the number of graduates in the first Lok Sabha. And yet, bills are often passed without much discussion and critical scrutiny. A few years ago, President Pranab Mukherjee asked lawmakers to improve the quality of deliberations, discussions and debates in the House, saying India can’t remain a role model to the world simply because of the size of the electorate.

 As Mark Bovens and Anchrit Wille maintain, representative democracy has become “diploma democracy” ruled by those with higher qualification but to what good.(Bovens & Welle, 2017) Modern democracy has become vulnerable because of institutional weaknesses. Strong institutions and enlightened citizenry, not degree holder MPs, are the sine qua non of robust democracy.

Many political leaders, industrialists, bureaucrats and intellectuals owe their leading position to their bloodline. Michael Young argues how stratification “becomes inevitable in a perfect meritocracy. Each individual has an equal chance of becoming unequal.”(Young, 1994)

 Another analyst maintains, any system which rewards “through wealth and which increases inequality don’t aid social mobility”.(Littler, 2017) Half the students of America’s 12 top universities come from the richest 10 % of families. Robert Reich, professor of public policy at University of California, Berkeley, says that 60% of US personal wealth is inherited.

Nearly two decades ago, The Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Golden wrote a series of investigative articles how donations and influence helped undeserving students to grab elite university seats at the expense of meritorious students. That practice has not only continued but become worse.

Nathan Robinson maintains that the college admission scandals “reveal the lies that sustain the American idea of meritocracy”.(Robinson, 2019) He further adds that there are three ways in which a rich student gets into top college or university. The front door is when one gets in on merit. The back door is “through institutional advancement”, often ten times as much money. The third way is through what he calls “side door” that is by paying bribes and faking test marks.

Infantilisation of higher education

There is another worrying trend what Frank Furedi of University of Kent calls growing infantilization of higher education”. Referring to the practice of The University College, London, permitting students to leave class if they find historical events “disturbing,” Furendi says, “today one can’t teach the Holocaust without unsettling students.”

 He further laments how universities which nurtured intellectual experimentation are today becoming conformist and censorial. Earlier university students “were treated as young adults, capable of independent living and learning”, says Furendi.Today, that distinction “has eroded as institutions of higher education have become reorganised around the expectation that their students require paternalistic support.”. Furendi further says that the infantilisation of higher education is based on the premise that “undergraduates are emotionally vulnerable and lack the psychological resources for the conduct of independent life.”(Furedi, 2006)

Educationist Jonathan Zimmerman echoes Furendi’s views. He argues that allowing administration to solve every problem infantilizes students and that time has come to wrest control of the educational process from an administrative bureaucracy. It is time to stem the rot or else colleges and universities will become courses in “self-infantilisation.”

In universities across Europe, often students are educated to accept ideas that don’t challenge them. They are also encouraged to adopt the role of “biologically mature school children.” In 2018, when Toby Young, co-author of What Every Parent Needs to Know, wrote a stinging comment on the state of British universities describing them as “left-wing madrasas”,(Young,2018) he was brutally attacked from all quarters including Higher Education Minister Charles Camosy. Even in Sweden, known for its egalitarianism, the academia is no model of meritocracy as it is plagued with an entrenched culture of cronyism.

In China and East Asian countries, teacher-student relationship is hierarchical. In China, teachers are seen as transmitters of truth and students as passive recipients of knowledge. Chinese academics have long believed that the task of the students is to learn about the world until 40 or so and only then try to critically examine the world. Several Western scholars have noted a big difference between in and out-of-class of Chinese students. As one scholar writes, often the Western teachers find “the deathly silence of students rather unnerving”. Even open-ended questions “mostly meet with no response.”(Biggs, 1999) However, such behaviour could be cultural. For example, asking question during a lecture is considered impolite and unrespectful.

Meritocracy trap

Meritocracy is the new face of inequality.In fact, as Francois Crouzet argues, the “image of the self-made man as the mainstay of the Industrial Revolution is a myth.”(Crouzet, 2011)

Daniel Markovits, author of The Meritocracy Trap, sees meritocracy itself as a problem.It produces radical inequality, stifles social mobility, and makes everyone — including the apparent winners — miserable. These are not symptoms of systemic malfunction; they are the products of a system that is working exactly as it is supposed to.(Markovits, 2019)

About 140 million people in the US are categorised as poor and with low income. About 24 million people of colour, 38 million Latinos, eight million Asian-American, two million Native people and 66 million Whites fall under this category. Many Americans have argued that riches are the “fruit of industry” and that America must “honour the fruit of merit”. Such meritocracy is of course a false narrative and a plutocratic fraud. China may have evolved a sophisticated system of selecting and promoting political officials, involving decades of training and examinations at different stages of their career, but its much-touted political meritocracy too is anything but meritocratic. Meritocracy remains a dystopia.

The culture of mediocrity is growing. The alternative to meritocracy should not be to stick with the status quo. Thinkers like British Social Democrat R N Tawney argue that we must strive for “equality of result” and “democratic equality of condition.” David Civil, author of The Rise of Functiocracy, has come up with a formula:Social Need +Democracy=Function. Social need, he stresses, must be “democratically identified by the community as a whole.”. It, however, raises more questions than answers. American civil rights theorist Lani Guinier, author of The Tyranny of the Meritocracy,underlines the importance of “educating a class of students who will be critical thinkers, active citizens and publicly spirited leaders.” She lays emphasis on “democratic merit”(Guinier,2016) that measures the success of higher education “by the work and service performed by the graduates who leave.”

Meritocracy inevitably metastasizes into oligarchy.Yet, even a flawed meritocracy is far better than epistocracy, feudal aristocracy or Brahminical caste system. John Rawls provides an interesting alternative. He says, “those who have been favoured by nature, may gain from their good fortune only on terms that improve the situation of those who have lost out.”Working towards radical egalitarianism is the right model. Of course, that work is never done. It is like Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus—to struggle perpetually and without hope of success. As they say, sometimes it is better to travel than to arrive.

*Sophia Thomas is Masters in Public Policy and Governance from Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, India

References

  • Bell, D. (2015, December 17). Chinese Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy. (E. Pastreich, Interviewer) Diplomat.
  • Bell, D. A. (2016). The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of     Democracy. Germany: Princeton University Press.
  • Bell, D. A. (21-23 May 2014). On the selection of good leaders in a political Meritocracy. Third Nishan Forum on World Civilizations. Shandong University, Jinan, China.
  • Biggs, J. (1999). What the Student Does: Teaching for enhanced learning. Higher Education Research & Development, 18(1).
  • Bovens, M., & Welle, A. (2017). Diploma Democracy: The Rise of Meritocracy. Oxford University Press.
  • Chiles, A. (2021, January 20). Never mind machines getting cleverer : Is technology making me stupider? The Guardian.
  • Civil, D. (n.d.). The Rise of Functiocracy.
  • Crouzet, F. (2011). The First Industrialists : The problem of Origins. University of Cambridge.
  • Furedi, F. (2006). The Culture of Fear Revisited. Bloomsbury Publishing.
  • Guinier, L. (2016). The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America. United States: Beacon Press.
  • Littler, J. (2017, May 20). Meritocracy: The great delusion that ingrains inequality. The Guardian.
  • Robinson, N. (2019, May 14). Meritocracy is a myth invented by the rich. The Guardian.
  • Weiwei, Z. (2018, 03 17). Selection and election: How China chooses its leaders. Retrieved from https://news.cgtn.com/news/3341444e796b7a6333566d54/share_p.html
  • Young, M. (1994). The Rise of the Meritocracy. Routledge.

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New Social Compact

Media, Democratic Politics and Citizen Journalism

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Media plays a key role in liberal democratic regimes. There are many functions of media in enhancing democracy. Media freedom is essential to a working democracy as agenda-setting is one of the significant roles of media. There is a constant relationship between the ruling elites and those governed in democratic countries. Public opinion is shaped in this process of interaction. The main tool of this relationship and interaction is the media.

Media is seen as the “fourth estate” in modern democracies. It acts as a “watchdog” for state affairs. The media coverage of issues—why and how they have emerged, why they are important for influencing people’s understandings of political and social reality – is very important in agenda setting (Blumber, 2015)

Journalism serves various democratic functions such as giving information, making investigation, providing society a public forum, and democratic education (Schudson, 2014). Ruling elites need media support in order to be able to create effective public support. The Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci’s (1971) conceptualization of “hegemony” states that rule must be based on both coercion and consent. Thus it can be said that media has a major role in providing a solid ground for consent.

Historically, the press has been an indispensable building block for a democratic regime. In a democratic regime, the media actors must provide a basis to the public that will enable the free expression of thoughts and opinions, the freedom of criticism of every institution and organization, including political power-holders. It can be said that, media discourse plays a key role in shaping the dynamics of the relationship between governments and the masses. Media through using a discriminatory or even stigmatizing language can undermine the legitimacy of certain actors while stressing the positive features of other actors to make them have legitimacy in the eyes of the masses. The powerful actors such as elites shape news discourse by setting time and space, agendas, participants, and news language. It is known that, the media is generally under the influence of diverse ideological forces.

In the course of time, with changing dynamics including technological advancement, democracy and media relationship has changed too. After 1945, a new type of democracy emerged. John Keane (2009) calls this as “monitory democracy”. If assembly democracy is linked to the spoken word, today’s democracy [monitory democracy] is linked to the digitalized societies.

It can be said that, in the age of globalization, the media structure has transformed. This transformation has an impact on democratic politics as well. In this new era, digitalization is on the rise and this is a major factor paving the way for citizen journalism. Citizen journalism is conducted by people who are not professional journalists. These people disseminate information using web sites, blogs, or social media platforms such as Twitter. Citizen journalism is also known as network journalism, and Web 2.0 journalism and it makes reference to the shifts in the nature of news and the media professionalism in a general sense. According to Chris Atton (2003) citizen journalism presents a “radical challenge to the professionalized and institutionalized practices of the mainstream media.”

The monopolies that constitute an obstacle to the freedom of having access to information erode democracy. However, citizen journalism offers small-scale, decentralized and interactive communication tools to ensure the freedom of having access to information and this empowers democracy.

As final remarks, it can be said that, the developments in digital communication have facilitated the proliferation of small companies and citizen journalism practices in the environment which once was dominated by a more rigid structured media sector. The developments in technology have attached a major importance to social media. The advent of new technologies and grass-roots media tools has created a significant shift in collecting and sharing information. Citizen journalism as an alternative form of news gathering and reporting is conducted outside of the traditional media boundaries. The technological improvements created a new platform for both news makers and news consumers. Thus, citizen journalism made the access to news easier and cheaper. Moreover, the global crisis like Coronavirus pandemic has shown that digital news consumption has become more critical and this ultimately increased the importance of citizen journalism.

Cited Works

  • Atton, C. (2003), “What is ‘alternative journalism’?” Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism 4, No. 3: 267-400.
  • Blumler, J. G. (2015), “Core Theories of Political Communication: Foundational and Freshly Minted” http://commres.net/wiki/_media/comt12077.pdf (Access Date: 24.1.2021)
  • Gramsci, A. (1971), Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Translated from Italian by Hoare, Q. and Nowell Smith, G. London: Lawrence and Wishart.
  • Keane, J. (2009), The life and death of democracy. London: Simon & Schuster.
  • Schudson, M.  (2014). “How to think normatively about news and democracy”, In: Kenski, K, Jamieson, KH (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Political Communication. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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New Social Compact

An Analysis on Marshall McLuhan’s concepts

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Marshall McLuhan is an important scholar who has made major contributions to communication discipline through introducing new concepts like “global village” and “medium is the message”. It can be said that ideas of McLuhan can be applied to new technologies and social media discussions today.

McLuhan introduced the idea of “medium is the message” in his book called Medium is the Message that was published in 1967. According to McLuhan, what is said by the message is not very significant. The media actors which can be regarded as the medium hold a more major influence on the masses than the message it presents.

The medium (or media in other terms) does not only have the role of being the carrier of the message but it is also the message that shapes people’s views and perceptions (McLuhan, 1967). McLuhan, based on the idea of “medium is the message” gave examples to support his claim in his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man published in 1964. According to McLuhan, the content of any medium is always another medium. For instance, the content of writing is speech; the written word is the content of print; and print can be seen as the content of the telegraph (McLuhan, 1964).

Another important concept coined by McLuhan is “global village”. This concept was introduced in the 1960s to say that mass media will spread all over the world and make the world become a global village (McLuhan, 1962). According to McLuhan, the electronic interdependence of today’s world produces a world in the sense of “global village”. The global village has been created by the instant electronic information movement according to McLuhan.

McLuhan believed in the usefulness of communication technologies. One of the most important emphases McLuhan made was about drawing attention with his findings about the global communication revolution. According to McLuhan, TV has been a critical invention that ensures that nothing remains a secret, and that eliminates privacy, and he believed that the change of societies is possible with the development of communication tools in various forms. McLuhan made one of the most important predictions of the 20th century. This was  the Internet.

In contemporary world, social media is used by millions of user all over the world. New technologies have turned the world into a “global village” Although McLuhan said almost 60 years ago, his ideas about media (medium is the message) and the “global village” concept are still relevant today.

References

  • McLuhan, M. (1962), The Gutenberg Galaxy: The making of typographic man.   London: Routledge.
  • McLuhan M. (1964), Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man by Marshall McLuhan, McGraw Hill
  • McLuhan, M. (1967). The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects.  London: Penguin Press.

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