Sunday 27 October 2013

'Intellectual inoculation' the best defence

Singaporeans should not depend on the state alone to safeguard youth from objectionable material.
By Chitra Sankaran, Published The Straits Times, 25 Oct 2013

IN THE era of the Internet, Twitter, tweets, blogs and YouTube visuals, one of Singapore's key concerns should be how to protect the young from the harmful influences that sometimes accompany these innovations.

Without the luxury of a surplus populace, it is especially important for Singapore to protect its youth from sexually explicit and exploitative sites. Such sites can prove addictive to formative minds, preventing them from developing meaningful relationships as adults. Singapore's future citizenry also needs to be safeguarded from the imposition of radical ideologies that might threaten national cohesion.

The current system

SAFEGUARDING Singaporean youth from sexually explicit material may seem easy. After all, Singapore has been at it for some time.

The three major Internet service providers (ISPs) are subject to regulation by the Media Development Authority (MDA) to block websites containing objectionable material. The Ministry of Education also blocks access to "objectionable" Internet content on its proxy servers.

Singapore has been extremely proactive and sensitive in its responses. In 1991, the authorities began introducing various categories of film classifications. At first there were three classification ratings: G (General), PG (Parental Guidance) and R18 (Restricted to 18 years and above).

Since then, a series of modifications has taken place. The MDA has now introduced NC16, R21 and M18 classifications. In addition, a "consumer advice" component has been added to provide information on the content of films. With the new "film on demand" and other such features available on our television sets, we can now also activate a parental lock at home.

But the problem is never entirely resolved. How much of our limited resources, both human and economic, can we expend on censorship?

Role of the family

IT IS time Singaporeans stopped looking to systems to safeguard children. Such overreliance on the state spells trouble. If a child were to go to a country without such checks, the affinity for the virtual world may take over. In the war of minds, every young mind needs to be educated to erect its own barriers. This is primarily the responsibility of the family. The state can only do so much.

One effective action is to discourage children from over-engagement with the virtual world. Studies show that for lonely children who connect with the virtual world from an early age, the distinction between real and virtual disappears rapidly. It is a common sight these days to see a child as young as two or three sitting absorbed in an iPad or tablet, oblivious to his surroundings, while the parents carry on with their activities.

Children need to be constantly encouraged to connect with other children and with adults through sports and conversation. Playing a board game with a friend is so much better than passively watching TV or playing a video game.

There was wisdom in the old-fashioned view that one should never leave an adolescent too long to his own devices. An interest in sex is inevitable but this needs to be channelled. Engage your adolescent child in conversations that discuss the dreadful realities of porn websites, such as the abuse of young girls, the predatoriness and human cost involved. Drag them constantly back to the "real" world. Get them disengaged, whenever you reasonably can, from the illusion provided by the virtual world.

Radical ideologies

THE second threat - the infusion of radical ideologies - can also be linked to the Internet, which erases geographical distances to the point where social or psychological crises in another part of the world can appear very real, even if Singapore's problems are quite different.

The result is that the young identify with another social group's predicaments. Instances of this are frequently reported. A privileged middle-class boy in the United States may identify with the social perceptions of a Yemeni boy. The perception erases his own social reality to the extent that he is willing to die for a completely alien cause. Imaginative empathy changes into false identification and, subsequently, to radical action.

How does one counter this?

In the 1960s, social psychologist William J. Mcguire developed the "inoculation theory" after studying the behaviour of US prisoners of war during the Korean War. The theory is best explained by using the inoculation analogy.

A medical inoculation works by exposing the body to weakened viruses that are strong enough to trigger a response - that is, the production of antibodies - but not so strong as to overwhelm the body's resistance.

Mr Mcguire explains that "attitudinal inoculation" works in the same way. The process involves exposing a subject to weakened forms of threat, triggering counter-argument. This eventually confers resistance to future, stronger and more persuasive messages.

Role of the schools

TO SUGGEST that, with some judicious tweaking, this method might usefully serve to educate Singaporean youth might at first appear counter-intuitive. But remember that when medical inoculation was first suggested, the sceptics laughed it out of court before its effectiveness was proven.

Assume that we fear that an individual is prone to radical ideologies, say an extreme form of socialism that involves the eradication of capitalist institutions such as banks. The arguments that are advanced to indoctrinate people are then posed in a weaker form. The dangers associated with holding such a position then emerge and help "inoculate" the individual.

Based on this methodology, our schools could adopt innovative and imaginative ways of exposing our youth to a sample of these potentially harmful materials from an early age, before they can become susceptible or indoctrinated by them. In other words, we are developing mental equilibrium by encouraging critical thinking.

To some extent, Singapore's educators are already aware of these methods. In recent years, there has been a greater emphasis on the humanities and on liberal arts education. Instituting the University Scholars Programme and the Yale-NUS College in one of our premier universities is evidence of such awareness. But this might be too little, too late. The process of intellectual inoculation needs to begin much earlier. Leaders, educators and public intellectuals should be trying to think of innovative ways through which youth are exposed to such dangers, and educated to fight the battle.

Singapore should realise its limitations in the face of the unending onslaught, and approach the problem by carving out new defences that are about self-reliance and less about reliance on the role of the state.

The writer is Associate Professor at the Department of English Language and Literature, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, at the National University of Singapore.

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