Living amidst sermons on materialism mixed with advertisements
Sri Lanka’s media landscape today is reflective of the inherently contradictory nature of modern human life.
On the one hand, there is hardly any TV channel in the country that does not give a prominent place to religious sermons, in particular the Buddhist ones, that often emphasise the futility of perusing an overly materialistic way of life.
On the other, such religious programming is frequently interrupted by advertisements that strive to entice people to go behind a whole range of consumer goods such as meat balls, chicken nuggets, sleek motor cars and sophisticated electronic gadgets.
What is interesting is that most people do not seem to worry about the inherently contradictory nature of their own lives but carry on regardless, frequently participating in religious sermons on the one hand and constantly engaging in all forms of modern consumption on the other.
It is perhaps these seemingly contradictory tendencies among people that drive some political leaders to allocate the public funds to build temples and shopping malls in the same breath.
The same behavioral tendencies can be observed among priests as well as lay people. While ordinary people contribute small donations to build religious monuments, many people who have amassed considerable wealth, either in legitimate or illegitimate ways, often donate large amounts for the same purpose.
Inherent contradictions in human life have been the subject of critical enquiry and theorisation by a large number of Eastern and Western philosophers as well as behavioral scientists.
"Publicly funded media institutions have largely become purveyors of sectarian political propaganda rather than open public space for informed public discussion."
Sigmund Freud examined how the development of human personality in modern societies involved social and psychological processes aimed at reconciling fundamental contractions between divergent tendencies, i.e. pleasure seeking and the need to face reality.
Similarly, Greek philosophers identified Appolonian and Dionysian tendencies among human beings that needed to be reconciled.
There are many other examples that can be cited but space does not permit it here.
Yet, what should be noted here is that there is extensive literature on the subject ranging from religious texts to philosophical treatises.
This literature contains various norms and practices that can guide human action, both individual and collective. All societies have dealt with these contradictions in different ways, giving rise to divergent social and cultural practices. When such societies encounter each other, the result often is conflict but at times such encounters lead to intercultural leaning and accommodation.
Managing the inherent contradictions in human life mentioned above has long been one of the biggest challenges that human societies have faced over thousands of years.
This reality would not change as long as human societies exist. On the other hand, the future shape of human societies will depend on how we manage and reconcile between contradictory psychological and social forces.
Since human society is today divided into individual political units called States, what matters most is how we handle the issues at the level of the State.
Yet, it is not a simple matter to figure out what the exact role of the State is in regard to the above. But, in general and in a philosophical sense, it would be wise to assume that the State should help strike a balance between the two dominant human tendencies.
Of course, the way to play that role is not to divert the collective resources of the people for building symbols of material consumption and psychological restraint such as shopping malls and temples. It is through balanced public policies and reasonable State interventions that the State could help citizens to navigate through complex paths to fulfillment and contended life. It is in this sense that well thought out public investments become important in modern societies.
There is no doubt about the overwhelming emphasis that many societies today place on material prosperity.
Newly invigorated markets under neo-liberalism are almost changing the physical landscape of the earth by building ever larger cities where the majority of human beings are going to live in the near future.
This energy intensive urban life would certainly be unsustainable unless some miraculous technological solution to the energy question is found by the natural scientists.
Moreover, millions of people are no longer living in stable communities as they are on the move across the world looking for better paid employment and decent living environments. This is also not sustainable.
Increasing encounters between cultures, lifestyles and world views have become serious points of contention leading to violent conflicts that more than threaten world peace.
Against such developments, the role of the State has become even more critical in reconciling the inherent and intensifying contradictions in human society. How can the State do this?
It is quite clear that the ongoing social transformation on a global level has widened the chasm between reason and emotion, materialism and spiritualism, hedonism and restraint, order and disorder, pleasure and reality, development and ecological balance, etc. etc. In this context, the role of the State has become critical, not as a mere facilitator of the market, but as a restraining influence on both the markets and citizens everywhere.
The State can exert this influence through sound public policies and strategic and far-sighted public investments, on the one hand, to cushion the people against the corrosive effects of the market and on the other, to create an enlightened public through sound education and critical public discourse.
"The State can exert this influence through sound public policies and strategic and far- sighted public investments, on the one hand, to cushion the people against the corrosive effects of the market and on the other, to create an enlightened public through sound education and critical public discourse. "
So, the role of the State in education is key as education systems almost everywhere have been losing their intrinsic value, larger purpose and meaning.
This is a theme that needs detailed analysis but, again space does not permit me to attempt it here.
Suffice it to say that education is too important a matter to be left in the hands of semi-literate politicians and profit seeking businessmen.
As for public discourse, it is clear that the media institutions are also guided mostly by almost identical forces, preventing the public from engaging in critical discussion and debates on issues that matter to them most.
The situation is grave in countries like Sri Lanka, where publicly funded media institutions have largely become purveyors of sectarian political propaganda rather than open public space for informed public discussion.