Dissecting Hoodbhoy’s Logic

We often say things without really realizing what we are saying.

Pervez Hoodbhoy’s latest article on Pakistan (Whither Pakistan? A five-year forecast) begins as follows:

First, the bottom line: Pakistan will not break up…. That’s the good news.

Now why exactly is that good news? And from whose perspective is it good news?

Clearly Pervez Hoodbhoy has assumed that to be a statement of the obvious that merits no further discussion. But it is really an unexamined assertion.

I am not taking a personal position on the issue of whether the break up of Pakistan is good or not. I am just using the claim to make the pedagogical point that we need to examine all the assertions we make.

Let us look at some historical events to place this issue in context:

Suppose in 1945 someone had written an article entitled Whither India? A five-year forecast that began as follows: “First, the bottom line: India will not break up…. That’s the good news.”

Now clearly there would have been many people in India who would indeed have considered that good news. But the many demanding a Muslim state at that time would have considered the same news terrible. And those people were actually very happy that India did break up.

So, if the breaking up of India could have been good news for some at that time, why couldn’t the breaking up of Pakistan be good news for some now? At the very least the possibility of such a perception should remain open. It cannot be taken as a self-evident truth that has universal acceptance.

Or take Pakistan in 1970 and imagine an article entitled Whither Pakistan? A five-year forecast that began the same way as Hoodbhoy’s latest article. One can easily imagine that many Bengalis would not have shared the sentiment. In that sense, Tariq Ali’s logic was more sound in titling his book Can Pakistan Survive? It is less categorical and non-committal about whether that would be good or bad. That is reasonable because Pakistan’s survival could be considered good or bad depending upon the perspective of the reader.

It does not make sense to take moral umbrage at the expression of such opinions and label people with differing perceptions as traitors followed by the use of force to coerce them into staying together. That kind of a reaction can further strengthen the desire to break off.

Let us now come to the latest article by Pervez Hoodbhoy and argue with it for the sake of argument. What is the basis for the uncategorical statement that Pakistan’s not breaking up is good news? Could not one make a plausible argument that the break up of Pakistan would be the best outcome for some people in Pakistan?

Take the people of Balochistan for example. With its huge natural resource reserves, a long coastline, and very small population, is it not conceivable that Balochistan would have been much better off as an independent country. Balochistan is just as tribal as the Gulf Emirates whose tribal society has not hampered development. Could Balochistan not have been a part of the rich Gulf club rather than being stuck with the impoverished lot in Pakistan?

And why should Balochistan, with its secular and nationalist leadership, be stuck with the cost of indulging the religious and anti-India obsessions of the dominant groups in Pakistan?

Once again, I am not saying that the break up of Pakistan would be a good thing and I have no way of knowing whether the Balochis would make a go of their own country or screw it up completely. But then again, I can’t see anyone screwing up things any worse than the Pakistanis have done.

All I am saying is that if I put myself in the shoes of some Balochis I would not be able to agree with Pervez Hoodbhoy’s assertion.

I am in general agreement with Pervez Hoodbhoy’s conclusions:

Pakistan’s political leadership and army must squarely face the extremist threat, accept the United States and India as partners rather than adversaries, enact major reforms in income and land distribution, revamp the education and legal systems, and address the real needs of citizens. Most importantly, Pakistan will have to clamp down on the fiery mullahs who spout hatred from mosques and stop suicide bomber production in madrassas. For better or for worse, it will be for Pakistanis alone to figure out how to handle this.

But as I mentioned earlier the subject of the article was not what I wished to discuss in this post. I am just using the article as an illustration to convey the message that we should always examine the assertions that we make.

 

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11 Responses to “Dissecting Hoodbhoy’s Logic”

  1. yayaver Says:

    You are taking wrath on Pervaz without any substanial reason. To predict the model of economy, politics and society in future is the work of every strategist to for building nation policies. And no one holds key to unlock the gates of future and guess it. More than 70% have predicted the scattering of Paksitan and rest (mostly nationalist) have hope for better future. there is nothing wrong in it.

    The face of the Talibs could be wiped out by the army but how could be the mentality of thousand students of madarsaa could be changed remain basic question. And Pervez clearly escaped that point in his article. When I was reading your article on omitting and mis interepretation of historical facts in education system in Pakistan , it prompt me to review the mindset of average Pakistani about India and US. This generation post Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was taught only hate and atrocities about India. I don’t know the future but hope the extremist elements must be marginalized from the main stream society of Pak.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Yayaver, There is no question of wrath or anger or hostility – that would be out of place on this blog. The principle we try and follow is to argue with the argument, never with the person. Most people hold Pervez in very high regard. Note that I said most and not all in the spirit of the point I made in the post. Pervez also has very strong detractors; in fact, on a recent TV program Imran Khan is reported to have tried to hit Pervez.

      What I am saying is exactly along the lines of what you have said – that Pervez overlooked something in his argument. I am quite confident that if Pervez gets to read this, he would agree with the point.

      Predicting something and attaching a value judgment to that prediction are different things. As you say, there is no problem with predicting. But when attaching a value judgment one should clarify who one is speaking for – is the author speaking for himself, on behalf of the entire community, or a part of the community. This brings more precision to the writing.

      Let me take a simple example to make the point. One year into a marriage, a woman realizes she has made a terrible mistake (let us ignore the reasons for this realization) but the man wishes the relationship to continue. Now the mother of the man makes the statement: “The marriage will not break up – that’s the good news.” Clearly she is not speaking on behalf of the woman. We can think of a federation as a marriage and play around with the analogy.

      Regarding the mindset of the average Pakistani vis a vis India – that is a different and complex issue and we will address it in a separate post. I had begun to set the stage for it in a earlier post but never got round to writing the sequel.

  2. yayaver Says:

    Thanks for clarifyiing for your stand. i think it was my fault also to over indulge into analytical discussions with personal targetting. It will not hapen in future.

  3. Aakar Patel Says:

    SouthAsian,
    What if Hoodbhoy deliberately used this gambit as a lollipop?
    South Asians (we’ll exempt you from this sweeping allegation) need to be given their medicine sugarcoated.
    Perhaps he thought he would put off his readers if he only gave them the bad news. And so he gave them the things they care about most — and we hold “unity and integrity” up as the state’s primary achievement in both India and Pakistan — in order to get them to read the less palatable parts.
    Most writers do this, and columnists usually have to deal with Indian readers as with children.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Aakar: Hoodbhoy is a very smart individual so perhaps he was using the gambit as you are suggesting. In that case I would question his tactics. My reaction to your conclusion is that if one treats readers as children are they ever likely to outgrow that stage? If so, how? In my view such readers would be equally likely to not get the parts Hoodbhoy wanted to sugarcoat or at least not get them the way he wished them to. Is Hoodbhoy just writing out of habit or just telling readers what they need to do without having to understand why? If so, how is Hoodbhoy different from a Maulana? And in the specific case of Pakistan, the “Pakistan is not going to break up” flies in the face of the reality that it has already broken up. So one is not only treating readers as children but children with a severe case of amnesia. Can readers who are encouraged to ignore history and reality be expected to suddenly become forward-looking with a Hoodbhoy lollipop?

  4. Aakar Patel Says:

    I would say that Hoodbhoy believes in the line “Pakistan will not break up” because that is what his data shows. The lollipop is merely the words that follow: “That’s the good news.”
    It brings the reader in alignment with the writer.
    So to that extent, he’s not like a maulana.
    Should he have done it? Probably not.
    Does it ensure he will have more readers who go through the whole piece? Probably.
    It does leave your questions unanswered, but I think we must eschew purity on the subcontinent.
    Tell me this, you’re obviously addressing a more literate than Hoodbhoy is in his popular press articles.
    Would your content be different if the readers were more close-minded (or less open-minded) than they are on this forum?

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Aakar: I don’t quite see why he needs to say that anyway. Would it not be enough to say that Pakistan is a troubled state, it is unlikely to break up, but it needs lot of attention to become whole? Would that have lost a lot of readers? Why assume that readers won’t be able to stomach a statement of fact that everyone is conscious of. Ask any person on the street, from one end to the other of any spectrum, and he/she would confirm that. Who is this imagined childish reader that has to be protected from a reality that is so obvious?

      On the other hand, if the point of the article was to establish that Pakistan not breaking up is indeed good news, then it has to be demonstrated and not taken for granted.

      On any forum, there is a range of readers; one wants all of them to become more and more open-minded and critical over time, to be able to separate facts from assertions, for example. I feel one should write at the level of one’s audience while remaining cognizant of the purpose of the writing. The content might be the same but the style of argumentation and what one takes as givens might vary. You can see that the writing on this blog is different from that on 3QD although many of the topics are common. It is not that we feel our readers are less intelligent; it’s just that most do not bring with them as much prior reading as those on 3QD.

  5. Aakar Patel Says:

    I’m trying to see how I would have phrased the piece had I written it.
    I think the “will not break up” line was necessitated by the fact that he was in turn responding to an assertion (“state collapse could occur in six months”). I buy your point on the “good news” bit, it’s jarring.
    Our problem here is that he hasn’t demonstrated “will not break up”. My understanding is that he was dismissing the earlier assertion as outlandish — as it turned out to be. In that case is he entitled to more freedom? The rest of the piece, we agree, is fine.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Aakar: In my view the “will not break up” line is not problematic. Hoodbhoy is a very respected analyst. All he needs to say here is what you suggested before – “all my data or all my analysis suggests Pakistan is not going to break up” and he can specify the time period he has in mind or not. He is not required to go over his analysis here; he has the benefit of his reputation – the reader will accept it as Hoodbhoy’s best judgment. I find the “and that’s the good news part” much less acceptable. If he does want to say that, he can say “and that, in my opinion, is the good news” because that is clearly his personal opinion and he can not assert it as universal. Of course, if he does say it is his opinion, he has to go ahead and support his opinion with arguments simply because there are some who do not subscribe to the opinion.

      My own best guess is that this was not a thought out gambit; it was just a casual throw-away line that really did not buy him anything in return nor did he elaborate it in any way. The piece is fine otherwise.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Aakar: I am glad you have drawn so much attention to this. It occurs to me there is another possibility. Could it be that Hoodbhoy intended the “and that’s the good news” part as irony saying really “and that, you might think, is the good news”? Because he then goes on to convey the “bad news:” “Collapse isn’t impending, but there is a slow-burning fuse. While timescales cannot be mathematically forecast, the speed of societal decline has surprised many who have long warned that religious extremism is devouring Pakistan.” He is convincing the reader that unless something were done to fix the situation it would be such a cock-up that one might begin to regret that it did not break up. So, in this reading the bad news would be that not breaking up would be worse than breaking up.

      And, in looking at the article again, it is not a popular press piece; it is in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists which is an uber-sophisticated readership. Here we come back to the point you made about the audience to start with – most lay readers would have missed the irony, if it were indeed intended. The popular readership is indeed quite literalist; many non-South Asian writers remark on the lack of a sense of irony in South Asia. I wonder if you agree with that observation.

      • Aakar Says:

        Yes, what you say is possible.
        He is usually a careful writer (and fine speaker on the evidence of one Mumbai Press Club event).
        He’s often reprinted, so am assuming this piece was written, as it appears to be, for some newspaper.

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