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Conscience: unmute the silent voice

Huzaima Bukhari

War is so unjust and ugly that all who wage it must try to stifle the voice of conscience within themselves”—Leo Tolstoy

In myriads of cases children who are growing up, are constantly rebuked about the many acts they do in their daily lives. From the way they eat, walk, talk, socialize, react, etc. to their cognitive abilities as they pass from one phase of life to another. During this entire journey they face frowns, smiles, occasional pats on their backs or sometimes, even punishments for behaving in a manner that could be against the ideals of the persons raising them, or not in conformity with the societal norms. This process usually centres around what others may think and not so much on the ethical development of the children as in the sarcasm expressed by H.L. Mencken, an American journalist: “Conscience is the inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking”.

Development of the human consciousness seems both simple and complex, depending on the environment that nurtures it. Thus, where the overall make-up of a social setup is predominantly homogenous, the chances that people will profess similar outlook would be greater compared to where heterogeneous makeup of community gives rise to various conflicting ideas, especially in the absence of tolerance. The only common thread that runs in the fabric of all human societies is that silent voice of conscience within each member.

While collective consciousness could be disputed the fact that every person is affected by that little voice within is upheld by many. Harper Lee puts it in her novel ‘Go Set a Watchman’ where a character is made to say: “Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious“.

Carl Gustav Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist said: “Deep down, below the surface of the average man’s conscience, he hears a voice whispering, “There is something not right,” no matter how much his rightness is supported by public opinion or moral code”.

An interesting analogy has been drawn by John Steinbeck in his novel ‘East of Eden’ in which he strikes a similarity between physical monsters and mental monsters where the face and body may be perfect but if a defective gene or mutated egg can produce physical monsters, there is a possibility that this could cause a malformed soul or mental aptitude. He explains that as a person can be born without a limb for example, another could be born without kindness. In other words, monsters are variations from the accepted normal to a greater or lesser degree. This argument cannot absolve either the mischief-makers of the world or the evil-doers who leave no stone unturned to promote misery for humanity.

What happens when the handful in power make decisions that has serious ramifications for the humanity at large? Why do the acts of a few become devastating for the physical and emotional health of an overwhelming majority? The answer to these simple questions as given by Edmund Burke is: “All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.” When the ones who can see through the darkness and evil in the powerful choose to prefer expediency over outspokenness for whatever justifications they may conjure, the results obviously are in the various forms of wars, terrorism, violence, crime, unrest and brutality.

Since the world has shrunk into a global village within the last two centuries, it can be noticed widely that anything occurring in one region has immediate repercussions in others. With fast moving communications, with people fanning out from their original abodes to making far out lands their homes, with massive exchange of information across man-made borders, with rapid integration of cultural values and languages, with ease of access to knowledge, there is a gradual trend towards unifying the peoples inhabiting this planet. This transformation, taking place at an uncontrollable speed demands that persons of intellect and of conscience belonging to each country need to urgently break their silence and perk up courage to stop those who are bent upon acting in ways that is leading to the path of annihilation. These are ones endeared by the likes of Leonardo da Vinci. “I love those who can smile in trouble, who can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. ‘Tis the business of little minds to shrink, but they whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves their conduct, will pursue their principles unto death” but if only they are willing to step forward.

Time has come to discard all forms of biases and the many concocted deceptive tools establishing certain peculiar values that Sabrina Meharally in her Harvard Business Review publication “What it means to truly think outside the box” ably refers to as “born out of colonial, white supremacist, patriarchal and hyper capitalist values with the intention of upholding power and privilege for a select few, at the expense of everyone else”—although pertaining to the world of economics these are equally applicable to polity.

People of conscience will have to emerge from their different hide-outs and affiliate with each other to emphasise upon world leaders to work towards a united humanity to erase the many power conflicts we are witnessing these days. This is vital for the betterment of future generations and survival of the planet. Perhaps they should pay heed to what Pope John Paul II said: “When freedom does not have a purpose, when it does not know anything about the rule of law engraved in the hearts of men and women, when it does not listen to the voice of conscience, it turns against humanity and society”. The problems in today’s world are multiplying despite remarkable technological advancements and at this stage it has become crucial to increase the volume of conscience from mute to loud.


The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), member Advisory Board and Senior Visiting Fellow of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE)

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