Zeros and ones

Zeros and ones


Muhammad Hamid Zaman June 08, 2021

In the late 1980s I grew up in an environment of binaries, I was told and taught that people were either all good, or all bad. Family, friends, teachers and people in our network believed essentially the same thing. There were good, god-fearing, patriotic politicians and coincidentally these were the ones in power at that time. And then there were ungodly, nationalist, traitor politicians — these were on foreign payroll, bent on breaking up the country and generally bad human beings. As a young boy, I never learned (and did not bother to ask) how in this binary world folks knew who was a zero (bad) and who was a one (good). I never met any zeros — I was just told that they are bad people and associating with bad people was bad.

It was much later in life that I figured out that this was all wrong. The good ones were not necessarily pious or patriotic, and the bad ones were not uniformly unpatriotic. It was even later that I figured out that people in my network had not come to any conclusion based on facts either — they were just repeating the ideological lines fed to them through those in power. There were good and bad on all sides, and some good people had bad ideas and some people we disagreed with were actually quite decent human beings.

Perhaps not much has changed in nearly thirty something years. Not only do we still use broad labels, we are also quite eager to paint with broad brush strokes. A TV show, a newspaper, a tweet about politicians — all come in two colours, a black or a white. Our intelligentsia is also all too eager to follow along. About a week ago, a prominent Pakistani intellectual, while lamenting the situation in the Middle East through his opinion piece in a leading newspaper, made some bizarre comments about why Arab (or Pakistani) boys are incapable of thinking about grand ideas and achievements in science, art, business or literature, and today all they care about are only holy wars or TV dramas. I have had the privilege of teaching students from all parts of the world, and students of all ethnicities and backgrounds, and I can tell you that this generalisation is both nonsense and woefully dangerous. There are smart, creative and thoughtful Arab boys and girls in Arabic speaking countries and in non-Arabic speaking countries — just as there are many non-Arabs in Israel, in Pakistan, in India, in China, in south Sudan or anywhere else in the world. Thinking that somehow because of the policies of Arab leaders (none of whom I am a fan of), current Arab students (either in their countries or living elsewhere) are incapable of creativity, scholarship or serious thought is seriously flawed and racist thinking. Since the author spoke about Arab boys, I am curious how he arrived at the conclusion about an average Arab boy, which Arabic speaking country he was referring to, or whether all Arab boys are identical. I wonder how many Arab boys the author has mentored in the last five years, how many months he has spent in schools there and how many of them have told him that they want to become Salahuddin Ayyubi. I am genuinely interested in that data if that exists.

There is a lot of talk about critical thinking these days — but that talk cannot just be in an abstract sense about a proverbial curriculum. It has to be embraced not just in our schools but also by our intelligentsia and opinion makers — even those who profess to be championing rational thought. At the very core, critical thinking should stop us from painting in broad brush strokes. It should teach us to be comfortable with contradictions and nuance. It should force us to abandon a world where people were either ones or zeros.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 8th, 2021.

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