What Plato´s “Allegory of the Cave” could teach us about Afghan Twitter?

From the very day the country’s capital fell to the Taliban, rendering a peremptory decree on America’s longest war, Afghanistan has been at forefront of every online news entity.

Afghans — some from the diaspora and others from inside the country — have jumped on the bandwagon of Afghanistan’s political landscape to express their views and concerns on social media platforms, as they observed a series of turbulent and unprecedented events unfold in front of their eyes. While some of them are people whose understanding of Afghanistan has been shaped by their lived experiences, others seem to have an apparent epistemological discrepancy between the narration of their parents and that what they deem to know based on various historical accounts. Yet, the perception of the status quo, for the most part, has been confined to what most of us hear or see on the news. From extrajudicial killings, abductions and beatings at behest of the Taliban, and the lack of closure thereof to the impromptu emergence of the National Resistance Front (NRF) headed by Ahmad Massoud — the on-ground presence of which remains a matter of contention — almost all the news coming out of Afghanistan have made us alienated from day-to-day reality inside Afghanistan.

For a lot of people on Afghan Twitter-verse, this has led to the creation of a parallel reality, making it a difficult and daunting challenge to follow up on what is taking place in Afghanistan. But how can a famous Hellenistic allegory elucidate the problem we are facing nowadays?

The Dialogue

In Book VII of his famous work The Republic, the famous Greek philosopher Plato tells us one of the most powerful stories about the utility of philosophy that has become known as “The Allegory of the Cave”. The story was initially intended, as Plato puts it, to show “the effect of education and lack of it on our nature”, but it can also illustrate the arduous human struggle of reaching a state of enlightenment.

As its idiosyncratic to Plato’s dialogues, the main protagonist is his own teacher Socrates who converses with a person named Glaucon. It all commences by Socrates telling Glaucon to fancy human beings as though they are imprisoned in an underground cave, never having seen the light of the day. These cave dwellers have always lived there and are unaware of the outside world. Inside the cave they are bound so that they cannot look to either side or behind them and can only see the shadows of objects in front of them thrown up by a light of a fire. Throughout the story, it appears that the prisoners have accommodated themselves to life in the cave in a manner that they cannot realise the shadows on the wall are nothing but mere phantoms; everyone seems to be spellbound by the reflections and scintillatingly exchange with one another about “men,” “women,” “trees,” or “horses,” while referring to those mere shadows — all of them take great pride in their wisdom and sophistry. These cave dwellers present the lowest stage of human cognition.

Breaking the Chains of Ignorance

One day, quite by chance, a prisoner is freed from his chains and driven out in the open air. After an initial period of sensory overload and confusion due to the direct exposure of his eyes to the light of the sun, the prisoner is dazzled by the forms of all those things which he had previously known only by their shadowy projections. He is now confronted with the true nature of these men, women and observes the nuances within the colour of the animals or the bark of the trees. He tries to fathom the vastness and sublimity of the universe by gazing at the stars and comes thereby to the realisation that “previously he had been looking merely at phantoms […] and is now nearer to the true nature of being”, as Plato puts it.

With the new knowledge at his disposal, he feels obliged, as an enlightened man, to help his fellow cave dwellers who are still mired in disarray and ignorance. When the enlightened man returns to them and explains what he saw in the outside world — from animate creatures to celestial bodies — the cave dwellers, with their cynicism, mock him angrily for his remarks, and eventually conspire to kill him.

The dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon demonstrate that the cave dwellers are doomed to their ignorance. The shadows are real to them because that is what they have been exposed to for their entire lives. This means they have a contorted understanding of about the world and therefore have constructed their own reality and live accordingly. They are captives of their own imagination, but are not cognizant of it, hence they do not struggle to free themselves. And, of course, while they are isolated from their fellow companions, each one of them lives in their own parallel reality.

The Allegorical Wisdom for Afghans

For many of us who have been active on Afghan side of Twitter, this story might have resonated with all of us. For the past couple of months, the overexposure to social media and fake news have alienated people from ground realities; everyone pretends to know the actual truth, be full of ideas and experiences, yet the fact of the matter is that everyone’s understanding of Afghanistan is mostly based on what they see on their smart phones, while the coverage from the country remains limited. Like Plato’s captives, we do not know if something is real or an illusion, an image without any substance. The gap between truth and lies appear to be unbridgeable, as far as the current political situation is concerned.  Then there are the echo chambers where people are fed by ideas and propaganda without any sincere discussion, criticism, or scrutiny, and that further reinforces their preconceived notions and dissociates further from the truth. This happens on both sides of the political spectrum. However, for those of us who do not live in Afghanistan, this makes us far more susceptible to being uninformed.

The process of self-introspection can oftentimes be painful and strenuous, says Plato, but as Afghanistan is at a historical climacteric, we need to be extremely gentle and stop haranguing each other with what we believe to be true. After all, we should remind ourselves of how little we know as human beings and be humble in what we fancy to know, as Socrates’ famous mantra goes: “I know that I know nothing”.

Image: MatiasEnElMundo / Getty Images

Younus Ejazi
Younus Ejazi
Younus Ejazi is an Afghan student of Business Informatics based in Germany

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