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Angry impotence

September 02, 2013

FIRST YouTube was banned. Now it’s late night telephone packages. What is next? Music, for it gives the impressionable all kinds of crazy ideas about love and idealism? Poetry, which incites the emotions of the young if it is of the romantic variety, or worse still, encourages dissent and revolt against the status quo if it is the serious stuff written by Faiz or Faraz?

Why not ban critical speech and writing altogether, being mischief that can scandalise revered institutions, individuals and traditions?

What kind of a state and society have we become where our response to criticism and demand for change is to put fetters on speech and thought? If you criticise the national security policy, the manner in which the army and the intelligence agencies conduct themselves or demand that generals be held accountable when found wanting, must you be seen as a paid foreign agent undermining the last institution of stability holding Pakistan together?

If you criticise the conduct of judges or their decisions, must you fear being seen as scandalising the court, settling a personal grudge or having sold yourself out? Is the concept of an honestly held critical view incomprehensible? Are you not told as a youth struggling to understand the truth about your religion that deference to God mandates that you don’t ask too many questions? If you are a rabble-rouser, are you not counselled that our religion requires that those in authority be obeyed and that arguing with elders, even logically, is disrespectful?

What kind of values are we fostering in this society when we prefer deference to independence, acquiescence to difference of opinion, conformity to intellectual rigour and challenge, regression to new ideas, personal loyalty to considerations of merit, flattery to excellence? What will be the character of leaders groomed in an environment where discretion is the better part of valour, honour is a product of success, and success demands that you hedge risks as opposed to standing up to fight for principle?

Is it surprising that we don’t find inventors, poets, philosophers and artists blossoming in this culture of intimidation, fear and intellectual stagnation? If we condemn new ideas as sources of mischief on our dinner table instead of debating their pros and cons and emphasising to our kids the need to strike the right balance between tradition and change, and society continues to reinforce the same message during academic and professional life, will thought-leaders emerge out of nowhere?

Emily Bronte wrote Wuthering Heights when she was 29. Jane Austen was 21 when she completed the manuscript of First Impressions, later revised and published as Pride and Prejudice. Frank Kafka was 29 when he wrote The Judgement. Shakespeare was not 30 when he wrote Comedy of Errors.

One can go through the list of some of the greatest inventors and find a similar age pattern. Most of the creativity that has changed this world and made it a better place has been a product of younger, imaginative minds unadulterated by fear, tradition and notions of expediency.

There is general consensus that our institutions and our society are in a state of decline. If in doubt, read the judgements authored back in the 1960s and ‘70s and then those being written today, compare the file notes penned by bureaucrats in the past with the contemporary ones, contrast the culture projected in biographies of retired soldiers with that prevalent today.

Exceptions aside, this is no false reverence for the past. The quality of our education and our character have degenerated and we are intent on leaving no space for new ideas, dissenting voices and reform.

The freedoms of information, thought and expression are intertwined rights that nourish the soul and the conscience. Victor Hugo had said that “nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come”. What about the interregnum between the floating of an idea and its becoming powerful? Is this not why the right to free speech aims to protect both popular and unpopular speech?

In 1896 the US Supreme Court condoned racial segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson under the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’. In 1954 the same court outlawed it in the celebrated case of Brown v. Board of Education. How did the legal and moral concepts of equality and its application undergo a transformation in a 60-year period? PCO was not a pejorative term back in 2000. But in 2009 our society vindicated those who were criticising it from the very beginning. Should early critics of PCO judges have been locked up for scandalising the judiciary?

That criticism and change can be unpleasant is understandable. But they are imperative for the health and progress of a society and must be accommodated. The moral panic created by the technological revolution we are witnessing in this age of information is not unique to Pakistan, but has confused the West as well. It is just that our response to challenges posed by modernity and change has been to shun them altogether and pledge to ride camels and write letters and live the way first Muslims did 1,400 years back.

Our older generation watched porn in magazines, ours did so through videos and the younger generation has the internet. Porn will not die out nor will the initial curiosity of the youth. Banning magazines altogether was not a solution yesterday, and shutting the internet is not the answer today. Even though the medium might have changed, the need to supervise kids, reason with them and groom them hasn’t. But none of this makes the state suddenly responsible for guarding the moral virtue of all adult citizens.

And if we have decided as a state and society that rotten traditions must be perpetuated, criticism and change must be penalised, and law must be used to inject reverence and morality into the ordinary Pakistani, let’s forget about YouTube, grow beards, and join hands with the Taliban. We probably have more in common than we realise.

The writer is a lawyer.

sattar@post.harvard.edu