OVER A COFFEE: The power of discourse —Dr Haider Shah
Nawaz Sharif may appear politically isolated today but his discourse is consistent and in sync with a positive dream of tomorrow. By condemning all politicians with a wide brush, we hold back our support to those who show courage in promoting a new discourse
“I have a dream,” harangued Martin Luther King Jr in his soft but determined and emotional voice on August 28, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC in front of a charged crowd, “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.” In the highly segregated and racist US of the 1960s, King’s dream seemed like a farfetched romantic fantasy. But King was creating a discourse of change, which finally bore fruit about 50 years later when Americans not only treated all coloured children equally but also elected one of them, Obama, as their president in preference to all white candidates.
The importance of ‘discourse’ in structuring power networks has been discussed by many influential thinkers. Foucault, a prominent French philosopher and writer, views discourse as a means of creating subjective truths by the dominant players of any organisation or society. Discourse is not just the spoken word but rather a combination of spoken, written and signed language, which signifies power relationships. Put simply, a discourse always has an element of spin on observed facts. For instance, the earthquake caused by the movement of tectonic plates and resulting in the deaths and miseries of thousands of Pakistanis in 2005 was a fact of nature. But when Maulana Tariq Jamil and Maulana Junaid Jamshed stated in a television programme that the earthquake was divine retribution for our sins, a fact is turned into a discourse, as the choice of words has a very well defined motive aimed at social control. Discourse is like a heap of ammunition with massive energy stored inside. The heap explodes when right detonating conditions develop.
The French Revolution did not happen all of a sudden. In the background, a discourse of change had been generated by romantic writers like Rousseau and rationalists like Voltaire over many years. Similarly, the Marxist discourse was created and spread by a large number of writers in Russia to pave the way for the 1917 revolution. All gatekeepers of the old order view any new discourse with great suspicion as it threatens long established power structures. They, therefore, always try to nip the evil in the bud. Their frantic reaction ranges from verbal denunciation of the new discourse to physical elimination of those who spread it.
In the 17th century, the Biblical paradigm of the cosmos dominated public discourse in Europe. In this discourse, the Earth was the centre of the universe, man was God’s vicegerent and the Church was the custodian of God’s word. The discourse was the source of the churchman’s immense socio-political power. When Galileo introduced a new discourse, which claimed that the earth was not the centre of the universe, he was summarily prosecuted for challenging the old discourse as the new discourse threatened the whole power structure. A century later we see a very fertile period for scientific advancement as many new theories explained mysteries and wonders of nature. Many scientists, e.g. Newton, were quite religious and were closely associated with the church. However, once again, the church establishment singled out Darwin for spirited condemnation when he published his Origin of Species thesis in 1859. Again, the reason was the same. Unlike other scientific theories, Darwinian science was generating a new discourse, which threatened the socio-political power that the church establishment enjoyed and which relied heavily on the old discourse.
In jealously guarding the old discourse, the religious establishments do not stand out. Many secular organisations and societies also observe strict xenophobic rules. Any dissenter from the official Nazi discourse was either summarily shot or made to swallow a cyanide capsule. The Siberian wilderness was populated by those Soviet dissenters who were lucky enough not to be put down by the secret police henchmen. Democratic governments also try controlling social discourse by exercising direct or indirect control over the media and opinion makers. Even at an organisational level, all change management consultants emphasise the need for introducing a new discourse for changing the underlying organisational culture.
Once upon a time, I used to be a great critic of Nawaz Sharif, as I considered him a custodian of the old discourse. Today I admire him for consistently promoting a new discourse, which calls for a basic change in the paradigm of governance in Pakistan. Unfortunately, the pseudo-liberal political parties, that like the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) have been cobbled together, have become the gatekeepers of the old discourse. According to the old discourse, the country is always passing through a sensitive period, that one should not question any level of performance by the security agencies, and that the sensitive agencies are too sensitive to afford any level of criticism. In addition to intimidating tactics, the defenders of the old discourse also try to deflect attention from the new discourse by raising non-issues. For instance, soon after the Abbottabad operation, Altaf Hussain used a referendum in Karachi to defuse the accountability calls and now the ransom payment to Somali pirates is being drummed up to rehabilitate the Navy and its chief’s image. The statements by the prime minister and other PPP leaders are also uninspiring and seem to have been written somewhere else. Nawaz Sharif may appear politically isolated today but his discourse is consistent and in sync with a positive dream of tomorrow. By condemning all politicians with a wide brush, we hold back our support to those who show courage in promoting a new discourse.
The widespread terrorism in Pakistan has not descended upon us overnight. Placing the whole blame on a handful of misguided radicals also amounts to understating a more serious problem. This ammunition of hatred has been heaped over many decades. Not only have foreign countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran contributed to a discourse of hate and vengeance but we ourselves have also stoked the fire by remaining disinterested in knowing what is being taught and learnt in our schools, colleges and universities. I have a dream that one day in Pakistan humans will not be hated and killed on the basis of their faith or ethnicity. If King’s dream can come true in the US, why not mine in Pakistan?