By Zaair Hussain –
“The pen, they say, is mightier than the sword. While historically there is a distinct lack of writers who jump into swordfight to prove their point, there is a need of truth there. Words are what ideas are wrapped in”
The pen, they say, is mightier than the sword. While historically there is a distinct lack of writers who jump into sword fights to prove their point, there is a seed of truth there. Words are what ideas are wrapped in. Think of it this way: if ideas are presents, and you want your own to look better, you wrap the other chap’s present in skull and crossbones wrapping paper that says “Military grade AIDS” on it. It won’t matter if his present was chocolate, the cure to cancer or the key to Narnia, most people aren’t going to take a closer look at something that sounds like a ticking time bomb armed with an STD.
It’s depressing how close this is to the way ideas and words actually work. We all know the story of Pavlov’s dog, which was trained to expect treats every time a bell rung. Eventually, because all the best animal cruelty is done in the name of science, Pavlov stopped giving treats and the poor beast still started drooling every time the bell rang.
If you feel sorry for the dumb dog, save the sympathy for yourself because a) Pavlov successfully used the same technique on children (back then scientists were bold and horrifying) and b) we are conditioned the same way, every day, by the media, politicians, friends or just circumstance. Certain words are like bells in our head and as soon as they go off, we start drooling or frothing at the mouth on command, without thinking at all about what they actually mean.
“It’s depressing how close this is to the way ideas and words actually work. We all know the story of Pavlov’s dog, which was trained to expect treats every time a bell rung. Eventually, because all the best animal cruelty is done in the name of science, Pavlov stopped giving treats and the poor beast still started drooling every time the bell rang. If you feel sorry for the dumb dog, save the sympathy for yourself”
So, without further ado or rambling analogies, five of the worst abused terms in Pakistan:
Now, Pakistan is not alone in the insanity that erupts like acne on teenagers over what should be a fairly non-threatening term. In the United States, our best frenemy, being labeled a liberal is the exact opposite of an all-access pass in politics. Every higher door shuts to you; Obama responded with such indignation to the label that it would seem the word “liberal” is such a vicious attack that, a couple centuries ago, only a lethal duel could have satisfied honor.
Liberal is not a complex term. It means tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others, and not bound by tradition or dogma. Basically, if you aren’t hurting anyone, liberals don’t care what you do.
Two qualifiers: first, many people who call themselves liberals actually aren’t – you are not liberal if you love all Indians and hate Pakistanis, or “accept” atheism but think all religious people are stupid, you merely have a more fashionable set of prejudices.
Second, being a liberal doesn’t automatically make you a good person. You can be non-racist and still embezzle. You can accept alternate lifestyles and still cheat on your spouse. But if a philosophy could be dismissed just because some supporters were idiotic, we would be left with no philosophies and just as many idiots.
Status quo powers exist in every state and everywhere such powers are justified through variations on the “because this is the way it is” theme. Whereas in the 16th century monarchs may have justified their oppression through the Divine Right of Kings and today’s military dictator may justify his as “national interest”, they would both denounce liberals as blasphemers and traitors respectively.
Anyone who doesn’t automatically go along with the status quo is a threat, because there’s always the danger that one day enough people will listen to them and start wondering why, precisely, the high priests get the beef and everyone else is stuck eating armadillo. For the powers that be, it is very disconcerting to have people sneer at their traditional justification and say “so what?”
4. Western Values
This is a not-particularly-recent addition to the armory of weaponized words employed for all manner of despicable gain. Whenever a man-or woman- is waxing lyrical about a position that has nothing whatsoever to recommend it-such as domestic violence-they abandon logic, which is not their friend at the best of times, and cleave straight to branding.
A useful tip to all readers of…well, everything, ever: if someone is denouncing something, and their main point is that “it’s bad because of where it came from” then they have no argument, and are hoping you won’t notice as long as they throw in words like “socialist” in the United States and “Western Values” in Pakistan.
The 2009 bill against domestic violence was viciously opposed, not just by extremists but by the House of Parliament. How in the world can the most powerful men (and women) in the country oppose a bill that penalizes violent abusers? Easy. Western Values.
It’s a classic technique of shifting the argument from the merits of the case-in this example, whether or not it’s right for a man to beat a woman like she was an unruly mule- to vague abstractions designed to make you feel outraged or defensive. Not think. Not ever think.
Every society has good and bad values. Hospitality and prioritizing your family are seen as Eastern values, for example, but imagine how idiotic it would be for a European to stare at his friend and say “you support your PARENTS? What are you, an EASTERNER?”
Moreover, it is easy but inaccurate to paint wide swathes of people using one or two characteristics. First, I’m not familiar with any account of the Prophet (PBUH) beating his wife Khadija, or any of his subsequent wives. Second, Rabia Basri was a Sufi Saint some thirteen hundred years ago. The Church at that time regarded women as somewhere between furniture and cattle. Even five hundred years later Thomas Aquinas, one of the most famous and respected Christian theologians of all time, said: “As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten…” he went on for a bit but the gist is pretty clear.
Are powerful female religious figures then a Middle Eastern value, and the religious oppression of women a western value? It’s no more ridiculous than saying “we have a rich and proud history of abusing women, and anyone who disagrees is a ‘western-values’ loving turncoat wrapped in treachery dipped in traitor sauce.”
As something of a connoisseur of weaponized words, I must say that this one is our nuclear option, our version of the American “communist”. It brands the accused with such an unforgivable scarlet letter that he may as well have been carved from the devils own hoof. Just as a health plan in the United States proposing the care of sick children may be struck down- not with shame but fury- because it is accused of being “communist”, so can any idea, person or institution, regardless of their deeds or even their words, be struck down (often more than verbally) in Pakistan if their enemies can affix the “secular” label like so much tar and feathers, without even having to get their hands sticky.
Secularists themselves mostly do not understand the fuss-at least those who know what it is to be secular. It means a separation of church and state, regardless of personal beliefs. Atheists and devout believers can equally be secular. In fact, believers may very well want to restrict the political and religious spheres from overlapping for two distinct reasons: first, they believe Islam is a personal relationship between believer and God, and second, they believe that religion, which to them is pure, should not be mingled with politics, which is often filthy.
Right wingers, however, throw the word around with all the menace of a hand grenade, usually right before they start tossing actual hand grenades. And everyone ducks and covers and, no matter their beliefs, tries to kick the label away from them. You may sneer at this as intellectual or moral cowardice but good grief, what would you do if a hand grenade was flung at you?
Admit it: as soon you read the word, a vibrantly clear image-negative or positive-sprang to your mind and flourished into a fully iconic figure. A well-bearded man dressed in muted traditional clothes holding forth on theology and morality with all the unshakeable confidence of a fox in a henhouse.
Ultimately, however, determining the value of the title is entirely pointless because being a Maulvi means exactly nothing. It’s not a protected term like Professor or Doctor, which is granted by some kind of governing body. It isn’t even like a priest, because nothing in Islam remotely hints at any greater divine sanction or “holiness” being granted to specific mortal men, and the term “Maulvi” or “Mullah” is completely alien to the Quran. A man in a beard calling himself a Maulvi is just a man in a beard calling himself a Maulvi.
In theory it means they consider themselves learned men of theology, but since, again, they are rarely academics or certified by any recognizable body we more or less have to take their word for it. It is purely a marketing term, akin to Kellog pronouncing itself to be the best morning cereal. There’s just no way to say that’s its objectively better than, say, Coco Puffs, which don’t have beards or lectures but nevertheless spend a lot of time quietly thinking about theology. At this point, the analogy breaks down but you know what I mean.
There are two kinds of popular opinions about democracy amongst Pakistanis. One is the idea that democracy is like HD television: a fantastic luxury item, common in richer countries but not, at the end of the day, a priority for the masses. The second is that elections are the bright line dividing failed states from states with a future and, having crossed it, we can now rest easy.
To cement my reputation as an insufferable contrarian, I intend to rubbish both.
First: we’re not going far without democracy. Before you shake your head and dismiss this as the view of a naïve elitist: I understand that it’s often broken. I subscribe, however, to Churchill’s view that while Democracy might be terrible, the only thing worse is every other system of government ever tried (Churchill was a bit of a card). No, don’t tell me about the King of Who Cares in Whatever century BC who was a wise and just ruler. Individuals can be effective, honest and loving rulers. Rare individuals. The systems of monarchy, of despotism, of military rule? We should know better than most where they lead. We were ruled first by foreign monarchs and then by small men who doubtless dreamt of large crowns.
But men get no bigger, and their dreams no less lavish. Democracy persists as the winner in the system-people-hate-least awards precisely because it allows for human beings that are petty, biased, greedy and malicious-that are, in fact, human.
But for it to work, really work, you need far more than electoral cycles. You need freedom of expression, which “democratic” governments have time and again tried to censor. You need an independent judiciary, with well defined limits but unquestioned supremacy in their own realms. You need to be able to choose between more than two families.
What we have now is like the card trick where you’re asked to pick a card, any card, but there are really only two cards and they’re both marked and the Casino has been picking your pocket and stripping your car down for parts the whole time anyway.
Before you storm out and look for another place, in Khaki perhaps, remember the wisdom of William “Canada Bill” Jones who wasn’t a politician but was a great con artist, which is almost as good. Upon being asked why he was still playing in an obviously crooked game he answered “It may be crooked, but it’s the only game in town.”
Democracy is the only game in town, my friends. We’ll change the management, change the rules, change ourselves if we have to. This jackpot is worth it.