By Huma Yusuf
It is no secret that our university campuses have become spaces of intimidation rather than debate, censorship rather than critical thinking. Panel discussions are cancelled, speakers are forced off campuses, student events are disrupted by mobs, professors who encourage engagement are fired.
The threats to critical thinking and debate come from many sources: so-called ‘state functionaries’, student wings of religious political parties, firebrand students wielding blasphemy charges, politicized academics, complicit university administrators, and even right-wing media commentators who name and shame educational institutions, forcing them to go on the defensive and resort to self-censorship in lieu of jeopardizing students’ safety from mobs.
The range of issues deemed too sensitive to debate grows every day. Beyond academic debate on matters of national security and foreign policy, discussions on culture, history, law, constitutionality and even science are increasingly perceived as too sensitive. Opportunities for debate are cancelled both by authoritarians for fear of what might be said, but also by the academically inclined for fear of the violent reaction that genuine debate may provoke.
And this is the fate of those who dare to speak, to engage, to question. The ranks of those who no longer bother, who opt for silence and safety over debate and danger is growing. A new report from Media Matters for Democracy, a Pakistan-based, not-for-profit initiative, on the practice of self-censorship among Pakistani journalists found that 79 per cent of respondents had self-censored their personal expression online and in the company of strangers (aside from the routine self-censorship required in a professional context). One can imagine that these statistics among university students would be similar.
The demise of debate — and the critical thinking it necessitates — on university campuses is especially problematic because Pakistan’s youth don’t have access to other spaces where they can engage their minds. According to the excellent Pakistan National Human Development Report on youth released last week, 85pc of young Pakistanis do not have access to the internet, and a shocking 94pc do not have access to a library. How is the next generation meant to learn how to think?
The various groups cracking down on academic debate think that by enforcing silence they enhance their power and, eventually, wrangle the public’s consent and compliance. Terrifyingly, they are right. If you suck ideas and opposing viewpoints out of circulation, at first, they live on behind closed doors, then they start to seem irrelevant, and ultimately, they cease to exist. And what takes their place — in our case, conspiracy theories, paranoia, fanaticism, sectarian and ethnic hostility — is taken for truth, and not recognised as the pressure tactic that was its first incarnation.
In the short run, widespread censorship does result in a plaint population. The silencing that the Zia generation endured explains the attractiveness of hare-brained conspiracy theories today. Pliant populations are also easier to govern. People who are intimidated into silence in one arena of their life will be placid in others too. Students who watch every word they utter on campus are unlikely to become entitled citizens demanding service delivery, human rights and state accountability.
But this conception has one major flaw — it is underpinned by an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality. Censorship and the stifling of debate require an elite who decides what can and cannot be said, and a public that complies. There is an uncomfortable power dynamic here — a division of the polity into those who can use critical thinking skills to manipulate debate and knowledge and those who are not entitled to anything beyond obeisance.
How short-sighted, then, are those who seek to silence? Today’s students are that elite of tomorrow. By stifling critical thinking on campus, we are ensuring a future in which Pakistan has corps commanders, parliamentarians, judges, senior bureaucrats, CEOs, police chiefs and doctors who are incapable of sophisticated reasoning.
These are the people who will have to plan the country’s economic trajectory and allocate increasingly scarce resources. They will have to negotiate trade and defence deals on behalf of our country. They will have to engage in diplomacy on the world stage. They will have to win business. They will have to keep Pakistan safe. And they will have to train the generation that comes after them.
To do any of these things, you need to think critically, engage with and process facts, identify alternative possibilities, and reason or negotiate with people on the other side of the table. If all you know is the power of brute force — if your comfort zone is that of censorship, authoritarianism, silence and complicity — then you are not fit to do any of the things needed to help a country and a society prosper. As such, today’s silence is being bought at the expense of Pakistan’s future. Is it really worth that much?
Published in Dawn, May 7th, 2018