Insecure minds fear dissenting voices

(By Huzaima Bukhari) Dissenting voices: cause of insecurity?

“Will dissent be permitted? The answer to that question will determine whether the society is a free society or a fear society” — Natan Sharansky.

What can be more dreadful than the thought of an atom or hydrogen bomb exploding in our midst? The destruction these can cause can have very harmful effects for many decades. Therefore, world leaders leave no stone unturned to sign non-proliferation treaties to put an end to nuclear armament race and now, even going to the extent of appeasing unpopular heads of state like Kim Jong-un of North Korea, whose enthusiasm to prove nuclear superiority knows no bounds. However, history is witness to a threat that is many times more damaging than weapons of mass destruction.

This threat is none other than the most lethal of all weapons which manifests itself in the form of a dissenting voice. Yes, the voice that gives sleepless nights to many; that forces the mighty military to turn its guns upon those it is paid to defend; that converts happy dreams of politicians into nightmares; that inspires literati to create award-winning masterpieces, and that is stifled into submission or silenced through persecution or even death.

Why does this dissenting voice create so much uneasiness and above all, insecurity? It is not a physical weapon or poisonous stuff, then why does the entire establishment as well as the people try to shut it up? After all, what damage can a simple voice do that cannot be prevented by the power and might of governments or better still, why do governments feel so helpless and so overwhelmed that they need to crush it with ferocity?

The answer perhaps lies in the past. From the early days of Socrates, the Greek philosopher renowned as the founder of Western philosophy who propounded the ethical tradition of thought for which he was sentenced to death by drinking poison; to the present times, when those who dare question authority are either tortured, forced into exile or eliminated. There are innumerable instances of Russian and Chinese dissidents in the last seventy years or so who were hounded by the powerful, sought out in their countries of asylum, their lives rendered miserable and even their families not spared at times.

The legacy of holy prophets is also fraught with horrendous tales of ill-treatment at the hands of those against whom they stood up, in utter defiance. All books of divine revelation and sacred literature of most religions have stories of how evil powers continued to exert their nefarious hold over goodness forcing it into submission or subverting its influence over the downtrodden. Although the moral of these stories is that good emerges successful, and evil is defeated, but the fact remains that this victory is achieved at an exorbitant price. So the question again arises, why do people boasting mammoth wealth and power, who can withstand strong armies, have remarkable control over governments, whose existence is a matter of awe for a large majority, whose persona creates fear in men, seem to get so highly agitated at the hands of a powerless, poor and perhaps even a frail person? If tolerance is an acclaimed virtue of a so-called free society and liberal governments, then what is it that invokes terror in the hearts of those who matter in the land?

No society can flourish or retain its essence if tolerance is absent and there is no room for fresh ideas and opinions

In sync with the proverb ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’, it appears that ‘a dissenting voice is more powerful than the throne.’ Thus when the famous Pide Piper played on his magical pipe and rid the German town of Hamelin of rats by luring them into the river but as the ungrateful mayor refused to abide by his promise of paying him a thousand guilders, the infuriated piper took his revenge, not by bringing in force but by playing his tune and drawing away the children of the town into a cave, never to be seen again while their guardians were happily attending church.

Although this story has many versions, the idea that is being drawn from it pertains to the influence, a particular sound or ‘voice’ may have on people of consciousness and the younger generation, the biggest asset of a nation. Compared to the use of force, a more compelling medium is a soft but convincing voice that can mould the minds and cause a substantial dent in what is popularly known as the status quo. This is the main cause of insecurity that threatens the very existence of these self-acclaimed leaders and so-called powerful men who fear that if the people on whom they impose their authority become too conscious about reality and start questioning their acts, then there would be no justification for them to continue in power that would be detrimental for their future generations.

Innumerable instances can be quoted of dissenting voices around the world. Even the subcontinent is not free from suppressing them with an iron hand. In some cases, these voices are silenced through the use of street gangsters to make the incident look like a private vendetta. Others are branded as traitors, and the media is pressed into carrying out a hate campaign against them to mellow down the effectiveness of their speech. Some are destined to be killed mercilessly at the hands of a mob.

Yet others are picked up by intelligence agencies to be grilled, tortured and/or made to suspend their activities. Both the carrot and stick policies are used, and wealth or high offices sometimes bribe dissenting voices and so depending on the sincerity of their purpose, they can be or not be veered away from their chosen path. However, naming them would mean that the author is convinced that these are those very dissenting voices that forces of obscurantism want to mute. They stand out because they do not harp the same tune that many would like to hear. They appear different because they dare to talk about issues and problems faced by the downtrodden. They portray a demeanour unlike the standardised one since their beliefs are not traditionally bound and as a result, they are judged by those whose own ways are subject to various questions.

Undoubtedly, all dissenting voices may not be alarming as these might just be in the nature of academic discourse. Such are conveniently ignored as long as they remain in the precincts of academia, but the moment the powerful feel their pinch in living reality, a reign of terror is unleashed to curb revolutionary tendencies as a consequence. In their eagerness to maintain the status quo whereby their selfish interests would not be hampered, no criminal action is unjust as long as these enable silencing nonconforming and unorthodox views of the mindful and concerned.

No society can flourish or retain its essence where tolerance is absent, and there is no room for fresh ideas or opinions. Unfortunately for those who yearn for status quo, their own existence becomes nothing but stigma, and although they lose their physical presence, the dissenting voices are remembered forever.

The writer, lawyer and co-author of many books, is Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)