The Hindu Business Line
The Year of the Stupid
Let’s bid goodbye to 2016 with the resolution of reclaiming the intellectual in 2017
There is no other way to describe it. 2016 is the year of the stupid. That we find ourselves, incomprehensibly, in a world that seems intent on taking the most obviously erroneous choices is not something that came from nowhere, we have been hurtling towards this for at least a couple of decades.
Perhaps it began earlier, but my first distinct sense of perplexity came from the rise and rise of Paris Hilton. At the turn of the millennium, Hilton burst into our lives. She was the “It” girl we were told, without a clear definition of what “It” entailed. In a couple of years, a privately shot sex tape was publicly released. In 2004, Hilton wrote a book, Confessions of an Heiress, and it went right to the top of The New York Times Best Seller List. A couple of years later, she recorded a single, ‘Stars Are Blind’, which became an instant global hit. To watch Hilton on television, being interviewed as she walked into a nightclub or to the front row of the fashion week, it was painfully clear how stupid she was. She couldn’t string one intelligent sentence together, she seemed to have no appeal but for the ability to confidently carry herself and somehow believe in the myth that she was special. Yet, she was so successful. People waited for hours to catch a glimpse of her, they threw their money at her crappy book and her terrible songs. And more importantly, people appreciated, endorsed and even imitated her stupidity.
It has taken only a decade and some for the rise of the Stupid to spread from the realm of entertainment to public life. For here we are in 2016, rubbing our eyes at disbelief that in a couple of weeks Donald Trump will be sworn in as the President of the United States of America. Of course, there were plenty of signs along the away. There was the fact that more people voted in reality television shows than actual elections, people falling over cliffs while taking selfies or playing games on their phones, there was Silvio Berlusconi in Italy and the bumbling Nigel Farage in the United Kingdom. There is the rise and rise of Kim Kardashian. And underlining all of this, is one spectacular development; that human civilisation is now one that relies almost entirely on visual stimulation, not literary.
This move from reading to watching is not just accelerated because, obviously, as a consumer of content there is nothing that aids the lazy more than the ability to collapse on the couch and simply keep your eyes and ears open, but there is also the active condemnation of reading. Nowhere in contemporary history has the word “intellectual” been used as an insult. At dinner parties and on social media now, the most stinging thing that can be said is, “Please, you sound like an intellectual”. Geek and nerd are its synonyms, dripping in the shame of a pursuit of knowledge — irrelevant, unattractive, boring, weak. By implication, this means you aren’t “with it”, that you don’t know what’s popular, and that you are part of a minority relegated to the margins, called losers. In the stinging aftermath of both Brexit and Trump’s win, “intellectuals”, “liberals” and “the media” were asked to introspect about the bubbles they live in. Read the commentary on the other side, they were told, as though the real problem in the world is that more people aren’t reading listicles endorsing misogyny and bigotry.
Even neurologically, much is lost in this shift away from a literary world to a visual world. Research has proved that both watching television (and by extension other screens) and reading alter the composition and the wiring of the brain. A research in Cerebral Cortex revealed that visual heavy stimulation leads to thickening of the frontal lobe. It lowers language processing and communication in children, enhances aggression and arousal, and subdues empathy in both children and adults. Reading, on the other hand, simultaneously fires up various parts of the brain. When you read the word “lavender”, for example, it not only elicits a response from the language-processing areas of the brain but also stimulates the part of the brain dealing with the sense of smell. Similarly, when you read “shrug” or “cower”, it activates the parts of the brain responsible for motor skills. But more importantly, the most compelling reason to read in modern times, is for its proven benefits of heightening empathy.
Even beyond these changes that are invisibly happening in the brain, sitting down with a book is an “active” form of consumption. The eye sees, then the brain interprets the words, it draws these images in your head about what you are reading, it triggers memories from your own past which relate to this memory. It makes you pause, it makes you think. It forces you to make logical and philosophical connections between various things. It isn’t quite the same thing as seeing Kim Kardashian eat breakfast.
Now that the rise of the Stupid is at its hopeful zenith, it will take several years for the repercussions of it to play out. Still, in 2017 let’s reclaim intellectualism. And philosophy. And books. And turn the shame around to those who have no pursuit of literary, rather than those who do.
Goodbye Stupid. Happy new year!