A wasteland of intellectual mediocrity

Greater Kashmir

Aristotle proposed three ways to avoid criticism. Say nothing. Do nothing. Be nothing. His statement was ironical, but we made it real. Our three-point agenda is non-negotiable. Don’t think. Don’t argue. Don’t listen.

In this race we are ahead of all. In fact our situation is more ironic than it has ever been. Our educated follow this motto with a greater force than the uneducated. The unlettered amongst us may take trouble to think. They can be engaged in a rational and decent debate, but the real source of trouble is our academic world. Even our teachers behave in a manner that is amusing at best and appalling at worst. In matters of profit and loss we use sense, but intellectually we behave like the blind, the deaf and the dumb. We personify those Gandhi’s monkeys with eyes, ears and mouth sealed and shut. Of-course with a difference, none of the monkeys is shown closing its mind. So a Gandhi’s monkey – by some miracle – may think, but we will not.

Thinking, arguing and listening are the three unpardonable crimes and you could be hanged for committing any of the three. Enter religion and our fury knows no limits. We have made faith our fiefdom. Our contact with God is like a contract with God. Any little deviation – not from the faith per se but from our version of faith is a heresy for which we can kill each other. That atmosphere is too stifling to allow any intellectual growth and that is what we are experiencing at a collective level. When curiosity dies, when quest for knowledge dies, when desire to see beyond the obvious dies – what more remains there to live for.

We ravage the mouth that opens to say something we haven’t heard, that teaches us what we haven’t learnt. We are the inheritors of a legacy that burnt Bruno at the stake. That is why a gifted mind like Javed Ghamidi has no place in a country that was sought in the name of faith. Tragically he is assaulted for saying what he doesn’t say and distorted for saying what he does. People turn hysterical against him without even bothering to know as to what does the man stand for. Their disagreement doesn’t stem from any logic, it stems from their refusal to listen. They hang him first, try him later (the phrase I often use in his context). His insight, his integrity and his commitment to knowledge is a model in itself. You may not like eulogizing a person for who he is, but when the intellectual stature is that overwhelming you can’t help but acknowledge the contribution which – by all means – is extraordinary. People like him are denigrated as heretics or agents or stooges of the west planted to carry on a mission. Such a reaction speaks of a fossilized mindset which is utterly invalid in the world of thinking. Argument is countered with an argument only, propaganda is a poor substitute. It reflects our inferior quality of mind besides signifying our lifelong love for malice and mudslinging. An extraordinary light like him can’t match an extraordinary darkness we love to be in. Those we should have adored and learn from, we abuse and shout at. That’s a pity.

Faith as a matter of faith is sacred and hence unquestionable. But faith as a human endeavor, as a knowledge project, as an instinctive inquiry is questionable. And when I say questionable I don’t mean dismissible or flawed or too weak to be defended, I mean something that disturbs, provokes and makes you use your limited faculties before you understand it or declare your understanding of it. And that is what God loves. A blind submission does not mean blind in the ignorant sense of the word. Faith is our faith, but it doesn’t bar us from thinking.

Mediocrity is the capital we treasure. In matters religious, we are either mawkishly sentimental or uncontrollably violent and both originate from our aversion to knowledge and learning. Our commitment to ignorance and rage has deprived us even of our fundamental human values, not to speak of higher intellectual ideals.

The only realm in which we are unbeatable is emotional but tragically that emotion has more to do with hypocrisy than honesty. Faith we profess a lot, practice a little. Our disease has three sources. Moral, rational and intellectual. We are morally sick, rationally handicapped and intellectually substandard.

Moral:

The most despicable of all traits is this. When we don’t understand an argument, we invent an argument. And if we can’t defend our truth, we attack with a lie. This method has been tried in Ghamidi’s case by our Moulvis and Muftis. They crafted some shameless lies against him which later they couldn’t even defend. That’s human character at its cheapest. Against a blatant lie, the strongest truth will collapse. These `religious scholars’ are such smart liars that the devil will sit at their feet to relearn the art of lying.  In a suffocating atmosphere like this, what idea will flourish and what creativity will take roots. If we don’t have sense, let’s have scruples at least. Mediocrity has a vaccine, hypocrisy is incurable.

Rational:

This is about suspension of common sense. It is a disability we can only lament on. We take any argument from a reverse angle and distort it whichever way we like. It’s about religion, history or any social science where what we understand from the theory is entirely different from what the theory actually is. We are temperamentally theatrical and we bring theatre to religion too. Our narration of historical events is so farcical that there is no scope for any rational thinking. We don’t bother to see and read events from different angles, different sources to develop a balanced and a matured view of history. We go by the heat of the event, not by the fact of it and that has resulted in many misperceptions about religious figures, religious events, religious interpretations – actually about the whole concept of religion.

Our saints are presented saintlier than they were and our devils more devilish than they ever have been.  We don’t activate the rational hemisphere of our mind to see as to whether the things really are as they are passed onto us. Myths, half-truths or flat-out fabrications have travelled from the past and we have treasured them in the name of knowledge. We are a culture rich in trash. Just because some guru or some pir or some scholar or some old man in history says it doesn’t mean we take it the way we receive it. It also doesn’t mean that we reject it because we don’t like it. It rather means we think it through, apply our minds and then express our opinion in all decency and respect, with all confidence and courage. We are not in a boxing ring where we punch each other to the ropes, we are in a lab where we experiment with ideas.

Disagreement is not disrespect and agreement is not respect. Decency of an argument lies in the way we put forth our argument. The strength of a voice is not in its loudness, but in its depth. We don’t evaluate thinkers on what they think but on what we presume they think. Sense is no enemy of faith. Faith makes sense. We don’t see does not necessarily mean we don’t understand. A blind faith is blind only with reference to the unseen, not un-understandable. Simply put, we are asked to believe without seeing, not without understanding. If we can’t fathom certain things rationally, that again is a rational acknowledgement of a fact.

Intellectual:

This demands something we fear next after dying. Reading. Our teachers urge their students to read, but themselves they have long burnt their books. They think what they have read is (more than) enough. They don’t need more as they have more to spare. So when the very land is barren what seeds do we sow and what fruit do we hope to reap. That is what makes us a wasteland of new era. Those who read are the accused and those who think are the guilty to be snuffed out sooner the better.

Intellectual is the milestone we don’t reach as we can’t get through the first two – moral and rational. When morally and rationally we fall short, intellectually we don’t qualify as aspirants. Criticism is the root of all intellectual debate, critiquing each other is to open up new ways of knowledge. We may not – and we should not – readily accept or reject things we know. There is a lot of space between an instant rejection and an unconditional acceptance. Exploring that space marks the birth of knowledge.

In the world of intellect force lies in the argument, not in the violence we exercise on each other. Knowledge is a journey as Iqbal captures in three words. Tarasheedam, Parasteedam, Shikastam. I fashioned, I worshipped and I destroyed (and the mission continues). That is how intellectual traditions move on. Reverence has a value but curiosity can’t be killed. We can be reverent and curious at once. Discovery, inquiry, flux, dilemma, belief, and doubt are milestones in the journey of knowledge. Seeking knowledge through doubt-free absolutes is reversing the very paradigm of creativity. We must not accept anything without a serious thought. Even if we will have to destroy the icons we once fashioned – and worshipped. Openly. Honestly. Decently.