WE’VE always been surrounded by the importance of awards — ever since I was young, I remember going to school and the anticipation of an “Awards Day”. It seemed as if the whole academic year led up to who would be ranked either the first or second in rankings in one’s class. And, the whole of next year would revolve around the girl who got the first or the boy who got second place — it became a reputation of theirs for the next year. It was also a pride for the parents.
I suppose an “Awards Day” gets serious as we age on. And, instead of being awarded little mini trophies to decorate our cabinets at home, the gifts became more interesting in the form of vouchers in college and the sense of gratitude and pride upon being recognised for one’s sacrifice of sleep for a thesis, or paper, in university.
However, as we age, we have a tendency to come across criticisms from one section on the conferment of awards on certain parties or individuals. In Malaysia, we see it in the form of honorary titles like “Datuk” being conferred upon individuals.
But, the condemnation and questionable conferment of titles and awards is a constant topic of discussion around the world. Some probably have never heard of Bob Dylan being awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature — “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition” — and the resulting backlash from many. The drama that ensued seemed to have lasted for days, if not weeks. And, the saga continues.
Why are people very concerned? More than 10 articles have been written about it — either opposing or just simply analysing the saga. The thing with awards is that there are criticisms and dissatisfaction on who is deserving of the award — that is where the argument lies. When awards are given in recognition, there are always voices that respond and question how some most likely do not deserve the title.
The awarding of the Nobel Prize to Dylan drew a string of criticisms from writers to actors. It set off a debate on songs and poetry, and if song lyrics can be viewed as a form of poetry.
It also invited an historical analysis, and people have begun to question the credibility of the respected Swedish academy on their judgment of awarding the prize.
As the American magazine, Wired, has written, it seems that the Nobel Prize, in itself, has been subconsciously ingrained to mean “superiority” above others — even in terms and in comparison with other awards. Never mind the fact that Nobel Prize winners would benefit beyond the prestige and recognition — the additional financial gift comes in handy when it comes to funding research or furthering the work that had initially made them deserve the money.
Why does it even matter in the first place, for one to be conferred awards? And, why do things like the awarding of a Nobel Prize still matter more than 200 years later to our modern society, that it received such a backlash recently?
Take the example of idolising and gluing ourselves to the television in anticipating the Oscar winners (or Anugerah Skrin for most Malaysians), we’re social animals that look and pay attention to the “alpha” males and females in a pack. Having an individual be conferred a title or the artiste distinguished from the rest for his work clearly makes a difference to the society and fans. Recipients of an award become influential figures in our lives, or even in the field of study, be it science, literature or in peace and conflict resolution.
There is no denying how much Nobel Prize winners have shaped and contributed to the industry that they are in — look at Nobel Prize winners such as Norman Borlaug, who reversed the food shortages in India and Pakistan in the 1960s (Borlaug — the forgotten benefactor of humanity — is also known as the Third, and forgotten Nobel Prize American Winner, according to The Atlantic) and the many others who have saved lives. They contributed to science to enable us to understand ourselves and the world better. Here, the winners play the role of the leaders and being a role model to future generations.
However, there still exists the few who have conceptualised their thoughts to justify their criticisms and stance taken — “Even Malala Yousafzai (Pakistani female activist) did not deserve the Nobel Peace Prize” some headlines had said. And, Frank Billings Kellogg’s effort that earned him the Nobel Peace Prize is looked at as a joke by some. Kellogg was an American lawyer, politician and statesman who served in the US Senate and as Secretary of State. He had co-authored the Kellogg–Briand Pact, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1929.
But, maybe, when it comes to ensuring peace as in the case of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, it is more of the effort that counts than anything else, since things like this would be dependent on society’s response and thus is beyond the control of the individual awarded. (Santos is the sole recipient of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize).
So, where does the dissatisfaction with Dylan and Santos come from? It could be that a fraction of society has grown to have high expectations of a winner, and maybe something that has today become mundane would not be thought to be deserving of an award anymore.
In the case of a Nobel Prize, the likelihood of that would be low — after all, it’s an award that cannot be bought and one that a team looks at before conferring — definitely one deserving respect.
The writer, a granddaughter of former prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra al-Haj, is a fresh law graduate trying hard to find her place after spending some time in northern England at the University of Manchester. Always probing into discussions, she most often regrets not doing politics, philosophy and economics.