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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

CONTEXTUALLY YOURS (article first published : 2001-10-8)

The age of Big Brother has come to South Africa. Twelve individuals have volunteered to be locked up in a peculiar house behind a five-metre wall for 106 days. They are monitored night and day by a battery of cameras and microphones. They have no privacy or solitude, and they can be found on television 24 hours a day. They have no radio, television or newspapers, and there seem to be very few books, not that they would know what to do with them. At intervals, they and the public vote to evict one of their number, and the last to survive wins a million rand.

I don’t know what criteria were employed to select the inmates, but if they represent a cross-section of our population, things are even worse than I thought. Their conversation, their thoughts, their daily lives have added a new dimension to a host of words – banal, trivial, tedious, boring, humdrum, vapid; and the list goes on. The most articulate and interesting character present, by a long way, is the rooster in the fowl-run.

I am not sure what discipline would perform such an experiment. Psychology, Abnormal or otherwise? Sociology? In search of enlightenment, I had a look at a sociology text-book, and found the following encouraging sentence: “I need to state what I mean very clearly and explicitly for other people to see.” Good stuff, but alas, it couldn’t last. On the next page, the author wrote: “The measurement process for quantitative research is a straightforward sequence: first conceptualization, followed by operationalization, followed by applying the operational definition or measuring to collect the data.”

Well, thanks, professor, but next term I’m switching to astrophysics. Operationalizationwise, that is. At least I might have some idea of what they’re talking about.

Since I wrote these words, the horrific attacks on New York and Washington have taken place. In the words of Kevin Myers, writing in the Weekly Telegraph, London, “We are back to that place of chaos, twice visited in the last century, where consequence runs free of human control, where wisdom seems to be of no avail, and evil seems master of all.” In the circumstances, talking about words seems irrelevant. A pervasive sadness has invaded our world. Just when everything seemed to be going rather well – Nazi Germany a distant memory, the communist empire in ruins – we have been pitched back into the Middle Ages, and the work of a thousand years will have to be done again.

Through the Internet, a quotation came my way which has been much on my mind, and is now even more so. It’s from the writings of Blaise Pascal, who was born in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death; he died young, in 1662. He wrote:

“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

Three and a half centuries later, it seems that nothing much has changed.

Contextually Yours, Ulysses Online.




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