“Neutrality and impartiality dominate the intellectual discourse of societies in absolute despair and disarray and I abhor these words to the core of my heart,” an emaciated old man says in a remote village of Hunza Valley.
The old man – who is a retired school teacher – adds that “these words work as [a] smokescreen to hide the hypocrisy and timidity of those who would always rise to the occasion in the service of the powers that be. The frequent use of these words in mundane discussions … indicate the intellectual downfall and enslavement of minds”. As he sips from a glass of distilled white spirit, known as Hunza Water, the wise old man of the mountains diagnoses the root cause of our moral and intellectual decay as a society.
In our liberal discourse, which is imparted through money-minting private educational institutions, we are taught not to take positions on issues that matter in our life. Those who speak out, assert their positions, and have the guts to speak truth to power are deemed ‘idealists’. Idealism, in this sense, is viewed as a sin and the idealist is considered to be sinful.
These sinful idealists in human history have been the most powerful voices that have made a dent on unrestrained powers through their consistent struggle with reason and logic. They have provided the antithesis of the dominant ideas of sociopolitical reality, and helped society and the human consciousness evolve. The power of their ideas has helped build the public consciousness to defend civil liberties and rein in the unbridled horses of war and destruction.
From Socrates to Francis Beacon and from Voltaire to Hegel, all thinking minds were idealists from our liberal perspective and their sins made societies prosper intellectually and politically. The sinful idealists are the biggest enemies of the status quo and they have always faced the music for their intrepidity in speaking truth to power.
Then there were great thinkers like Karl Marx who provided the fundamental principles of the historical progress of human society through scientific socialism. In Muslim societies, Ibn Rushd, Al-Farabi, Ibn Khaldun, Avicenna and Mohammad Arkoun – to mention a few – guided the intellectual progress despite the political persecution of Muslim rulers. None of these great thinkers were neutral, but they asserted their positions for the larger good of humanity and contributed to the progress of human civilisation. Without the critical reflection of dominant ideas and ideals, the world will always be a dull and claustrophobic place where human progress is marred by the caprices of the powerful elite.
Neutrality is not about being stupid. It is more about being clever and self-centred to grind an axe whenever there is an opportunity to fulfil short-term gains and lead a hassle-free life. Neutrals can never show altruism and they don’t bother to think beyond their noses. Impartiality emanates from the fear of power and penetrates into the depth of a person’s cognitive world to make him/her a timid and a good subordinate. In our capitalist world, the more neutral and impartial you are, the better you are as a worker and consumer.
Neutral and impartial elements pin their hopes on others to liberate them from their suffering, and develop an insidious individual and social trait of foregoing social injustice to protect the self-serving interests. They have certain advantages over thinking minds and the most important of these advantages is that they never get disillusioned, no matter how badly a society becomes. They live in a world of illusions created out of fear and greed, with a strong halo around it hedged by the powers that protect them as proxies of their ideology of subjugation.
Neutrals neither shape nor influence the working of the world around them and they are good at following others because they loath the painstaking job of bothering their brains to overthink. When their hopes are dashed by one messiah, they find another one who can think for them and act as their leader to bring social transformation for them.
They scornfully hate the toiling masses for being “dirty, indecent, illiterate and uncivilised”. They live in a world of euphoria with an ecstatic sense of being realistic and pragmatic as compared with those who inflict pain upon themselves by being assertive. They earn more, spend prudently, and, if needed, exploit others to serve their material interests.
They prefer to keep their IQs low lest they should become a cause of assertion for them and, hence, destroy their politically correct social positioning. They live in watertight compartments and all they dream about is to optimise their material gains from every situation they get into. The powerful elements love them and they are recognised as peaceful, tolerant and innocuous members of society because their pacifism helps the ruling classes maintain the status quo.
For them, ethics, morality, integrity and equity are only semantics of convoluted minds and they don’t exist outside the intellectual scheming of the assertive elements. To our neutral and impartial souls, all these principles are important as long as they have a practical dimension without disputing the comforts of daily life. If we were to place these neutral and impartial creatures into a socioeconomic category to ease our discussion, the best category would be the ‘liberal middle class’.
However, they can also be illiberal members of the middle class – as we have seen with the recent rise of opportunistic politics in Pakistan. The liberal middle class either supported the dictatorial regime of Pervez Musharraf or remained aloof from the political movements to reinstate the constitution and ensure the supremacy of civilian rule in the country. In the same vein, Imran Khan has found much of his vote bank among the young lot of our illiberal middle classes who have found in him the messiah who can rid them of their sufferings.
Despite the fact that Imran Khan’s rise to the top political slot in the country begs a number of questions about the transparency of the electoral process, the neutrals will never raise an objection. They won’t rock the boat for a distant possibility of attaining a genuine democracy in the country. They want to see Imran Khan deliver on their behalf to help secure their economic and political future.
For them, corruption is the most debilitating factor that leads to economic and political instability in the country – and rightly so. But they stop short of asserting a political narrative that advocates across-the-board accountability of corrupt elements in the country beyond those few political opponents of Imran Khan. The witch-hunt has continued with little or no consideration towards inclusive accountability and justice. But this hasn’t triggered any critical debate among the change-aspiring neutrals. It is the idealists who have been able to rise above the whimsical world of opportunism to articulate a narrative of inclusive democracy.
The wise old man was right and, perhaps, much wiser and braver than most of us who are victims of our own inhibitions and fears that keep us away from asserting our positions. We can up the ante in our drawing-room discussions on politics, culture, art and society. But when it comes to public pronouncements of our positions about what’s right and wrong, we shy away from speaking truth to power. Let’s learn something from the old man’s wisdom . It’s never too late to learn.
The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.