A scene from George Romero’s Night of The Living Dead
One of the defining moments in my life was a morning lecture in NTU Comms Studies in 1999. We had unwittingly signed up for this harmlessly-named module called “Modern World” and it was conducted by a lecturer whom we weren’t familiar with.
To our horror, we were plunged into a mind-bending history/philosophy/sociology cause that few of us could grasp conceptually. We went from Aristotle to Kant in a matter of lectures, and since we had no philosophy background, you can imagine the difficulty of understanding what on earth it meant when you ask “What is a chair?”
The only person to really understand it was Sze Wang, but he had been reading such books for years anyway. We became firm friends after the course.
But back to the topic, everything came to a head mid-way during the course. Each lecture required heavy reading beforehand, and being undergrads, we naturally didn’t do squat.
Ms Chay (out of sheer respect for this brilliant woman, I use an honorific, very rare on this blog) just blew up and she unleashed the most unforgettable lecture of our lives with words that really sliced to the soul.
She labelled us “zombies!” for walking around like the dead, not caring and not thinking. Initially, I wondered if she was just griping about our laziness but it soon became apparent that it was a discourse on the state of modern man.
We were deathly silent (how appropriate for zombies) and I just kept looking down. She went on for a good ten or twenty minutes, and the lecture hall just kept getting colder. But that lecture marked a fundamental shift in the way I saw everything, and so did the rest of her course.
Increasingly over the years, I found that her metaphor has been proven spot-on again and again.
The average Singaporean (or global citizen, I wouldn’t know) is a zombie. We wake up, we rub our eyes and we go to work, but our eyes are never truly open. We block off a lot of sensory signals that stream in so that we can “focus” on our work. We take the path of least resistance, because it means keeping the jobs or getting the grades. We have passions but we tell ourselves that it is better to agree with the crowd because conformism is safe.
Zombies don’t stay still though, we move but due to inertia. Inertia causes an object to move at the same speed and direction until an external force affects it again. We see the wrongs in society, we may talk about it but we take no action, because we are stumbling along on a pre-directed path.
With inertia, we accept things for what they are, be it stupidity, evil, ineptness or immorality. We argue, but we don’t think. We talk but we do not speak our minds. We see goodness, but we accept it the same way too.
The root cause of zombie-ism?
Some complain about the lack of critical thinking, which is totally a useless exercise – can a person who cannot think critically realise he cannot think critically? Even if you tell him so? The blind will know that they are blind, but having a portion of your brain go dead is quite a bit more problematic yah?
I think the leading thinkers of this country despair quite a bit. It’s not in their best interests to keep telling people what to do, and it’s quite counterproductive when people do exactly as you tell them and produce unforeseen results.
It’s also quite pointless to ask the kids to think creatively in schools, because their teachers come from the Silver Age of Zombiehood. Personally, I believe the best way to inculcate critical thinking in the youth is to impose as conformist an education system as possible. With fierce emphasis on rote and order, that’s when the right people get frustrated enough to think of alternatives and how to circumvent the system WITHOUT breaking the laws. It’s okay for the ones who don’t break out – a bell curve of narrow extremes and a large flat middle will result anyway. There are the drones and there are the opinion/thought leaders.
But what’s wrong with asking every kid to think creatively? Ahh, have you ever wondered what happens when you ask a zombie to believe he can be creative, and he trudges along thinking he is creative just because he has done the necessary projects and exercises to earn him that “C” label? That is happening now on a widespread level, as zombies pat each other on the back for their supposed brilliance and good work, when they don’t realise they’re actually not moving in any different direction than they were before.
It’s funny, but if you’ve watched Return of The Living Dead (1985), the zombies often attack people because they hunger for “brains”. How apt.