The regimented uniformity in promoting a cohesive cultural image has been a disaster
Hopefully, as the world emerges out of the pandemic, its cultural impact will be felt for some time to come.
However, it is not only the pandemic that has been seen or witnessed; there have been many fundamental changes in the world, particularly the region we live in. Some changes, which could not have been foreseen, have taken place and have forced upon us a scenario that will be very difficult to disregard. It’s bound to have an impact on culture as the changes, whether political or societal, leave a deep imprint on the culture of the place. Needless to say Pakistan will be more exposed to the change than ever before.
The revolutionary changes in Iran, for example, about 40 years ago started a scramble to make sense of Iranian culture within a theological framework. The robustness of what is Iranian in relation to its long past has at times led to conciliatory, at time an uneasy coexistence but despite its resilience the solution to the issue may be raising many an eyebrow in other societies that prefer a theological underpinning of cultural expression. Though Iran had its own take on the continuity of its cultural tradition it did not sit well with the straitjacket uniformity that has been the dream of many in the Islamic world. The changes in Kabul may lead to another purge of what is culturally sanctified and what is not. This will have a direct bearing on Pakistan. The Saudis are busy reinterpreting certain laws and values that might rankle with many. This again raises the question of the relationship of these ‘eternal’ laws and values with the shifting sands of time.
The change in the medium of expression will be a source of change in expression. The once popular slogan, ‘the medium is the message’, has not lost its potency and relevance. It still resonates and will figure in the structural changes that follow the great incursion of the digital media into the expression of the arts. For more than a year, actually a year and a half, with the world cooped up in homes, the only exposure to the outside world was as experienced through the peephole. In return it has been conditioned by this mode.
All the cultural expression, too, was received through the same medium, the digital medium. Even films that were actually made for a bigger screen to be experienced in the exclusivity of a semi-darkened space were being shown on the small screen at home as mundane as everyday domestic life. The medium did leave an impact, albeit it is difficult to assess and quantify its extent and nature right away. As years rolled on the emphasis shifted to television serials or the seasons that were primarily meant for that purpose. Even the financiers changed hands with many digital companies. They are now not only meant to be responsible for transmission but also have moved into production to have greater control of the content being shown.
Time and again, one has seen this forced momentum to create a unified cultural imprint of the country. Most of the time one has failed to see its positive impact except in being a step in the direction of creating more opportunities for censorship.
Back home, the pandemic has led to more and more insecurities; all have again been leading to an order that is more uniform in character. In the name of constructing a national culture or uniformity in vision and outlook, the nation builders in Pakistan have always angled for the straight and narrow. This may not have been the best option to exercise. The regimented uniformity in promoting a cohesive cultural image has been a disaster for the country and has led to divisive consequences. It appears, however, that little has been learnt from the experience.
Time and again, one has seen a forced momentum to create a unified cultural imprint of the country. Most of the time one has failed to see its positive impact except in being a step in the direction of creating more opportunities for censorship. It appears that the greatest fear is free thought and its fallout. This strikes terror in the hearts of those at the helm of affairs. Actually, it gives them the power to decide as to what is right and what is wrong or laying out the rules about what is allowed and what is not.
The greater this power, the greater the disaster. The space has actually grown narrower as the years have rolled by. In Pakistan, the best alibi for uniformity of vision is seen to be religion. To create an individual in accordance with a belief has been the anthem of many rulers here. The understanding of the belief has been deeply flawed or has been deliberately misconstrued. All the efforts at the academic and the cultural level have been seen to lead to a narrower vision of life with a top-down thrust for a constructed reality.
The argument that diversity leads to greater unity has not been understood in its true spirit; it is viewed as a threat. This has been the tragedy of Pakistan. The desire to enforce a unified model on the society is deeply flawed. Similarly, the prototype of a religiously defined individual or order is too narrowly constructed to cater to the great diversity that exists within the religion itself.
Such policies increase intolerance and empower the person in the street to judge right from wrong. This can only result in a vigilante culture where harsh actions are justified and backed by a self-serving certainty that could be messianic in its origin but defies all markers of a civilised order.
The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore.