Our Threatened World?

We are a jaded lot, we in our world – our threatened world. We are good for irony and even cynicism. Some words and ideas we hardly use, so worn out have they become. But we may want to restore some words that have lost their potency.

So said Doris Lessing in her Nobel acceptance speech back in 2007. Her plaintive message is that we in the so-called developed world have lost our zeal for book-borne knowledge, we have been ’seduced by the inanities of the internet,’ and:

…we are in a fragmenting culture, where our certainties of even a few decades ago are questioned and where it is common for young men and women, who have had years of education, to know nothing of the world, to have read nothing, knowing only some speciality or other, for instance, computers.

Lessing has been a lifelong campaigner for freedom, for democracy, for human decency and for mutual respect across nations and across cultures. Her life, her writing and her reputation mean that she deserves to be listened to with the same respect that she has sought to kindle in people everywhere she has gone. With this in mind, my thoughts on her speech might well come across as lacking respect. I hope not.

Her acceptance speech, for me, is imbued both with an unfortunate tinge of nostalgia for an order that has never really existed and with a pessimism that, I believe, lacks insight into the modern condition. I am aware that hers is a view that will prompt an outbreak of knowing head-nodding amongst certain sections of society, but she manages to build her nostalgic pessimism on a series of rhetorical points that need to be taken beyond mere rhetoric.

For instance, Lessing’s ‘fragmented’ world might, for many, be simply a more diverse world, a world that recognises the inevitability of ‘difference’, however slight the margin of difference might sometimes be in reality – a world that hopes and tries to build tolerance for such diversity. There are, of course, too many examples across the world, and within our own countries and cultures, where tolerance of diversity is itself not tolerated, with the awful consequences that can flow from such intolerance, not least war and terrorism. In Lessing’s nine decades on this earth, it would be difficult to pick out a time when the concept of a genuinely cohesive world would have been a reasonable conclusion to derive from observation of the social, political or religious realities. Is it not ironic that the champion of rights and freedoms for the victims of Apartheid shoud be casting an affectionate glance back to some imagined time when we (who are ‘we’?) were more cohesive, more sure of what was right and wrong?

What were these ‘certainties of even a few decades ago’? I can think, without trying very hard, of very many ‘certainties’ that have been rightly questioned in recent decades, and that have deserved their fate of marginalisation or eradication. If any certainties once perceived as positive are now no longer such, is that necessarily because our modern condition is somehow less healthy or is it simply a reflection of major shifts in social, political and economic realities, and therefore consequentially of changing priorities and of shifting values? As is inevitable, such changes will comprise the good and the bad, the positive and the negative – it has always been thus. Of course, those who have espoused a particular set of values, who are children of a different time, will always want, rightly, to question and to push back when they see those values changing – but I do think we need more than mere nostalgic pessimism to deal with such changes. The world is as it is, in all its complexity and with all its flaws, and our young people in particular need more grounded and more realistic understanding of the forces acting upon us today than we can derive from a sentimental appeal to times past.

A key motif in her speech was found in the contrast she attempted to draw between the learners whom she encountered in the Zimbabwean bush and the ‘mildly expectant English faces’ that she addressed in a private school in the UK. The Zimbabwean learners, she found, were yearning for books, were desperate to acquire good reading to replace the ‘tomes from American universities, hard even to lift, rejects from white libraries, detective stories, or titles like Weekend in Paris and Felicity Finds Love’ that were the staple of their impoverished schools and libraries. Is this really a fair comparison? If the mildly expectant English schoolboys were to be competely deprived of all reading material for an extended period, would their lust for books not be just as great? And yes, they would certainly also lust after the Web, computer games, texting, instant messaging, chat rooms, TV, MP3s, and so on. They have known all of these, and so they would want them again. It seems to me a pointless exercise in wistful sentimentality to wish all of this away, to be replaced by some misty golden age when schoolchildren – eager scholars all – devoured yet another classic text before breakfast each morning.

Central to Doris Lessing’s speech, however, is this statement:

What has happened to us is an amazing invention – computers and the internet and TV. It is a revolution. This is not the first revolution the human race has dealt with. The printing revolution, which did not take place in a matter of a few decades, but took much longer, transformed our minds and ways of thinking. A foolhardy lot, we accepted it all, as we always do, never asked: “What is going to happen to us now, with this invention of print?” In the same way, we never thought to ask, “How will our lives, our way of thinking, be changed by the internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that, once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging etc?

“We never thought to ask?”

I for one simply cannot keep up with the constant and prodigious ebb and flow of argument, debate and questioning that currently generates such a vast and exciting discourse across the world, across cultures and across disciplines. And, while this discourse is undoubtedly expanding in volume and complexity by the day, it is a discourse that has been maintained by many people from everywhere and anywhere for very many decades. We did think to ask, and we continue to ask!

Finally, I cannot help but wonder why, when Doris Lessing denigrates those today who have ‘…only some speciality or other…’, she chooses ‘computers’? I am not sure what a specialist in ‘computers’ might look like, but is she suggesting that such a specialist is less likely to be widely-read or intellectually curious than, say, a specialist in particle physics, or Shakespeare, or econometrics, or whatever? I hope not, because I know it is not so.