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May 7, 2017

A flight from thinking


May 7, 2017

In today’s world, we cannot aspire for the kind of freedom enjoyed by Greek philosophers who remained independent from the necessities and compulsions of life.

Their cultural ethos and intellectual outlook was averse to labour to distract them from a life of contemplation. Unlike in the Classical Greek ethos, necessity has become a norm in modern life. For centuries, mankind attributed all the greatest inventions and achievements to necessity instead of thought. This wisdom has been encapsulated in the proverb ‘necessity is the mother of invention’. Disagreeing with this wisdom, Marshall McLuhan believes ‘invention is the mother of all necessities’.

In today’s techno-scientific world, we are inextricably wedded to the necessities of life and do not have time for the luxury of contemplation. Therefore, we lead a life in which the exercise of habits is a norm from which substance is missing. The kind of mindset and lifestyle we have developed is affecting our being. As a result, we have become a flock instead of being the shepherds of our own being and the masters of our own thinking. This has created wedge between our lifeworld and thinking. The former is influenced by our being in the world, which is dominated by calculative thinking and opinion.

Although calculative thinking enables us to deal with practical things and the mundane, it, at the same time, precludes us from thinking about perennial questions of being. This process weans us away from thinking and engages us in mundane opinions and voices. Hence, the cycle of unthought increases and the thinking decreases. German philosopher Martin Heidegger presciently observed that “the growing thoughtlessness must, therefore, spring from some process that gnaws at the very marrow of man today: man today is [in] flight from thinking”.

Allowing calculative thinking to percolate every aspect of life deprives us of our very nature as meditative animals. Unlike ideological or advertisement thinking, meditative thinking has the capacity to absorb the polysemy of meaning and the heterogeneity of experiences into a unified whole where one’s mind transcends binaries and melts paradoxical entities into a new form. That is why Heidegger says: “Meditative thinking demands us not to cling too one-sidedly to a single idea, nor to run down a one-track course of ideas. Meditative thinking demands of us that we engage ourselves with what at first sight does not go together at all”.

Now the question arises is: why there is less thinking in Pakistan when the airwaves are free? One of the reasons is that as a nation we have developed the habit of noticing after hearing or reading at the expense of understanding which involves the need “to ponder”. Today, freedom of thought is a catchword among intellectuals, the literati, human rights activists and politicians in Pakistan.

The basic premise is that a society progresses when it allows the minds to freely express their ideas. However, freedom of thought alone cannot ensure intellectual development and social progress as it hinges upon the cultural ethos and social milieu that render space for free thinking and create a dumping ground for the ambiguous ideas of intellectuals who have sought an escape from thinking.

In our social and intellectual context, we have turned the very cogent argument for freedom of speech into an excuse to escape from thinking. That is why we have the freedom to turn news into opinions, facts into conspiracies, fanatic politics into businesses, religious occasions into marketing opportunities and educational institutions into mental wastelands. Our intellectual thinking should have been proportionate to the available space for freedom of speech. On the contrary, we have fewer minds and more tongues in the age of the free media and information. This speaks of a deep-rooted problem in our thinking that requires the dissection of thought.

A common lamentation of a section of our intelligentsia involves the lack of freedom of speech in our society. It is an excuse for hiding their failure to question the perennial problems. The very questioning should start from raising questions about the failure of our current intellectuals to actively contribute to the world of knowledge. While it is true that we have produced some committed intellectuals in the colonial and post-colonial periods, our entry into the communication age has severed our relationship with that tradition. As a result, we have more freedom of speech and a limited range of thought.

Owing to a deep-seated intellectual poverty, we feed our minds with nonsense, conspiracy theories, pseudo science, charlatans, celebrities and televangelists. This is not to say that we do not need electronic media and the cultural industry. Instead, the purpose is to highlight the fact that our educational standards are deteriorating in tandem with the increasing influence of the dummy life of gadgets and glitz.

Deprived of substance, we try to fill the available space for free thought through ephemeral illuminations of airwaves. The hard-won freedom of speech has provided more space for frivolous talk and activities. Even the very idea of freedom of speech is controversial in Pakistan because not every Pakistani is entitled to it. To avail the freedom of speech, one has to become an intellectual of stature or a media celebrity. Only when they are threatened, we hear a hue and cry about attack on freedom of thought. The common man does not have this freedom.

Karl Marx, Voltaire, Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche and Antonio Gramsci did not work in a free environment. Instead, they had to face deprivation, privation, and exile and were even sent to jail. Their experience of existential angst and suffering exposed them to the real face of the forces that control thought processes and life. Freedom of thought, in their respective societies, was an outcome of the struggle of their predecessors who bore the brunt of the oppression of closed societies but managed to pave the way for an open society.

A closed society adopts a raw and visible force to control its populace. But a developed society resorts to covert mechanisms of control. Unfortunately, we have failed to develop an open society but succeeded in devising covert mechanism of control through a form of paradoxical cohabitation wherein the security state is responsible for managing an insecure society. Such a society is more vulnerable to the mechanics of power.

The absence of a visible manifestation of control mechanisms and tactics and the growing disconnect with intellectual traditions has compelled our intellectuals to rest on their laurels and bask in their fame and celebrity status. The trouble lies in the fact that we have won ‘freedom from’ but are still struggling to understand what it means to provide freedom to and for a person or a particular cause. Eric Fromm, in his book Escape from Reason, refers to this as the “ambiguity of freedom”. The main task of intellectuals today is to explicate what it means to offer freedom to and for a person or a particular cause. Once we grapple with this question, we will be able to steer our nation on a progressive path and give a “deeper purpose to our increased freedom and opportunity”. Otherwise, we will remain shallow, directionless, crave for the approval of others, go shopping and become, in the words of Fromm, “interchangeable cogs in the social machinery treat others and ourselves as somewhat depersonalised objects”.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Gilgit.

Email: [email protected]

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