Is no news good news?

Last updated 11:50 31/12/2012

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"Resolve to be tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant with the weak and wrong. Sometime in your life, you will have been all of these." - Siddhārtha Gautama Buddha

I don't like reading the newspapers. I don't even like listening to the news. I never have. They have always disturbed me and made me feel as though I had swallowed an acid pill for the rest of the day. They made me angry, dejected and disillusioned.

For years I have been made to feel guilty, weird and inadequate for this trait. I was often called an ignoramus. Today I'm proud of it. Does this make me an ostrich, burying my head in the sand? Does it make me an ill-informed, nonchalant, apathetic person? I don't know and very frankly I don't care anymore. I am who I am.

"I laugh at the headlines in New Zealand - they're so trivial and inconsequential. Even a lost cat getting rescued makes it to the front page" - a tongue-in-cheek, half joking, half-serious comment I have often heard from some of my esteemed brethren from more "happening" countries. Is that good or bad? Is having no news, good news?

Today's headlines in India are about the death of a 23-year-old girl who had been brutally gang-raped in New Delhi. One can't switch on the TV or pick up the newspaper without being inundated by the gory details of the incident or news about mob fury or the insensitive comments made by our enlightened politicians. Last year around the same time there was news of a hospital being ravaged by fire due to negligence of authorities At other times it's about bomb blasts, dowry deaths, road accidents or corruption.

But don't get me wrong - it's not always doom and gloom. When there's a great victory on the cricket field or a great star wedding then that's all that hits the stands. Or Kate Middleton's morning sickness. On that day, even if 10 women have been raped in different parts of the country or 100 people have died of starvation - they will not make the headlines.

Ah, the ways of the world and the human propensity to draw sustenance from "drama" and sensationalism around ourselves and others. Because without this drama we are faced with the prospect of reading our own "internal" headlines, the ones that say "we are failures", "we are losers", "we have sinned", "we have been sinned against" - how much more frightening is that? It's also about looking inward and taking true responsibility - for ourselves and for the world at large. Too hard we all agree - it's much easier to lose ourselves in the headlines and fume over the whys and wherefores.

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Which brings us to the question: why are disturbing headlines becoming more the rule rather than the exception? We ask for opinion polls on how to reduce crime, sexual harassment, corruption, terrorism, alcoholism, drug addiction, school dropout rates, road rage, fragmented families, suicide - in short, all the common social ills and problems. The solutions suggested are mainly around bans, stronger laws or stricter punishment. And of course the current Government is the perpetual whipping boy.

But then we choose our governments don't we? Opinions are expressed, sometimes laws are instituted and governments change, but everything goes back to being the same. Why I wonder? Well we could dismiss it as the result of the seven human vices of wrath, pride, envy, sloth, greed, lust and gluttony and be resigned to the existentialist thought of there's "nothing to be done" like Samuel Beckett in Waiting for Godot.

But then these have been around since Adam and Eve. Then why the sudden surge? Are we missing something? Is it time for a root cause analysis? Why is sexual harassment on the rise in India? Shootouts in schools rampant in the United States? Drinking a social problem in New Zealand? What, after all, drives a human to cause pain or grief to himself or another? We need to ask: why would a teenager want to spend his or her evening getting sloshed? Why would men brutally assault a woman in a country where goddesses are worshipped? What makes a child suddenly shoot his classmate in fury? Is it a basic lack of respect, tolerance and compassion for ourselves and for others? A fear of being inadequate and not being loved? The inability to forgive ourselves and others? Alcohol is an easy refuge for a teenager feeling unwanted at home. Robbery is the quick win for someone who sees that wealth is the only way of gaining respect in society. Can we expect a man who sees his father disrespecting his mother and his parents discriminating between their sons and daughters to honour a woman? Should we be surprised if a child who is constantly told by his parents that he's not good enough, vents his angst on his classmate?

These days I see a lot of articles in magazines on how kindness and empathy need to be cultivated and how they lead to lowering of stress and greater happiness. It's almost prescribed as a panacea for depression and other mental conditions and the mantra for healthy living in lifestyle magazines. This has come as a great learning for me because being fortunate enough to be born into a loving family, I took courtesy, kindness and compassion for granted. Until I realised that these are not necessarily qualities we are born with. That they do need to be inculcated and developed in people. When I was at school we had classes on moral science, ethics and community living. We were taught the five golden words: "thank you", "sorry", "please", "welcome" and "pardon". My mother taught me that I should greet even my enemies with a "courtesy" smile. I am Hindu, but visited every church and other places of worship in the country and bowed my head with equal reverence.

Today a moral science class is viewed as prudery. To be good is "uncool". The code of conduct is a statement that people just sign without reading. Attendance at the professional ethics session of the project management professional study groups I deliver is abysmally low. Who needs ethics to be a good project manager? All you have to do is deliver on time and within budget after all. People who are perceived as "too nice" can't succeed. Women must unsex themselves to become good managers. Films like Mary Poppins are dismissed as "sickeningly sweet" balderdash. Empathy is synonymous with vulnerability. Patience means you'll miss the bus.

What is the yardstick or measure of a healthy society? Economic prosperity? People wielding mobile phones and driving flash cars? No. "Empty beds in hospitals and empty prison cells", says a spiritual leader in India. A bit too idealistic and utopian we might say, but I couldn't agree more. In fact, I'd add to this and say full playgrounds and classrooms. Smiling people. Societies where the elderly are cared for. Where everyone respects each other's way of life. Where everyone can preserve their own tradition and yet be part of a global community. In other words, where there is an acknowledgement and appreciation of the "other".

And here's where individuals, governments, social and educational institutions can play a part. By making these subjects a part of school curricula. By encouraging children to mingle with other children from different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. By making community service a regular activity at school. By recognising and rewarding acts of kindness. And above all, by making failure acceptable. By giving everyone a second chance.

Public memory is short. A few months from today everyone will forget the rape of this unfortunate girl in India. Maybe the criminals will be brought to book and maybe not. Then everything will go back to being the same again. Some of the protesters today will perhaps themselves either commit or abet disrespectful acts against women or other fellow humans. There will be more shootouts, murders, accidents due to drink driving. Unless there is a radical change in the social fabric. And only we can bring about this change. "Be the change you want to see in the world", said Mahatma Gandhi.

I wish I could wake up one day where headlines the world over were about a lost cat being rescued. I'd read the newspapers with religious regularity then.

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