Indonesia does not possess what we could call a rich reading culture. That is to say, few of Indonesia’s populace spend much of their time gathering information, knowledge, et cetera from literature—be they fiction or non-fiction. A worrying insight into our nation’s intellectual landscape. As it would mean that most Indonesians are deprived of what could arguably be called the richest recourses for academic development.
Indonesia’s Ministry of Education and Culture—known as KemDikBud in Indonesian parlance—released in 2016, a survey conducted by an anonymous United States of America university. Among 61 of the countries included in the survey, Indonesia placed 60th. Peaking just slightly above the impoverished African state of Botswana. How could Indonesia, a nation that has been independent for more than seventy years only managed to beat one which has held independence for a mere fifty-something-years? The answer lies in multiple places.
Reasons for why Indonesians sway from reading are several. The baseline however lies with the fact that Indonesians prefer other medias, the likes of television and radio, the internet, over those of newspapers and books. Each of these non-literary mediums provide information at a much faster and accessible pace than those reachable through text alone (Staff, 2016). But should the advantage of speed outweigh all that literature has to offer? Certainly not.
Books grant their readers several, invaluable powers. They allow us to sift for truth within the barrage of narratives provided by mainstream media. They empower skepticism, instead of discouraging it. Most important of all though, is how they compel us to question and debate all the information presented to us—including those found in the books themselves. Clearly it would take more than a single paragraph to induce the desire to read, thus I ask of you for the chance to further elaborate my arguments. Starting with the diverse offerings of the literary world, and how they might unshackle our minds.
It would be a mistake to think that only the works of academics and scientists—in other words, nonfiction—could bestow readers the powers I’ve mentioned in the previous paragraph. Fiction too are great drivers of truth-seeking, questions, and debates. We need only look at the work of George Orwell to understand fiction’s prowess.
Orwell’s novel, 1984, illustrated a world where a government dictates and observes all that its denizens do and think. Wherein all the thoughts that flow through its world’s common people’s are watched and evaluated. Have ideas that are in alignment with the governing body’s agenda, and you’re perfectly fine. Think in the opposite direction however, and the police would be eager to imprison you. Censorship reign as well, with the narratives presented to the citizenry always concocted and approved or disapproved by the powers that be. Essentially, the state controls the people directly, by manipulating the latter’s thoughts, ideas, flows of information, as permitted by its countless prying machines and absolute authority. All for the purpose of creating a population that does not dare challenge or even question the decisions of the rulers (Orwell, 1949).
1984 is an almost clairvoyant allegory for present-day state-sponsored intelligence gathering programs, and government censorship. Alongside the effects they already, and would one day have on ordinary citizens. Prying on citizens, as revealed by whistleblowers the likes of Edward Snowden, exerts a certain pressure for compliance; as the observed would be fearful of punishment should they be caught committing what the governing body deems to be unseemly. Whilst censorship would compel obedience since what could and could not be said are clearly outlined, and those who stray from the norm are punished in one way or another (York, 2014)—imprisonment, in the case of Indonesia.
What 1984 arms readers with however, is the armament of prediction. Should powerful nations the likes of the United Kingdom or the United States of America continue to peer into the thoughts of peoples across the globe; should Indonesia’s government continue to shut the mouths that speak in ways that does not appease it, then the future would be akin to the dystopia of 1984. Readers are given the power to argue that what they are currently witnessing and experiencing could spiral out of control, leading us all into a world without privacy, without free speech, for fear of the ever-seeing eyes of the state. A reader would likely ask and challenge the decisions made by states that mimic those made by the powerful in 1984.
Thus the way fiction empowers its readers: By way of presenting tales that could very well be our upcoming and unpleasant futures, ones that must be halted at every step of its actualization. But how does fiction’s polar opposite, nonfiction, strengthen its consumers? In a way it does offer possible futures as well, albeit with less fantastic predictions. But its strength lies in how it propels the search for truth, skepticism towards conventional narratives—mass media—an unwillingness to lie down and accept the lies thrown at us on a daily basis.
Take the works of Noam Chomsky. From his essays and lectures that aim to criticize both domestic and foreign policies of the US, alongside the war crimes committed or made possible by the decisions of the superpower. Chomsky aims to showcase his readers the darker sides of governance, the ones that aren’t easily visible when one only tunes to the news provided by mainstream media.
An excellent introduction to Chomsky’s ideas would be his tome titled, Who Rules the World? A probing analysis of how the United States maintains its global empire through the shadows and in broad daylight. From examining the impacts of the US’ military-first policies—ones that have enabled genocide, ethnic cleansing, and so on in countries from the Middle East, Latin America, and Asia—to the US’ unquestioning support for autocratic regimes that support it. What a reader would gather from reading Chomsky’s book would be a critical view of the West’s paragon of democracy, justice, and human rights.
Who Rules the World? illustrates how the US is not nearly as honorable as it makes itself seem. The US would ceaselessly use their drones on either militants or civilians, so long as it is necessary for them to hold power over a region, as is the case with the Middle East. They would overthrow democratically elected leaders, should said leaders prefer to not cooperate with the US; as can be seen in Latin America. Then the US would provide support for any group, even though these organizations may well be called terrorists by Western standards, such as the case with Reagan’s support for the Contras in Nicaragua. A faction completely willing to commit atrocities—mass murder of innocent men, women, and children for one—to achieve their US-approved objectives.
In Indonesia, the US propelled the rise of the Soeharto regime; a military coup which resulted in 31 years of genocide against anti-Soeharto groups, censorship that employed violence as its primary method, essentially an era of Indonesians being prohibited from voicing their thoughts at the risk of imprisonment, abuse, or straight-out murder. And how did the US respond to all the crimes Soeharto committed? It hailed the dictator as a hero, a herald of stability and peace to a land where chaos prevailed over order and peace. Despite all proofs pointing to the contrary (Chomsky, 2016).
Chomsky highlights nearly all the hypocrisies the US has engaged in. His works allow readers to understand that the world is not as black and white as the US would like us to believe. It is rather, various shades of gray. Where no action, no matter how sugar-coated it might be, can never wholly be justified. It is through the minds of authors akin to Chomsky, that a reader may arm himself with the idea that they would have to be a complete skeptic to be able to sift for truth in a world dominated by the narratives of the powerful. Essentially granting readers the opportunity to question, and the foundation to debate the claims presented by the entrenched elites.
Reading either fiction or nonfiction reveals to us countless things. From the information that governing bodies may not want us to see, to the brave predictions that may be in line with how we as societies are developing. With these glimmers of wisdom, a reader would be able to better understand the reality of what is happening around them—either through fiction or otherwise.
Whatever types of books, articles, journals that we choose to read, all of them embolden us to strike back against the convenient—but not necessarily true—information presented to us. A reader can understand, they can argue with the powerful through provable facts, and see truths even when they are buried under countless lies. Most of all, literature allows us to see a better world for all, one that we may well be able to realize in the coming future.
Chomsky, N. (2016). Who Rules the World? New York City: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt &
Orwell, G. (1949). 1984. New York City: New American Library.
Staff. (2016). Gerakan Indonesia Membaca: “ Menumbuhkan Budaya Membaca”. Jakarta:
Kementerian Pendidikan dan Kebudayaan
York, J. (2014). The harms of surveillance to privacy, expression and association. California:
Electronic Frontier Foundation.