We have atavised. Once a globe, an earth. Now we are but a sum of our tribes. Vanished is that pale blue dot. Banished. Into the darkness.
Deep in the remote heart of my country, in its forests, live ancient peoples that we here in the cities describe as ‘tribal’ because they are beyond the pale of our myriad castes, religious and regional identities. And to us, they appear to be from a long ago past time far from the reach of urban progress. That word -tribal- has now come to denote oppressive backwardness. These people have been left to the mercy of extremist fighters and industrial corporations who want access to their mineral wealth. It is bizarre how we use the word tribal to describe them when it is really us that are tribal with our narrowing allegiances to ethnic, religious and caste identities.
In Kerala, the land of my matriarchs, people celebrate a festival called Onam. I have written about its strangely contrarian nature before, as it celebrates a banished king. Banishment and ostracism usually don’t lead to celebration, but in this case over hundreds of years counter to culture a movement gained ground and mass following, finally being acknowledged as festival. Its status in Kerala is akin to Diwali in the rest of the country or Christmas in the western world. But this year, that returned king who is revered in Kerala was undermined by the right wing from outside the state. These right wing leaders from outside the state instead chose to celebrate the figure from myth that caused the banishment of this ancient king and wrested his lands from him, to the astonishment of Kerala.
The people from the state woke up on the main day of their festival to be told this very polarising thing. There was a backlash, an expected response to this. But this response took a tribal turn. Videos began to circulate, defending the culture of Kerala, featuring an exaggerated bullying machismo, which only served to match the right wing in tone. Countering tribalism with even more tribalism, can that ever be the answer? Yes, says the world. It seems to be the answer in many parts of the world today. Democracies now resemble authoritarian regimes. Civilisation has come to a strange pause, where it stands mute witness.
Most of us cannot speak as we would like, as dissent is dangerous. For and against binaries have been posited and in this, dissent is a casualty, as it is perceived as being against the nation. Sometimes dissent is dragged through the courts and on occasion even gunned down in the streets. Post-truth is the word of the year according to the Oxford dictionary people. But we have been living with post truth for a while now. It is a world in which people found a way to delegetimise the fourth pillar of democracy -the free press- by using a time-tested tactic called suspension of disbelief.
This means that people transfer their belief to online sources that confirm their biases and refuse to believe fact-based news reports that do not butter up their tribal identities. That is when attempts are made to rubbish the news as elitist or mainstream. Think of it this way, we now live in a world where facts and logic are considered elitist constructs. You are deemed judgemental if you call bunkum bunkum. In this post-truth existence, you cannot call a spade a spade, nor can the emperor’s new clothes be ever called out for what they really are.
In response to the unrelenting barrage from tribally-motivated, emboldened social media mobs, news panels dumbed down providing space for farcically extreme opinions in the name of balance.
Despite the best efforts of news organisations to re-legetimise through deliberate mediocrity and amateurism, news gave way to pandering social-media news feeds on facebook, WhatsApp and comment sections. The comments below news stories grew so much in stature that it gave rise to twitter, where the world is nothing but shouting short-form opinion, shorn of analysis or detail. What the world usually describes in 140 characters is its limited tribal identity. There is little room here for conversation, ethics or compassion. This shrinking of our critical faculties has affected us existentially, with even our new literature feeling like simplified pablum, seemingly reduced to 140 characters, with nuances left unexamined and exploration of character and spirit of the epoch at an all-time low. How much can really be examined or investigated in 140 characters? Pithy one-liners have room only for one-upmanship and muscly optics. Very little haiku is to be had in a tweet.
When astronomer Carl Sagan first described the pale blue dot, earth as a mote of space dust suspended in starlight, as viewed from Voyager 1 just before the space probe began its manoeuvre towards the edge of the solar system, it was to remind us of the ultimate fragility of our arrogance, our existence, on perhaps one of the most beautiful sapphire blue planets that ever was or ever would be.