While technology progresses by leaps and bounds, the manufacture of thought is regressing or, at best, lagging further and further behind. This crisis has several facets: the lack of ideologies, cultural production that fails to stimulate discussion and controversy, the inability to produce new ideas to change society, apathy in the face of change.
The problem in our society is more complex. As construction booms, changing the shape of our material life, intellectual life is growing stagnant or, worse, it is been dragged backwards by the forces of underdevelopment. We build a new opera house, arts complex or major library in the Administrative Capital while strident voices clamour to ban the arts and artistic creators.
We build the largest cathedral and the grandest mosque in the region while the manifestations of genuine enlightened faith give way to fanaticism and zealotry. We redesign roads to make them wider and more sophisticated, only for reckless drivers to go wilder and lethal accidents to accumulate. Our universities increase in number, but the quality of academic output declines and graduates are less and less able to compete with their peers abroad.
The problem goes deeper. In discussions on some problems that arise in our society, provincialism and narrow-mindedness prevail. Innovative ideas and forward-looking thought are routinely shouted down. Unfortunately, social media has surpassed satellite television as the platform of choice for spreading all sorts of insularism and cultural retrogression.
You have only to follow the videos posted in the race between religious fanatics, bigots and zealots of all stripes to understand how technology has become an instrument of extremism. Social media has become a battleground teeming with instigators of intolerance, rumourmongers, fame-seekers, and propagators of despair and social division. How easy it is for anyone with a chip on their shoulder or some obsession to broadcast a video clip venting their views which are generally infused with anger, resentment and a thirst to outshine others in self-righteousness.
What we have is a society that is progressing in form but increasingly lacking in substance. The main reason for this is what might be termed the “silence of the innovators” in all areas, leaving the field open to the general state of public culture to set the standard for intellectual production - if we can call it that - despite the prevailing reactionary dogmatism.
In both Muslim and Christian theological circles, rare are the proponents of genuine reform in religious thought. Most pundits simply go with the flow or play to the gallery. If they have a criticism of the general trend, they couch it in ingratiating terms and take care to call it the exception, not the rule. They are loath to probe deeply into the nature of the dominant intellectual culture.
In academia, or at least in the social sciences, we do not find scholars who venture original thought-provoking theses that could stir controversy. Scholastic peace of mind has become an aim, in and of itself, and to this end it is best to avoid grappling with sensitive social issues even though these are the issues that require the most urgent and serious research.
The same applies to culture. Although cultural innovations should inspire thought and change, few cultural products these days stimulate discussion and intellectual give-and-take from which the public might come away with more knowledge, awareness, diverse viewpoints or sophistication. Evidently, the lashes that innovators have suffered at the hands of extremists over the years have reduced many of them to producing milquetoast writings, while the well-known intellectual heavyweights are dying off with no one to replace them in the task of dissecting detrimental cultural phenomena.
Why has society lost its dynamism? Where are the projects and initiatives that aim to expand the realm of thought and awareness? The root of the problem is in the “latent extremism” in society. Having lost the prospects for their political project, the exponents of extremism have only the general culture to exploit. So they use all available means to spread intolerance, bigotry and anti-modernism in the name of religion as they interpret it as well as tradition and sometimes a distorted notion of patriotism.
Proof of this is to be found in the fact that the very media outlets that spread unfounded rumours and lies are also used to spread cultural and social extremism. The ultimate aim is to keep society insular, unable to assimilate more than the superficial shell of modern civilisation, bereft of critical thought and any horizons for enlightenment.
* The writer is head of the Media and Communication Sector at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 February, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.