Monday, April 25, 2011

Sowing the Seeds of Pluralism in Jordan

Among the various voices I came across about the preparedness, or lack of it, of Jordan to join the league of democratic nations, there was this one somewhat valid opinion, which claims that Jordanians should first learn how to be democratic before asking for democracy.

Propounding a solution in such an abstract and condescending form is not good enough; one can expect more, and I find the use of “learn” unsuitable, if not absurd, in such a context. It can spur a lengthy debate over the nature of democracy:

How can a person learn to be democratic? Is the idea of teachable democracy principles valid and compatible with the notion of freedom? If yes, does the awareness of such principles lead, inevitably, to practicing democracy? If these principles exist, are they particular or universal?...

We can ask many more questions, but let’s stop here. The point is that the idea of teaching democracy needs to address some serious shortcomings and caveats in its logical structure before it can be taken seriously as a solution for its supporters’ initial concern about Jordan. Nevertheless, I reckon that the idea of satisfying certain prerequisites before democracy can sprout in Jordan, was failed and buried deep down within this view by an improper use of words.

I will take this idea one step further, add to it a bit and say that the appreciation for pluralism is what matters, and not democracy, for the latter is a mere application of the former to the political realm, or at least, to some extent. But the road to appreciating the plural can be quite tricky, especially in a region where demonizing the other has been sanctioned and practiced for centenaries, and is still being, though at escalated rates.

There is something else that worries me in this regard. We have a lot of work to do in order to catch up with the rest of the world on too many levels (e.g. economic, technological…etc), and I am afraid that this will somehow lead us to downplay the importance of other human endeavors (e.g. arts) noncontributing to this materialistic growth, but which are nevertheless needed for a proper social change and growth.

One also have to consider the Jordanian system of education which segregates science, literature and arts, feeding in the process an already existing tendency in the society to stigmatize anyone with a literary bent, and producing graduates holding degrees in philistinism and parochial thinking! A setback, if you consider the high quality education provided by the schools of the Levant during the late nineteenth century.

There are reasons to show some optimism, still. Any keen observer of the Ammani scene must have noticed the recent increase in the number of organized forums and events springing around (or may be their presence was brought to our awareness through the “power” of social media?) which target the layman in a multitude of topics. Technology related events attract the largest audience, even though I doubt the heterogeneity of the attendees’ backgrounds. Science, philosophy and arts events, on the other hand, attract meager audiences, who are highly homogeneous in their interests as well.

Hence a logical next step would be holding forums and events with pluralistic themes, where art intermingles with science, and philosophers perplex technologists with their impenetrable questions. If this could not provide a good starting point for nurturing and sustaining an appreciation for pluralism within the society, it might attract more tourists, at least!


  1. I always say if we don't admit our faults we can never fix them. I like that you think before we can be a democratic country we should be democratic. Saying it is time to change before preparing for this change might have bad consequences. Unlike what others say that it is just the fear of instability that push us back from asking for democracy.
    My proposed solution would be to learn how to debate. Arabs lack this essential trait to be democratic. See how one party in the university student body elections always start a fight when they lose instead of accepting their defeat. Instead of hanging up ugly posters with meaningless words let them debate for students to choose the best. And of course you can draw the same analogy in any election in Jordan. We need to learn how to debate and accept defeat before we go to the so called "democratic" country.

  2. The skill of debating is necessary no doubt, and that could be introduced in schools and universities as a part of a well balanced academic curriculum.

    However, I do believe that democracy should be embraced as soon as the elections law is amended and the parliament is reformed. Once being part of the parliament entitles one to no privileges, legal and illegal ones, I think a true democracy will be attainable in Jordan.

  3. Regarding the point about learning democracy, I agree we have a lot to learn about the democratic process. And indeed there is a lot to learn.

    However, what is the best way to learn something?! It is to practice it. As they say, practice makes perfect. So, for this case I disagree that we must know everything there is to know before trying.

    It's like studying for an exam, you won't take it seriously it unless the exam is near. And Jordanians will not put an honest effort to learn democracy as long as it is some futuristic project that will not be implemented any time soon!

  4. Yes that is correct, and I still hold into my position, that democracy, a true one, should be embraced as soon as possible. And that is why I said that this point of view of teaching democracy is somewhat valid, but not completely so.

    However, I still believe that in our society, the majority of people take of what is different an enemy, especially when it comes to life styles.

    So the question is, do you think that providing a healthy blend of science, arts, philosophy, politics, and whatever is needed can rid the society of parochialism? What do you think is a good way to do so?

  5. I have to say that the most important thing is also the most difficult one, a change of heart. In other words, having a desire for change and becoming better. Of course change is not necessarily always for better, and desire alone does not make things happen.

    However, the events that are talking place around the Arab world might indicate that this desire of change for the better exists in more hearts than what we initially gave others credit for.

    And this is where your question comes: How do we in practice, and using a methodological approach, turn this desire into reality? At least that what I understand your question to be. Cause parochialism is but one of the ailments that need fixing.

    I agree with your post, education does have a great influence on the minds of people. I do give my teachers in high school lots of credit on expanding our insight. Philosophy and art does a lot to enlighten the mind and encourage people to think.

    Parochialism is also a result of inexperience. Doing things is a lot different from theory, and this brings me to my previous comments that practice is necessary.

    I think the simple act of taking people's ideas seriously would make them more realistic, and more accepting of criticism.

    One time I was on youtube and a guy made a convincing argument for the importance of gays "coming out" (at least convincing to me). The idea is that when people vote against gay-marriage and similar issues, they are voting against something that is mostly abstract to them. However, if they have a friend, a child, or college that they know who is gay, then when they take a position against gays, they are taking a position against someone they know and maybe care about.

    I had similar thing happen to me. I always was pro-gay, but I had one of my friends come-out to me and admit that he is gay. And this made me even more sympathetic with gay-rights than I was before, because I was no longer supporting an idea, I was supporting a person.

    So, I guess exposure to other life-styles is necessary as well.

  6. To elaborate on my last point, what I am saying is that people should be more willing and more courageous to show their diversity. Cuz this is the best way for the "other" to become 'someone I care about' rather than an enemy.

  7. That is true and legitimate, but the consequences of breaking the social norms in Jordan are sometimes dire. If someone declared he or she was homosexual in Europe, for instance, the odds are this will inflict very little damage on their social lives, if it does any in the first place.

    Now take this to Jordan! Imagine a girl telling her mother that she does not feel attracted to men, but only girls, or another telling her parents she does not believe in a God anymore.

    The point I want to clarify here is that inexperience in a Jordanian context is not a contingent character of the society, but rather, it stems from what seems to be an entrenched view of life that outlaws anything that might undermine it.

    For instance monotheistic religions can be blamed for the prosecution and death of too many philosophers and scientists, or at least the death of their legacies, which questioned their legitimacy or authority.

    This does not mean that courage is not important and needed to revamp our society. It only means that there are a lot of deterrents to being courageous and coming out the way a person is.

  8. Yes, your concern is legitimate. I actually thought about this even before making my previous comment. But I still thought it was a necessary step. However, it does require this little change of heart that I talked about.

    This kill on sight even if it is someone I might care about is dangerous. For example, honor crimes are perpetrated by people most close to the victim! Now I don't know what goes on in people's hearts, but my guess would be that even in a family where an honor crime has happened there would be members who disagreed. Maybe one brother wants to kill his sister, and the other brother is opposed to that. Yet, he might remain silent and not voice out his disagreement.

    So, when someone wants to commit an honor crime and his family appears to agree. Or when a gay-hater finds that others are also gay-haters. This would reinforce their views. While if the opposite has happened, they hopefully will have something to think about.

    So I guess in our culture, it may be even more useful to speak up about your acceptance of other people's diversities, than to express your own.

  9. And this is one cogent argument. Its elegance lies in its evasive nature. It circumvents the social norms as much as it can, yet loses very little ,or nothing, of its effectiveness toward its main goal compared to speaking up to one's own self .

  10. I am sorry, I don't fully understand your comment. First time I heard of the concept of a "cogent argument". Please elaborate.

    But to elaborate on one point, being pro-gay or not for example is still part of your diversity, so expressing those views is still expressing your own diversity. But instead of the expression being only self-serving, it is also supporting of others. I think you got that, but I just wanted to stress it.

  11. You can think of a cogent argument as a bit more than compelling, or a one that is hard to retort to intellectually.

    What you say is very true, but in this particular example of gays, I am afraid it is something personal, and it is a struggle for the freedoms and rights of gay people, and not a mere subject of discussion.

  12. Thank you. I am glad I made sense :)