Terms that label people and put them into boxes always confused me. It posed so many questions, like can people hold ‘mixed’ views? Some of the ‘liberal’ streak, others of the ‘conservative’ while some their own? This approach throws off those who can only work by putting people in neat compartments. But people are never black and white. They are better described as shades of gray.

John Perazzo, writing on being progressive and on being a leftist, quotes Ted Kennedydefining a liberal as “someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions” and “someone who cares about the welfare of the people”. But is it so? The English professor, philosopher and author Maurice Cranston states, “A liberal is a man who believes in liberty.” John Locke states that humans are in “a state of perfect freedom to order their actions as they think fit without asking leave, or depending on the will of any other man.” However living in a society with interlinked relationships and a networking between countries where relations become more complicated, is a state of perfect freedom a reality as propounded by Locke? Was it ever a reality? I am no philosopher by long shot, but painting neat boxes to fit in people throws me off. Locke’s theory is in line with the “roots” of the very word stemming from liberalis, Latin for “pertaining to be a free man”.

For a better understanding, we need to grasp that liberalism was born out of reaction to conservative philosophy that supported the absolute monarchies, and not just the monarchs but all those associated with the monarchy. For better understanding: the status quo.

Liberalism upon emergence in the beginning of the 18th century meant a belief in the rule of law, individual rights, right to private ownership and property, relatively limited role of governments in the lives of private citizens, and a strong support of laissez faire economies. By and large, these values were what defined the school of liberals. An extremely enlightening paper by Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy discussing the liberal ethics quotes Mills from On Liberty, stating, “Individuality is the same thing with development, and it is only the cultivation of individuality which produces, or can produce, well-developed human beings. What more can be said of any condition of human affairs than that it brings human beings themselves nearer to the best thing they can be? Or what worse can be said of any obstruction to good than that it prevents this? (Mill, 1963, vol 18: 267)

Can this philosophy of placing all goodness with individuals alone apply across board? Does it not rest heavily on a huge assumption that every individual will develop on the same level equally despite the unequal distribution of intellect, wisdom, wealth, education and other variables involved?

The term ‘liberal’ is often used as interchangeable with the leftists today. ‘Leftism’ is actually, historically, the opposite of all that liberalism stands for. Leftists sprang from France in the early 1900s. They held that the root cause of decadence in the society came from private wealth and capitalism. This became the basis of the philosophy to get rid of the capitalism existing then and replacing this failed form of thought with socialism where all are equal. This thought too, of course, is repeating the same mistake i.e., painting little boxes to fit people in with labels. Here the question that pops to the mind is: is not socialism itself rule of a certain elite to the exclusion of everyone else denying them the right to better choices and thereby negating the will to strike for a better quality in terms of material possessions and the comfort it brings?

To further the debate we must discuss the concept of conservatism.

The Oxford Dictionary puts forth an interesting defining example, “(Of surgery or medicaltreatment) intended to control rather than eliminate a condition, with existing tissuepreserved as far as possible.” It also describes a conservative as, “A person who isaverse to change and holds traditional values.” Simply put, conservatism would mean supporting the traditional in the face of forces of change that aim to change the social order. This relates to all aspects of societal and individual holdings and beliefs i.e., cultural, religious, and political. Conservatism is more prone to orthodox religious views, rejecting any deviation or non-orthodoxy. Edmund Burke, the Anglo-Irish philosopher, is widely seen as the originator of Conservatism. The theory was born as a reaction to the French Revolution and is discussed at length in his book, Reflections on the Revolution in France.

Let’s visit Pakistan with the satchel of these ideas and try painting political parties and politicians and people at large and try determining who’s who. The problem is one cannot. Liberalism or Conservatism in Pakistan generally excludes all other levels to centre around one aspect alone: religion. Though this is an important element of determination of any individual’s or party’s leaning, it is not the only one. Since increasing bars of religiosity permeating in the society, it becomes much easier to overlook the barriers that merge the difference between liberals and those supporting conservatism i.e., those of class and economic barriers.

The division between urban and rural classes of Pakistan is not only sharp, it’s increasing. Even in the urban areas, the division between the elite and the dilapidated is increasing at an alarming rate. The educated middle class has all but disappeared. It is a society in a state of flux. This leads to a greater need to develop strong policies aimed at bridging the divide. Yet, one does not see any policies aimed at dealing with the realities of the common person. If political ideologies held roots in Pakistan, we would not be witnessing politicians changing political parties. We would not witness the support for ‘status quo’ on all-inclusive levels by political parties.

This gap takes us back to the very concept of liberalism.

What we see on ground is neither conservatism nor liberalism (not to be confused with leftism) serving the people at meaningful levels. What is needed is to join hands as one nation, and work towards making Pakistan a country to be envied.

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