How Many Worlds’ Have you Seen Today?

“Why did Queen Elizabeth meet Mallala?” Asked my mother during one of those post dinner mother and son walks.

“Because she is a brave little girl who stands up for girl’s education.” I said.

“But why her alone? All of my friends were asking. Why are these westerners talking her up as much? Something is afoot, all the people are saying.” My mother insisted.

“Well she is a good looking, articulate young girl, who had the courage of her convictions to take a bullet to her head. And all she is saying is that girls should be able to go to school if they want. That sounds like a good reason for me to talk her up enough, if not more.” I retorted, as I got a little animated at the line of reasoning.

My mother, still uncertain, was not quite convinced and went on, “With all that’s happening in this country, to so many people, why her alone?”

“Ammi, why not her?” I retorted, “Should it be us instead? Or do you have somebody else in mind for global adulation?”

“No it should certainly not be us.” She said in a resigned tone, “we haven’t done anything remarkable–good or bad”. And we just left it at that.

Taliban have not claimed responsibility for three of the explosions in KPK, insists Imran Khan, the darling of the drawing room crowd in Pakistan. Therefore, to blame Taliban for the situation in KPK is a mistake. The real issue is drone attacks, which are the real cause of suicide bombings in Pakistan. Mr. Khan insists that we must negotiate with the Taliban to convince them that wonton killing of Pakistanis in retaliation for American drone attacks is a bad idea. In return, Mr. Khan will offer the Taliban a true Islamic state in KPK as a concession, or perhaps a year’s supply of cricket memorabilia personally signed by him.

I am not going to comment on the logical consistency let alone the moral underpinnings of the above two conversations. If you have to ask, then perhaps there is no point in me going on? Or perhaps there is.

I have a visceral reaction of thinking of any right wing person, as either an idiot or a villain. I do intellectually recognize that many people who are a much more intelligent than I am, and are better people in everyday conduct than I am–not that my intellect or conduct are of a remarkably high standard–subscribe to rightist thought and intellectual frameworks. So as angry and frustrated I feel at the structures of thinking of which, my mothers’ friends and Imran Khan are representative, I have to grudgingly concede that a lot more is going on in theirs and their ilk’s heads than just mischief or villainy, or both.

I find the social theorist Bruno Latour helpful in grappling with this problematique where seemingly decent people are not just apathetic but even supportive of–well–evil.

We perhaps never differ about opinions, but rather always about things—about what world we inhabit. And very probably, it never happens that adversaries come to agree on opinions: they begin, rather, to inhabit a different world. A common world is not something we come to recognize, as though it had always been here (and we had not until now noticed it) (Latour 1997: 456).

One of the key moments in the ushering of the modern world was the demystification of nature and human cosmos, and its utter destruction and replacement with a singular empirically observable and knowable world. From there on, there weren’t multiple worlds known through multiple cosmologies but just one physical world out there. The human project in our modern times is now limited to know that singular world and tell stories of this ‘real’ world to all. Or is it?

The ‘real’ world bequeathed to us by modernity is a very limited one. The singular ‘shared reality’ that we must buy into is supposed to be the concrete unmediated reality that we get to through science and objective observation. The only problem is that knowing this reality requires us to suspend our emotions, memories, attachments, and animosities–in short our humanity.

Perhaps we do live in different worlds, always have and always will. Latour helpfully reminds us of the ‘Valadolid controversy’, the famous disputato that the Spanish held in the New World to decide if the Native Americans had souls susceptible to salvation. While the Spaniards were deploying the medieval social scientific method to determine the spirituality of the native Americans, the Native Americans were undertaking a no less scientific albeit natural experiment to determine the corporeality of the (Spanish) Conquistadors. That the Spaniards had souls seemed clear to them–in their cosmology everything had a soul, the crow, the jaguar, the forest, everything. The question was whether these Spanish new comers had bodies or were they purely spiritual entities. They drowned the conquistador prisoners to see if they died, and if their flesh rotted after death. If they died and their flesh rotted then they definitely had bodies.

The point of the above story is to illustrate the disconnect between worlds–not world views–which assumes that there is some absolute unmediated Newtonian world out there that we have to agree on. As Latour argues, belief in an unmediated singular reality is the fundamental attribute of–well fundamentalism. The claim of a singular unmediated world will invariably invite the ownership of the truth about that world. And I don’t have to elaborate on the power equation, where one owns the truth about the world and has the right to dispense it to others.

So what do progressive agenda(s) mean across these multiple worlds? From those of Imran Khan, to the Taliban, to the Baloch to the Napoleons in Rawalpindi? Each of them actually live in different worlds with concomitant realities. Those realities have to be constantly maintained. The resilience of these worlds is inversely proportional to the intellectual courage of their denizens. Less intellectual courageous they are, more desperately they hold on to their worlds. More intellectually courageous the citizens of the worlds, more willing they are to go on a tour of different worlds–experience different personal universes in their refreshing, depressing, endearing, infuriating and ultimately surprising diversity.

The cognitive interplanetary tourism that I am suggesting as a pathway for the peaceful coexistence of different worlds, even that of the Imran Khan with somebody like me will will have to, however, be a multilateral process. If it is a unilateral exercise, then it will perhaps usher in a more enriched life for the tourist, but not do much for the society in which, the tourist lives.

“Blessed are the peacemakers” Latour says. And multi-agent empathic interplanetary vagrancy is the key condition for peace. If Imran Khan and his ilk sound like they are from Uranus—they really are. If you want to understand them, you may need to go visit there. But if you are looking for peace, his ilk will also have to make the trip from that third gas ball from outer space to the third rock from the Sun. As I write these words I am hearing Mian Iftikhar-ud-Din describe his fight against the Taliban and the killing of his son. I agree with him that moving to Uranus permanently, is not a serious basis for peace. To quote Latour (1997: 455) again,

“If this be peace, I must say I prefer war. By war I mean a conflict for which there is no agreed-upon arbiter, a conflict in which what is at stake is precisely what is common in the common world to be built.”

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