Lahori constructions of modernity deploy multiple moral perspectives whose ethnographic particularity lies in a complex series of relationships among hierarchy, agency, and nostalgia. The rhetorically constructed foreground of Lahore Society evokes the novels of Henry James or Edith Wharton in its elaboration of rank and precedence, tension of inherited versus achieved status, and elegiac stance toward social change. Given all this, it was at first difficult to understand Society’s contention that hierarchy is a thing of the past. Yet class relations in the city are rather fluid, an argument in (and about) progress rather than a fixed set of sociological categories an empiricist could measure on some tangible “ground.” Expressions of the idea that society used, somehow, to make more sense are not confined to the drawing rooms of the upper classes.
Nor is class the only issue. Lahore is permeated by nostalgia for an imagined society preserved out of time. History textbooks evoke a precolonial golden age of Muslim rule on the subcontinent. In political discussions people commonly date Pakistan’s own “decline” almost from its foundation, arguing that the country’s volatile history of intermittent military dictatorship and secessionist violence would have been different had Mohammed ‘Ali Jinnah not died shortly after Partition. The sermons of Sunni and, to an extent, Shi‘a Muslim preachers in the city, attended mostly by middle- and working-class men, are also colored with nostalgia for an imagined past, in this case the idealized seventh-century Medinese community of the Prophet and his first four, “rightly guided” successors in the Caliphate. At the nationalist level media rhetoric subordinates Hindus to Muslims by describing Indian soldiers in Kashmir as “irrational brutes.” In Lahore the tendency to attribute social problems such as sectarian violence to “lack of education” while dismissing subordinates and rivals as “uneducated” are equally examples of a rhetoric that justifies a given relationship of subordination (state/nation, rich/poor, Society/nouveau riche) by linking subordination itself to the absence of historical agency. Given that moral behavior as such is predicated on an agent’s ability to discriminate between good and bad actions, it is paradoxical that this imputed absence is used to subordinate people on moral grounds. The paradox is managed in that the distinctions are made in a context of moral rhetoric rather than moral philosophy. The rhetoric is used to rationalize, rather than guide, positions of social and political exclusion.
In modernist, Islamist, and nationalist contexts, the rhetoric of urban Pakistani social distinction tends to construct outworlds according to a rational/irrational, “educated”/“uneducated” binarism rooted equally in the European Enlightenment and in the Qur’anic doctrine that the advent of Islam constituted moral and intellectual progress in relation to the pre-Islamic “age of ignorance” (jahiliya). As in Descartes, Thomas Jefferson, and the Qur’an, these Pakistani category distinctions rest on the originally Greek assumption that man is a rational animal. Just as nineteenth-century British administrators justified their rule on the grounds that they had come to civilize a “backward” subcontinent, modern urban Pakistanis justify the moral subordination of Indians, religious minorities, rural people, poor people, and nouveau riche industrialists by figuring them as irrational, hence less than fully human beings.
Yet there is no single point within contemporary urban society from which to represent reality as a coherent whole. My analysis stresses a multiplicity of moral perspectives because Lahoris constantly express this multiplicity in their everyday social and political rhetoric. Uncertainty and moral ambiguity are fundamental to the rhetorical strategies through which Lahoris construct and act upon the world. Ambiguity is only partially resolved by the sleight of mind through which different views do not clash because they are expressed in different social contexts. It remains the case that urban Pakistanis in all walks of life, on television, in drawing rooms, and on the street, are constantly expressing the belief that society no longer adds up. Sleight of mind, in other words, can only partially resolve the moral contradictions that result from multiple perspectives on modernity in Lahore and, perhaps, complex urban societies elsewhere in the world today.