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Labelling, the new illiteracy of our times

Instead of reading and understanding a piece of writing, labelling it as ‘leftist’ or ‘rightist’ is the practice today

Today, we are under the dangerous influence of a new form of illiteracy. According to the Census, “a person aged seven and above, who can both read and write with understanding in any language, is treated as literate.” We are now seeing a form of illiteracy creeping on those who are literate and this has to do with the term “understanding” in the above definition. Today, under the influence of digital technologies and a dominant visual culture, are we reading (and seeing) with less understanding?

The art of reading

This new form of illiteracy has to do with certain incapacities of reading and writing. Reading is matter of fact and habitual; yet it has many hidden dimensions to it. Reading is more than seeing words. It is about making sense of words, about discovering and constructing meaning. The meaning of the words we read are not gathered from dictionaries alone. They are also created from our memories and experiences. The meaning of every sentence is dependent on the context in which it is used.

If reading is so complex, how is it that we read so effortlessly? The strategies of reading have to be taught and they become part of our habits of reading. For example, we often take for granted the relation between reading and writing, or writing a sentence from left to right (say, in English). Even this simple practice of writing has deep cognitive consequences. When we read from left to right, our experiences of reading are different than when we read from right to left. We also tend to read, like this article, from top to bottom. These practices of writing deeply influence how we make meaning of what we read. Experiments have shown that our notion of time as moving from left to right has a strong correlation with the way we write. People who write from right to left (as in Urdu or Hebrew) tend to understand time as moving from right to left.

Reading practices have always been culturally influenced. Every age has had different strategies of reading. Even the pleasure of reading silently, which is so endemic today, was not always the social norm since reading aloud was a common practice in various medieval societies. It is said that ancient libraries had people reading out aloud and shouting across tables, which is quite unlike our idea of a library today.

The act of labelling

What really is the dominant practice of reading today? What are the skills of reading that are part of public practices? A troubling practice that has crept into our contemporary reading practices is the act of labelling instead of ‘reading’. When we read we discover and/or create meaning of what we read. One easy way of discovering meaning is not to struggle through reading but through the act of labelling. Labelling is a way of saying that the article is about something without even reading it. It is remarkable how so much of our reading gets judged by the act of labelling. To show that you have read an article, all you have to do is say that this article is ‘leftist’ or ‘rightist’ and it is as if all meaning then becomes transparent.

Labelling is the new illiteracy of our times. Labelling is an obstacle to really understanding what is being said and how it is being said. It is also a lazy and unethical way of reading. The motivation for labelling is not to learn and understand but to attack without justification. It is a symptom of how a literate people can become dangerously illiterate when labelling replaces understanding.

It is the spread of labelling as a form of social reading that has also contributed to the spread of hate in our society. If you do not want to hear what a woman has to say, all you have to do is to label her as a ‘feminist’. Similarly, if you do not want to be persuaded by the reasonable arguments of those who are concerned about so many things going wrong around us, all you have to do is to label them ‘anti-national’. This habit of labelling has become so deep and endemic that we will not read a book or an article if the author is labelled in a particular way. Everything in our society today has been reduced to labels: Left, Right, man, woman, Brahmin, Dalit, Hindu, Muslim, and so on. Labelling is our new social disease of illiteracy.

Two events that happened over the last few days are a good illustration of this illiteracy. One was the attack on a play, performed in Bengaluru, titled ‘Shiva’, about the LGBTQ community. A bunch of hooligans stopped the performance as they objected to the title. If you thought that we are reaching new levels of absurdity with such ‘protests’, at around the same time the government sent a circular to all universities that implied that government-funded teachers cannot be critical of the government. There is really no difference between the hooligans and the ones who created this rule. Both groups are illiterate and don’t know how to read a play or an article. They are labelling instead of understanding.

The freedom of interpretation

We are often told that artists, activists and some academics misuse the freedom of expression to say what they want. But what about the reader or the spectator? They are also using a ‘freedom of interpretation’ to interpret what they want in the text or the play. What is the responsibility of hearing, reading and seeing? It is ironic that the hooligans as well as the representatives of this government want complete freedom of interpretation, but do not want to allow freedom of expression.

These acts are unethical because the task of a democratic society is not only to protect freedom of expression, but to also protect and enable the freedom of interpretation. Like all freedoms, this freedom has to be used ethically. This is exactly what intolerant people as well as the government are not capable of understanding.

In the case of the play, the few people who are labelling it without reading or watching it are misusing the hard-won freedom of interpretation for their personal ends. Similarly, the government is behaving in an intolerant manner by passing a rule that the faculty cannot write any critical articles about the government, its actions, its policies. How should the government read these critical pieces? They can be read as being against the government or, equally, they can be interpreted as helping the larger society by pointing out the mistakes in policies or governance.

The problem is not the articles that are critical about the government; rather, it is about the way those articles are being read by those in the government. These authoritarian responses are not just against art in the public domain or university teachers but against the very ethos of literacy itself.

Sundar Sarukkai is Professor of Philosophy at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru

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Printable version | Feb 21, 2020 12:42:48 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/labelling-the-new-illiteracy-of-our-times/article25252235.ece

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