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Dhaka Tribune

Enlightenment now

What can we learn from the values of Enlightenment?

Update : 27 Jan 2024, 10:58 AM

Harvard cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker has a book titled Enlightenment Now (2018), and I am borrowing the title to repurpose it for describing the challenges of modernity in Bangladesh. In the backdrop of widespread pessimism, negativity, and cultural malaise, Pinker presents a positive and optimistic view of human progress, arguing that the fundamental principles of the Enlightenment -- that is reason, science, and humanism -- have led to significant improvements in various aspects of human well-being. 

The Enlightenment was a period in European history stretching from the late seventeenth to the late eighteenth century, a period also known as the age of reason. The cardinal principles of reason, science, humanism, and progress engaged in a battle with their opposites, paving the way for the modern age.

Some writers, however, question the Enlightenment as a “Western project” and in various academic circles deconstructing the Enlightenment project has become a favourite intellectual exercise. 

The fact that Pinker provides a wealth of data and statistics to demonstrate that, despite ongoing challenges and problems, humanity has made remarkable progress in areas such as health, education, prosperity, safety, and overall quality of life, are often ignored. Pinker attributes these advancements to the application of reason and science, which have led to technological innovations and improved social conditions. 

When examining individual countries, it becomes evident that progress has been inconsistent. Genuine intellectual concerns arise regarding the universalistic view presumed by the Enlightenment thesis. But one should not throw the baby with the bathwater. 

Examining the specific case of modernity, one can turn to China and delve into its history since becoming a republic in 1911. Approximately a century ago, the May 4 Movement -- essentially the Arab Spring of China -- was marked by slogans for science and democracy. May 4, 1919 can be pinpointed as the inception of the movement for modernization. A young Mao Zedong (aka, Mao Tse Tung), then a librarian, observed the unfolding of this movement with keen interest. 

The acceptance of science in the sense of a scientific worldview has been a core value in China’s modernization whether the Republican modernization championed by Sun Yat-sen, or his successor and brother-in-law Chiang Kai-shek, and later Mao Ze Dong since 1949 and Deng Xiao Ping and his followers since 1978. 

Rarely (barring the Cultural Revolution), was science attacked as a Western imposition. No wonder that China today is one of the world’s leaders in high-quality scientific research publications. One has to factor the acceptance of science and reason as key values that accelerated modernization of China.

Modernization theory, originating from the Enlightenment, suggests that values and institutions must change for a society to modernize. Values bring the individuals to the centre of attention. Based on the experience of societies that became modern earlier, three agents of modernization were identified: Education, urbanization, and media. 

In Bangladesh, a pluralistic educational system fails to generate a coherent, rational, scientific worldview. If you surf through various social media in Bangladesh looking for clues of people’s thoughts, their reactions to public debates, interesting clues are revealed. One can read a post, and then explore a little bit more about the person doing the posting.

One would find even attacks on the universities as colonial impositions. There are suggestions of rejecting university education (here the writers are not university graduates). This sounds like an echo of the debate during colonial rule in India whether Muslims should embrace English education. 

Urbanization has taken place without urbanism. Lack of planned urbanization was an inadequate means to foster modernization. 

And as the conventional media is under existential threat from the so-called social media, its role to promote a rational, scientific mindset has been limited. Social media is not a place for reasoned argument. It is not a forum of scientific reasoning based on evidence or logical arguments; it is a rat race of who has received the most “likes.” 

In the quest for more likes and "views," the more outrageous your postings are the more likes you are likely to get. Forget about the reasonableness of your arguments or the facticity of your evidence. They all are defeated by the strength of one’s beliefs, combined with foul language and ruthless attack. 

So, for these critics, the contemporary problems are linked to age-old colonial power games and can be seen as a continuity of the West trying to subjugate the rest. At one point the West, represented by Britain, dominated and exploited us. Now, the critics hold, the West, represented by America, is trying to impose human rights, capitalism, and democracy. And then the (amorphous) West is trying to change our mind by making us tolerant of the third gender.

I have seen slogans being posted to reject the third gender on social media. There is an interesting relationship between conspiracy theory and an anxiety of continued neo-colonial domination. This brand of neo-colonialism loses all its subtlety and becomes a crude force that plots to corrupt our minds. 

The main challenge is the conflation of science with the West. The problem is not a lack of knowledge in physics, chemistry, or biology, but the failure to develop a scientific worldview, or a science-based mindset.

The ideological space has been dominated by pre-scientific and meta-scientific ideologies, wherein beliefs are accepted without evidence, and even when evidence is presented, it often takes the form of fabricated evidence, or evidence drawn from makebelief sources. Reason, science, and humanism have been expelled from this space.

It is time for a renewal of Enlightenment values.

Habibul Haque Khondker is a sociology professor at Zayed University, Abu Dhabi who previously taught at the National University of Singapore.

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