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Not just the government, but society too

  • Published at 01:04 pm March 24th, 2018
Not just the government, but society too
Whether Bangladesh restores pluralist democracy, meritocratic advancement, or independent institutions someday or not is something that is frustrating to write much about; it is an exercise in futility more often than not. On the other hand, one has to wonder if the social ingredients at the most fundamental level exist for pluralism and evidence-based dialogue. Do families, work places, and organizations have dynamics that promote a culture of open dialogue, pluralism, or merit-centered discussions and decision-making? It’s hard to make that case. Sure, parents today agree that getting an MBA or a computer science degree is as acceptable as the perennial and proverbial “doctor and engineer.” Yet, it’s parents who still push, cajole, threaten, and intimidate their children into careers that they (the parents) deem worthy. While things have changed a bit in the middle classes in the last 20 years, if the angst and drama shared on the pages of national dailies around every national examination time are any indication, the change has been rather minimal. Parents know best because they are parents, so goes the default thinking. I am not a parent. Nonetheless, if the stories I read in the traditional media, the tales I hear firsthand, or the conversations I follow on social media are any reflection, for all too many families in even the educated classes -- never mind the less enlightened ones -- the tools used to articulate wishes to children have not changed much in the last two generations. Between berating them and thrashing them, parents seek to convince them when they are toddlers; when corporal punishment becomes a tad tricky in the teenage years, reliance is placed on public shaming and private screaming; once children graduate into adulthood, the only viable option left is guilt-tripping, and that becomes the last tool of choice. Articulating an idea on the basis of logic or reason is simply unfashionable in the crucible of our coming of age. And age matters, doesn’t it? Because “they are older,” we tell each other.
If younger people are supposed to be deferential to their superiors, what makes us think that they will be something other than the proverbial sheep when faced with sweet-talking tyrants?
The craven manner in which the concept of “junior” and “senior” is applied in organizations in Bangladesh is simply a manifestation of ageism with an automatic assumption that those who are younger -- notwithstanding their qualifications, experience in the field, or worthiness of ideas -- are simply not up to par with those who are older. This is a mentality not of pluralism but despotism. And from the bar and the bench to the dormitories and corporate boardrooms to families and political parties, this concept holds sway as strongly as it ever has. If younger people -- children, adolescents, new employees, upcoming political activists, apprenticing lawyers -- are supposed to be unquestioningly quiet and deferential to their supposed superiors, what makes us think that they will be something other than the proverbial sheep when faced with smooth-faced and sweet-talking tyrants? Actually, never mind even the cataclysm of tyranny. Submerging creativity and innovation on account not of merit, but of age and seniority is hardly a ticket to an increase in the quality of life. Without the inculcation of the respect for evidence and reasoning that comes with a merit-dominant social system, how exactly are today’s younger folks to become adept at acquiring, vetting, checking, and verifying the knowledge that they will need to build the Knowledge Economy of tomorrow? “Obey me because I am your senior” is not considered a source of evidence in the sciences, whether physical, biological, commercial, or social. Unfortunately, I have seen quite a bit of this appeal to geriatric authority in the last place you would expect it: Universities. A quick glimpse at the available background and publication information of faculty members at a couple of reputed private universities is eye-opening. With a few minor exceptions, the deans, associate deans, and department chairmen are mostly “senior” folks while the most productive members of the faculty in terms of teaching loads and current publications are the “junior” ones. In response to my query, one of the administrators at a similar university was honest, “Bhai, everyone has to bide his time, wait his turn.” Or put it in layman’s terms -- the amount of gray in your hair carries greater weight on your resume than does the number of your most recent academic citations. Yes, things have likely changed in the last 20 or so years. But certainly not at the pace and in scope that is needed to sustain a democratic, merit-based, non-violent polity where the quality of life reflects that of the mythical “middle income” country. Scribes like me rightly blame an autocratic regime that has squelched dissent and fostered corruption at an unparalleled level; we might as well, to be fair, scrutinize homes, family dynamics, and organizational culture where such dysfunction is fostered from an early age. Esam Sohail is a college administrator and lecturer of social sciences. He writes from Kansas, USA.
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