ARMCHAIR WITH A VIEW Columns

Daily dose of delusion

Illustration: Satwik Gade  

The Stanford Prison Experiment was a study of the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or a prison guard. According to Wikipedia, the controversial study demonstrated the impressionability and obedience of people when provided with a legitimising ideology and social and institutional support. The experiment has also been used to illustrate the cognitive dissonance theory and the power of authority. On a similar note, the Bigg Boss House experiment is the study of the psychological effects of becoming a fake prisoner or an unwitting watcher of pseudo-reality television. The controversy-seeking show demonstrates the impressionability and obedience of the TV audience when provided with a legitimising celebrity status and the institutional support of TV channels with no imagination. This show also illustrates the cognitive bankruptcy theory and the power of the idiot box.

It is undoubtedly extremely popular, not just in India, but around the world. So why do people watch a show whose premise is predicated on creating an illusion of audience participation (they can apparently vote to evict a contestant) based on scripted behaviour masquerading as reality? Is it the schadenfreude of stamping one’s authority on a celebrity? Or is it the precipitous decline of our erstwhile glorious culture due to the invasion of morally bankrupt western values? Or is it merely fashionable to be snooty about our entertainment choices?

The Corporate Peter principle states that, in any organisation, employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence. The Cultural Peter principle proposes that, in any group of people, individuals tend to rise to one level above what is considered to be popular culture within their group. Martin Luther King once said that we must not judge people by the colour of their iPod skin, but instead by the contents of their iPod. Apparently, we sometimes unconsciously set the volume in our headphones to “tympanic damage” just so that others within earshot can realise that we are listening to a playlist that contains M.S. Subbulakshmi and Radiohead instead of Bollywood and Justin Bieber. Rock fans look down on Pop. Jazz fans look down on Rock and since we are all so busy finding someone to look down on, no one is looking up to anything anymore.

We don’t do this with just our choices of music, movies and books. We sometimes go to the extent of making sure that our close company includes people who aren’t as informed as we are just so that we can occasionally correct their “Your” vs “You’re” confusions. In fact, Twitter exists primarily to make us feel superior over a handpicked audience of followers we believe are not as smart as we are.

Here is a classic bait that I call “The Genghis Trap” that you can use with your friends to make them feel foolish. It is guaranteed to give you your daily dose of the relative superiority illusion. Bring up the subject of the Mongols in casual conversation and regale them with the story of Hulagu Khan’s infamous siege of Baghdad. Focus on the unimaginable brutality that the Mongols ultimately unleashed once the city fell. For instance, the caliph was rolled up in a rug and the Mongols rode their horses over him and the entire city was depopulated by the traditional Mongol technique of killing quotas, where each soldier was required to meet a beheading target every day so that they could minimise the time between one conquest and another.

At this point, someone in your friend group is likely to bring up the “Oh the inherent brutality of some religions (Islam, wink wink)” observation at which point you go “Aha” and inform everyone that Hulagu, the grandson of Genghis Khan, was Buddhist. Genghis Khan himself was Shamanist and didn’t really care about religion. The word “Khan” meant king well before the arrival of the religion with which it is now associated. The Mongols didn’t embrace Islam till one of Genghis’ great-grandsons made it the state religion, by which point the bulk of the genocide of large swathes of Central Asia was already done and dusted.

Ultimately, I think we are all prisoners in a global experiment to establish our relative superiority over as many people as possible. Those dumb celebrities in the Bigg Boss House. The alleged vacuity of popular music and the opportunities to LOL RT someone’s ungrammatical tweet. Perhaps the sheer vastness of our own ignorance dwarfs the small difference between our ability to write a contemporarily acceptable English sentence and someone who can’t and this realisation is perhaps too painful to contemplate. In fact, Douglas Adams invented the Total Perspective Vortex as the ultimate punishment — it makes the victim realise how small he is in comparison to the Cosmos.

Wikipedia is the closest thing to a Total Knowledge Vortex we have. All I have to do is spend a few minutes everyday not just to learn something new but constantly refresh the affirmation that there is just so much I probably don’t know, and that should hopefully convince me to spend less time feeling good about not liking Bigg Boss.

krishashok@gmail.com


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Printable version | Dec 7, 2021 4:48:17 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/mag-columns/daily-dose-of-delusion/article5308288.ece

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