The war of elephants - Zubeida Mustafa - Wednesday, March 23, 2011

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THE Raymond Davis episode has proved, if nothing else, how impossible it is to fit people into neat categories. Although we love to brand people as ‘leftist’ and ‘rightist’, ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’, ‘Islamist’ and ‘secular’, ‘radical’ and ‘traditional’, we now know how off the mark we are when we do that.
Those who used Davis as a flogging horse to vent their anti-American sentiments were a disparate lot. There were people from both ends of the spectrum and only Davis was their meeting point.
Dr Farhat Moazzam, head of the Centre for Biomedical Ethics and Culture (CBEC) at the Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation, was right when she made a plea to the audience at a seminar on Muslim women to stop labelling people. Of course, she was speaking in another context but whatever the occasion this practice polarises society.
A week earlier, the same view was expressed by a psychologist friend who was upset by the strong allegations being hurled around by people against each other on either side of the ‘ideological’ divide as one might say. She also pointed out, correctly, that as a result of this war of ideas the middle ground is shrinking. The fact is that our mental laziness has prompted us to slot people into convenient categories and treat them accordingly without actually listening to them when they speak. That is why, as Dr Moazzam observes, we are talking “at” each other and not “with” each other.
This trend is confirmed in any discourse that takes place. A person tends to label the other before he challenges his views. This is ridiculous. The fact is that the fault lines which run deep zigzag in such a way that divisions overlap. Hence, like identities, a person has multi-layered opinions which cannot be categorised neatly. A person may be socially conservative but politically radical. There are men and women strictly observing the Islamic dress code but with ideas that are modernist and secular and ahead of their times.
Such branding can do a lot of damage as it pre-empts meaningful discourse. Either there is no mature discussion or speakers are shouting at each other as we witness in TV talk shows. We have forgotten how to listen to a point of view different from our own. But we should realise that issues do not always emerge in black and white in intellectual discussions. There is quite a bit of grey in them. That has to be sorted out.
We are all a complex conglomerate of ideas and views of every shade and cannot be straitjacketed into pre-specified categories. Besides, we have to coexist. In her keynote speech at the CBEC seminar, Asma Jahangir, president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, emphasised the importance of people being given the right to speak.
What should also be emphasised is that the right to speak implies the corresponding duty to listen. Unfortunately, people are themselves snatching away from one another the right to be listened to. Previously, it was the government that would silence the people’s voice. Now, so-called leaders of public opinion do the job. As a result of this phenomenon, the middle ground, as I term the vast majority with diverse ideas and opinions, is being crushed like the grass in the war of the elephants of civil society.
This is the main reason why the voice of the common man who also holds opinions is not being heard at all. If he has been denied the right to education and cannot formulate his opinions in sophisticated terms using nuanced terminology and if he is hesitant to speak out because poverty has robbed him of his confidence, does it mean that he cannot enjoy the right to speech?
Asma Jahangir identified this dimension very well when she called for the eradication of poverty to facilitate the citizens’ full enjoyment of their rights. She said that it does not give one a good feeling when some people can eat a full meal while others go hungry.
Poverty denies people their dignity that must be restored. Without dignity and self-esteem a person cannot really exercise his right to speech and expression. When citizens are unequal — be it gender inequality or economic inequality that places them at different levels — they will be unable to make themselves heard. Thus the more powerful ones who have access to the media and other structures of power will pose as their spokesmen.
It was indeed appropriate that Asma Jahangir’s call for a full meal for all people of Pakistan came at the SIUT, the only health institution in the country that provides free medical care to patients of renal diseases. SIUT’s philosophy is that healthcare is the fundamental right of every citizen. Hence its logo on its website, “we don’t let them die just because they cannot afford to live”.
For SIUT it is important that the dignity of every man should be upheld, which means not probing into his economic status. This is something that not everyone understands — should one remind another of his poverty and force him to acknowledge the charity he is receiving?
The need of the hour is to allow the ‘silent majority’ to have its say with dignity and the assurance that it will be heard respectfully. Most importantly, no views should be attributed to the middle ground that it does not actually hold.

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