Friday June 21, 2024

The age of the sophists

By Hussain H Zaidi
July 17, 2022

Ancient Greece is known as the cradle of Western philosophy and produced some of the greatest philosophers of all times. However, in the same country, about 500 BC, arose a band of thinkers – collectively referred to as the sophists – who denied the possibility of knowledge and dismissed the quest for truth as an exercise in futility.

In their book, the truth was nothing but a figment of one’s imagination. As one person’s imagination differs from that of another, everyone has their own bagful of ‘truths’. In the words of one the most famous sophists, Protagoras, “Man [in his or her individual capacity] is the measure of all things.”

With knowledge and truth gone, only opinions and arguments remained. For the sophists, what mattered was the ability to convince others of one’s point-of-view and win arguments in courts and streets regardless of their intellectual foundations or ethical implications. Whatever could be proved was correct and right. Rhetoric came to be prized as the most eloquent manifestation of intellectual brilliance.

The sophists demonstrated that anything can be proved against anyone by the use of rhetoric. The bustling streets of Athens and other major Greek cities provided an effective platform for their popularity and their practices. Not surprisingly, they drew an immense following among the upper-class youth, who saw with jubilation traditional notions tumble one after another in the face of misleading but fascinating arguments.

The knowledge-opinion and truth-rhetoric dichotomies have found their parallel in the contemporary era in the opposition between ideology and narrative. An ideology is a coherent worldview, embodying a set of ideas and values, which provide a rationale and identity for adherents, a systematic explanation of socio-political events, and a proposed way forward.

The postmodern, post-truth world, with its denial of absolute values, leaves little room for ideologies. With ideologies gone, narratives have taken centre stage. Narratives are stories told in different social contexts and, like any other story, have two essential characteristics: each narrative has a beginning, a middle, and an end; each narrative has characters – some good, other bad; some heroic, other villainous.

Narratives have several advantages over ideologies. While ideologies are drab and are couched in a technical, at times obscure, language and often require a subtle mind to comprehend them, narratives are interesting and simple and demand little intellectual effort to understand them. In fact, narratives are not meant to be understood but to be slavishly copied. Ideologies are based on doctrines; narratives are based on events – real or imagined. In a word, an ideology appeals to the mind and reason, whereas a narrative manipulates the heart and emotions.

Being coherent and deemed absolute and universal in their application, ideologies tend to be rigid. Narratives combine contradictory ideas to maximize their appeal and can be conveniently adjusted to make room for changing situations. Amid fluctuating fortunes, angels may become demons, and friends may become foes.

In order to hit the bull’s eye, narratives need to be told and re-told a thousand times with all the ingenuity, imagery, metaphors, hyperboles, and patriotic, moral and religious (depending upon the social context) ingredients that their authors and disseminators can summon, so that the target audience deems the struggle veritable, and themselves part of the story and on the side of the protagonist and deadly against the antagonists. Since narratives have a weak intellectual foundation, not letting the people see the truth or listen to the counternarratives is of no less significance. Evidently, effective media management lies at the heart of a successful narrative.

In Pakistan, in the battle of narratives, the PTI has excelled its rivals. Since its inception, the party has made an anti-corruption narrative the bedrock of its politics. The summary of this narrative is: ‘Despite having abundant resources, Pakistan remains an impoverished economy, because, and only because, the polity is mired in corruption up to the eyes. The current breed of politicians, each of whom is corrupt, is incapable of ridding Pakistani society of corruption. The nation needs a revolutionary leader (Imran Khan) who at one-go will set things right and make the country corruption-free. Anyone who opposes him is part of the corrupt, rotten-to-the-core lot.’

At worst, a narrative is an old wives’ tale; at best, it’s an over-the-top account of things. The PTI blew the scale and impact of corruption out of proportion to sweep the target audience off their feet. The stories of Rs1 billion-a-day corruption in the country’s public sector, and of ‘corrupt’ politicians and officials having stashed away more than $100 billion in foreign banks were grossly overblown, and because of this found a receptive audience.

No narrative is complete without characters. The PTI’s narrative drew a sharp, but in no way irrevocable, line between good and bad characters. At the start of the story, the protagonist, Imran Khan, was the only saintly figure, and the rest were sinful mortals. However, the sinners could always redeem themselves by joining the saint’s bandwagon. As the plot of Pakistani politics unfolded, the number of the pious went on increasing and in 2018, they were finally able to whip the wicked.

The support of powerful quarters aside, two factors played a vital role in the PTI’s success. One was the advent of the 24/7 mainstream electronic and social media and the party’s superlative ability to use it to its advantage. The second was the country’s demographic credentials of having more than 64 per cent of its population under the age of 29, meaning that the target audience was largely starry-eyed and highly impressionable.

These two factors combined to create an army of dumb but fervid keyboard warriors, who have been programmed to fire poisonous arrows on anyone who shows the slightest of signs of demurring with their leader. In the age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the role of the electronic media in manipulating people’ emotions is comparable to that of the pulpit and the press in the past – albeit with a much wider reach in a much shorter time. The PTI has been miles ahead of the country’s other major political parties in its use of the electronic media. Little wonder then that some of the most well-known ‘badmouths’ in politics and the media are in the PTI’s camp.

A narrative lacks the coherence of an ideology. To make the story appealing, it conflates mutually incompatible elements. The PTI vows to fashion Pakistan’s political system on the city-state of Madina. But in the same vein, its leadership wants to import the Chinese political system; not to speak of their admiration for political rights – when their party is not in power – granted by Western democracies. These systems are as similar as chalk and cheese; only in the PTI’s unparalleled wisdom can they be fused into one.

A shift in the context in which narratives are told may necessitate a change therein. Having been recently voted out of power and seen that the corruption narrative has run its course, the PTI has deftly shifted gears and made defending national honour and sovereignty the new leitmotif of its politics. But the basic idea remains the same: anyone who is against the supreme leader is a traitor, and thus an enemy of the people, deserves to be demonized wherever, and whenever, possible. The characters are also the same. However, some erstwhile friends of the party are currently in the line of fire for allegedly pulling the plug on their support to the party – an unpardonable sin in the eyes of Insafians (PTI supporters).

The treason narrative would be allowed to fall by the wayside when it’s no longer useful. Then another card would be picked from the stack. Meanwhile, the moral standards in politics will keep plumbing new depths and the narrative-infected online warriors will continue to reject any attempts made to have an informed or even a decent debate on the real issues. By all accounts, we’re in the age of the sophists.

The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist.

He tweets @hussainhzaidi and can be reached at: