Dissent in the modern world is, basically, a very rare combination of knowledge, ideas, cognitive abilities, moral courage and conscience. Most intellectuals serve the powers that be. They give excellent rationales for killing, maiming, raping and cheating people. They justify war, poverty and mismanagement. They are on the side of the rich and the powerful. It is not because they lack either knowledge or brains. They do, sometimes at least, lack moral courage. Above all, however, they lack conscience and sympathy. What happens when a dissident is born?
It depends on the power distribution and the prevalent fashion in ideas. Take the case of a hunter-gatherer society. In such a case, he or she would hardly be noticed. The members of the itinerant society of group would be so much preoccupied with gathering roots and hunting small animals that they would not have time to listen to somebody with strange ideas. If the idea was so strange as to forbid the hunting of animals then two responses would be in order. First, a kind of beatification. The individual is understood to be a saint, placed in a separate niche, and everyone else keeps doing what they were doing before. The second is ostracization with or without criminalization. The individual is considered a deviant, either a non-criminal one or a criminal one, and people either boycott him, drive him away, or even eliminate him physically.
Gender and Power
The same responses persist throughout history. If one belongs to the less powerful gender (women); less powerful class (peasants, labourers etc); less powerful social groups (untouchables in India and their equivalents elsewhere); then the chances of beatification decrease and those of ostracization increase. However, an individual from such groups cannot be heard to begin with. Society simply provides very few chances to such people to speak out so that the ostracization consists of the immediate family suppressing the dissident person early in her or his career.
It is only individuals from slightly more powerful groups who are recorded in history as being dissidents. During the agrarian era human beings as a species colonized the land and the animals. This event led to the production of much surplus wealth. Further, the male colonized the female. This created the stable male-dominated family. The surplus food was enough to sustain a military caste (the Rajas and Nawabs in South Asia and dukes and earls in Europe) as well as a priestly caste (all the priests, clerks, schoolmasters and so on). In time a bureaucracy too was born and functioned to maintain the ruler’s power. The dissident who belonged to this elite living off the surplus produce of the peasants could, in theory, be heard which the peasant himself could not. As the dominant discourse was religious the dissident addressed the world in terms of religious ideas. The establishment either suppressed him—women had few chances to be heard as we have seen—as a heretic or accepted him as a saint, a prophet or reformer of religion. Martin Luther comes to the mind as just such a dissident intellectual. He was accepted because, as it happened, European princes wanted to break away from the hold of the pope and Luther provided them with the perfect excuse to do so. However, if one examines the history of religious reformers, saints, prophets and religious figures one finds out that they were not always accepted. Indeed, they were resisted much more often than otherwise. Some were killed while others were imprisoned in order to suppress their voice.
Those whom we do hear about in books of history are mentioned either in reverential terms or reviled. Those among the latter category are invariably called ‘heretics’—this being the term for dissidents in the parlance of the established clergy. The ‘heretics’ are eliminated and their voice vanishes for ever. What happens to those who are revered is even more interesting. The are contained, their ideas are defanged, their words become clichés. To begin with they are placed in the saintly category. The values they preach are given lip service but whenever these values clash with the exigencies of power, they are ignored or travestied beyond recognition. Thus we find people and states revering the Buddha, while paying lip service to peace and non-violence, actually engaging in war like other societies. We find Muslims, while preaching the equality of all Muslims, actually practice a kind of apartheid which looks like the notorious caste system of Hinduism. We find Christian societies talking about the Sermon on the Mount on Sundays in the Church but having no qualms about blowing up their ‘enemies’ in smithereens. The really humanitarian message of the great prophets, the genuine reformers, is taken over by the priestly establishment and the ruler’s bureaucracy and military so as to suppress the people even further and get more obedience and taxes out of them. It is, however, true that some of the values do pass by the priest and the king and they do produce some benevolent effects upon society too. However, if one takes the overall moral standards of medieval Europe (where Christianity was dominant) or those of the Muslim world today (which pays lip service to Islam as the dominant worldview), they are not very high. In medieval Europe they burnt old women as witches and the poor often froze to death or starved. In the Muslim world they are more interested in persecuting people for their beliefs and killing women for honour than in educating or feeding the children. In short, the noble values were travestied and twisted around to support the system and not to challenge it.
Modernity and Medievalism
The modern world is better than the medieval one for the dissident. The dominant fashion now is relativism whereas the ages of faith were completely sure of everything. However, whereas one can be as relative as one likes about the old beliefs and moral systems, it is not equally easy to be skeptical about the state-sponsored philosophy of nationalism. Indeed, nationalism is the new religion of the modern world. A dissident who goes against the concept of the nation, or the philosophy of nationalism as such is likely to be ignored. Nobody really pays any attention to him, except possibly a few starry-eyed students and maybe a few bald-headed philosophers. The establishment, if it is wise, pretends that it is very tolerant and allows him to pass his days in a corner of academia. However, when a dissident speaks up against the nation, especially in times of war, then the level of tolerance is much less. Bertrand Russell was, after all, locked up during the First World War. Chomsky, Edward Said, Robert Fisk and a few other dissenting intellectuals are still free. Is it because the concept of tolerance is more deeply ingrained now than it ever was before or is it because the modern state, especially the United States, is so powerful that it can accept more dissident voices than ever before? I believe it is a bit of both though the exact ratio could never be known.
Attitudes to dissent
Another phenomenon worth pointing out is that dissident thought is rendered less threatening, less potent, less powerful by being patronized by the rich and the powerful. Look at the fate of the classical tales of lovers like the proverbial Heer and Ranjha, Sassi and Punnhun, Soni and Mahinwal and others in Medieval India. Here were these stories celebrating love and claiming that the true lovers cared neither for wealth nor society and its norms nor for the family. Their aim is to obtain each other. And these stories were taught to boys who could be disinherited if they chose to marry anyone of their choice though they could, of course, secretly disport themselves with prostitutes if they liked. The literary classics were tamed, emasculated and, as it were, defanged. Similarly the ghazal poetry, which also celebrated passion and nonconformism was made a convention; a mere artifice; a combination of beautiful sounds without substance. The poets themselves had to subsist on grants given by aristocratic patrons. And, obviously, anyone subsisting on grants—even if he is a genius like Ghalib—cannot really challenge the system.
The modern world too contains dissent in the same way. The great American universities pay Chomsky and Edward Said. The press barons pay Robert Fisk. By doing so they render them less potent. It is not that the dissidents do not say what they feel like. The greatest of them—like the people named above—always do. However, there is always a feeling among the hearers, the readers, that this is either not considered really dangerous or, if it is, then how fair and honest the managers of the system must be who allow this to be said.
In short, by allowing dissident opinion to be expressed anywhere and anyhow, the managers of the system of power manage to hide their true face. Even worse damage occurs to the cause of the dissident when the elite turns out in large numbers to listen to him and appropriates him as an object of curiosity. This is what happened to Faiz in Pakistan. In time, even in his lifetime but mostly after his death, powerful bureaucrats took to quoting him and reading him. It became an index of a gentleman’s erudition and good taste to refer to Faiz so that the poet’s revolutionary message was lost in the process. This is what happened to Chomsky also when he lectured in Lahore on 24 and Islamabad on 26 November this year. The elite turned up in large numbers because Chomsky conferred status. The elite, as we all know, wants gratification of all kinds. It wants intellectual gratification and the gratification which comes of being confirmed as a member of an elitist group. So, for the elite, the Chomsky lectures were acts of appropriation at par with the possession of a new car or brand name shoes. This is also the fate of the mystic saints and Ghalib and even great religious thinkers. The elite wants the best of everything whether they are horses or cars; mansions or villas; degrees from brand name universities or acquaintance with intellectual figures of a world standing. This, rather than the love of learning, explains the long queues of people when celebrities like Toynbee or Wolpert or Chomsky visit countries like Pakistan.
But when the elite listens to these great names what happens to the message they want to give? If it is not a radical message it does not matter much. It is forgotten in a few moments. If it is a radical message it may be retained as proof of one’s broadmindedness. It may even be trotted out in conversations as a piece of chess to defeat an opponent. However, it is always domesticated, defanged and contained. The whole of if is too dangerous to become a plan of action and steps are taken to put it in the realm of the impractical and thus diffuse its socially and politically disruptive potential.
Despite all these arrangements to contain dissent, it is surprising that some of it still gets out and pervades minds. Had this not happened the world never have changed at all.
But the world has changed and, at least in some ways, for the better. Even those who drop bombs on others do it in the name of peace not of the right of conquest. Even those who pay a pittance to starving workers do not call them slaves nor can they kill them when they like—at least not legally. These are humanitarian ideas, pro-people ideas, humane ideas—and they were propagated by the great dissidents of humanity. They were suppressed, ignored, travestied and defanged but still they survived and have changed the world. One can well imagine how powerful they must have been to survive and spread. And it is precisely because they are so powerful that the first reaction of those in power is to nip them in the bud. That, indeed, is the greatest reason why one should value ideas and people who create them even if they seem to threaten whatever we hold dear.