Our short-term attention spans

Updated: Nov 17, 2018, 03:20 IST | Lindsay Pereira | Mumbai

#MeToo got us all hot and bothered for a couple of weeks, but new obsessions and reasons for outrage have begun to take over

Politicians have long recognised our short attention spans, and consistently use them to their advantage. It allows them to make promises they have no intention of keeping, get people who have no interest in our well-being to represent us in Parliament. Pic/PTI
Politicians have long recognised our short attention spans, and consistently use them to their advantage. It allows them to make promises they have no intention of keeping, get people who have no interest in our well-being to represent us in Parliament. Pic/PTI

Lindsay PereiraI spent an hour or two tracking timelines of some of the men whose names cropped up during the surge of #MeToo revelations a month ago. It was undeniably a heady period, with new accusations and allegations surfacing every other day, dragging supermen and relatively unknown entities kicking and screaming into the spotlight conferred enthusiastically by social media platforms. It was like a reality show that kept giving.

And so, I combed through the list of supposed victims. A number of the men accused had mysteriously run out of things to say. Their timelines on Twitter lay dormant, the usual rivers of self-congratulatory tweets suddenly running dry. A minister resigned, another talking head lost a few clients, and a few companies issued strong statements about how they believed in equality and did not condone harassment of any sort. And then, as if someone somewhere had turned a faucet, the anger faded. The outrage evaporated, and the movement slowed to a halt.

It has been weeks since new accusations have surfaced. Some of the men who were accused have begun to peek out of their shells and emerge blinking into the light of knowledge that their careers may not be as damaged as they assumed. They have found consolation in the other men of industry who faced similar accusations a year ago and emerged unscathed - the venture capitalist who still boasts about his LinkedIn profile being valuable, the digital media CEO who stepped down but still runs his office, the actor caught on camera asking a girl to sleep with him who still finds employment on the small screen.

I blame our short-term attention spans for why these genuine attempts at change run out of steam as quickly as they do. We revel in weekly reasons for outrage, adore the rush that comes with screaming ourselves hoarse about the issue of the day, and congratulate ourselves on Facebook posts that allow us to share our thoughts with friends and relatives who then dole out likes to show us how much they approve. It is a lot of sound and fury that signifies nothing.

What we lose, in the bargain, is the ability to effect genuine change. We lose momentum, and even allow people to get away with murder, because they have begun to realise that the wheels of justice turn slowly, and our collective memory is short. It allows them to operate with impunity, safe in the knowledge that all consequences will be temporary.

The saddest thing is, our politicians have long recognised these short attention spans, and consistently use them to their advantage. It allows them to make promises they have no intention of keeping, welcome members who belong in jail to their parties, and get people who have no interest in our well-being to represent us in Parliament. They know that any outrage will be short-lived, and distract us easily with imagined enemies where none exist. It's why our elections are fought not on issues that matter - the economy, lack of infrastructure, widening gaps between rich and poor, gender inequality, corruption - but on things that ought not to take up so much space in our lives but do: statues, temples, or perceived threats from minorities.

Were we as scattered in earlier decades, before these platforms existed? Were our parents as easily distracted? Did it take longer for mass movements to gather steam and effect change? I'm not sure I have answers to these questions. What I do believe, however, is that we are increasingly being encouraged to forget, and history has never been kind to people who do.

Remember the stampede that killed Bombaiytes because the Railways don't maintain their bridges? Remember the fire at Kamala Mills that killed those innocent people because the BMC doesn't care about implementing the law? Remember the unending list of scams that have siphoned millions of taxpayer money and funnelled them into the hands of people who have been allowed to leave the country? Remember politicians accused of extortion, rape and murder who continue to boldly enter Parliament and tell the rest of us how we ought to behave?

Maybe it's too late for us, and we must accept that our inability to focus on anything for too long will only increase as more terabytes of information are thrust our way. We can still protect our children though, by teaching them to separate the wood from the trees, so they don't get taken for a ride the way millions of us have been.

When he isn't ranting about all things Mumbai, Lindsay Pereira can be almost sweet. He tweets @lindsaypereira Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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