By Darshan Karki, after attending the David Seddon lecture last week
There is a distinct pattern to the workshops, public discussion and lecture series that take place in Kathmandu. Firstly there is the speaker or pundit or whatever name they are called by. They are supposed to have mastered the issue in question. In most situations the experts live up to their name. And in a rare case scenario the ‘expert’ clearly demonstrates a lack of understanding to the extent that they ‘boldly’ or ‘shamelessly’ allow someone else in the audience to take control of the discussion. Then there is an audience which is diverse and has come to attend the discussions for various reasons. Some come there with the sole purpose of listening to the speakers with no strings attached. They are there to learn whatever they can. Another kind are cynics. It doesn’t matter if their knowledge of the issue is nil: they are there to criticize and will not leave unless they have done so. The third type of attendees are the flamboyant ones. They are there to show off what they know. If the speaker utters a single word which they know of, their response will not stop until they’ve finished narrating the entire history of that term. The weapons they use will be jargons and sentences quoted verbatim from a book or else theories that the person in question knows by heart.
All this happens regardless of the fact that good speakers often start discussions by stating that they are not going overload their speech with technical terms for the benefit of the multitude. If talk programmes did not have a start and finish time then they would most likely be ruined by these smart alecs who are all keen to prove that they are the smartest ones in the room. College years spent in attending discussion of all sorts led me into believing that these types and scenarios covered all there was to see in the nature of such public lectures. But just when I had thought I had seen it all I went to see the recent 30th lecture series in Yala Maya Kendra.
The programme along with the audience type mentioned above had a ‘new’ name and a new ‘role’ in the discussion. So this ‘newfound’ audience to me, in his own terms was ‘someone who reads and writes’. His new ‘role’ in the discussion seemed nothing more than to ‘insult’ the expert in question by resorting to a populist remark and trying to excite an equally intolerant group of listeners in the room. The speaker, Professor David Seddon critically discussed identity politics in Nepal, as anyone familiar with his works might have expected. The reader cum writer expressed his disagreement by stating that Nepal had ‘dignity’ and not ‘identity’ politics. The columnist then moved on to state that he found Seddon’s assumption that the constituent assembly members did not actually grasp the concept of federalism (when voting for a republican Nepal) as such baseless. He continued ‘I don’t know from where you got such ideas, maybe from talking to your people.” A round of applause followed to which Seddon later responded by saying “I didn’t know getting insulted get a round of applause here”.
The latest addition to the audience type in public lectures, thereby happens to be people who ‘read’ and ‘write’ or are dubbed ‘intellectuals’ in the Nepali context but very much lack what ‘reading’ and ‘writing’ is supposed to inculcate in them: namely civilized discourse and openness to other people’s ideas, values and beliefs. Populist remarks by academicians and experts fishing for a round of applause are long-standing phenomena in such programmes. But populist and insulting remarks by ‘intellectuals’ are worrying because they seemed to have completely forgotten what ‘dignity’ means, even though they are proponents of ‘dignity politics’! It might have been intolerable to the writer to listen to Seddon’s express his view that the CA members of Nepal may not have fully understood the concept of federalism when they voted for the same. But to attack an idea by attacking the person who holds a certain notion not agreeable to the listener is not a dignified way to debate at all.
The ‘dignified’ individual who was so keen on advocating on ‘dignity politics’ would have been taken more seriously had he resorted to reason and not insulting remarks in public. A dignified approach to criticizing views that sounded condescending to the writer would have been to launch a counterattack based on how Seddon’s reasoning was faulty. In this case it would be to say how the CA members prior to voting for a ‘Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal’ had undergone a rigorous study of federalism, its dynamics, its limitations and its need and relevance in the Nepali context if that did happen. The justifiable approach would also have been arguments citing the names of the experts on federalism in the CA or to say that all members knew very well what they were doing, having been given explanations from experts in the CA on the issue. Or our undignified ‘intellectual’ could have simply stated that the need for federalism was felt as decentralization of power had failed.
I could be wrong too for I was no expert among the audience and I have read far too little and written even less to be able to introduce myself as one who reads and writes either. But as a commoner present in the crowd dignity means to me that human beings deserve a basic level of respect, without regard to age, gender, social or ethnic origin, political ideology and religious beliefs or practices. And if Steven Pinker is to be quoted “Dignity is skin-deep: it’s the sizzle, not the steak; the cover, not the book. What ultimately matters is respect for the person, not the perceptual signals that typically trigger it.”
So, if someone introduces oneself as ‘I am so and so who reads and writes’ a listener would undoubtedly come to the conclusion that the person must have read and written in equal abundance. But if that ‘abundant’ reading and writing doesn’t make the person stand out among millions who discuss politics with equal interest and excitement in ‘chiya-pasals’ and ‘ bhattis’ and also ends up in verbal abuse and fist fights on the slightest conflict of ideas then what’s the difference? If one’s reading makes a person completely shut ones eyes, ears and minds to other people’s beliefs, values and opinions so that they have nothing but insults to hurl at others then where is the ‘dignity’ in it?
Anthropologists, academicians, columnists, intellectuals and so on might frequent such public lectures for their own purposes of flaunting their knowledge, quoting this writer and that, using jargons etc but students like me just go there to learn, unlearn and relearn. And if not being an expert or a writer means that I’ll stay real, open to ideas and respect my fellow beings than I am happy to never belong to that lot.