The Abdication of Thought

By Jelloun, Tahar Ben | UNESCO Courier, December 1994 | Go to article overview

The Abdication of Thought


Jelloun, Tahar Ben, UNESCO Courier


Fundamentalism and totalitarianism both reject dialogue. They also have two enemies: laughter, which is a foil to dogma of all kinds, and subjective experience, which sustains artists, rebels and poets

When critical thinking is abandoned, giving free rein to all kinds of absurdities, and when doubt--either methodical or strategic--absents itself, the individual ceases to be an individual, melts into the crowd, and becomes trivial, stifled and unrecognized.

Dialogue becomes impossible.

Rejection of dialogue is inherent in ideological extremism, whether religious, political, or both. The Other only exists insofar as he enters the citadel of certainties and does not think of leaving it, still less of voicing a rejection or denouncing an error. Society is viewed as a monolithic block with all its exits sealed, for it senses danger, a threat from outside introduced by those who have gone astray.

From within this barricade enemies are defined in simplistic terms. They are individuals free in thought and deed, and in all kinds of different thought--philosophies, religions, literature, art, poetry. And laughter.

Humour, a weapon against fanaticism

Laughter is the special attribute of human beings, of free human beings. It marks the birth of doubt--it is an admission of the fact that there are other ways of thinking and living. Humour is a form of self-questioning, a less tense face of despair. By its very essence it is anti-totalitarian. It mocks the sacred and helps the prisoners of authoritarianism to become aware of their condition. In his novel The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco has shown that the failure of religious fanaticism is caused by the ability to laugh uproariously; laughter has no respect for dogma and is thus intolerable.

Another systematic enemy of fundamentalism is subjectivity. Voicing one's individuality, demonstrating it in one's own manner, expressing it according to one's own rules, making it an asset, an identity--all this is intolerable for fundamentalism, whose aim has always been to make society uniform, to rally it under the same banner, and to exclude from it the slightest expression of the individual will. Among those condemned are all creative artists who draw elements of their creations from their innermost selves, all rebels and all those who aspire to have a private life.

From the moment when you are told how to dress, what to wear, what should be the length of a woman's dress or the colour of a man's thought, from the moment when someone has the right to interfere in your private life, when you are told that you are under surveillance and that someone can intervene at any moment to call you to order, subjectivity becomes subversion and even indecent assault! …

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