Yesterday I complained about the quality of present day news, sometimes it’s unbearable. Media proprietors know that people will always be interested in hearing the news and they shamelessly exploit this human weakness to advance their own agenda. There must be a special hell for that.
Turns out that there is! It’s called Avīcimat (SB 5.26.28). It’s for those who serve their own interests by lying. They are repeatedly thrown off the top of a mountain into this waterless hell where stones only resemble the water. Their bodies break into pieces but they don’t die and are lifted up the mountain again and again.
I’m not sure anyone takes these descriptions seriously these days, though. As devotees we are sure it won’t happen to us, we don’t sense the danger of being in hell, none whatsoever, and the materialists simply brush off these warnings as mythology. There are moments in people’s lives, however, when they get a preview of what is coming and it scares the hell out of them. I don’t think they get the visuals, just a strong feeling that something very bad is going to happen. On one hand these moments are extremely rare, on the other hand we can always count on the Lord nudging them from within. He can equally inspire and frighten and it’s this Lord’s cooperation that we should rely on in our preaching.
Usually, I scroll down the list of RSS feeds or daily news digests, I read the headlines, take the note of accompanying images, maybe glance at a few words of introduction. Normally it’s enough to quickly decide if the story is worth reading, whether it’s complete garbage, or whether it’s one of those propaganda pieces. Everyone knows how to do that but I’m describing it here because we also learn to detect something else – base human interests the stories appeal to, and these are becoming increasingly important for me when sorting through news articles.
BBC, for example, puts out “Quiz of the week” articles that tease people to test their knowledge of the news. This temptation is hard to resist for some people, they want to know how they are doing with news reading, how strong their memories are, how deep their understanding. It’s not about actual news anymore, it’s about self-perception, and it works all the time. “Ten things we didn’t know last week” is another type of such articles. It’s not about knowing stuff anymore but about keeping with Joneses – people are afraid to miss something that “everybody knows” now, doesn’t matter what.
Most stories are a lot more subtle but they all try to make themselves interesting and clickable by making emotional appeals. Some appeal to sex, some appeal to people’s interest in celebrities, some appeal to the sense of justice, some want to channel the outrage, some appeal to macho audience, nowadays everybody must get something for himself emotionally, not just the information. They try different types of presentations – professional, explosive, sharing insights, sharing good feelings, sharing pain. Some appear as academic writing so that whoever reads them feel themselves extra smart, too.
Watching myself sorting through the news I realize how important this flavor, the emotional scent of the article, is for me when deciding whether to accept or reject it. Often times I don’t even parse the meaning but spot only these emotional clues. Why I’m talking about this? Because I notice the same thing going on on vaiṣṇava news sites, too.
We don’t have it as bad regarding content, of course – next to world events our problems are incomparably small, stakes are lower and lies are practically innocent, but if we fine tune ourselves to what is and what should not be acceptable in a vaiṣṇava world our emotions can run pretty high, too. Our reaction to it is to disallow any discussion at all, because nothing good comes out of these shouting matches. Some moderate the comments, others simply don’t provide the facilities, and yet in other cases devotees themselves stay away leaving discussions one sided in their own echo chamber. I think it shows our overall maturity – let’s read only what matters, or if you want to say something you should put more effort into it than typing up a few angry words and submit it as a genuine article.
Emotionally, however, we are just as bad, which makes our fights storms in a teacup. Somebody seems to deviate from Śrīla Prabhupāda in his preaching. Did he say something philosophically unacceptable? No, but this is not how Prabhupāda did things, and it’s enough to start a word wide smear campaign. Right now “Krishna West” is under fire, for example. I wanted to type “Krishna” with diacritics as I usually do here but it would be against Krishna West philosophy.
Our news stories are very diverse, they come from all corners of the world, have all kinds of backgrounds, mention all kinds of names. This makes parsing their emotional content a lot easier than parsing their factual meanings. Scrolling down Dandavats, for example, I must quickly determine the flavor of the story and there are several major types there, just as there are in the mundane world.
Someone passed away, the reader is encouraged to share the feeling of loss and also memories of something good regarding that person. They might just as well have a template for these stories, substituting only names, places, and particular achievements. Someone died and went back to Kṛṣṇa, who wouldn’t want to read about that? I don’t, I admit. Most of the time these stories suck you deep into the background and history, you need to find out more about that passed devotee, find out about his character, his service, his devotion. It is not a waste of time but it is also impossible to do considering how often these news appear nowadays.
Then there are reports of some preaching programs. Ratha Yatra here, food distribution there, temples open, devotees preach in jails etc. It’s obviously important to those who actually experienced these programs and they feel elated but every time I tried to read about it I feel like they are sharing their own feelings, not Kṛṣṇa’s. What’s important there is what happened to THEM. I admit that I’m equally selfish but what happens to them doesn’t happen to me and so I just skip these news over.
There are also articles pretending to be scholarly. “Understanding that a hierarchical concept of reality characterizes the Gita can help us see coherence of the Gita’s message.” The fact that I’m able to parse the meaning of this sentence makes me feel smart already. Maybe it’s not pretending, maybe it IS scholarly, and maybe on some occasions I would bite and see if there are any good ideas in there, but the scholarly flavor in unmistakable and sometimes I’m just not in the mood for indulging in it. Sometimes I just can’t parse what appears to be academically sounding garbage at all, apparently our devotees have learned how to pad one paragraph ideas with hundreds of unnecessary words. Some relish this kind of reading, too, but not me, thank god.
What I’m saying is that his news business encroachment into vaiṣṇava affairs is disheartening. All these emotional appeals are pandering. Ideally, they should have no place in our discussions at all, we should speak only about Kṛṣṇa, but I don’t know how to do achieve that either. What I do know is that after scrolling through Dandavats I feel like being cheated and emotionally abused, not spiritually surcharged, and that’s why I practically stopped reading that site altogether, which is sad.
Not all is lost, however, but more on that tomorrow.