On intellectual lethargy | Pakistan Today

On intellectual lethargy

  • No signs of change

You cannot shut your eyes to the stupendous levels of intellectual laziness in the society if you try. There are just too many reminders of it. The other day on the social media, I had a little exchange with a young man – not your run of the mill happy-go-lucky sort but supposedly an enlightened and thoughtful type. It struck me, as such debates often do, that we are trapped in some sort of a time-bubble. For every such episode reminds me of the debates I had on message boards in those prehistoric times before the advent of Facebook. That is more than fifteen years ago, but the more things change the more they remain the same.

It typically starts like this: a claim is made, or a strong position on some issue expressed. For instance, ‘XYZ is the single largest reason for what has been happening in the country in the last seventy years.’ You ask what exactly has been happening in the country in the last seventy years. (Plenty has been happening, of course, but what precisely does the man have in mind?) Then you are asked: ‘Have you not read history?’ To which you respond: ‘I have read many historical accounts, but I am not sure what particular history you may be referring to.’ So, you suggest it is made clear to you. In response to this, you are provided the link to a 120-minute video by somebody named Imtiaz Mustafa (say), which you are advised to watch. You feel obliged to point out the fact that you are not having this conversation with the esteemed Imtiaz Mustafa and that you do not even know him. That you would gladly listen to him in the future event of having a debate with him, but you are not currently interested in what the gentleman has to say and that at this moment, you would appreciate it infinitely more if your current opponent presents his arguments himself. The discussion usually comes to a stop at this point after the customary exchange of pleasantries.

Students of philosophy know that thoughts have a way of sounding convincing and brilliant in direct proportion to their vagueness. The more you examine them critically and in concrete detail, the more they tend to fall apart, until (usually) one is left with precious little. It is not surprising, then, that many people choose to have no thoughts of their own; they keep carrying ideas and conclusions of other people.

This debate-by-videos is a relatively new phenomenon. In the old days it used to be links to internet pages with unreadable and interminable content. What is unchanged in all these years is the sheer inability or intellectual lethargy to build an argument leading to one’s held position. When it comes to more intelligent individuals, it could well be by design, because there are certain benefits of not using one’s brain in arriving at one’s conclusions. This saves one the trouble of critical examination, which is hard work at the best of times, and can be extremely disconcerting when the different ideas (no doubt brilliant when seen separately) turn out to be contradictory, causing the whole building to collapse.

Simplistic political slogans and sweeping statements have precisely this appeal: namely, they are easy to repeat and they help a man pretend to be a deep thinker. This sort of thing is even more disturbing in religious debates than it is in political ones. A view is held and expressed very strongly, but when a justification is demanded a link to the opinion of some scholar is presented, and it is deemed that the job is done. These ‘intellectuals’ fail to realize that one must be equipped with convincing arguments before holding strong views on anything. The Quran, in multiple places, mentions people who, by way of justification for some of their beliefs or practices, instead of making a case for their position point to somebody else as their authority. It points out how silly this attitude is. Of course, parents, friends, teachers, and scholars can be a great help in this regard, but ultimately it is the individual himself who is supposed to be able to give an account of his beliefs and actions. There is no way around this.

Students of philosophy know that thoughts have a way of sounding convincing and brilliant in direct proportion to their vagueness. The more you examine them critically and in concrete detail, the more they tend to fall apart, until (usually) one is left with precious little. It is not surprising, then, that many people choose to have no thoughts of their own; they keep carrying ideas and conclusions of other people. That is quite all right, because not everybody is expected to be a Socrates. But the least one can do is examine all the arguments for or against a position and either accept them or reject them using his own mind and his best efforts. Since most people are reluctant to take the trouble to think their thoughts through, they are not able to justify their held position by argument, hence their reliance on other people’s videos and websites and whatnot.

Hasan Aftab Saeed

The author is a connoisseur of music, literature, and food (but not drinks). He can be reached at www.facebook.com/hasanaftabsaeed



One Comment;

  1. sheep head said:

    On intellectual lethargy let some deep-thinkers analyze and do brain storming, say example: (i) Islamophobia:
    What is the statistics
    what actual numbers are Islamic, christian, hindu, zorastrian, shia, sunni, jains?
    how many incidents are happening?
    what is the root cause?
    please do it for the sake sheep-heads…

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