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November 4, 2018

The antidote to bigotry


November 4, 2018

Irrespective of the merits and demerits of the verdict in Aasia Bibi’s case, the anger shown by disgruntled elements was unjustified. The burning of the property of those who had nothing to do with the case, attacks on security personnel, and an attempt to create mass hysteria, were nothing new. We have seen them time and again. Be it the lynching of two boys in Sialkot on charges of attempted robbery a couple of years back or the targeting of minorities, all these incidents reflect pent-up social anger. Can something be done about it?

As an educationist, I would refer to life-skills based education (LSBE) as a possible antidote to the poison we have been spreading. What is LSBE? Though there are various definitions available online, the best is used in the Sindh Non-Formal Education Policy 2017. The Sindh government must be congratulated on finalising this document that outlines a framework for non-formal education in an effort to bring out-of-school children into the fold of education. The best aspect of this policy adopted by the Sindh Education and Literacy Department (SELD) is its flexible approach, and willingness to allow and encourage life-skills based education.

The definition of LSBE that is used by the Sindh government is from the World Health Organization (WHO). It defines LSBE as follows: “Life skills are abilities for adaptive and positive behaviour that enable individuals to deal effectively with the demands and challenges of everyday life. In particular, the skills are a group of psychological competencies and interpersonal skills that help people make informed decisions, solve problems, think critically and creatively, communicate effectively, build healthy relationships, empathise with others, and cope with and manage their lives in a healthy and productive manner”.

Let’s discuss some of the terms and words used in the above definition and try to understand what they mean and how they can help us reduce anger at individual and social levels. First, ‘life-skills’ simply mean skills that help us live. You may respond by saying, “well, all of us live, so what is the big deal about ‘skills’”. That’s where the point is. We can repeat the cliched difference between ‘existing’ and ‘living’, but we won’t do that here. ‘Living’ for us can be a mundane everyday affair, full of anger, anguish, and apathy; or it can be a beneficial, enjoyable, and at-peace-with-others existence.

As we read in the definition given above, “skill are abilities”. This means that when we are able to do or achieve something, we have the skill required for the task. The first ability or skill is being adaptive. It is akin to being compatible and flexible. As we have observed, a vast majority of our people – including the youth – are neither compatible with the social realities of the 21st century nor flexible enough to review their own incompatibilities. They may be adept at using 21st-century technology, but they are hardly able to translate their technical know-how into socially acceptable behaviour that is in consonance with the modern-day world.

What do we need to adapt to? First, there is the UN Declaration of Human Rights. This declaration is the culmination of a centuries-long struggle to ensure that the fundamental rights of the people aren’t violated irrespective of their caste, creed, colour, ethnicity, language, location, or qualifications. All 200 or so countries in the world have to adopt this declaration and then inculcate an ‘adaptive and positive’ behaviour among their citizens.

Those who can’t adapt are likely to be rogue nations or people. A world community that values adaptability and positivity isn’t going to tolerate the roguish nature of others who prefer to hide behind their culture, norms, religion, sect, or values.

It doesn’t mean that we should be teaching children about the UN declaration; it simply means that we should find an appropriate format and language to give an orientation to our children about what it entails to be adaptive, compatible, flexible, and positive. Of course, this cannot be done until our teachers – both in formal and non-formal settings – are trained to have these abilities or skills themselves. As we can see, the bulk or our teaching cadre is inflexible, incompatible, and negative in its approach towards new ideas. This rigidity comes from our own state narrative that is not adaptive.

Similarly, the definition also calls for psychosocial competencies and interpersonal skills. It is a combination of psychological and social attitudes and behaviours. You cannot be adaptive and compatible until you are psychologically inclined to do so. This doesn’t come by birth, though individual nature does play an important role in this inclination. It can mostly be transformed by nurturing. Educational psychology is a neglected area in most of our teacher education and training. Just look at the myriad teacher-training events being conducted, including the donor-funded ones, and you will notice an overwhelming focus on technical competencies.

Effective and good interpersonal skills are missing from most of our curricula. In the absence of a sound basis in psychosocial and interpersonal skills, we not only see parents, students, and teachers, but also the wider community display an inflammable attitude that can spark a brutally emotional and violent reaction at any time. It is not only real or imaginary blasphemy that ignites us. It can simply be disagreement, or a slight oversight in ‘expected respect’, or sometimes an inadvertent trespassing that can enrage all, right from ordinary people to so-called VIPs such as the Manekas or Swatis.

Life-skills also enable us to ‘make informed decisions’. As we see, many of our decisions and reactions are ill-informed. We tend to jump to conclusions that stem from poorly-investigated versions of an event or opinion. Somebody propagates a lie, blames someone, or maligns an entirely respectable individual; and most of us get infuriated. Junaid Hafeez is languishing in jail on fabricated charges. Rashid Rehman and Salmaan Taseer were assassinated for trying to defend the defenceless. This tendency to believe all hearsay sprouts in childhood and matures as we grow old.

Our textbooks that are full of half-truths and outright lies are fed ad nauseam into the malleable minds of our children. When a morbid dread of ‘the other’ is suffused through our education system, we are not likely to have a harmonious society. Harmony is not something that you enforce by uniformity; it is something that emerges from the shades of diversity. Again, adaptability is the key, and flexibility is the grease that keeps the societal machine running on an even keel. Life-skills teach us how to seek more information before locking a false assumption in our minds.

The ability to think creatively and critically is next in line. Creativity here doesn’t mean that every one of us becomes a creative genius. It enables us to draw creative alternatives or options to tackle a difficult situation. When we get fixated on a single idea, refuse to budge an inch, and insist on a single solution, we aren’t being creative. Thinking critically means we should be able to critically examine and question the credibility and veracity of claims in the face of different alternatives and opinions. If we enable our children to do that, they are less likely to fall prey to bigots and extremists – at least we can hope so.

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

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