Too many knowers?
I came home from school one day to find my father and uncle Padam sitting beside the beautifully decorated Tulasi platform in the front yard that my mother, sister, and I had built the day before.
Uncle Padam [speaking to my dad]: Brother, you have such great artistic skills, you know. Look how beautiful that muth is!
Daddy: [smiles and continues to smoke]
Me: No, uncle, dad didn’t build that. Mom did, and sister and I helped her decorate it.
Uncle: Hey, phuchche [little kid], don’t be a janne [knower]. Go to play.
The social condition where some people are expected to be “knowers” and others are not—which I call socio-epistemic structure—has drastically changed in our society today. Thanks to democratic revolutions, increased education, and most recently and perhaps most significantly, the rise of alternative social spaces where (seemingly) anyone can say what they like, Uncle Padams aren’t likely to be able to shut down twelve year olds (or others with less power/privilege in society for that matter) that easily anymore.
Unfortunately, as I argue in this piece, the disruption of the traditional socio-epistemic structure has not always translated into general productivity of knowledge, benefit to social institutions such as education, and the enhancement of social justice in areas such as gender equity and intercultural harmony.
In the traditional society, the priest was literally called the knower (janne, who knew the scriptures, rituals, and higher learning). The shaman was another janne (who had direct knowledge about the cause of people’s sickness, as well as their past and future) from the gods. Older people were supposed to be jannes in front of the youth; men were jannes in the presence of women; rich men in relation to the poor; and upper caste in relation to the lower. More recently, the teacher in formal/modern education systems (even if the person is not an older, upper-case, richer) has been added to the list of jannes (though the word is no longer explicitly applied now).
By contrast, in our time, traditional jannes have lost their exclusive privilege over knowledge. Some of them (such as members of the upper caste) now acknowledge the knowledge of others as legitimate, and yet others (such as men, relative to women) don’t seem to have visible advantage in certain domains and contexts. Disruption is in the air today. The new democratic environment, the alternative virtual spaces, the communities of discourse that cross national and cultural borders, and newly visible groups (such as the LGBT community) have all contributed to the disruption of the socio-epistemic structure of Nepali society. Children learn from many more sources than school, college students can create their own purpose-driven communities, and people involved in political and social action can reach out to many more people and make far greater impact with what they know. In a society that leapfrogs from word of mouth to microblogging in a matter of a few years, the bypassing of socio-epistemic order is fast becoming the new norm. While the affordances information technologies provide are also new in developed societies, their impact on the socio-epistemic structure is much more striking in less developed societies like Nepal.
The most obvious scenario where we can see the uncertainty of benefit from the disruption of socio-epistemic structure is social media. As research on social media use has shown in other societies, increased access to alternative avenues of knowledge and knowledge-making does not in itself translate into social consequences. For example, Facebook hasn’t made people “connect to the world” as many assume or claim. Instead of crossing national and cultural borders to learn about other societies and cultures, and increase empathy and understanding, most Facebook users “deepen” rather than “broaden” their network and may become more entrenched in their worldviews. Indeed, the company has rolled out features that increasingly emphasize family connections, like-mindedness, and a monocultural worldview through design and content selection.
In the field of education, increasing irreverence toward figures of authority could and should have translated into more and more productive generations of scholars and professionals. But we haven’t seen such a difference. The problem here lies not just with younger people’s inability to be productive but the society’s failure to tap their energy to transform educational institutions. Schools continue to teach for exams even when they don’t have to, universities don’t allow younger scholars to lead the charge, and older men continue to dominate almost all fields of knowledge. Whatever boost in epistemological agency (or the ability to create new knowledge) that we see among younger generations, we see it unable to translate into change in the system. Instead, increased knowledge seems to lead many people into increased negativity and nonchalance.
The social and cultural spheres seem to be no exception. In place of a society based on objectionable hierarchy, discrimination, and prejudice—a society where the upper caste the aristocrats, and newly rich blatantly dominated the rest of the people—we now have a nation where those structures of power are replaced with ethnic disharmony and multifaceted conflict among different social and cultural groups. Instead of a society dominated by speakers of one language, followers of one religion, and a socio-economic minority dominating most of the social institutions, we now have a society where linguistic, religious, and social/cultural groups clash for power (rather than work together toward common national/social goals).
Often, groups that are just becoming visible (such as individuals who want to pursue their “personal freedom” of walking around with piercings and tattoos all over their bodies—and therefore evoke responses ranging from confusion to fear among the general public) reject the very notion of tolerance toward others. More alarmingly, in place of “traditional” value systems (which certainly needed updating), many groups just try to impose values from what they believe are more “advanced” societies, never considering if they could draw on the best from both sides. Their knowledge about the outside world, their irreverence for the local society and culture, and their ability to challenge tradition doesn’t seem to make them contribute anything positive to society: they just reject the local and never question the “global” (which is often local somewhere else).
Just a few years ago, when social media was gaining traction (and access to tools and networks was rapidly spreading) across Nepal, I presented a paper at a national convention of literary scholars in the US, describing the disruption of the traditional socio-epistemic structure in Nepal as a possibly ideal model of social change in the twenty-first century—one that may be worth studying. I am not so sure anymore.
The author, one of founders of ELT Choutari, is an assistant professor of Writing and Rhetoric at Stony Brook University (State University of New York)