Witchcraft is an old technique to tame nature and its demonic forces so that they become subservient to human desires. Unpredictable catastrophes, destructions, threats of being devoured by wild animals, natural disasters and the need for food compelled primitive human beings to live in groups and cooperate for the primary interest of improving their chances of survival.
Faced with the perceived external threats, the human brain was trained for centuries to value coexistence. This is a story that we have been told since our childhood by liberal historians. But most of these accounts weren’t included in our textbooks on history and social studies for presumably ideological reasons.
The story of human cooperation goes much beyond recorded history, with the perennial principle of living together in larger groups. Our modern civilisations have been the sophisticated forms of this primitive instinct of cooperation through the intermediation of institutions governed by codes, canons and vertically-defined organised structures. The ancient system of communal cooperation was based on trust, word of mouth, and an equal distribution of responsibility and risk-sharing.
The modern form of institutional cooperation is about division of labour, specialised individual functions and the diffusion of risk. It is formal, documented and well-defined, with procedural rationality as the key governing code rather than the wisdom and valour of individuals.
A follower of classical economics would argue that human desires are unlimited and cannot be met through the scarce resources available to people in the real world. This may be true for economists. But in reality, human beings has always strived towards attaining unlimited power to control the world around them.
Witchcraft was the science of pre-modern world that contributed towards shaping our modern world and our progress is a cumulative impact a centuries-long struggle to tame nature to serve humans. Curiosity has always been the hallmark of inquisitive minds since the cognitive revolution some 70,000 years ago.
Human beings with all their journey to perfection have not been able to overcome the impulsive drives of the amygdala – the lowest part of brain that functions as the key reason why we feel fear. The fear of losing and being subjugated provides the fundamental stimuli for attaining unlimited power to ward off the danger of being a loser. Like witchcraft, modern science is an outcome of an impulsive reaction against the fear of being destroyed and inundated by the brutal forces of nature. Science and technology is not an outcome of reason, logic and positivistic thinking, but it is an outcome of empirical experiences of encountering the danger and external threats to survival.
The production of science and technology is as instinctual as it is thought to be logical. It is a collection of well-developed and sophisticated techniques to ward off the perceived external threats to survival. This is, at least, what Harari believes, but it makes sense when we see how fear is used for gaining power and control. The amygdala isn’t the only thing that controls our emotional intelligence. It is a mix of reason, emotion, anger, fear and exposure that determines the way we react to situations. For this purpose, the human brain has an extra upper layer of reason and wisdom above amygdala. The brain’s chamber of reason and wisdom works well when it is used consistently to sublimate the feeling of fear and instincts rather than suppressing them.
However, in our case as Pakistanis, the upper chamber of wisdom seems to be partly empty when it comes to inflicting pain upon fellow humans. At least, this is what we have seen in the recent past when the country was under the siege of a frenzied mob. How would you explain arson, plunder and murder committed by a frenzied mob even if there is no perceived external threat to survival? This is where we have beaten Harari through our actions as we do not react out of fear, but we act to spread fear and tame any semblance of reason.
A mob can easily be diverted by stimulating the amygdala that produces the signal of looming danger. People react out of a perceived sense of fear to protect themselves against some unseen threats. This fear of an indivisible threat helps political agitators to exploit the basic instinct of survival through conservative cultural movements or monetary outbursts of emotions. Our political agitators have perfected the art of exploiting the accumulated fear as a political instrument of control and dominance. The reversion to some defunct past ideology has always been detrimental for human progress and rationality.
Those who claim to rediscover and preserve the past of nations, ethnic origins, diminishing values and faiths would only be doing so at the great peril of sailing against the remorseless waves of historical advancement. There has never been such ingenuity and distinction about culture, language or faith, which are usually shaped by a complex array of socioeconomic, political and geographical needs of survival.
Language, in particular, has been a medium to communicate through a combination of sounds, signs and symbols for the expression of ideas, desires and emotions. The best language is the one that has flexibility, enormity, inclusivity, acceptability and facility to give a common sign, sound and symbol to denote things of human consumption.
The languages of primitive and underdeveloped societies irreversibly vanish in the course of human history because they cannot compete with the enormity, inclusivity and universalism of the languages of the developed world. The process of the production of goods and services is not only an economic activity, but it is also deeply linked to the development and domination of a language.
The flow of products, technological devices and marketable services bring in a new language, art and culture that, at times, can be far removed from the local context. The underdeveloped and recipients societies of goods and services have to adopt the new language as an economic and social need of survival. The language that doesn’t cater to the evolving economic and social needs of people gradually loses its relevance because of its limited applicability to science and technology.
The fading away of native languages is a natural process in the age of globalisation that helps bring together diverse ethnic groups when they use a developed and inclusive language to communicate with different social groups. It is a great idea to study native languages for the purpose of anthropological research. But attempts to preserve or protect such languages as a force of social cohesion and political identity is a futile exercise. Languages are not pure; they are corruptible and a by-product of social, political, geographical and economic necessity.
In the age of globalisation, the world is moving towards an inclusive universal language, facilitated by modern technologies and social media, that serves as a means of ensuring meaningful dialogue across nations. Reverting to a defunct past language is not a wise choice. It is a symptom of cultural chauvinism that can potentially give rise to political inertia.
In reality, the proponents of ethnic identity try to establish their own domain of influence and their signature identity or image as a means of attaining social legitimacy. The cultural revivalists from the educated middle class have always championed the cause of preserving ethnic origins and the purity of a culture. Art and language are two major forms of expression. But their lasting relevance from one generation to another depends upon the social necessity of them being the means of communication that is compatible with the changing realities.
Let’s learn the art to live together. This is, perhaps, a more important priority than lurking in the marshes of past glory and nostalgia, which breeds xenophobia and fascism.
The writer is a senior social development and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based