Does the public belong to a separate species?: thoughts on Alan Rusbridger’s talk at Queen Mary

The approach Alan Rusbridger took about journalism in his talk at Queen Mary, University of London is interesting, however; the debate between Walter Lippman and John Dewey which he describes in the same talk is more interesting, at least to me. For some reason, it reminded me of the debate in the north between abolitionists and their opponents over whether African-Americans were a separate species, whether or not they were able to learn, able to vote intelligently, or contribute to the market economy, or even read the Bible. In Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson argued that blacks were inheritably inferior to whites with respect to their capacity for reason and imagination and that colonization was the only way of dealing with free blacks. Whereas, abolitionists argued that African-Americans were, in fact, capable of learning once they find the right environment and given the right for education. The debate of the late 18th and early 19th century then was about what should be done with slaves, and the 21st debate is what should be done with the public, the masses who want to participate in journalism, to voice their opinions, to feel involved, rather than being merely passive recipients.

Lippman believes that “the issues of the age [are] too complex to be grasped by the public – whom he likened to “a deaf spectator in the back row.”  For this he believes the public should be governed by a class of specialists, bureaucrats, journalists and academics, or the elites of the society as he calls them.  This class is the one that has superior knowledge and in charge of explaining to the pathetic “deaf spectator in the back row” what is going on around them.  I personally think this is an extremely harsh and limited view. The public absolutely has the ability to engage in an intellectual practice in a democracy once they are given the chance and that can be easily seen in today world, where almost everyone has access to the internet. Thus, it is safe to assume that the kind of public who want to be part of this discourse are the passionate and interested citizens. Undermining the public’s ability and intelligence to engage in intellectual practice is no less evil than segregating African-Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries because of the size of their skulls. In both cases, the argument is based on false assumptions. I think journalism should not be confined to a specific class of people; it should be with cooperation with the public, to the people and of course for the public. As  the world not have realized that African-Americans are no less than any white man without providing proper conditions and legislating  equal rights, specialists and experts in the journal arena would not know the public’s potentials and abilities without co-operating with them and involving them in a discourse that has been always kept for a group of people.  

Dewey stands on the opposite side of the argument. In his argument, he points out a very important point, that is the “foundation of democracy was conversation, rather than pure information.” He thinks the public could become educated about issues, make judgments and arrive at solutions to public problems “if proper conditions are furnished.” I believe the public can learn the rules of the journalistic discourse once they are let in as knowledge is acquired through experience. The open-source journalism that The Guardian has adopted since 2009 is a smart step towards a new form of journalism.; a journalism, in Rusbridger’s words “of which people feel they are a part, which people trust, believe in and feel involved with.” Finally, in a time the newspaper industry is experiencing a gradual but steady decline, opening the doors for the public to engage in the practice of journalism, to become citizen journalists  is no longer an option, but a necessity. 

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Oppressing the oppressor

          In his 1936 essay “Shooting An Elephant,” George Orwell describes the experience of an Anglo-Indian officer, arguably Orwell himself, killing an escaped elephant in front of a tumultuous crowd in imperial Burma. On the face of it, it simply appears as a story of an English police officer’s quest to kill an elephant so that he doesn’t lose the respect of the natives. However, the essay ultimately demonstrates the narrator’s political views on the British imperialism of Burma, as well as his moral dilemma and confusion. He is torn between what he believes is the right thing to do (not killing the elephant) and what his job as a police officer compels him to do. He explains, “[a] white man mustn’t be frightened in front of ‘natives’…..he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things” (3).

           Deep inside, he believes that “imperialism was an evil thing,” and he is “all for the Burmese and all against their oppressors, the British” (1). Despite the fact that he despises the Burmese or “the evil-spirited little beasts” for trying to make his job impossible, he knows well that they have a good reason for their anti-European attitude towards him and other Europeans in Burma. His job as a sahib in the East is an eye-opening one. It gives him the chance to “see the dirty work of the Empire at close quarters” (1).  Later in the essay, the narrator reflects on a life-changing incident, that is shooting an elephant. In describing the incident, the narrator vividly expresses the trauma he has to go through during the transient, yet dramatic event. In doing so, Orwell employs a series of highly effective metaphors to convey the situational irony of the entire scene of killing which, in turn, unveil a satirical presentation of the British imperialism in Burma and presumably all the British colonies in the East. Through the horrific depiction of the narrator’s poignancy, Orwell successfully accentuates that imperialism not only has a destructive ramification on the oppressed nation, but also causes the oppressor, the nation that exercises such oppressive power to ultimately decay. 

           To further unveil the irony of the white man’s life in the Eastern colonies, Orwell utilizes a powerful narrative writing technique that is metaphors.  The narrator tells us that at first he has no intention to shoot the elephant that looks “no more dangerous than a cow.” (2). Besides, he is considering the fact that the escaped “beast” has an owner who absolutely would not like to have the hundred-pound-worth elephant killed. However, when he looks back at the huge crowd of Burmese following him, he feels obligated to kill the elephant. In describing the tumultuous, massive crowd, Orwell limns the Burmese crowd as a “sea of yellow faces”, hungry for goings-on and excitement. The image of the steady rumble of a sea, moving with excitement, implies the hidden power behind the facade of the seemingly impuissant Burmese. This very power is the force that keeps pressuring the narrator to act against his better judgment and kill the elephant. At that moment, the narrator comes upon the realization that the undefeated “white man” is in fact is merely an “absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces…” (2). Though the narrator is the one who holds the gun and supposedly the strongest side, he experiences unprecedented hollowness and feel of defeat against the Burmese and their will. The white man’s life in the Eastern colonies has been reduced to nothing, but a “one long struggle not to be laughed at” (3). Through such compelling words, provocative metaphor and comical paradox, Orwell undoubtedly succeeds in bringing to light the disgusting life and hollow person a white man is forced to become in the course of his desperate never-ending attempt to impress the oppressed natives in the East and obey the oppressive Empire in the West.