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Sunday, August 02, 2009

Oh democracy!

The Washington Post apparently conducted a socio-psychological experiment in 2007 involving Joshua Bell, a great contemporary violinist. The sad results are provided and commented upon here. I thank my bright young pupil Harsha for bringing this to my notice.

Rarely do men and women of even the highest talent and skill and goodness get the respect and attention they deserve from the public unless they happen to be in the right time, place and ambience. That is because individuals among masses of people do not have minds and tastes and opinions of their own, they do just what everybody else is doing because that is ‘expected’ of them, and that applies as much to gossiping as to gaping at paintings of great masters in art galleries, pretending that they understand and admire…

In my very modest station in life, I have had enough opportunity to witness this phenomenon. When they come in droves to admit their children to my tuitions, they cringe and fawn as though they are begging an all-powerful emperor for favours (I am still embarrassed by the kind of language they use), and then they cannot recognize me at shops and hospitals and banks, and yet I know they would come in droves again if they heard I was being lynched, just to watch the fun.

Plato called democracy a pig’s philosophy, and despite still being committed to it myself (if only because I know too well how much more awful all other alternatives can be!), I can perfectly understand why he did so, and why the greatest democrats of all ages have rued its shortcomings, sometimes in good humour, sometimes bitterly, as when Churchill said he knew very well that though large crowds came to hear him speak, they would be far larger if they were going to see him hanged. And Einstein said he had no illusions about who would draw much larger crowds if he and a famous Hollywood star got off the same train. Democrats murdered Socrates, after all, being led by nothing nobler than mob hysterics, and Browning’s patriot found out only too late how foolish and deadly it was to trust public memory and adulation. It is a sad and pitiable world indeed, where the stupidest, crudest, most ignorant and aggressive of men and women are put at par, where questions of tastes and opinions are concerned – people who would prefer shopping malls and pubs and football brawls and wedding feasts any time over libraries and museums and research labs and philosophy – with the most learned, wise and decent of men. Since the vulgar folk form the majority almost everywhere, any society which pins all its faith in their tastes and opinions is always in danger of going the way of madness and decadence…the greatest democrats down the ages had hoped that education would make better men of the vulgar majority and so ensure continuous progress, but after several centuries of experimentation, there are now grave reasons for doubt and concern. Education as it is given and absorbed these days makes vulgar people richer and more arrogant and more demanding by the million, yes (the classic contemporary example being the Dursley family in the Harry Potter books… I can see so many like them all around me), but it certainly does not make men with more taste, decency, sensitivity, charity, imagination, courage … all the qualities that distinguish true elites from the riff-raff.

I have mused in the same vein myself time and again (as for instance here and here) on this blog.

Just one little ray of light: the first link says that at least a lot of children stopped to watch the musician, in wonder or at least idle curiosity. Children are born intelligent and sensitive, they are made dull and crude and ‘busy’ and callous by their elders (see the quote from the great psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud, at the bottom of this page). But, as Tagore said, the birth of every child is proof that God has not yet lost faith in Man…


Shilpi said...

Startlingly interesting post Suvro da what with the taut connection between the socio-psychological experiment and democracy. I wouldn’t have seen that link no matter what else I may have seen – even though I tell myself that I should have jolly well seen the connection for myself.

1. I’ve always wondered how great people become great or miss becoming great in the eyes of people during a certain age, and the sad, sad example that haunts me the most is that of Van Gogh. This essay reminds me too of the ones you wrote on “Values, prices, and incomes” as well as “Of chance, fate, and karma”, “On Beauty”, and it also reminds me of one of Rand’s rants and pet peeves as well.

2. People will gape at whatever they are told to gape at and buy whatever they are told to buy – for the most part (be that for things like art, music, books and for things like cell-phones). I don’t remember where I read something very recently (on your blog?) that the media industry and the ad industry tell people that they have the freedom to want and the freedom to buy, and the folks with the money foolishly believe that they are free. The critical theoretical paradigm, if it made a couple of important contributions I think it was this – that culture too is a thing which is bought and sold and if the pitch is right, people will buy just about anything (high or low) sold by the culture industry – before many scholars started using such jargon ridden language that their main points were obfuscated.

3. What has annoyed me for many years is a) there are many who just don’t see the difference between something genuinely great and something that is the flavor of the month and b) that there are equally vast numbers of people – silly folk of the kind you mention right at the beginning. They like something because they don’t have any real tastes and opinions but think it’s cultured to “like” Beethoven and Mozart and Handel and they talk big. These people annoy the living daylights out of me. And yet I don’t know which category is worse – I only know which one is more annoying.

4. Sometimes though there is a part of me that would prefer living under a benign dictator if only that would drive the mobs and the and the aggressive louts out of existence. If having a dictator of rare brilliance, sensibility and sensitivity would mean that philosophers, true scientists, writers, artists of all kinds and of merit and honest and decent people were able to live, if beauty were allowed to exist, if folks could be taught to value the right things….I would “vote” for the dictator every time. I know that’s a pipe dream of course but still. I'm reminded of Dumbledore among others - and about what they said too...

5. Education isn’t working out either – you’re right of course. And it would seem that it’s only purpose has become to provide certain technical skills and paper qualifications so that an individual can make an economic living when the time comes while becoming stupidly arrogant, more vulgar, more pretentious, and slow in the head with more and more education.

This essay of yours is disturbing, packed and deeply interesting. I really enjoyed reading the anecdotes too. But if there is one thing I don’t understand it is why people fawn and cringe and then turn their backs. I really don’t get it.
As for the elegant experiment itself – I really do wonder though whether they may be at least one alternative reason for the people having walked away. Maybe I’ll post a comment on that some other day with some anecdotes of my own maybe. It’s a rather rambling thought (and not entirely free of guilt actually) and this comment has already become very long.
Thank you for this post. I had been having the vague feeling that you might write about that piece on Joshua Bell once Pupu forwarded me the tale. Take care. Amen for the concluding thought in the essay yours, I guess...
P.S: Oh, and by the way do you have to talk about being lynched – for God’s sake, really.

Amit parag said...

It is "common herd" all the way, since time immortal. Of the herd of mankind in museums,I have had a personal experience. Here in Kota there is a palace,Garh Palace , a part of which is kept as a gallery of archaic things-weapons and paintings of Rajasthan's royal family.There were two well-to-do family also present the day I had gone to pay it a visit.Now everyone knows the state of Indian museums-all artifacts were lying out of their shelves(much like the books kept in St.xavier's library). I was gazing at a particularly curved and sinister looking sword of Prithvi Raj Chouhan-the only thing of worth there. Now these two ladies(wearing stilettoes) and conversing in English came up and stood for some time in front of the sword.And guess what they discussed!!-was that thing a spear or an axe, not even pausing to read the note engraved below.They finally agreed that it was neither but resembled more a mace!! Such paucity of common sense.
A more frequently observed and quickly growing trend is that all have begun to speak English or better some balderdash resembling English.This latest activity is going the "mobilephone" way.All third class customs started by the herd,for the herd,and converted into another crap by a few more intelligent members of the herd(sms converted into twitter).
As to Joshua Bell's D.C experiment, it can only said that that those whose lives becomes a routine and all the interesting and sometimes eccentric things that fate offers goes unnoticed , reach a mundane finality and their purpose of life seeps out as abee sucking nectar out of a flower.

The entrance to St.Mungo's hospital lay in a busy street of London."Them muggles,they don't look properly"!!

Asima said...

Dear Sir,
the article in Washington Post tempted me to send a few lines that a friend had shared with me a year ago...

Big Mud Puddles and Sunny Yellow Dandelions
Author Unknown

When I look at a patch of dandelions, I see a bunch of weeds that are going to take over my yard.
My kids see flowers for Mom and blowing white fluff you can wish on.

When I look at an old drunk and he smiles at me, I see a smelly, dirty person who probably wants money and I look away.
My kids see someone smiling at them and they smile back.

When I hear music I love, I know I can't carry a tune and don't have much rhythm so I sit self-consciously and listen.
My kids feel the beat and move to it. They sing out the words. If they don't know them, they make up their own.

When I feel wind on my face, I brace myself against it. I feel it messing up my hair and pulling me back when I walk.
My kids close their eyes, spread their arms and fly with it, until they fall to the ground laughing.

When I pray, I say thee and thou and grant me this, give me that.
My kids say, "Hi God! Thanks for my toys and my friends. Please keep the bad dreams away tonight. Sorry, I don't want to go to Heaven yet. I would miss my Mommy and Daddy."

When I see a mud puddle I step around it. I see muddy shoes and dirty carpets.
My kids sit in it. They see dams to build, rivers to cross, and worms to play with.

I wonder if we are given kids to teach or to learn from? No wonder God loves the little children!
Enjoy the little things in life, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.

I wish you Big Mud Puddles and Sunny Yellow Dandelions!!!

I still feel the urge to tug my three year old along when he stops to cheer at the pigeons in the backyard and expects me to do the same when we are getting late in the morning but the big mud puddles and yellow dandelions help me to stop and breathe the fresh morning air at least for a few minutes.

ginger candy said...


That was a very interesting article on Joshua Bell. People won't care a bit if you don't spice it up to make it look 'sexy' and 'cool' these days, and the moment you do so, there would be hordes of morons drooling all over it, even if it is as vulgar and tasteless as the reality television shows in India nowadays. Things are getting worse by each passing generation (I shudder to think about the fates of great musicians like Shyamal Mitra and Hemanta Mukherjee if they had been born forty years later), and at the rate at which the moral decadence is spreading, certain things (like classic literature, fine arts, rabindra sangeet, Indian classical music, elocution among others) might as well disappear into thin air by the time I reach my prime. I have a feeling (and I might be very wrong) that despite the large portion of moronic folks residing in their population, some of the western countries have managed to retain a certain portion of their good senses, thanks in no small measure to a healthy proportion of intelligent and sensible people over there. May be that is one of the prime reason why many educated people from other countries are trying to settle in there, as opposed to the more popular reasons like money and better life-style. As far as appreciation for good work in India is concerned, you need not look hard: Just look at the box-office performance of witless duds like "Singh is King" on one hand as well as films like "Aamir" on the other hand, and you should get your answer.


Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thanks for the comments that have already come in.

Mayuri sent in the following relevant and interesting link that everybody may profit from reading:


More later... take care, everybody.

Sumitha Kurien said...

I think there are various ways in which one could perceive this. The most common and the most plausible one is the one that everybody's talked about in the post as well as in the comments.

To be fair to the people involved in this experiment without their knowledge(or should I call it a "sting operation" a la tehelka.com), I would like to dwell upon one or two aspects here. While it is true that human beings are susceptible so to say to the herd mentality, they are also given in to umpteen demands on their time, energy and faculties in the struggle to survive. This being particularly true for adult human beings, it is no wonder then that often adults find themselves rushing at a frantic pace to keep up with the rest of the world. We have our myriad commitments as family persons, deadlines to be met at our workplaces, various social obligations that have to be met and so on and so forth... and only 24 hours to get it all done. And that leads to a quandary among many an individual as to what needs to prioritised and what could wait.

To be honest, I live by the clock. I work from 7:00 a.m. till 4:00 p.m. on all weekdays, and to make sure that I reach in office by 6:55 a.m. I wake up at 5:30 a.m. everyday. I enjoy and value my hours of rest, so I wouldn't like waking up earlier than 5:30 a.m. as a rule. So now, one fine day, if I chance upon a really talented story teller on my way to the office (I am fascinated by stories more than by music, and hence the example), I might pause for a really short while and listen; but whether I would stop to listen to the whole story and thenceforth proceed to appreciate the talent of the story teller or the way in which she presented the tale, I am doubtful. And that would be because I have a job to finish that I really need to get started on, and a halt of 20-30 minutes that doesn't fit the routine for a weekday would be hard to overcome, so to say. The long and short of it is, for me, as for many others I know, there is a right time for everything. I have a time set apart for pursuing my interests, but it doesn't happen to be early mornings or anytime during the day, and I guess that's true for many other people.

A time to work,
A time to play,
A time to be busy,
A time to be gay;
A time to ponder,
A time to wonder,
A time to muse,
A time to be amused;
A time to rest,
Some time for zest...

So maybe, just maybe, atleast some of the people who passed by the acclaimed violinist that day were so buried in their worlds that they genuinely did not notice him. He was not where he was expected to be, and these people were trying to get to the places where they were expected to be in a short while... maybe, just maybe, that could also be an explanation for their behaviour.

I live in hope that all's not lost as far as the human race is concerned. Here's to us!


Shilpi said...

In response to Sumitha's comment: of course what you say is a very distinct possibility (that some people simply didn't even hear Bell playing). We are busy, we are living by the clock, we don't have the time, we are wrapped up in our own worlds inside our heads. We go from day to day, getting through each day doing what needs to be done and fail/refuse to notice, LOOK and listen to some things that make life astounding and make us wonder. That I believe was one of the underlying purposes for carrying out the elegant experiment, and for an experiment such as this - it doesn't make sense to let the people know "Oh, by the way we are conducting an experiment...". Some people may not like music. Some people may be tone deaf. That is all very fine. But apart from all other points which may be raised in objection or in defense (and there are some points about the experiment that do make me wonder) - there is one point to think over.

If there had been a public announcement stating that Joshua Bell was going to be playing (and I'm sure anyone who is likely to read the post will at least check out Youtube if they haven't heard Bell play) at the New York subway station at * O'clock in the middle of rush hour - would there have been more people who may have stopped, waited, listened, and given him a standing ovation?
And another glinting part of me wonders what may have happened if they had gotten a Joshua Bell stand-in? Would the stand-in have received the same attention?

Ecclesiastes too talked about there being a "time to every purpose under the heaven". There is of course plenty of wriggle room for one to say "It's time to move on..." or to say "It's time to listen to the music..." and carry it with me.

The link that Mayuri sent was rather interesting. It struck me quite odd though that they let people click photos in the Louvre....

So much for now.

P.S: Sorry for some bad errors in my previous comment Suvro da - including (but not limited to) some typos.

Sumitha Kurien said...

Oh I don't mind the way the experiment was conducted, Shilpi; all I am saying is, atleast SOME of the people that hurried by would have had a genuine reason for what they did. And in saying that everybody's caught up in their own worlds and too busy to notice, perhaps we are all also giving in to a collective perception of an event that could have myriad interpretations. Maybe on another day and under other circumstances, a few of those busy people would stop and listen to their hearts content...who knows!?

Let me put it this way... when I am rushing to the platform to board the long distance train that would take me home, I wouldn't stop to listen to the heart rending song of a beggar girl, sung very melodiously-- no I wouldn't and I am quite honest about that. But once I am inside the train and content in the knowledge that I am finally headed home, if the girl comes along singing her beautiful song, I would listen and appreciate; and help her in whatever way I could.

Maybe I am self centered and maybe all of those people that didn't stop to listen to Joshua Bell are... why I would behave thus in the hypothetical instance explained above, are for reasons best known to me and my conscience wouldn't prick me because the reasons hold good to justify my self-centeredness so to say; but yes, to a bystander it might appear totally heartless and typically selfish behaviour.

We can't change everybody's reactions to the things that happen, can we? We can however make allowances for their rationale behind those actions.

And oh yes, Ecclesiastes, particularly the chapter on how there is a time for everything, happens to be my favourite.

As regards your hypothetical question about the reaction had there been a prior announcement, I am certain there would have been a nice crowd! Man cannot but deny himself a chance to behold an acclaimed performer perform what he is best at. That he doesn't give much thought to a superlative performance even if it came from a maestro in disguise, just shows me that the achievements that we are all so proud of, and the abilities that we feel so good about, are all subject to human perceptions of who we are. If I am famous as a good story teller, people would read my stories (even if some of them may not match up to their expectations). But if I am an unknown entity in the story telling circles, no publisher would give me the time of her day unless I had an agent to recommend me, no matter how good my story really is. And so, since we are all interbound by our perceptions of who we are, I try whenever I can, to try and perceive a more acceptable reason behind an irrational behaviour.


Suvro Chatterjee said...

I get your point perfectly, Sumitha, and I am especially in sympathy with what you have said about storytellers, having been one myself all my life! However, what I was trying to say was, firstly, that far too many people are not really too busy to attend to nice and good things (from which they themselves might benefit - take things like meditation and exercise, for instance, not only music and books) but simply too distracted, harried, and mentally lazy; and secondly, that it is a fact that as we grow old we all begin to realise how many parties we need not have attended, how many meetings we need not have sat on, how many opportunities for love and laughter and mental enrichment we have missed by being so busy all our lives. As a great scientist said in his old age, given his life to live all over again, he would have collected more butterflies! 'What is this life, if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?' So maybe all of us need to look at our routines and figure out where we could save a little time for the really good things of life. Otherwise, as another poet said long ago, 'Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey/ where wealth accumulates, and men decay'...

Shilpi said...

First off:
I’m extremely sorry if I sounded offensive in my previous comment. My intention was certainly not to cast blame on people for acting in their own self-interest.
To only partially pick at the study again – it’s certainly not without holes. And Sumitha as you point out - we know what people did – we don’t know their own reasons and therefore we can guess (justified guesswork). That does have its problems without doubt. And I can think of a 17 genuine reasons (and some other batty ones) for people not stopping. But the points that do interest me about the study and the post are:

1. Yes indeed there would be more people watching and paying to watch Bell perform and many would stop and listen simply because they have been told that Bell is an excellent performer. And out of the over 1000 people who walked by that morning I can’t help but wonder how many of them may have stopped and gushed had they known that it was Bell, and how many more would have collected (not in genuine appreciation, mind you) but because it’s a culturally “important” event. I’m not sure what you mean Sumitha when you say “interbound by perceptions of who we are” but I am quite sure that while some people would listen to Bell perform because they love his renditions – there are probably more people who listen to him because it makes them look good and important.

2. You see, I find the answers to the questions - How do great people get recognized for who they are? Conversely, how come so many great people go unnoticed? How do mediocre people get so much of fame? And how do completely useless people hit the popularity charts and make tonnes of money simply by making an appearance at some place? – rather perplexing in some ways. This is why I personally find the Bell study as being relevant in relation to thinking about the connections between democracy time, place, and the pitch being right in order to sell something…things that Suvro da does mention in his post.

There may be holes for sure in the study as there are holes when I try to explain any form of human behaviour. As you say Sumitha – maybe some of the people did have very good reasons for not stopping. Who knows – maybe some of the people walked off because they didn’t have any cash with them and felt terribly embarrassed about hanging around...
I’ve talked enough about this. Once again – absolute apologies if I sounded as if I were casting unwarranted blame or if I sounded offensive.

Sumitha Kurien said...

Oh no Shilpi, I wan't offended; but I like debates and so I might have gone a little overboard in fighting a battle for the people that didn't stop to listen to Joshua Bell! My apologies if that was the case...

As regards the statement that I wasn't very clear about, what I meant to say was that each human being's perception of other human beings is different; and so, bound as I am or rather my destiny is, to someone's perception of me or my work, I try to keep my mind as open as possible when trying to rationalise peoples' actions. Because just as I would like them to see my perception of a particular matter, so would they like me to make some allowances for their actions if those don't fall under the norm...I guess.

And I am quite certain that a vast majority of those people in the experiment would fit into the category that doesn't care two hoots about anything unless it does something to boost their vanity or their station in life!

Anonymous said...

I have come across this particular article on Joshua Bell before. Since then whenever I have recalled it several kinds sides of the argument have run inside my head. I cannot perhaps give a complete judgement on this. Yes, it is sad that nobody took the time off to really appreciate the "violinist" at the subway. The fact that it was actually Joshua Bell serves the purpose of the experiment and points out the fact that in terms of actual genuine interest, the trouble a person takes to stand and see something worth seeing, to listen to something worth listening to in other words to simply take the time to appreciate the beauty and goodness around you, the identity of the person should hardly matter. Human nature is fickle,I have been told and this response quite unfortunately, is fairly predictable and expected. This is not to pass judgements on anyone at that subway that day, like Sumitha Kurien has said, maybe some of them genuinely had to hurry and could not stop. Whatever the reason is, the inescapable fact is people are so caught up in reaching their destinations at any given time that they simply fail to look around and just see, be. It need not have been even a classical piece by Bach or Mozart, a simple street tune with an old scratchy fiddle deserves the same attention too. After all, it does not take much to take a little time out to do something of value. Like my niece says, why avoid something good and nice? :-)

Suvro Chatterjee said...

In eight days, nobody has suitably responded to my last comment here! and I mean folks other than Shilpi, Sumitha and Vaishnavi...