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Gladwell and Brandzel on the role of online activism in popular mobilization

Malcolm Gladwell, in an essay, Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted, in the New Yorker argued that the notion that Twitter or social media, in general, can bring about a revolution is a façade. Real, big change requires what Gladwell calls “high-risk activism.” This “high-risk activism” is highly unlikely to be motivated by networks forged on the Internet. The main reason, Gladwell argues, is that these networks are based on “weak ties.” Gladwell contends that weak-ties seldom lead to high-risk activism, however, they are good in one important way: “Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information.” Gladwell acknowledges that social networks surely increase participation but they do so at the cost of lessening motivation required by participation in high-risk activism. This type of “activism,” he argues, is a long way from the 1960’s lunch counter protests of Greensboro, North Carolina, which were initiated by four black freshmen at the local A. & T. college. Moreover, social media activism doesn’t involve financial, physical or other risks to the participants but “In fact, it’s the kind of commitment that will bring only social acknowledgment and praise.” Gladwell is right in claiming that offline activism carries higher risks in comparison to its online counterpart, but he overlooks the fact that many countries have criminalized dissent through arbitrary cybersecurity laws with grave repercussions for online activists. Gladwell’s assertion that online activism does not involve risk is contrary to the evidence on the ground.

Moreover, Gladwell argues that people are more likely to join high-risk activism when they have a connection to other participants. In a study, the Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam compared people who applied for the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project of 1964 and then followed through, with people who applied to the program but then decided not to participate. He concluded, “What mattered more was an applicant’s degree of personal connection to the civil rights movement.” Next Gladwell delineates the significance of hierarchies over networks in social mobilization. Networks are loose, uncommitted and disorganized structures, ineffective at executing plans required by resistance to established cultural and structural systems of authority. Hierarchies, on the other hand, are better organized, disciplined and effective in decision making and implementation of strategic plans. Gladwell contends that groups such as the Palestinian Liberation Organization, left-wing terrorists in Germany in the 1970s and Al-Qaeda (lately) proved to be less effective because they lacked strict hierarchies. Loose networks are easily infiltrated into and compromised by opponents. Conversely, the civil rights movement in the 1960s was more like a “military campaign than like a contagion” with a hierarchical structure. Martin Luther King Jr. was its “unquestioned authority” and the movement relied on various standing committees, disciplined groups and preexisting “movement centers”, which helped the sit-in movement spread from Greensboro throughout the South. This spread was not indiscriminate.

Ben Brandzel critiqued Gladwell’s argument in his essay, What Malcolm Gladwell Missed About Online Organizing and Creating Big Change, in The Nation. Brandzel claims that Gladwell’s criticism of online organizing and activism mistakes a “tool for a strategy.” The Internet is analogous to a fire hydrant, whose only promise is a significant and fast flow of information for learning and collaboration. This information supplements strategy required for the implementation of time-honored organizing tactics, and potentially big changes, rather than impede it. Brandzel argues that “weak-ties” forged through social media could have a constructive role in social movement mobilization: It “allow(s) people to communicate and collaborate with entire networks of close friends much faster than we’ve ever been able to before.” Most importantly, Brandzel acknowledges that social media can not replace the power of real friendship but it can enhance the motivational utility of pre-existing strong-tie relationships by enabling the flow and diffusion of information through these networks at critical moments of choice. Brandzel’s other criticism is that Gladwell overlooks the role press coverage played in spreading the news about the civil rights movement. He says it is “true enough” that students and activists of the 1960s did not have email and other tools at their disposal but they made use of every resource available to them, including the press. He maintains that they would have had their “best shot” if they could have supplemented the tools at their disposal with the modern-day “e-mail list and the event-planning toll that might mobilize millions in mere hours.” Brandzel, however, recognizes that while the Internet is great at facilitating action through information diffusion but it can not get people to do what they don’t want to do.

Gladwell is right that social movement mobilization is much more than online activism. His “strong-ties” and “weak-ties” analytical schemes are also useful to an extent in understanding mobilization. He is right that people are more likely to risk danger when they have a real connection with other people involved in the movement. However, Gladwell overlooks risks involved in online activism. Additionally, his dismissal of online organizing as an ineffective tool does not capture the complete picture of the organizing world. It is much more complex than his presentation, and Ben Brandzel delineates that complexity well in his argument. Brandzel’s critique of Gladwell’s argument has several virtues. First, Brandzel contends that rather than dismissing the use of online organizing as completely ineffective than real organizing, we should focus on its positive role and strategize better to take advantage of the online organizing tools. He emphasizes that it is wrong to suggest that “weak-tie” relationships can not foster mobilization. He gives examples of the crucial role of online organizing in the high school protests against budget cuts and the anti-Iraq War protests. Brandzel concludes that it is up to us to use the Internet’s information-sharing effectively. I believe both arguments have their strengths, but I support Branzel’s argument more because it identifies the potentialities and limitations of social media well. Gladwell overlooks the complexity of the picture. Finally, both Gladwell and Brandzel ignore the role of social media as a double-edged sword in social mobilization. While social media networks may boost mobilization, it has the potential to undermine real on the ground organizing, because activists mistake their presence on the Internet for the door to door mobilization.

Adults should be like children to make good theorists

Terry Eagleton (1990:34) in his book, The Significance of Theory, said,

Children make the best theorists, since they have not yet been educated into accepting our routine social practice as “natural” and so insist on posing to those practices the most embarrassingly general and fundamental questions, regarding them with a wondering estrangement which we adults have long forgotten.

Eagleton’s words remind me of my conversation a week ago with my niece, Ghashmira, over the phone in Pakistan. Ghashmira is 5-year old and is in first grade. Due to the current pandemic, schools are closed and Ghashmira and her older sister Farifta have been staying over at my mother’s. They like it there because they are not going to school and they can get anything they demand and do whatever they wish.

They have much freedom with their grandmother and aunt, my younger sister, in watching TV, staying up late and going to the store to buy ice-cream or candies. They hate the idea of going back to their mother, who requires much discipline from them. While we were speaking, I asked Ghashmira what was she doing these days. This was the first time in months that she showed some willingness to listen to me and entertain my questions. I felt lucky, as I love her and enjoy talking to her and her sisters.

In response to my question, she said she watched TV, played with the kids and ate the things she liked. I asked if she was reading anything interesting these days. She said, “I do my school work sometimes.” Why sometimes? Are not you supposed to do schoolwork most of the time and spare free time to play and watch TV? I asked. She said, “It is COVID. School is closed. I do not know when it will open.”

And then she said something interesting which I did not expect: “Mama (maternal uncle in Pashto), why do we have to study? Can’t we just become doctors or whatever we want to be without studying?” Her question was, in Eagleton’s words, “the most embarrassingly general and fundamental,” yet so logical that I had not heard in a long time. She put me on the spot. The best thing about it was that it was so natural and so original that it could not originate anywhere but in her curious and intelligent mind.

I combed through my mind to answer her question as to “why we study” but could not find a convincing answer. It was a shame that a Ph.D. candidate was unable to answer the question of his first-grader niece. I had, of course, thoughts on the question but I was not sure if they were logical enough. The difficulty in answering such question is that it is very subjective. There is no objectivity to why we study or go to school. Different people have different motivations.

Ghashmira was also, perhaps, thinking as to what would happen if she chose to not go to school. And if there were a way to rid of the brutal early morning wake ups and boring homework every day. She is of course too young to understand the difference between the subjective and objective nature of knowledge and the intricacies of social and economic structures in which we live and which impose a certain worldview on us. However, I did tell her that it is good to study because it makes people more aware, kind and successful.

There is also a caveat here which she is, again, too little to understand: Not all education is good education. Good education itself is subjective and so is success. However, one thing that is clear almost anywhere in the world is that one can’t become a doctor or an engineer without formal education and professional training. That is just the way of the world. I don’t know if I convinced her with my vague statements, since children appreciate easy and straightforward answers.

But what the conversation did was that it reminded me of my assumptions about education. It questioned my view that education is the most essential thing in a person’s life. But Ghashmira made me second-guess my assumption and helped me wonder that it may not be that essential. Or at least not all education is essential. I know enough has been written on this subject. The most celebrated work is Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire was a Brazilian educator and philosopher who advocated critical pedagogy, by which he meant that teachers should not treat students as empty vessels to be filled with knowledge, but should instead treat them as the co-creators of knowledge.

I have questioned the nature of education and the way and the environment in which it is delivered, especially since college. But it also happens that we forget to doubt and assume the familiar to be essentially good. What theory, as Alan Sears says in his book, A Good Book, In Theory, does is that it makes the familiar unfamiliar. This estrangement with the familiar amplifies our ability to ascertain a phenomenon for, as Einstein said, “what it is, but not what it should be.”

The Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky, in an essay, Art as Device, in 1917, had used the term “defamiliarization” to describe a similar idea. For Shklovsky and other formalists, “defamiliarization” is a technique of presenting to audiences the most common and familiar in a strange and an unfamiliar way to enhance the perception of the familiar.

There is no doubt that our worldview is shaped profoundly by the society in which we live. Our frames and identities are molded by our teachers, friends and peers and family. We may not be conscious of these societal influences but they form how we view the world and our place in it. Children see the world in the light of their experiences which are mostly natural and free of societal prejudices. As Eagleton states in the beginning of this post, adults need to be like children to be able to make good theorists.

Quetta mob lynching: how we can heal as a city and community together

I read friend’s posts and sat and reflected on the lynching of 3 Pashtun boys by a mob in the Hazara Town area in Quetta. I know it is a very difficult time for the family of the murdered boy, Bilal Noorzai, his badly wounded friends, the city and all of us. This should never have happened, whatsoever.

Many Pashtuns are angry and are blaming the entire Hazara community for the lynching. Anger in this moment of grief is understandable but vilifying an entire community for the violent action of a mob is not right and wise. Incidents such as this are perfect recipes for communal violence if sanity does not prevail over anger at the tragic incident.

Quetta city, specifically the Hazara community, has seen and born out so much violence in the past couple of decades. Many young men have grown amid the culture of death and violence. This mob lynching might very well be an expression of the pent-up frustrations and anger of Hazara youth and a way to make themselves visible. It is also a structural failure of the state, whose responsibility is to ensure the protection of all citizens.

This is high time the elders of both communities came together to show solidarity with the families of the victims. Specifically, the elders of the Hazara community must assist law enforcement in bringing the culprits to the book. Pashtuns must remain alert to the machinations of the Sunni sectarian outfits who will use this incident as an opportunity to fan religious and ethnic hatred and to promote their war against Hazara Shias.

Violence will breed more violence. Violence in incidents such as this is not the sanest answer. We saw this in Kosovo and in many other places. Quetta and its different communities deserve a chance for peace. This city needs to heal from blatant terrorist violence it has endured for so long. This city and its people need to come together to recover from their collective trauma of picking and burying their dead.

We need to revive the good, old memory of love and peace this city once had. While we grieve this sad loss, we should not forget to empathize with the Hazara community which has itself suffered the most gruesome violence in the recent past. We should use this painful experience as an opportunity to try to understand their pain and come and heal together. In the end, power lies in the unity of the people, not in the violence of a crazy and mindless mob.

Lahore, books and depression

It was a hot July 2008 afternoon in an air-conditioned office in Lahore, Pakistan. The colonel sahib said, “Son if this room is full of delicious food, would you eat all?” Staring at him blankly and then at the wide desk between us, I did not know what to tell him.

I was a sophomore in Government College University (GCU), Lahore. Founded in 1864 in the British time, GCU is one of the oldest institutions in the country. Its alumni include Noble laureates, prominent philosophers, government dignitaries and Rhodes and Fulbright Scholars. 

Coming here from a small, remote village in Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest and mineral-rich province along the western borders with Iran and Afghanistan, was a long-awaited dream. My dream had come true: however, it was on the verge on being shattered. I had gone into depression because of the new and challenging environment of the metropolis. I feared to leave GCU for good, ruining my once-in-a-lifetime chance of getting higher education.  

At the time, there were six universities for twelve million people in Balochistan, i.e. out of close to a hundred in Pakistan. Four universities were newly established. The oldest two were the University of Balochistan founded in 1970 and the Balochistan University of Engineering and Technology in Khuzdar in 1987.

The former, located in the provincial capital, Quetta, was often in a state of chaos. It was home to contentious, and at times violent, ethnic politics by students from two dominant ethnic groups—the Baloch and Pashtuns—in the province for space and political clout. The university in Khuzdar was not much different in this respect. The news was that it was the Pakistani military establishment’s policy of divide and conquer.

The situation in educational institutions and in the province worsened further after the killing of the veteran Baloch nationalist leader Akbar Bugti in August 2006 by the Pakistani Army. Bugti’s killing marked the culmination of the almost six-decade-long conflict between Islamabad and the Baloch people for control over resources in the province. The ensuing spiraling of conflict and instability and lack of learning opportunities in the province forced young men like me in droves to safer and better cities for higher education.

I went to Lahore in 2007, however, the fear of violence chased me there, as Pakistan came in the grip of great terrorist violence in 2007. Universities and other educational institutions in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the northwest of the country came under attack by the Taliban as they considered university education a symbol of modernity and infidelity. At one point, universities in Pakistan turned almost into military cantonments. Heavily guarded, entering them felt like crossing the Wagah Border into India. Sadly, this remains unchanged, as the influx of students from underprivileged areas into bigger cities has burgeoned.

The thought of returning home scared me because I did not want to disappoint my family, which was supporting me, and my widowed mother who had just begun seeing the fruit of her hard labor taking shape. I was the first in my family to get into a prestigious university by the standards of the time and our resources. Going to Lahore was the dream of many.

What scared me the most were the much-anticipated taunts of friends and relatives if I had returned home. Instead of giving in to depression and leaving Lahore, I took on the fight, and in the process, my sadness got to an unmanageable scale. The worst thing was that for some time I could not talk about my depression to friends and family because of shame.

Men are supposed to be strong, we were told. In a male-chauvinistic culture, mental healthcare ranged from primitive to non-existent, as if we are made of steel, as the expression in Pashto goes. Contrary to cultural beliefs, the reality is that close to 50 million Pakistanis suffer from common mental disorders. Mental illness affects 15 to 35 million adults, which makes about 10 to 20 percent of the total population. To treat them, Pakistan has only 400 trained psychiatrists.          

In Lahore, it began to dawn on me for the first time what I had lost in fifteen years in my hometown. I had received a formal education, but it had not prepared me for the challenges of university-level education. I learned most of the things in elementary and high school by rote. I had no idea of critical thinking and reading because I never had the chance to read books other than memorizing aged textbooks. At GCU, the discussions of classmates about Harry Potter and other books they had read disheartened me.

I am now beginning to understand the advantage of cultural capital many of my classmates had over me and my friends from Balochistan and other remote areas of the country. English was second nature to girls and boys from the elite and middle class of Lahore. Some of these students were talented writers who I admired highly. Reading their writings gave me the inspiration to become a writer.

My time in high school was very different. The walk from home to school and back was two-hours long. It was excruciating in the summer heat. My most significant success was to save myself from fainting during this endless going back and forth for five years. What comforted me, however, was the comparison to students from the far-flung corners of the area, who used to walk for one-fifth of the day over and down the mountains to get to school and back home. I was lucky if I had some leftover pieces of bread from the previous night to take with me to school.  

For years, I borrowed school books from other students or relatives in other towns because, sometimes, free textbooks from the government did not reach us due to fraud and embezzlement. In both elementary and high school, instead of extracurricular activities, I performed the teachers’ chores. Bringing them tea from their home or my home, occasionally, pressing their feet and head during class and cutting grass for their cattle were just some of the things many students used to do. 

There were 65 students in my class when I was in 6th grade. When I reached 10th grade, the number of students had come down to 12 or 13. Some had begun to work full time on their family farm. Others had started to train as truck drivers with their father or uncle. Some had become mechanics. There was no time to waste in school. For these folks, time was only God’s to waste. Due to extreme poverty, student dropouts were significant. Getting a college and higher university level education was the dream of many but the privilege of lucky few.

Life was difficult at home, too. I was two years old when my father died in a truck accident in the Punjab province in Pakistan’s east. My mother raised six children under harsh socio-economic conditions. From childhood, my brothers and I herded our joint family’s sheep in the foothills of tall, neighboring mountains. We used to climb the mountains for wood foraging and had our donkey or our backs for bringing the wood down home for cooking and heating purposes. Water was scarce too. We had to go long distances for fetching water in buckets and handcarts for drinking and bathing uses. Many times we walked barefoot to school because my mother could not afford to buy us a pair of slippers.

There was no library in my school or town. I had read about it in school books but had not seen one until I was eighteen years old. Although there is a lack of fresh data, according to a survey done in 1990, Pakistan had 1,430 libraries, including academic ones for slightly over a hundred million people. In other words, there was one library per approximately 74,000 inhabitants. These libraries had a total collection of 15 million books. However, the number of libraries and book collections may have increased by now, but my childhood schools still remain without one.

In contrast, in 2006 the United States had almost 32,000 libraries, which means one library per 10,000 inhabitants. Nearly twenty-eight years ago, Israel had 3,420 libraries for a population of five million. Tanzania, one of the world’s poorest countries, had 3,200 libraries in 2006 for its forty million people.  

The people of Pakistan are among the poorest in the world. With approximately 200 million people, the country ranks 147th out of 188 countries in the Human Development Index. Pakistan has a desperate education crisis. As of 2015, the nation spends only 2.6 percent of its GDP on education. This figure is the lowest in South Asia.

In contrast, the largest share of its national expenditures goes to defense. According to a May 2017 report, Pakistan’s defense budget for the 2017-18 financial year was Rs920.2 billion (USD$8.65 billion). It was seven percent higher than in the 2016-17 fiscal year, which was Rs841 billion (USD$7.9 billion). The United States has added to this by providing over USD$17 billion in military assistance compare to USD$13.5 billion in economic assistance since 1982. Some analysts argue this weight behind military rulers by the U.S. has derailed democracy and hindered development in Pakistan.    

At GCU, the size of libraries and the number of books excited and inundated me simultaneously. One library was bigger than Quetta International Airport in my city. To make up for the loss, I wanted to read everything during my four-year stay in Lahore. I desired to devour some sections of the three libraries on campus. I spent most of my time in these libraries. I missed lunch for want of time and money.

I read newspapers and magazines which I had never heard of before. I spent my late nights in the library of the University of Animal Sciences within walking distance from my university. On weekends, I used to go to old bookstores and bazaars on the famous Mall Road to buy books. These wanderings changed my life, as I came to know about more books and my interest and began to read voracously.

A lot has faded from my memory from my time in Lahore but a few things besides depression remain ever fresh. One is the feeling of flipping through the pages of the old books and the aroma of antiquity in them that touched the soul deeply. I also vividly remember meeting and making friends with poets and writers during these wanderings. I was young and did not have quite a handle on argumentation with stranger intellectuals, but I loved being in their company. To many of my classmates, I was a nerd with heavy frame glasses, carrying a stack of books and wandering from store to store and library to library. Back home some family friends teasingly called me “professor.”

Lahore was a world of discoveries of all kinds for me. It was for the first time that I sat with girls in the same classroom where I learned how to talk to them. I had no idea, not that it was important for me to know at the time but just out of curiosity, about menses until I saw blood on the white trousers of a girl in my class one day. I asked around and read about it and found out what it was. Such was our science education about sex and human anatomy in middle and high school.

The students from the beautiful Gilgit valley in the north of Pakistan in the dorm introduced me to “selajit or salajit,” a homemade edible that they said was used for elongating ejaculation. Most probably, they used it during their rare encounters with prostitutes, as students had only so much means to afford sex frequently. Some had girlfriends but they had a hard time finding a safe place for sex or even privacy. One had to have a network of local friends to rent a room in a hotel and be safe from the police. Pre-marital sex was taboo and illegal.

In Lahore, I discovered that nothing would happen to me if I didn’t perform religious rituals, such as fasting or praying, that I had done for years as a habit without understanding their meaning. I would still be a human if I didn’t follow Islam and had questions about God. I discovered that I could overcome my fear of God’s punishment which had been taught in school and in the mosque and which had controlled my mind for so long. I had found myself and the freedom of my mind.

Despite the burgeoning depression, I got excellent grades in the first semester and made a positive impression on professors. However, in the second half of the first year, my health deteriorated. I almost failed a class. My grief and fear over not doing enough left me miserable. I needed help. That was what brought me to the colonel’s office in the military’s Defense Headquarters. He was a family friend and a gentleman. Many students from the farthest areas of Pakistan like myself had such family friends and acquaintances. We brought them gifts for the network and help in the new city.    

The bus ride there in scorching July heat was paralyzing. During our meeting, I was shy, lost and hopeless. He said, “You can not read everything that is out in the world. Do not tax yourself, son.” It was later that day in the dorm that I learned about the meaning of the word “tax” as a verb. 

His life compared to my misery made me feel even worse. I thought about his kids and their lives and the opportunities available to them which I did not have: however, his advice soothed me. With hope, I left his office for the bus stop in the sweltering afternoon sun. By the time I reached there, I had lost it all. Waiting there, I felt depressed, lonely and directionless.

Years went by. I suffered but recovered with time, therapy and family’s support. While I was going through depression, I was also gradually becoming aware that things were getting better. The company of good friends, the maturity of age and my achievements helped me gain sight of the favorable prospects of life. Later on, I won three scholarship awards including Fulbright for my MA at the University of San Diego.

I attended a one-semester non-degree academic program as an exchange student in the University of Nebraska—Kearney in 2011. In 2013, I joined the University of San Diego for a master’s degree in Peace and Justice Studies. My experience of academe in the U.S. fundamentally changed my life, thanks to the U.S. government and the American people.   

I might be out of that phase of despair, but there are millions trapped others who like me have big dreams and ambitions but don’t have the means for their realization. As of today, the picture in Pakistan seems rather gloomier. Pakistan may be a nuclear power but half of its population—a hundred million people— almost the size of the population of California, Texas, Florida and North Carolina combined, are uneducated.

Corruption and elitism in government, military authoritarianism, education crisis, conflict and disproportionate defense spending have made life miserable for the country’s poor. Reports on poverty in Pakistan show that as much as 40 percent of the population—roughly the size of the population of Germany—live beneath the poverty line.

Grinding poverty fuels child labor, illiteracy, religious extremism, deteriorating health care and endless conflicts. As a result, hundreds of thousands of children are out of school. The expected years of schooling are 8.1, which are among the lowest in the world. The good news is that poverty in Pakistan has decreased by 15 percent in the past decade, however, given the overall grim lows, this figure is less than encouraging.

A nation prospers by educating its youth. It flourishes by taking along those who have been left behind for decades. This requires giving employment opportunities, establishing universities and libraries in the entire country and prioritizing the underprivileged regions such as Balochistan, former Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Gilgit Baltistan. Without reading culture and quality education for all across the board, changing the fate of a country is impossible.

When I look back at my journey, I tell myself that I did not have to go through all this. If I had better opportunities in my hometown, I would not have moved to Lahore, at least not so precariously. If my early education had equipped me with the necessary knowledge and skills for higher education, it would have saved me a lot of pain. But of course, there is no way of changing what had passed. What one can, however, do is persevere and rise above their limitations.

To all the young men and women who have been or are in my shoes, I have a simple, one-word message: Persevere. It will not be easy but if you dare to continue rising above the limits of your perception and the perceptions of society about you, things will change. It will be a slow process, but change will come. While you persevere, read. My life has been touched by stories and words in ways that would not be possible if I had not read. Lastly, if you are sad, tell your good friend or family member. You deserve better.

Hannah Arendt: her life, politics and philosophy

Hannah Arendt (image credit)

I was introduced to Hanna Arendt in two of my Ph.D. courses: One on Genocide and another on Strategic Nonviolent Conflict. Arendt’s ideas on violence and power influenced my thinking and instilled in me the desire to know more about her life and contributions to social sciences. In this short post, I talk about her early life, university days, experiences as a Jew in Germany and her intellectual interests. It is by no means an exhaustive look at one of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century, and I aim to write more on her specific contributions in separate posts.

Hannah Arendt was a German-American political theorist, famously known for her work on the theory of modernity, violence, human nature and power among other subjects. She wrote several books such as Crises of the Republic, The Origins of Totalitarianism, The Human Condition and Eichmann in Jerusalem among others. The Eichmann in Jerusalem became controversial among Jews because they believed that Arendt had accused the Jewish people of failing to resist persecution and that her tone in some passages of the book was ironic and offensive. Apparently, Arendt had laughed at Eichmann’s foolishness while reading the 3600 pages transcript of police hearing about the man.

To the first criticism, Arendt responded that nowhere in the book she accused the Jews of such a failing, and dismissed it as “a malignant lie and propaganda.” She claimed that it was someone else who did it: Mr. Haussner of the Israeli public prosecutor’s office. To the latter criticism, Arendt’s response was that although she can understand to some extent that people took it amiss, their expectations that one can write about such things in a “tone filled with pathos” are not realistic. She said, “I know one thing: I would probably still laugh three minutes before certain death.” The criticism of the tone was an objection against her personally, and she couldn’t help that, she said.

Arendt was born on October 14, 1906, in Linden-Limmer, Germany. From an early age, she found herself interested in the works of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. At age fourteen, she knew she wanted to study philosophy and was trained in philosophy, theology and Greek in four different German universities until her Ph.D. Arendt was very fond of Greek and German poetry. She claimed later in her life that she still remembered many poems in German. Those poems somehow remained in the back of her head, she said.

German language, which was her mother tongue, was the one thing she kept from her past in Germany and Europe, as with time she grew distant from German politics and the people. Arendt claimed that Karl Theodor Jaspers, the German-Swiss psychiatrist and philosopher, who was her Ph.D. advisor, had a formative influence on her ideas and philosophy of life. Jasper’s role was one of a guardian and a mentor in educating Arendt. His mentorship was all the more important to Arendt especially since she had lost her father at a young age. She did not talk about her identity, grades or ambitions at home because her family did not entertain such conversations.

As a child, Arendt experienced anti-semitism in the early decades of the twentieth century, but she knew how to guard herself against such experiences. At home, they did not talk about their identity as Jews up until the early 1930s when the rise of the Nazis began to change the political milieu rapidly, culminating in Adolf Hitler’s rise to power as the German Chancellor in 1934. For Arendt, even that was not shocking, as she knew that the Nazis had begun to appear in German politics four years before Hitler’s rise to power.

The shocking experience for Arendt was when friends began to behave like enemies. She said it is not surprising when your enemies come after you because it is natural to have enemies, but it is when your friends leave you in difficult times. Many German intellectuals admired the Nazis, at least for some time. Some fell in their own trap, she recalled. Their ideas, she argued, led them to take the pro-Nazi positions. That is also why she felt more estranged from intellectuals for a while, at least.

Arendt left Germany in 1933 and crossed illegally into France where she lived for a while, working for a Jewish organization. After WWII, she went to the United States where she taught as a professor at several universities, including the University of Chicago form 1963 to 1967. Some refer to her as a philosopher and a political theorist. It is true that she was interested in philosophy in the beginning and made contributions to the field but later in her career, she did not define herself as a philosopher. She disavowed that label and believed she was a political theorist. For her, the distinction between philosophy and politics was rather clear:

There is a tension between politics and philosophy i.e. between the man as a thinking being and the man as an acting being. This tension exists in the nature of the subject. There is a tension that does not exist in natural philosophy. Just like everyone else, (a) philosopher can be objective with regard to nature. When he says what he thinks, he speaks for all mankind. But he can’t be neutral with regard to politics. Not since Plato, I understand. There is a kind of enmity against politics in most philosophers, with few exceptions such as Kant. I want to look at politics with an eye unclouded by philosophy.

This quote makes the difference between a political theorist and a philosopher clear. However, one wonders how would a political philosopher respond to such difference, as the very title is a combination of politics and philosophy. Are politics and philosophy, in Arendt’s understanding, like oil and water that don’t mix, and therefore have distinct functions in understanding the human condition or are there questions that require the use of both politics and philosophy for answers. Arendt may be right if a political philosopher can be objective with human behavior regardless of time and space, but can he or she be?

What if one political philosopher supports a liberal political order and another espouses a regressive political system? With these positions, they would not just be thinking beings but acting political beings with specific goals and agendas in the world. Politics, to add to Arendt’s meaning of the term, in its broadest sense is focused on the study of human behavior with specific regard to relations of power between human beings. Philosophy, as Plato used to say, is wonderment. The French philosopher Gabriel Marcel said,

Reflections on a philosophical problem put myself and the world in a light that would otherwise escape me. Through philosophical reflection, I understand why I am in this world and how must be in the world.

There might be some overlap, even insignificant, just like in the oil and water analogy, between the search for an ideal self and world through wonderment and the search and desire for the same ideal, special man and world through the empirical science of politics. I am not sure about the answer but this is a question I would like to explore further in my research. The point I should get back to is that although Arendt had studied and contributed to philosophy, she identified herself as a political theorist.

Moreover, Arendt is known, among other significant contributions, for her coinage of the phrase “the banality of evil.” She used this in reference to Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi official, who was tried in an Israeli court for his crimes against the German Jews during the Holocaust, also known as the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” Eichmann denied any responsibility for his actions, as he claimed he had no power over his will because he was following the orders of his superiors and had no motives for killing, but the irony is that he was part of the machinery of death and one of the major organizers of the Holocaust. In her final speech of the trial of Eichmann that she gave before a group of students, Arendt said,

This typical Nazi plea makes it clear that the greatest evil in the world is the evil committed by nobodies, evil committed by men without motive, without convictions, without wicked hearts or demonic wills, by human beings who refuse to be persons. And it is this phenomenon that I have called the “banality of evil”.

In the same speech, Arendt, in response to a student’s question about her use of the term “crimes against humanity” instead of crimes against the Jewish people, says that because the Jews are humans and a crime against them is a crime against humanity. She says that she was not defending Eichmann but she tried to reconcile his “shocking mediocrity” with his “staggering deeds. She maintains that trying to understand is not the same as forgiving. She says,

I see it as my responsibility to understand, it is the responsibility of anyone who dares to put pen to paper on the subject. Since Socrates and Plato, we usually call thinking: “to be engaged in that silent dialogue between me and myself.” In refusing to be a person, Eichmann utterly surrendered that single most defining human quality: that of being able to think. And consequently, he was no longer capable of making moral judgments. This inability to think creates the possibility for many ordinary men to commit evil deeds on a gigantic scale, the like of which one had never seen before.

She concludes the speech with these lines,

The manifestation of the wind of thought is not knowledge, but the ability to tell right or wrong, beautiful from ugly. And I hope that thinking gives people the strength to prevent catastrophes in these rare moments, when the chips are down.

Hannah Arendt died on December 4, 1975, in Upper West Side, New York, but her legacy will continue to enlighten the world for times to come.



The French philosopher Gabriel Marcel in his book Homo Viator said, “… hope is for the soul what breathing is for the living organism.” But, we all know it is not always easy to hope. Some moments in life refuse to submit to the idea that things will get better if one perseveres just a little more.

But how does one persevere when they don’t have the will anymore? How does one hope when they have been let down for years? How does one hope when their work, that they put soul and heart into day and night, is not valued and rewarded? How does one hope when those responsible for their livelihood refuse to give it to them?

How does one hope when they have not seen their dear ones for many years and won’t for many more? How does one hope when their heart and soul were destroyed by something they can only talk about to their therapist? How does one hope when they have to fight trauma every day, even in sleep?

In such moments, even if one dares hope for themselves, one also desires to despair because as Thomas Van in Gabriel Marcel: An Introduction said, “To hope also contains the temptation to despair.” “To despair,” Van said, “means to lay one’s head down, to capitulate and to resign oneself to a certain fate.”

He says what is worse than resignation to a certain fate is the renunciation of being oneself and the anticipation of one’s annihilation. Resignation and annihilation become tempting because to hope, it seems to oneself, is to betray and dishonor one’s despair. The feeling of pure despair in a strange way becomes more desirable than hope.

Taking refuge in despair becomes more alluring because hope betrays and despair does not. Despair is unmistakably upright in that it exists to destroy oneself. It is also the case sometimes that the distinction between the two becomes meaningless when the outcome of one’s life’s labor is constant anguish and fear for survival, mentally and emotionally.

Perhaps, it is also true that to resign to despair is easier than to submit to hope because maintaining the latter requires hard mental and intellectual labor, especially after being perennially beaten down by life’s circumstances that one hoped would turn out to be pleasant.

Oftentimes, one feels like a rope in the permanent tug of war between hope and despair, with seemingly little to no control over who beats down whom. But usually, it also seems as if the mind has a way to keep a balance between the two because, perhaps, it is in this equilibrium where life is found.

In human culture, it is hope in which people seek refuge when insurmountable adversity and uncertainty strike. All, one is told, that they need to do is to hope for the better and everything will be fine. But in reality, it is hard to believe that, because, sometimes, hope does not mean anything. Instead, it is easier to find safety in despair, albeit momentarily.

Erling Kagge on silence

Erling Kagge, Photo: Lars Petter Pettersen

The Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge published his new book in 2017, Silence: In the Age of Noise, in which he explores the meaning of silence from psychological, philosophical and everyday perspectives.

The theme of the book can’t be more relevant to our current collective human crisis and suffering in the time of Corona. If one were to write a novel about the silence aspect of our crisis, Silence in the Time of Corona, after the Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez’s much celebrated novel Love in the Time of Cholera, would make for a great title.

I read Kagge’s book a year ago and benefited greatly from it. Sometimes, I wonder books, such as Silence: In the Age of Noise, appear on shelves in the Western book stores because of the busy nature of life here and people’s need for a break.

I certainly can’t speak for Norway, but in America, where I currently live, life is difficult for many. Gross socio-economic inequalities force many to take multiple minimum-wage jobs, helping them barely make ends meet.

And then there is the increasing needs and desires, thanks to capitalism. The Internet and smartphone have further taken people away from themselves. Thus everybody is always busy and seldom pauses to reflect on his or her life. Kagge’s book is a perfect reminder for this always-busy lot.

I wonder there may not be many readers interested in the book in my home country Pakistan where life was much more modest and people more laidback. I left Pakistan seven years ago and have not returned ever since, so sometimes I am under the illusion that things must be the way I left them one sunny afternoon years back.

Then there are times when I feel with the age of the Internet, things have changed rapidly in most of the world in the last decade, especially. Time, if there is such a thing, does not wait for anyone. Human behaviors and attitudes change with material changes and with the change in time.

Technology is one example. It has connected the world in unprecedented ways but it has also separated us in ways we never imagined. I believe with all the change occurring globally, the lives of people in most parts of the world are becoming more and more uniformed.

Perhaps life is not the same in the village where I grew up or in the city where my family lives now. Friends and relatives don’t visit each other as they used to because “everyone is busy,” as my siblings tell me over the phone. Young men and women watch shows on Netflix that was unimaginable years ago when I was there.

I wonder then that may be as our lives are becoming similar and our needs and desires uniformed in many ways, Silence: In the Age of Noise might resonate with everyone around the world. Or maybe, I am mistaken.

Maybe the reality is that we need time with ourselves regardless of our culture, place of living or religious belief. Perhaps, silence is an innate human need felt and experienced by all human beings.

The difference might be that people in collectivistic societies may be more engaged with their family, friends and people in general than in the more individualistic Western world where loneliness and isolation drive people to ponder over life and write such books and for people to feel the need to read.

Or it might simply depend on the nature of the individual regardless of who and where they are. For instance, it is in my nature to feel deeply about the inner world and reflect on it to connect better with the outwards. I am sure all humans feel it, but some like to explore more. I am of the latter category.

Anyways, I thought sharing my reflections on Kagge’s book might be of some interest to you, as most of us are quarantining at the moment. Kagge wrote the book in response to three questions asked by students at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland where he was invited to deliver a lecture: What is silence? Where is it? Why is it more important now than ever? 

The students asked questions about silence because Kagge had chosen to speak to them about the subject. He says, “I wanted the students to be interested in the subject I held so close to my heart.”

Kagge is the first person to have completed the Three Poles Challenge on foot (the North Pole, the South Pole and the Summit of Mount Everest) and has published six books on exploration, philosophy and art.

Who else can speak better on the subject of silence than a man who spent fifty days walking solo across Antarctica?

In the book, the author answers the three questions in thirty-three ways, drawing on the ideas of poets, artists, philosophers and other great men of wisdom such as Plato, Aristotle, Seneca, Heidegger, Pascal, Fosse and others.

The book is an impressive and deep reflection on the silence that surrounds us and that lies within us, the outward and inward. Kagge emphasizes that silence is a luxury, a luxury that only expands as we add more to it. The expansive luxury of silence is the opposite of the luxury of buying a Louis Vuitton purse for example: The purse can go out of fashion and there will always be people buying better purses than yours.

Silence is free and can be found in our room and anywhere we go. Kagge says that we don’t need to go anywhere to find silence. It is around us and within us. We carry it with us all the time and everywhere. He stresses that silence is essential to sanity and happiness, and we must create it if we don’t feel it.

Towards the end of the book, he humbly acknowledges that it is not possible to fully explain silence in words. Pascal, Fosse or Kagge. None can do it.

“The most important thing, however,” he says, “is not what I believe, but that we each discover our own way.” “Sva marga: follow your own path,” he says. Kagge also reminds us that silence is easier to find than most people think or believe. He concludes that “It feels good to wonder on your own. (And) fortunately, there is no magic spell.”

I have selected twenty-two quotes from the book below, which I found very thoughtful and hopefully worthy of your time. I am certainly unable to do justice to the content of the book in this short post, but I have chosen the most important parts for you. I hope you can enjoy it and benefit from it. And if you feel exploring an idea further, I would encourage you to get a copy of the book. 

Silence is more of an idea. A notion. The silence around us may contain a lot, but the most interesting kind of silence is the one that lies within. A silence which each of us must create. I no longer try to create absolute silence around me. The Silence that I am after is the silence within.

Wonder is the very engine of life.

Silence in itself is rich. It is exclusive and luxurious. A key to unlock new ways of thinking. I don’t regard it as a renunciation or something spiritual, but rather as a practical resource for living a richer life.

Silence can be boring. Everyone has experienced the ways in which silence can come across as exclusive, uncomfortable and at times even scary. At other times it is a sign of loneliness. Or sorrow. The silence that follows is heavy.

Shutting out the world is not about turning your back on your surroundings, but rather the opposite: it is seeing the world a bit more clearly, staying a course and trying to love your life.

Kagge quotes the philosopher and boredom theorist Blaise Pascal: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Pascal wrote that “The present hurts. And our response is to look ceaselessly for fresh purposes that draw our attention outwards, away from ourselves.”

Pascal believed that our “constant flight from ourselves is a reality so brutal that we try to avoid thinking about it. We would rather think and feel anything else.”

Yes, we fear death to varying degrees, but the fear of not having lived is even stronger. That fear increases towards the end of life, when you understand that it will soon be too late.

The unfortunate thing is to have wasted such a large portion of the chance you had to live a richer life. That you avoided exploring your potential. Allowed yourself to be distracted. Never stopped, but were distracted by noise, expectations and images, instead of dwelling on what you were doing at this moment and what you might do differently. I don’t mean to say that any of this is easy, but it maybe worthwhile.

We exist, but few of us actually live, argued Seneca two thousand years ago. “Life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future. When they come to the end of it, the poor wretches realize too late that for all this time they have been preoccupied in doing nothing.”

We do have enough time. Life is long, if we listen to ourselves often enough.

If I were President, I would use my inaugural speech to challenge everyone to be thankful every time the sun rises and to show gratitude for all that it does for us.

The idea that boredom can be avoided by constantly pursuing something new, being available around the clock, sending messages and clicking further, watching something you haven’t yet seen, is naive.

Silence is a luxury for every living creature… The silence I have in mind may be found wherever you are if you pay attention; inside your mind, and is without cost. You don’t have to go to Sri Lanka: you can experience it in your bathtub.

“Everyone is the other, no one is themselves,” wrote Martin Heidegger.

Sure, we are part of the same continent, but the potential wealth of being an island for yourself is something you carry around with you all the time.

For thousands of years, individuals who lived in close quarters with no one but themselves around—monks on mountaintops, hermits, sailors, shepherds and explorers on their voyage home—have been convinced that the answer to life’s mysteries can be found in silence. That is the point. You sail out across the sea, but it’s when you make your return that you may discover what you have been seeking is in fact inside yourself.

The ancient philosophers Aristotle and Plato spoke of the knowledge of eternity, and with it truth, as Wordless. Plato called it arrheton, “the unspeakable,” and Aristotle aneu logou, which means “without speech” or “without words.” Where vocabulary ends, the two philosophers claimed, is an opening for the possibility of understanding great truths at once.

In knowing oneself you know others. When I read Sacks, I feel that he, like Nansen, by turning his gaze upwards, also turned it inwards, towards his inner silence and uncovered forgotten sides. Into that universe which to me is just as mysterious as the outer space that surrounds us. One universe stretches outwards, the other inwards. To me, the latter universe is of the greatest interest. For, as the poet Emily Dickinson rightly concluded, “The Brain—is wider than the Sky.”

“What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence” is the last sentence of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

According to Abramovic, the opposite of silence is brain at work. Thinking. If you wish to find peace, you must cease thinking. Do nothing. Silence is a tool helping us to escape the surrounding world. If you manage it, it becomes like “a waterfall in your brain,” she says. The electricity in the air changes when the world is shut out.

I don’t know. But I believe that absolute silence exists more as a dream than in reality.

Pashtuns, Darwish Durrani and my hyper brain

It is 5:50 a.m. I just got back into my chair after laying in bed for about an hour. I could not sleep. I kept thinking about my research, the books I have to read, learning the Turkish language, women, fear of death from Coronavirus, my family, and my career as a professor.

That is a lot for an exhausted brain after a long day and night. But these thoughts come and don’t stop, sometimes. They make me hyperactive. I read almost the entire day but it still did not feel enough. Such is the life of a grad student. While laying in bed, I kept thinking that I should read more.

Before retiring, I read the book by Darwish Durrani on the lifestyle of Pashtuns for about an hour. Durrani talks about myths in Pashtun and other cultures such as Indian and Greek. He says that myths are the creation of the human mind about things that they could not or can not understand.

Myths have been there for as long as humans have existed. But with passing time, Durrani argues, humans have developed logos and there seems to be less tendency to rely on mythos because man now can explain many things that occur in life and the reason(s) behind them.

It is true. I live close to New York City. Every time I go there, it reminds me of Durrani’s idea. New York City is the most magnificent creation of the human mind. Man does not need to rely on some mythical figure such as a god to explain the reason behind this wonderful invention. He knows he did it.

That is true almost about everything we see in the human world: airplanes, bridges or a novel piece of art. Man is the god of their creation. The word Logos comes from Greek philosophy and was referred to in the writing of Aristotle. For Aristotle, logos meant the use of logic or reason.

While writing these lines, I am also thinking it is such joy to read the history of human development toward civilization and the cultural history of the Pashtun society in Pashto. His book lies on the table by my bed and I have made it a ritual to read it every night before I fall asleep.

His knowledge has made me realize that Pashtuns have intellectuals and philosophers. Durrani has a very enlightened view of world history and religion. His perspective is progressive and offers a very balanced critique of Pashtun culture.

While reading him, I have also realized that we need more thinkers and philosophers like Durrani. Pashtuns won’t progress without education, science and philosophy. They need to renegotiate their identity with the modern world.

They can not advance unless they reform the ideology and practice of regressive religion. In this, the role of the cleric has been the most instrumental. The cleric has destroyed Pashtun culture. Pashtuns need to reclaim their lives from the cleric.

It is not going to be easy but the alternative is heading toward further ignorance and darkness. The proof of this kind of ignorance and darkness is the recent news coming out of Pakistan and Afghanistan, where many Pashtuns believe the coronavirus is God’s punishment and only he can and will cure it.

These people say that there is no need to fear this pandemic because life and death are in God’s hands. These same people also preach that God is the most merciful and loving, but he just sent a pandemic to punish the people he loves the most. Does that makes sense? No, it does not.

This is just one example of how flawed the thinking of our people has gone. It is time to realize that there is no space for this kind of medieval ideology in the modern world. This primitive thinking needs to change before it further harms the people now and the future generations.

Soul-searching with Aslam Kakar

I hope you had a chance to read my latest post, 10 questions I ask myself every day. These questions are introspective and have helped me live a meaningful life. I thought what better occasion for self-reflection could there be than self-quarantine in the ongoing crisis.

As we are coping in isolation with these strange circumstances, I believe most of us want to make the best out of this time. One thing I have been doing over the past week is self-reflection which is why I wrote my most recent post.

A good friend, who had read my post, said she answered all the questions and found the exercise very beneficial. After her comment, I thought why not create a medium where you, my readers, can answer these questions and benefit from it.

So, I created a quiz where you will give the answers to these ten questions. I hope you will find this activity worth your time and useful in knowing yourself a little more. Fill out the answers and forward the quiz to your family and friends. Stay safe and healthy!

Click on the text in the box below to take the quiz:

10 questions I ask myself every day

Albert Einstein said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning.” He also said, “A man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be.” This has inspired my thinking not only in my research but also in everyday life.

I ask myself some general questions almost every day. Iyanla Vanzant has compiled a list of some of these questions in her book Yesterday, I Cried: Celebrating the Lessons of Living and Loving.

Asking these questions help me discover my fears, their source(s), my failure and its reasons, my success and happiness, my future and what needs to be done to get there.

Here are the ten questions and my brief answers.

1. What is your most valued possession?

My books, my room and my cologne.

2. What is your greatest strength?

Resilience in the face of hardships. Coping with depression. Humility. Kindness.

3. What is your greatest weakness?

Exaggerating and jumping to conclusions that things will be worse. But I am learning how to use my frontal cortex (modern brain) more and calm the hindbrain and medulla (primal brain). If you don’t know, the former is responsible for reasoning while the latter for survival.

4. What is your greatest fear?

I am afraid of death. Aren’t we all sometimes? But more so than death, I fear the loss of life, the loss of opportunities to read and write and have fun.

5. What is your best skill?

I am a thinker. I show that in my oral communication and interaction with people and in my writing. I have also been told by friends and new people I meet.

6. What was your greatest mistake?

I have broken hearts. I should have known better.

7. What is your greatest accomplishment?

Fulbright scholarship and M.A. from the University of San Diego. My Ph.D. admission at Rutgers University.

8. If your life ended today, what is the one thing everyone who knows you would say about you?

He was a good listener.

9. What would you want them to say?

He was a man of good character.

10. Why wouldn’t or couldn’t they say what you would want them to say?

It is difficult to say but my best guess is that they don’t know me well enough then.

What type of questions do you ask yourself? Let me know in the comments.

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