I saw a photo, the other day, of a woman and her baby, dressed ridiculously, on a friend’s Instagram feed. Not recognizing them, I asked who they were and was chastised for displaying my ignorance in public. I turned to Google, every ignoramus’ redeemer, and discovered that it was a gazillionaire popstar and her child by a fellow popstar. I also discovered that the said child was four years old, had a ‘wardrobe to die’ for and, on the day the picture was taken, had thrown a huge tantrum on the red carpet when the zillion photographers who had gathered there—more idiots they—refused to leave her alone.
I remember a time when we were reprimanded for not knowing the names of capitals of faraway countries, authors or difficult spellings. At my first job with a newspaper, I remember being scolded for not recognizing a famous scientist by face. I don’t remember anyone ever being pulled up for failing to identify an entertainer.
But these are very different times, and I don’t blame my friend. She was only watching out for me. Because in today’s universe, where there is a growing trend of anti-intellectual elitism and a celebration of inanity, not recognizing an actor or popstar could well be perceived as a crime. And the transgressor could easily become the victim of an online lynch mob that posits popstars as deities and delights in reducing others to its own level of self-righteous ignorance.
Consider the triumph of YouTube that makes no intellectual demands on viewers, or the shift from studying for knowledge to training for jobs, or Generation Y’s aversion to reading anything of substance. Check what makes the news on any given day. At this moment, over a million people are tracking the world’s fastest man as he goes on holiday with his girlfriend, while half that number are mourning the death of an English princess 19 years ago. There’s also huge interest in the song of an upcoming Hindi film, the recent birthday of a Telugu star and why our PM appears in a TV ad of an internet service provider. Anyone tracking Science, Literature, Anthropology? Not that anyone’s noticed. If you remember, last winter, we learnt that India has the dubious honour of being the second-most ignorant nation in the world, after Mexico.
I read a piece recently by essayist David Hopkins on how the sitcom Friends ‘triggered the downfall of Western civilization’. The very idea would have been funny if it wasn’t so terrifyingly plausible. Hopkins called Friends a sign of the harsh embrace of anti-intellectualism in America, where an academically-minded Ross Geller is harassed by his mates who find serious conversation boring and scientific pursuits a waste of time. Sounds suspiciously like us.