Tuesday December 05, 2023

From keywords to passwords

February 20, 2019

Raymond Williams is an important figure in cultural history and the history of ideas. He was in Cambridge University in the 1930s, and joined the army with the outbreak of World War II. When Raymond returned to the university after the end of the war, he realised that he and his colleagues ‘just don’t speak the same language’. Thereafter, he embarked upon an inquiry to understand several contemporary problems in society by exploring the etymology of words. The inquiry appeared in the shape of the books, ‘Culture and Society’ and ‘Keywords’. The latter book was originally intended to be the appendix of the former.

Raymond’s book ‘Keywords’ comprises notes and short essays on the vocabulary of culture and society. The book explores the shapes words had historically taken. In Pakistan, journalist Khaled Ahmed has undertaken a similar venture in his book ‘Words are Words: Stories Behind Everyday Words We Use’. However, Ahmed’s brilliant exploration of etymology of words is more about the connections of our everyday Urdu words with other languages and civilisations. Owing to his inclusive approach, Ahmed’s book provides us a sound foundation to work on the formation of an inclusive narrative for our society.

Words do not have meaning in isolation; rather they form a certain structure of thinking. This manifests in the shape of ideologies and school of thoughts that deploy their arsenal of vocabulary to launch a critique against competing ideology or ideas. A sociological inquiry of prevalent words in the contemporary culture, politics and society of Pakistan reveals appropriation, internalisation and construing of words to cater to a social ethos and cultural mindset. During this process, the meanings of words transmute, transform and deform. Among the most abused words in Pakistan are liberalism, secularism, religion, corruption, narrative, poor etc.

Metamorphosis in words is evident in the common response to the employment of certain words in Pakistan. During the ideological clash between capitalism and socialism, certain words are deployed to attract people to their respective camps. With the mutation and metamorphosis of vocabulary in the particular social and cultural setting of Pakistan, the very cornerstones of socialist ideology – worker or labourer – have been displaced from their position within the classic schema of class conflict. Now a person with a lucrative job in an organisation or corporate sector refuses to accept that s/he is a ‘worker’. Instead of situating his/her alienated existence through related words, s/he prefers the word ‘professional’ by disengaging himself with an idea that reveals his/her real situation within the modern economic and political order.

The term ‘liberalism’ is the most used and abused word in Pakistan. It is used interchangeably with secularism. In political terms the very word of liberalism is antithetical to socialism. But in Pakistan liberalism is used liberally by people in a way that it’s meaning disappears. For ultra-religious elements in Pakistan ‘liberal’ means ‘irreligious’. When religious parties and conservative people intend to oppose any activity in the secular domain, they dub it liberalism. Recently, the word ‘liberal fascist’ has gained currency in Pakistani society. The word liberalism has been reviled so much that it has become a dreaded word for those believe in liberal ideals.

Part of the blame for the deformation of the word liberalism goes to liberals in Pakistan. Until recently, they were intellectuals with leftist and liberal leanings who tried to explicate nuances of definition, and differences between liberalism, secularism and socialism. Now all three terms are conflated as one concept. This tendency has divested secularism of diversity. As a corollary, it has been become a monolithic mindset. Secondly, liberals in Pakistan themselves have not invested in interpreting and expanding horizons of liberalism. Hardcore liberals spend all their intellectual energies on opposing religion for the sake of opposition. Take that away from them and their edifice of liberalism will collapse. That is why liberal discourse lacks any alternative views about society, culture, ideas, arts and other domains of human existence. Be it religion, politics, economy or literature, it is the prevailing cultural mindset that has corrupted the most liberating ideas into a prisonhouse of thought.

Another word that has permeated into popular discourse is ‘narrative’. Its Urdu equivalent is ‘bayaniya’. Philosophically speaking, ‘narrative’ is a basic human strategy whereby humans weave a story that connects disparate elements of our experience and existence together to make sense of processes and changes that influence us and vice versa. In other words, through narrative we construct facts for our cognition to make sense of the world. The more diverse the components of story, the more inclusive it will be. Similarly, a narrative or story that accommodates small numbers of entities within becomes exclusive. Hence, narrative should be seen as collective endeavour. For example, if one believes in existentialism, he or she will try to bring disparate experiences under an existentialist narrative.

Operating in a fractured society and closed mindset, the word ‘narrative’ has taken an idiosyncratic and eccentric turn in Pakistan. Such is the situation that a columnist or anchorperson deems that s/he is creating a narrative. As a result, there is only a cacophony of noises instead of a coherently formulated holistic narrative that can be accommodative of diverse experiences and help in understanding processes in the world. Those who help create an alternate society or world had a unified vision. With the disintegration of a unified vision in society, eccentric and parochial individuals have assumed charge of steering society. In Pakistan, it is not the owl of Minerva that spread its wings with the falling of the dusk, but monsters who awake from their deep slumber.

The vocabularies we employ stem from prevailing ideas in society. Raymond Williams’ book ‘Keywords’ includes those words that are employed to explain the reality of the world. Since the publication of Raymond’s book, most of the words have undergone a sea change in their meaning. In 2018, Yuval Noah Harari published the book ‘21 Lessons for the 21st Century.’ In this book, he thoroughly examines the processes that has brought about drastic changes in the meaning of words under the influence of infotechnology and biotechnology. According to Harari, these twin technologies “restructure not just economies and societies but our very bodies and minds”.

Disruption and discontinuity with tradition used to be the hallmark of modernity. Modernity provided us vocabulary to make us understand our experience of alienation and metaphysical pathos in the industrial age. However, the difference between modernity and current age is that changes in modernity were steered by political scientists, sociologists and philosophers who paved the way for an alternate society, whereas anonymous experts developing digital algorithms for us create our age of post-truth. In Harari’s book, alienation is superseded by disillusionment, and terrorism has replaced anarchism and theory with post-truth. Our liberty is confiscated by big data and reality by post-truth where ‘some fake news lasts forever’.

We who live in words might be rendered irrelevant by a cybernetic civilisation. A major challenge for the thinkers of today is to make ideas, values and ideals relevant to enable people to make sense of their existence and tackle questions posed by a post-truth world. But the issue is that the challenges themselves stem from non-human cybernetics. Words unveil the mode of being, whereas passwords block the being. The ‘word’ has been the main medium for thinkers to communicate their ideas. Now the word appears incongruent in a world of simulacrum. Perhaps it is the death of the word and the birth of image and hyper-reality.

The writer is a social scientist with a background in philosophy and social science.