When Pakistani liberals and rationalists engage with conservative or religious ideologues or opinion-makers, they pay little attention to the fact that their differences exist at the level of sensory perception. Employing formal logic or scientific facts in such a debate is futile
“The parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from the paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute them to a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality”
– Plato (Phaedrus)
Socrates was the first Greek philosopher to have made a split between the mind and the heart. He stood on the border of a non-literate Greece before him and a literate Greece after him. But he did not write.
When Plato was transcribing the teachings of Socrates, there is no indication that he fully knew what effect the phonetic alphabet would have on the mental and physical habits of the Greeks and eventually the entire Western world. But he did refer to the split between thought and action.
“There were, in fact, two tendencies in Greece,” Bertrand Russell said of this split in The History of Western Philosophy, “one passionate, religious, mystical, other-worldly, the other cheerful, empirical, rationalistic, and interested in acquiring knowledge of a diversity of facts.”
Literate societies that live in the visual, linear, external world of the phonetic alphabet acquire the habit of experience of a logical, sequential, linear space, which forms a ‘point of view’. The ability to externalize expression allows them to differentiate between thought and action. Non-literate societies are accustomed to oral-oral stimulation that is spherical and simultaneous, coming from everywhere. They ‘play it by the ear’.
When Pakistani liberals and rationalists engage with conservative or religious ideologues or opinion-makers, they pay little attention to the fact that their differences exist at the level of sensory perception. Employing formal logic or scientific facts in such a debate is futile.
Cartesian and Newtonian physics are based on an implicit assumption that “the framework of space and time in which we seek almost instinctively to localize all of our sensations is a perfectly rigid and fixed framework where each physical event can, in principle, be rigorously localized independently of all the dynamic processes which are going on around it” (Louis de Broglie,The Revolution in Physics). Like formal logic, the Euclidean space and three-dimensional visual perception were not a universal way of looking at the world before the advent of the phonetic alphabet. The absence of three-dimensional space in native art of various cultures is not because of a lack of skills.
“Whereas a western child is early introduced to building blocks, keys in locks, water taps, and a multiplicity of items and events which constrain him to think in terms of spatiotemporal relations and mechanical causation, the African child instead receives an education which depends much more exclusively on the spoken word and which is relatively highly charged with drama and emotion,” JC Carothers writes in Culture, Psychiatry and the Written Word.
But in a predominantly oral society like Russia, people were held responsible for their thought as well as their action. The West was surprised at the “purge” trials of the 1930s, when many pleaded guilty, “not because of what they had done, but what they had thought.”
Alexander Inkeles explains this phenomenon in Public Opinion in Russia: “The American is usually talking about the freedom of expression, the right to say or not to say certain things, a right which he claims exists in the United States and not in the Soviet Union. The soviet representative is usually talking about the access to the means of expression, not to the right to say things at all, and this access he says is denied to most in the United States and exists for most in the Soviet Union.”
In non-literate societies, says Carothers, “A man comes to regard himself as a rather insignificant part of a much larger organism – the family and the clan – and not as an independent self-reliant unit; personal initiative and ambition are permitted little outlet; and a meaningful integration of a man’s experience on individual, personal lines is not achieved.”
A non-literate individual performs a role, compared with a literate individual who performs jobs and tasks.
“Since the type of social order we have been discussing is relatively unchanging,” David Reisman says of the non-liberate society in The Lonely Crowd, “the conformity of the individual tends to be dictated to a very large degree by power relations among the various age and sex groups, the clans, castes, professions, and so forth – relations that have endured for centuries and are modified but slightly, if at all, by successive generations… Little energy is diverted towards finding new solutions of the age-old problems.”
The power of the word, in such a society, depends on its correct use and in correct order. In that way, the clichés that are repeated on television resemble the magic spells of the tribal society. In the words of James Joyce, these spells are “rite words in rote order.” Words are in a written form become static and lose their personal elements and emotional overtones – they become abstract, impersonal, and logical.
The TV takes the audience back to the acoustic space – with simultaneous events and an overall awareness, and puts the magic back in those words. Popular television programs do not show visual representations of social phenomena, they are talk shows with people representing various groups speaking to each other and the audience. The effect of such shows is a re-strengthening of a sense of identification with one’s own group. When words retake their emotional value, a logical debate is not possible.
As a reaction to literacy, the television creates an effect similar to the reaction of the Greek society to literacy. “The tribal community (and later the ‘city’) is the place of security for the member of the tribe,” Karl Popper says in The Open Society and its Enemies. “Surrounded by enemies and by dangerous or even hostile magical forces, he experiences the tribal community as a child experiences his family and his home, in which he plays his definite part; a part he knows well, and plays well.”