Sunday, November 22, 2015

My love affair with Singapore and why Narendra Modi's visit here makes me uncomfortable

I visited Singapore first in 2008 when a dear friend, then a professor at the Wee Kim Wee School put me in touch with another dear friend, then the Head of the Department of the Communications and New Media at the National University of Singapore.

I was on sabbatical from Purdue University in the US and this was the first time that my spouse, who was then in India, and I would spend time together starting our family.

These were six months of joy and wonderment. Six months of experiencing cultures, diversity of voices and traditions, and confluence of ancient traditions.

We were expecting our first child then, and the six months flew by in a flurry. I cherished every bit of those six months in Singapore. I fell in love with the city, its Chinese New Year and Hari Raya and Thaipusam.

The colors, aromas, and confluences of Singapore felt a welcome break from the monolithic culture of the US where I never really fit in, after having spent a decade there.

Singapore and its culture of syncretism stayed in my heart, and when the opportunity arrived for us to teach at the National University of Singapore, we took it up with great joy and anticipation.

These three years in Singapore have only reinforced my love for this space as a confluence of many cultures, many traditions, many ways of life. I understand the essence of Singapore as the kind of multiculturalism that is a celebration of difference, the intermingling of faith traditions and ways of being.

Singapore and its cultural syncretism feel like home to me. It reminds me of the India I grew up in, the India that celebrates differences and creates dialogic spaces for many worldviews to come together. It reminds me of the idea of India, where I as a Hindu grew up amid Eid and Christmas celebrations of neighbors and friends.

Yet, it is this idea of India that is in question today as the government ruled by Mr. Narendra Modi silences dissent, harasses activists, and remains largely silent about the increasing intolerance toward minority communities in India. It is this idea of a syncretic India open to difference that is increasingly in question as the Hindu Right takes center stage in Indian public discourse.

Mr. Narendra Modi's visit to Singapore is being advertised as the gateway to new economic possibilities. What however these advertisements hide is the growing climate of intolerance in India and how that fundamentally differs in its essence from Singapore, the Singapore I have come to love.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Whiteness and discursive closures: When the garb of multiculturalism comes tumbling

Multiculturalism is a performance of Whiteness in neoliberal times. Multiculturalism is a performance of Whiteness for neoliberal times. Multiculturalism is a performance in the service of neoliberalism, establishing the neocolonial hegemony of Whiteness through the codes of appropriate speech in the service of democracy and the market.

A performance that works through the norms of civility, decorum, and speech code to silence difference. The image of multiculturalism thus established at the global sites of neoliberal articulation is based on White ideas of acceptable speech, constituted in relationship to the market.

A performance that works to uphold a neocolonial narrative that justifies violence, torture, and imperial invasion under the guise of democracy and promotion of freedom.

As the multicultural narrative works to reproduce imperial power by paradoxically marking symbolic articulations of cultural voices as inappropriate and therefore unacceptable, it reproduces unmarked ideas of communication as culture mirrored in the language of the market. In my own work on communication and neoliberalism, I have referred to these communication strategies of neoliberalism as "communicative inversions." These strategies work precisely because they silence difference.

Whiteness, the taken-for-granted notion of White norms serving White agendas as universals of human aspiration, extends neoliberal assumptions of the free market, capitalism, and democracy  through its adoption of a multicultural narrative that equates the market with the cacophony of ideas, cultures, and voices. The ideas, cultures, and voices that do get included within this multicultural framework are aligned with the agendas of the market, dictated by normative ideas of communication and participation intrinsically immersed in Whiteness.

What is acceptable, what can be discussed, and how it can be discussed are dictated by the White structure, using criteria of multiculturalism. Cultural speech codes that threaten the hegemony of Whiteness are written off as violent, uncivil, and barbaric.

Whiteness thus is fundamentally built on a hypocrisy, a hypocrisy that assumes the norms of Whiteness as the guiding standards for communication in cultural spaces, further silencing ideas and voices that challenge the garb of multiculturalism.

To create spaces for diverse cultural voices calls for closely interrogating the language of multiculturalism embedded in the norms of Whiteness and in the service of the market.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Brown bodies that don't matter

[Drawn from Lydia Wilson's "What I discovered from interviewing imprisoned ISIS fighters" published in The Nation and retrieved from on November 15, 2015]

Listening to the voice of a
young brown body
all of 26,
married, two children,
with a large family
to support.

Listening to the voice of a
young brown body
all of 26,
a lost adolescence,
to the occupation
that brought Freedom.

Listening to the voice of a
young brown body
all of 26,
wrapped in faith,
love for family,
lost for meaning.

Listening to the voice of a
young brown body
all of 26,
that lost a father,
disappeared, murdered, jailed,
perhaps in one of your Guantanamo camps.

Listening to the voice of a
young brown body
all of 26,
in search of faith,
in search of meaning,
in search of dignity.

Why it is so important to connect the dots and interrogate the narratives of convenience

The acts of violence on the streets of Paris depict the ongoing role of religious extremism as a site of terror.

As my Facebook wall is inundated with the flow of emotions showing support for the people of Paris, I am struck by an all-too-familiar narrative that emerges in a global network of emotions mediated through new communication technologies.

At the heart of this network of emotions is the framing of the world into a binary, parsing out "freedom loving" spaces and spaces that "threaten freedom." The freedom loving spaces are White, cultured, and democratic, juxtaposed against the brownness of the primitive bodies that inhabit the freedom threatening spaces.

The Facebook narrative of 13/11 invokes the 9/11 archetype. When Hollande promises us a "pitiless response," I am eerily reminded of George Bush's promise: "America and our friends and allies join with all those who want peace and security in the world, and we stand together to win the war against terrorism."

This is the narrative that quickly took hold in the post-9/11 U.S., and rapidly anchored itself as a global pivot for framing 9/11.

This narrative juxtaposes "our" freedom against "their" barbarianism. Declaring the resilience of freedom as a trope, the narrative quickly anchors itself in a war cry.

Attacking the Middle East will bring justice and teach the barbarians a lesson.

The structure of the symbolic enunciation and its potential material manifestation are both familiar.
What had unfolded into the Iraq war, opening in 2003, is a spatial-temporal enactment of the "freedom" narrative. Operation Iraqi Freedom was launched on the pretext of fighting Iraq's supposed support for terrorism, a premise that was cooked up by the US propaganda machine and its paid mainstream media.

The terror of 9/11 served as a catalyst for a much larger scale state-sponsored terror launched by the imperial powers US and UK to invade Iraq and Afghanistan. The everyday terrors experienced by Iraqi families and families in Afghanistan in the hands of the imperial military remain unaccounted for in the mainstream media. The large scale violence and the large numbers of murders in Iraq and Afghanistan unleashed by the US remain unaccounted for, written off ironically as collateral damage in an operation of bringing freedom to the Middle East.

The attack on Paris is similarly being portrayed as the backdrop for the mobilization of an attack on Syria. Within just a few hours of the attacks, the power of the war cries and imperial calls for invasion has proliferated through the short phrases of Facebook posts and tweets.

The simplicity of this story, the primitive Middle East calling for a Western invasion, ignores the lessons that emerge from the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The simplicity of the story of terror also obfuscates the terror and violence perpetrated by the agents of freedom and democracy, US, UK, Australia, and Poland, carrying out the acts of terror in the very name of freedom.

The US attack on Iraq that killed over a half million Iraqi civilians, and created the structure for the emergence of the Islamic State, often offering training to specific groups and supplying weapons to these groups that would later emerge as members of the ISIS.

That many of the ISIS members were trained by Western military and were supplied weapons by the US and UK is a key point that remains missing from the symbolic representations of the attacks. In Libya, Egypt, and Syria, the US and UK offered at various points vital resources to actors that would coalesce around the structure of ISIS. The US and UK funded and trained religious sectarian groups with the broader goal of toppling the Assad regime in Syria. ISIS thus is very much a product of the imperial strategy of divide-and-rule perpetuated by Western imperialism, couched in the language of freedom.

Further connecting the dots points toward the role of Saudi Arabia, a key Western ally, in supporting ISIS. In spite of evidence that point toward the implicit role of the House of Saud in disseminating and funding the violent strands of Wahaabism, the Western apostles of freedom continue to support the Saudi structure to safeguard imperial interests in the Middle East.

Much of the Western media are complicit in reproducing acts of terror by creating symbolic resources around terrorism in selective ways, by projecting binaries, and by carrying out propaganda functions on the basis of these binaries. Even as media narratives rally around the terrorist attacks on France, they remain mostly silent about ISIS attacks on Beirut and Iraq.

Even when the Beirut attack does emerge into the occasional story, the attack gets framed as an attack on Hezbollah strongholds, somehow thus offering implicit justifications for the ISIS attacks. The Western media narrative here cooperates with the ISIS agenda, symbolically depicting the symbiotic relationship between ISIS agendas and Western agendas at specific points and spaces.
Similarly, the ISIS attack in Iraq that led to 25 deaths remains mostly invisible from the media narrative.

In selectively sharing specific stories of freedom and terrorism while largely remaining silent about various other forms of terrorism, the media actively construct the dichotomy between Western freedom and Middle East terrorism. Moreover, the media actively participate in cultivating a public opinion climate that sees imperial invasion as the solution to terrorist threat.

The lessons of Iraq call for cultivating deep skepticism toward this narrative of violence and geosecurity. The paradigm of violence circulated by Western imperial powers is cyclically connected to various forms of violence across time and space.

To really address the questions of violence and terror globally, the rhetoric of freedom needs to be examined closely. The very narrative of freedom that birthed ISIS can't offer a way out of the network of violence established in strategies of response and counter-response.

That freedom is often used as the trope for disseminating terror needs to be acknowledged, critically interrogated, and resisted. Each of us must critically examine simplistic frames that depict the Paris attacks as attacks on fundamental freedoms.

Finally, a fundamental transformation is needed in the global narrative of geosecurity, shifting the discourse from imperial invasions to protect freedom to a global discourse of peace and dialogue that challenges the terror implicit in acts of violence.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Education is not a market, students are not our customers

The best of my teachers pushed my comfort zones and tested my ability to learn, stretching my imagination and my intellectual capacities, and emboldening me to be open to experimenting. The classroom as a site of experimentation and new learning however is increasingly becoming rare, ironically in a global environment that has latched on to the buzzwords of innovation, creativity, and experimentation.

An increasing threat globally to the spirit of education as experimentation and new learning is the reduction of education to the dictates of a homogeneous mass market.

A mass market-based logic conceptualizes education as a commodity measured on fairly homogeneous sets of criteria applied uncritically. Excellence, innovation, multiculturalism, global outlook—these are the buzzwords for most universities catering to a global market, with little room for differentiation. Each of these terms, excellence, innovation, multiculturalism, global outlook, otherwise admirable markers of aspiration, are increasingly measured in narrow ways through standardized metrics, paradoxically limiting the spaces for creative explorations and innovations.

One of the drawbacks of market-based thinking is its reduction of education to a narrow set of metrics that might not always be the best indicators of quality education. The value of education lies in the continued development of pedagogy and learning experiments that offer students opportunities to grow intellectually, hold them to high global standards, and give them ample scope for putting into practice the concepts learned in the classroom. Some or many of these experiments might push student expectations, push students to engage with new materials and new methods, and most importantly, push their comfort zones through debate and dialogue. 

Exposing students to the unfamiliar is a rare opportunity that education brings. Such learning however, is hindered when students start thinking of themselves as consumers who are purchasing education as a commodity. Cost-benefit analyses of any product are predicated upon an understanding of the metrics of quality, weighing these metrics, and then applying these metrics to the product or service being evaluated. To the extent that a student is in a classroom to learn, it is important to acknowledge that a student might not be fully aware of the various metrics of quality on which her or his learning ought to be evaluated. Similarly, to the extent that a student is simply concerned about her or his grades, he/she is unlikely to weigh heavily other metrics of quality beyond the ingredients that she/he considers are essential to securing a good grade.

Increasingly across the globe, education has been reduced to the principles of the market and students have been reduced to consumers. This reductionist approach to education as a consumer market has trained students well to conduct cost-benefit analyses in evaluating the value of a module mostly optimized in relationship to the grades to be secured, but has not really opened them up to exploring new opportunities, new thinking, and new ways of being.

Naturally in this environment, students want to figure out the best ways of scoring a good grade and the tools that would equip them to score a better grade. New experiments in the classroom and new methods of teaching may be intellectually challenging and uncertain, and thus not be seen as being of value to student learning as seen by the students. Moreover, students may refrain from experimenting as this might threaten the grade they are likely to receive in the classroom.

One area where such commoditization is in full display is in the prevalence of student feedback as a metric for evaluating the quality of instruction. To simply and solely rely on student feedback I argue reduces education to a form of customer service, where students are reduced to customers and teachers reduced to being service providers the sole objective of whose teaching is student satisfaction. The intellectual capacity of students, trained in to assess the value of a module in terms of its ability to deliver a better grade for them, is reduced to a set of narrowly defined expectations that are overly grade-based. Teachers, instead of seriously considering ways of challenging students to intellectually rigorous standards, are more concerned with gimmicks, performances, and strategies for holding student attention in 6-minute attention  capsules that would optimize their chances of securing a high student satisfaction score.

When I teach a graduate seminar, I expect my students to read approximately 300 to 500 pages of text. For my students, I am known to be a tough teacher with high expectations. However, the 300 to 500 pages of readings I believe form the fundamentals for each week of concept covered in the module. This is the standard I held my graduate students to when I taught at Purdue University and I expect no less from my students at the National University of Singapore. Now to cater to student feedback and to reduce the amount of reading load because the students are having difficulty coping will not serve the learning objectives of the module. Instead, I see my role as working with each student to see how best they can reach their potential, meeting the high expectations in the module, and reaching the global standards of what it means to be an excellent communication scholar.

Similarly, when I teach an exposure module to communications and new media, I expect my students to go out into the community, conduct and interview members of the public, transcribe the interview, and write up a report on the basis of analyzing the interview, incorporating the analytic frames into the theories covered thus far in the module. The interaction with the community I believe is a key element of learning communication, taking the student out of the ivory tower and into possibilities of interactions with community members. Also, the interview as an assignment, teaches the students to ask questions and to listen, two fundamental tools of effective communication.

To expect any less from my students would not do them justice in the long run as it would not really give them a flavor of what it is like to engage in learning about communication and practicing it. As a teacher with their best interests in mind and based on my experiences in teaching students for almost two decades, I make the call that learning to conduct an interview is an integral component of the pedagogical objectives of an exposure communication module.

To the extent that I want to cater my teaching to the student feedback, I know that removing the assignment will lead to a higher score from my students. This however, in my opinion, will not serve the best interests of my students as it would not equip them with some fundamental communication skills. I also believe that if we are to continue being one of the exemplar communication departments in the world, we ought to expect the very best from our students and subject them to the highest of global standards in practicing communication. A student evaluation-centric approach to teaching can become a way for catering to the least common denominator. However, where my student evaluation comes in handy is in telling me that I need to do a better job communicating course expectations and communicating to them why I have included the particular assignment.

To the extent that Universities start relying on student evaluations as the sole metric of faculty performance, Universities are in trouble. The best of learning takes place in an environment that supports student learning, is open to difference and experimentation, and nurtures faculty in developing the most meaningful ways of contributing to learning. By not treating students as consumers of a homogeneously packaged product, university teachers can consider the ways in which they can encourage students to be critical thinkers, explore new horizons, and take up difficult and creative challenges.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Rastafarian Movement

It was during the 1970s when the world witnessed the uprising of Jamaican people against the neocolonial in the country to improve their social conditions. It is thrilling to see the unique bond the movement shared with Reggae, its worldwide popularity, and how it reshaped the meaning of the whole movement.

It is known that reggae music increased the visibility and popularity of the Rastafarian movement worldwide, but it also made the movement impure and gave rise to a new group called the pseudo-rastafarians, perpetuated the nuances of the two ideological groups - political and religious rastafarians into irreconcilable rift.  

In its journey from the primitive studios in Jamaica to the state-of-the-art studios in the United States or Great Britain, the reggae music lost its true essence of the movement, and the portrayal of the Rastafarian movement metamorphosed into a pan-African movement. Unlike early roots reggae, the worldwide popular reggae music projected the Rastafarians, not "Jamaicans", as "Africans". it is fascinating to see how the reggae music in its effort to appeal to the international crowd i.e. the white audience lost its true essence of the movement which began in Jamaica as a form of rebellion against the oppression of neocolonial society. 

The Rastafarian movement critiqued the "prevalent individualism" and "imperialistic capitalism" as the reasons for poverty and slavery of the Africans. The world wide popularity of Reggae provided with an international audience to the voices of the marginalized black Jamaican people, but it also erased the agency of the people by commercializing it for profit.