Idiots

March 29,2014

No. I am not trying to insult your intelligence. Merely to provoke it. Yes. The headline is designed

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No. I am not trying to insult your intelligence. Merely to provoke it. Yes. The headline is designed entirely to excite your attention. No. There is no intention to be rude. If I come across as such, let me apologise at the very outset. Yes. I do hope that the headline has agitated your interest. Enough for you to read on. Enough to be open to some introspection.
‘Idiot’ has always been a word of rebuke, reproach and rebuff. But it has not always meant what it has now come to mean. In some ways, it meant much worse. In other ways, it meant much more.
Ancient Greeks would have used the word idiot to describe someone who was “not interested in politics.” Wait. Before the jokes come flowing in, please recall that in Athenian Greece politics did not mean what it has come to mean today. More on that later.
According to Webster’s Word Histories (1989), the word idiot comes from Greek, idiotes, through Latin idiota, and then middle French, idiote. It derives from the original Greek root idios which means pertaining to one’s own self, private, peculiar, self-focused, separate. The words ‘idiom’ or ‘idiosyncratic’, for example, derive from similar roots.
In Athenian democracy an idiotes was a person not active in – or not capable of being active in – public affairs. From this flowed the idea of an idiot as an ‘ignorant person’ and later evolved into our modern sensibility of an idiot as an insult to someone’s intelligence.
True to Athenian arrogance, it was even then a disparaging and derogatory label. As, in fact, was the idea of the ‘common man’ – ‘common’ precisely because they were focused on individual gain and not the societal good.
The importance of this ancient etymology to a contemporary understanding of democracy and citizenship is explored by Walter C Parker – a professor of education at the University of Washington – in his 2003 book, Teaching Democracy. Writing about the role of education, curriculum and schools in inculcating citizenship, he makes a persuasive case for reclaiming the original meaning of the slur.
To Parker, the Athenian idiot was a person “who paid no attention to public affairs and engaged only in self-interested or private pursuits, never mind the public interest – the civic space and the common good.” He quotes Christopher Berry in The Idea of a Democratic Community (1989): “If a man’s conduct and discourse ceased to be politic it became idiotic – self-centered, unregardful of his neighbour’s need, inconsequent in itself, as in the case of a rudderless ship, and without consequence therefore in his neighbour’s eyes.”
This role of idiocy in a democratic polity (politikos) achieves meaning when contrasted with polites, the citizen. The idiot, in this formulation, is the self-centred individual for whom the goal is private gain; who is uninterested in and uncaring of the common good; unwilling to become and incapable of being a public actor.
The idiot, therefore, stands in opposition to the citizen. Central to this concept of democracy is the notion that it is the ‘public’ interest (as in, of the collective, of society) and not the passions of the ‘common man’ (as in, of the individual) lie at the core of the democratic pólis.
It is not difficult to understand why the term idiot was deemed demeaning in its original intent nor how it has evolved to its current declaim of defame. However, ancient Greece would have seen their idiot as no less an idiot than ours. Aristotle, in one of his most famous quotations, is already defining the idiot – one not interested in the common good – as being less than human:
“Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.”
Of course, Aristotle left open the possibility of the idiot being a god. And many an idiot has been known to believe that he is just that. Thucydides, in his History of the Peloponnesian War, is much more blunt in his elevation of the citizen and condemnation of those not interested in politics; the idiots. He has Pericles declare in a funeral oration: “We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.”
Walter Parker reminds us that Athenian philosophers laid such importance on the cultivation of citizenship – and this is of particular relevance to Pakistan – because the idiot is possibly suicidal and certainly self-defeating to the society he is part of. Idiots are idiots precisely because they forget that the freedoms and the prosperity that they seek to enjoy individually can come only from the nurturing the collective common good of society. Where there are many idiots, there cannot be a clear sense of the collective common good.
And herein lies our moment of introspection: Are we citizens? Or are we idiots?
Of course, Pakistan has no dearth of people interested in politics. But interest alone does not make a citizen. Action does. Citizenship is not a spectator sport. Nor is politics. Yet, our interest in politics is too often the interest of a spectator, not of an actor.
Indeed, what is idiotic – in every sense of the word – is the spectacle of politics as a grand farce – a theatre of the absurd – that is forever unfolding before us on our television screens, on twitter, in our drawing room and khokha conversations. The spectacle that we so enjoy is more the stuff to put on display at a Roman Colosseum than at the Athenian Lyceum.
Even more idiotic – in that suicidal and self-defeating way – is to berate this political spectacle without realizing that we are ourselves not just part of the plot, but its central subject. Citizenship will come with the realisation that we are central actors in the pólis. Citizenship is not merely the right to vote. It is the duty to participate. The pólis is served by the politician, but it must be constructed by the citizen.
It is no surprise that in a society as divided, as untrusting and as unforgiving as ours, there is no common project. No Socrates to teach us. No Pericles to motivate us. No agreement on what is the common good. No desire to create a common civic space. No belief that one can be created.
Citizens do not thrive in such a society. Partisans do. Turn on your television, scroll down your Twitter feed, join a conversation in your drawing room or at a khokha. You shall find them in plenty. You may yourself be one.
This is not a complaint. After all, where the pursuit of politics reduces to individual aggrandisement, all that remains in the common core is a shared sense of disdain, distrust and distance. But let us not fool ourselves. It is not just the politicians who are motivated by individual interests. We are frustrated by politics precisely because we, too, seek only individual gains from collective democracy. Yes, our political ranks are full of charlatans, shoubdabaz; but that is because we are all spectators still, tamashbeen.
We jeer. We sneer. We cheer. We shout. We cry. We laugh. We plead. We beat our chests. We stand tall in pride. We hang our heads in shame. We unmask the villains. We belittle the clowns. We cut down every hero. We talk. We talk. We talk. We talk. We do exactly what tamashbeen are supposed to do.
We may not be idiots, but we are not citizens. Not yet.

The writer has taught international relations and public policy at Boston University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and was the vice chancellor of LUMS.
Twitter: adilnajam


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