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Conversation and critical thinking

The tendency for sweeping statements

Conversation and critical thinking

Last week’s column about Roedad Khan’s book evoked some trenchant responses which clearly indicates the impression that the public and literati in particular has of bureaucrats. The common hole that was identified and aptly picked up by ‘many’ detractors was his role as a subordinate (you may read as abettor) to dictators, particularly Gen. Zia ul Haq.

One may very well understand Zia having been adjudged by history in a negative light for his brutality and imperiousness but how come the onus for the ‘wrongdoings’ of Zia be placed on a civil servant even if he is Roedad Khan or Ghulam Ishaq Khan. Does their mandate allow them to defy the ruler whether democratically elected or military dictator? They cannot be expected to renege as and when a democratic government is sent packing by a military dictator; they are meant to keep working and carrying out orders.

Anyone finding my inference wanting in authenticity can correct me. As far as my contention in the last column is concerned, it was different. I just wanted to point out the nonchalance exhibited by holders of public office(s) towards documenting their experience while they are vital instruments in the corridors of power. Their memoirs can come in handy and serve as a guideline for those aspiring for civil service.

During the British period, the practice of writing memoirs and diaries by officers was ardently followed. Coming back to the last column, my comments were reserved for the book and not for Roedad Khan as a person. I also concur with his prognosis regarding the governance culture prevailing in Pakistan. Character, competence and conscientiousness are the starkly missing traits among those entrusted with governing the country. I liked his writing-style, with a classical tinge oozing out of his prose, a trait that is fast becoming a rarity.

Absolute dismissal of any point of view instead of engaging critically with the argument/idea embodied in a person was what struck me when I saw all those responses. That was the prime reason that has prompted me to put on hold a write-up on travellers’ accounts and reminiscences of important personalities as a source of history. Instead, I have decided to analyse the overriding tendency among us to issue unilateral and sweeping statements. Even the most educated minds are beset with this malaise. Instead of critical engagement, they tend to see things in black and white. Majority of us, no matter how educated, like issuing fatwas instead of holding conversation or a dialogue.

Royal Holloway historian, Dr. Marcus Daechsal while shedding light on the theory of Public Sphere and its practical realisation in the Punjab during the 1930s and 1940s, made a very interesting point. According to him, public sphere (the theory of the German philosopher Jurgan Habermas) means exchange of views between two or more persons through communicative action which if put simply is nothing but conversation between equals. Such conversations happened in cafes, roadside restaurants and bars which eventually culminated into formation of ideas, leading to revolutionary movements.

The noteworthy point here is that conversation is possible only between socially equals. One talks and listens too, so does the counterpart. Such an act of having conversation (between the equals) is quite central to creating critical thinking among the people involved in the act. It will not be out of place to state that critical thinking is an act of reviewing the established truth claims that are prevalent in any society.

But in our case, usually one person talks and other(s) only listen. For instance, when a pir is talking to his murids (disciples), that is not conversation. The maulvi while giving sermon in a mosque or a village elder talking down to the village residents contravenes the real essence of a public sphere. They talk from the position of unassailable strength. Consequently, such unilateral exchange does not produce critical thinking or the capacity to critically analyse any subject matter. In such societies, idea and thoughts move in a cyclical course and, therefore, the growth in them gets stunted.

That unilateralism is quite typical of a society organised hierarchically in multifarious social strata, where equality in status is conspicuous by its sheer absence. Despite the receding influence of feudal values, its socio-cultural remnants will take time to fade away. This hierarchical sensibility is so deeply entrenched in every sphere of our society that even in educational institutions, dialogue does not happen. The teachers’ views in most cases go unchallenged. Therefore, in the process of instruction that is imparted at our institutions, the role of the ‘taught’ or the student is passive at best.

Unluckily, critical sensibility cannot be inculcated in any passive being. That primarily is the reason the intellectual evolution has stemmed. Creative process is dried up and stagnation in our thought has become a glaring reality.

One must not rule out the role of state in promoting unilateralism and discouraging healthy exchange of views, a prerequisite for a democratic society. Spawning a nationalist ideology that denies socio-cultural plurality strengthens hierarchical structure. Egalitarianism is discouraged because the elite wants to perpetuate its own hold on state apparatus. Hence status quo is firmly pegged. In educational institutions the disciplines of social sciences and humanities get scant attention simply because their promotion may trigger change. The social sciences and humanities don’t entertain many certainties and settled truths as natural sciences do (particularly in the case of Pakistan). Thus, these disciplines create a space for conversation and debate which may lead to a social change.

To conclude the column, I propose that our educated class must think beyond the binary of outright acceptance and rejection. Only then conversation will become a possibility and lead to critical thinking.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The author is a historian and teacher based in Lahore.

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