Unity or uniformity?

Regardless of what Beaconhouse says, we must remember that we are richer because of our individual heritage

Muhammad Hamid Zaman October 17, 2016
The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of Biomedical Engineering, International Health and Medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

In times of crises, voices that show dissent from the main narrative are often inconvenient, and too frequently are labelled unpatriotic. The central narrative and the surrounding chorus that calls for unity, actually cares more about uniformity than unity. A bigger problem emerges when this call for uniformity is raised by academic institutions that, instead of embracing diversity and richness of perspectives, cultures and traditions, tries to impose a world view that is at best naïve, and at worst, dangerous for development, understanding and tolerance in a society.

The recent memorandum by Beaconhouse National University where it suggested that Punjabi somehow was a foul language, and connected it to abusive and inappropriate behaviour shows both the myopia and the disconnect with reality. It ignores the lessons of history in understanding the outcomes of what happens when any group or institution tries to marginalise a culture or identity in the name of purity or any kind of superiority. If anything, it shows a moral hollowness and a dangerous level of myopia.

Dr Bangash on these op-ed papers a couple of days ago made a strong and clear argument about the irony, insecurity and disdain towards our own identity. My issue here is not just about Punjabi but about the mindset against any culture or tradition. The underlying incentive in creating an impression that somehow a language is uncouth, primitive or inappropriate is shocking. Be it Urdu, Punjabi, Pashto, Balochi, Sindhi or a language spoken by only a small tribe, there is nothing fundamentally superior about English or Urdu and nothing problematic with any of the rich cultural traditions of our society. A national language, spoken by most, does not automatically mean that all other languages are inferior or worst, abusive. At a time when the national cohesion is under assault by forces of intolerance, this attitude by an academic institution with a national reach is inappropriate and dangerous.

Beaconhouse is not the first, or the only institution, to go down this dangerously dark path. At the end of this path, there is nothing good that comes out except fracture of trust, disdain towards others and deeply rooted grievances that lead to disaster. The examples of this kind of top-down effort to marginalise a culture or a language are plenty, and unfortunately, none of them are positive. Whether it was the Norwegian government that wanted the Sami children to speak only in a more civilised language, or the Colonial mindset that suggested that African languages were symbols of barbarism, history has never been kind to any such effort. Not too long ago, and not too far from home, there was another movement that forced the Bengali population to question their rich language and heritage. I wonder what does Beaconhouse think how that went?

Abuse or indecency has no place in schools or in workplace, and I also understand the need to create a culture where everyone is comfortable and is able to understand one another, communicate with ease and engage in rich conversations. But connecting any language with abuse or “banning” it is absurd and highly inappropriate for an institution of learning. If anything, it questions the very foundations of the institution of knowledge, that should celebrate diversity of not just ideas and opinions, but also diversity of backgrounds and heritage.

An educational institution needs to play a fundamental role in shaping the future by creating an environment where identity is respected, ideas are shared and diversity is embraced. Any institution that marginalises identity, tries to create clones in a certain rigid mould and tries to connect heritage with cultural inferiority is doing a disservice not only to the current students, but also to future of the society.

Regardless of what Beaconhouse says, we must remember that we are richer because of our individual heritage, and our languages and culture make the collective tapestry of our society so much more beautiful.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 18th, 2016.

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