Do We Have No Common Sense?
By Dr Adil Najam
Pakistan knows the power of political narratives. From the very moment of our birth we have been fighting a losing battle to untangle mangled narratives; some constructed, others contested, many confused.
Those of us who grew up in the Ziaul Haq era are all too familiar with just how deep the scars of poisoned political narratives can be. Those living today in the shadow of the long wars – that are, supposedly, not even wars at all – will long live with the bloodthirsty demons of a narrative of violence. Dominant as these are in defining our current miseries, these are not our only narratives. Far from it.
We suffer from an abundance of narratives. Nor are we the only place in the world to have a surfeit of competing narratives. All politics, everywhere, is a competition of narratives, and political tension in any polity is defined by it competing narratives.
Not surprising, then, we are drowning in narratives. Actually, we are bleeding to death. Quite literally so. Our narratives – much as we ourselves – tend to not just compete, they compete violently.
All of this to say, Pakistan knows the power of political narratives. We understand the importance of the concept of narratives at a deep guttural level. What would be considered an obtuse theoretical concept in most societies stands smack in the mainstream of realpolitik in Pakistan. We may not speak in the vernacular of Fredric Jameson – literary critic, political theorist and author, amongst others, of the 1981 book, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act – when he calls for the need to “always historicize” narratives. But deep down we all understand that the stories we tell about politics, how we tell them, and to whom we tell them are not simply reflections of reality as we see it, but a construction of the reality that will emerge.
In that essential sense, we are – often unknowingly – children of Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937, Italian political theorist and author of The Prison Notebooks) who understood the centrality of what he called ‘common sense’. This mundane term takes on a deeper meaning for Gramsci and has been described by those who have studied his work as “the embedded, incoherent and spontaneous beliefs and assumptions characterizing the conformist thinking of the mass of people in a given social order” (from Constantin Behler).
For Gramsci, common sense is the view of the world that is ‘taken for granted’ as simply ‘the way things are’. It is the deep – but not unchanging – ideas that are grounded within the imagination of a society. It is not simply a question of how things actually are; it is a matter of how they are seen to be and how stories are told about them. Real societal change can come only when this ‘common sense’ changes; or is made to change. From a Gramscian point of view, the starting point of political theory as well as action “must always be that common sense which is the spontaneous philosophy of the multitude.”
Theoretically obfuscating as the previous paragraphs may sound, may I submit that most Pakistanis have an instinctive understanding of the conceptual constructs that Gramsci is grappling with. To be able to define and control a society’s understanding of what is ‘common sense’ – narrative, if you will – is to define and control society. The anger, angst and anguish that we see so abundantly in our discourse and debate – whether it be on TV talk shows, in private discussions, or on Twitter – is as intense as it is because it comes from the same realization that Gramsci is pointing us to. That our narrative – our ‘common sense’ – is often contested, is deeply contextual, is forever changing, and is always constructed. But it comes even more from the recognition that we have no narratives that we can all hold on to together, no ‘common sense’ that is common any more.
Why think of all of this today? Because of Malala Yousafzai.
My own case for why Malala and the cause of education, especially for girls, was deserving of a Nobel Peace Prize was already made in detail last week and this is not the time to repeat it. Nor is this the time to second-guess the Nobel Peace Prize Committee’s decision. The Nobel award is not a game of cricket. It is not a trophy to be ‘won’ or ‘lost.’
To the extent there was anything to win, Malala had already won well before the announcement by winning over the hearts of people all around the world in a way that no 16-year-old has ever done. The importance of her cause, her own commitment to it, and the overwhelming support for it will not change because of this decision. All of it may, in fact, have already have been enhanced.
In the run-up to the decision about the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize we learnt much about this courageous, charming and committed young girl. We learnt even more about ourselves as a society. The intense clash of narratives on Malala – what she stands for and what we stand for – once again brought to relief the sharp divisions in society. I would maintain that even if the noise level was high, the actual numbers of Malala-detractors were few. But the gulf between the competing narratives – the ‘common sense’ – on Malala was colossal. It is the magnitude of that distance, and not as much the actual number of people, that is disturbing.
It is very clear that those, like myself, who believe that Malala is our most inspiring beacon of hope and courage for education believe as strongly in their proposition as those who believe that she is a ‘puppet’ of international interests being manipulated, willingly or naively. It is also clear that each group is equally bewildered at the views of the other. It is too simplistic to brush this aside as a simple predisposition for conspiracy theories.
Nor can this be brushed aside by appeal to the usual suspects: divisions of ideology, religiosity, literacy, education, ethnicity, gender, etc. In an odd way, if this clash of narratives did map on to those more common fault lines it would have been perversely reassuring. It is not. It points, again, to the reality that we are a deeply divided society. Incapable of evolving a common national narrative even on something as uncomplicated as this.
That we are a divided society should not come as a surprise to anyone. That even on such a case as the shooting of Malala Yousafzai there were such a divergent set of views (even if from fairly few) of what was deemed ‘common sense’ should be at least a moment of reflection. There is no point in dissecting the arguments and giving rebuttals. Point-scoring is of little solace in a polity falling apart.
Yes, all societies have competing narratives. Yes, all politics, as one has already suggested, is about competing narratives. But nations become nations when despite all the competing narratives that form their politics, there is also a core, a kernel, of narratives that are beyond dispute. To not have that sense of what is common, is to not have ‘common sense’ at all; in all the meanings of that term, Antonio Gramsci and beyond.
I write this last paragraph literally minutes after hearing over the Internet the Nobel Peace Prize decision as formally announced in Oslo. I sit here shaking my head; biting my lips; and with a deep, deep pain in my guts. Not because of what the decision was in Olso. As I have already said, Malala has already won more than anyone could imagine. In a very real way she has already defeated the Taliban (which, I think, is why they are so very angry with her). It is not just that she has made Pakistan proud; she has already made humanity proud.
The pain in my guts comes from having lived this debate this last week. If the sanctity of innocent human life, if murderous attacks on little schoolgirls, if the centrality of education, if the desire for peace and tolerance, is not something that can bring us together, then what can?
(The writer has taught international relations and diplomacy at Boston University and at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and was the vice chancellor of LUMS)