10 February 2010

TV-incited violence vs. Gross National Happiness (must-read for anybody with a social conscience!)

Four years ago, Bhutan, the fabled Himalayan Shangri-la, became the last nation on earth to introduce television. Suddenly a culture, barely changed in centuries, was bombarded by 46 cable channels. And all too soon came Bhutan's first crime wave - murder, fraud, drug offences. Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy report from a country crash-landing in the 21st century
Here are some excerpts from a 2003 Guardian article about the effects of TV in the country of Bhutan. It is impossible to imagine how a modern Western country would be without TV. Bhutan, however, was without TV until 1999 – it's introduction to the country provides an unprecedented and unique opportunity for study.
The article "Fast forward into trouble" is much longer and here are only some of the most interesting pieces.
April 2002 was a turbulent month for the people of Bhutan. One of the remotest nations in the world, perched high in the snowlines of the Himalayas, suffered a crime wave. The 700,000 inhabitants of a kingdom that calls itself the Land of the Thunder Dragon had never experienced serious law-breaking before. Yet now there were reports from many towns and villages of fraud, violence and even murder.
The Bhutanese had always been proud of their incorruptible officials - until Parop Tshering, the 42-year-old chief accountant of the State Trading Corporation, was charged on April 5 with embezzling 4.5m ngultrums (£70,000). Every aspect of Bhutanese life is steeped in Himalayan Buddhism, and yet on April 13 the Royal Bhutan police began searching the provincial town of Mongar for thieves who had vandalised and robbed three of the country's most ancient stupas. Three days later in Thimphu, Bhutan's sedate capital, where overindulgence in rice wine had been the only social vice, Dorje, a 37-year-old truck driver, bludgeoned his wife to death after she discovered he was addicted to heroin. In Bhutan, family welfare has always come first; then, on April 28, Sonam, a 42-year-old farmer, drove his terrified in-laws off a cliff in a drunken rage, killing his niece and injuring his sister.

Before 1999, Bhutan's society and politics was much different from every other country in the world:
"We wanted a goal different from the material concept of maximizing gross national product pursued by western governments," [Bhutan's foreign minister] says with a beatific smile. "His Majesty decided that, as a spiritual society, happiness was the most important thing for us - something that had never been discussed before as a policy goal or pronounced as the responsibility of the state." And so, in 1998, the Dragon King defined his nation's guiding principle as Gross National Happiness.

The marijuana that flourishes like a weed in every Bhutanese hedgerow was only ever used to feed pigs before the advent of TV, but police have arrested hundreds for smoking it in recent years. Six employees of the Bank of Bhutan have been sentenced for siphoning off 2.4m ngultrums (£40,000). Six weeks before we arrived, 18 people were jailed after a gang of drunken boys broke into houses to steal foreign currency and a 21-inch television set. During the holy Bishwa Karma Puja celebrations, a man was stabbed in the stomach in a fight over alcohol. A middle-class Thimphu boy is serving a sentence after putting on a bandanna and shooting up the ceiling of a local bar with his dad's new gun. Police can barely control the fights at the new hip-hop night on Saturdays.

While the government delays, an independent group of Bhutanese academics has carried out its own impact study and found that cable television has caused "dramatic changes" to society, being responsible for increasing crime, corruption, an uncontrolled desire for western products, and changing attitudes to love and relationships. Dorji Penjore, one of the researchers involved in the study, says: "Even my children are changing. They are fighting in the playground, imitating techniques they see on World Wrestling Federation. Some have already been injured, as they do not understand that what they see is not real. When I was growing up, WWF meant World Wide Fund for Nature."

It is so early in the morning that the birds are still asleep. But Sangay Ngedup, minister for health and education, has been on the path for hours. His gho is bunched beneath his backpack, and a badge with the king's smiling face is pinned on to his baseball hat. In the past 15 days, he has climbed and scrambled over some of the world's most extreme terrain, from sea level to a rarefied 13,500ft in the Bhutanese Himalayas. Is there anywhere else in the world where a cabinet minister would trek 560km to warn people against becoming a nation of couch potatoes? "We used to think nothing of walking three days to see our in-laws," he says. "Now we can't even be bothered to walk to the end of Norzin Lam high street."

For the first time, he says, children are confiding in their teachers of feeling manic, envious and stressed. Boys have been caught mugging for cash. A girl was discovered prostituting herself for pocket money in a hotel in the southern town of Phuents-holing. "We have had to send teachers to Canada to be trained as professional counsellors," says Sangay Ngedup. This march is not just against a sedentary lifestyle; it is a protest against the values of the cable channels. One child's placard proclaims, "Use dope, no hope." "Breast is best," a girl shouts. "Enjoy the gift of sex with condoms," reads a toddler's T-shirt.

Bhutan's isolation has made the impact of television all the clearer, even if the government chooses to ignore it. Consider the results of the unofficial impact study. One third of girls now want to look more American (whiter skin, blond hair). A similar proportion have new approaches to relationships (boyfriends not husbands, sex not marriage). More than 35% of parents prefer to watch TV than talk to their children. Almost 50% of the children watch for up to 12 hours a day. Is this how we came to live in our Big Brother society, mesmerized by the fate of minor celebrities fighting in the jungle?
Everyone is as yet too polite to say it, but, like all of us, the Dragon King underestimated the power of TV, perceiving it as a benign and controllable force, allowing it free rein, believing that his kingdom's culture was strong enough to resist its messages. But television is a portal, and in Bhutan it is systematically replacing one culture with another, skewing the notion of Gross National Happiness, persuading a nation of novice Buddhist consumers to become preoccupied with themselves, rather than searching for their self.
In our Western culture it is only a recent trend introduced by a small elite to see happiness, not material wealth, as society's goal. Here are some of my earlier posts on happiness:


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