The perils of being sanctimonious

March 23,2019

We are living in an increasingly sanctimonious society. Our prime minister, the present pope of popular politics, deems himself – and only himself – to be the paragon of virtue and...

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We are living in an increasingly sanctimonious society. Our prime minister, the present pope of popular politics, deems himself – and only himself – to be the paragon of virtue and brands anyone who shows the slightest sign of showing dissent with him as the devil incarnate.

He is willing to embrace his counterpart on the other side of the border but sardonically refuses to reconcile with his political opponents, whom he contemptuously stigmatises as plunderers and dacoits. The holy terror of the day, the National Accountability Bureau, has cast itself as being on a messianic mission to root out corruption and demonize and damn those who by a freak of fate find themselves to be on its wrong side.

‘Innocent unless proven guilty’ is the fundamental legal norm in all civilised societies. However, this golden percept is turned on its head in the world of the self-righteous, where others are treated as guilty unless they prove themselves innocent to the satisfaction of the former. In a civilised society, a distinction is made between an accused and a culprit. If you are charged with a crime, say theft, the prosecution has to establish beyond reasonable doubt the veracity of charges against you. Only after you have been convicted in a fair trial are you declared a culprit. But in the eye of the self-righteous, mere allegations or perceptions are sufficient to make you an offender. Here is a hypothetical situation:

The self-righteous: “You’re wicked.” The accused: “No, I’m not. What makes you come up with such a statement?” The self-righteous: “You’re wicked, because your innocence hasn’t been proved.” The accused: “But why in the world do I need to prove my innocence?” The self-righteous: “Because we say so.” The accused: “Why should your opinion matter?” The self-righteous: “Because we’re morally superior to you.”

The accused: “What makes you think that you’re morally superior to me?” The self-righteous: “Because you’re morally inferior to us. Your habits are different from ours. Your lifestyle doesn’t match ours. In a word, you and we are as different as chalk and cheese. Since we know we’re saints, you must be sinners. Since you’ve been proved wicked, you’re hereby condemned.”

This dialogue can go on but even in its brief form, it brings out the psychology of moral judgment in the case of the self-righteous. They start with the assumption – which in their case is an axiom – that ethically they are supreme. While others may be actuated by egoistical motivations, they are guided solely by altruistic considerations. While others may be mired in corruption, they are clean as a whistle. This assumption leads to the conclusion that others should be presumed to be guilty, sinners and culprits. When it gains considerable currency, such reasoning becomes a narrative. Such narratives remind us of the practice of witch-hunt in most parts of Europe from the late Middle Ages to the early modern period. Both men and women were branded ‘witches’ for allegedly setting aside the basic canons of religion and owing allegiance to the devil.

The persecutors would accuse their opponents of witchcraft, bring them to a court of law, have them convicted of mortal sin, and then burn them alive. Almost any incident – from burning of crops and death of livestock to family feuds and political rivalry – for which no plausible explanation could be offered was set down to witchcraft. That’s how ‘good’ was deemed to achieve ascendency over ‘evil’.

Damning others on charges of witchcraft may be a thing of the past, but the use of morality to achieve amoral objectives persists. In politics, more often than not ends are dressed in ethical terms and the quest for power is given a moral justification. Colonialism was defended by its proponents on the avowed ground of civilising the colonial people. The real motive behind colonialism, however, was to extend control over the colony’s resources – land, labour and capital – or simply to exercise power over the vanquished people. Likewise, a politician may cast himself as on being a noble mission to stamp out corruption, cronyism, or vulgarity, when really s/he is simply jockeying for power.

Cleaning up the Augean stable of politics has been a watchword in Pakistani politics. Many a political leader as well as soldier of fortune styled himself as a moral crusader and announced or demanded ‘ruthless’ accountability. But as it turned out, their anti-graft, anti-lewdness tirade was no more than a cloak for their appetite for power. Here are some examples:

In October 1958, Gen Muhammad Ayub Khan while staging the coup declared that the army was forced to intervene to prevent the ‘complete ruination of the country by “self-seekers who, in the garb of political leaders, have ravaged the country or tried to barter it away for personal reasons.” In the proclamation of martial law on July 5, 1977, Gen Ziaul Haq declared: “When the political leaders fail to steer the country out of a crisis, it is inexcusable for the armed forces to sit as silent spectators. It is primarily for this reason that the army perforce had to intervene to save the country.”

Both the self-styled saviours of the nation were cold-blooded schemers, who remained the undisputed masters of the nation for a decade each. Former president Ghulam Ishaq Khan (GIK) is widely regarded as conscientious to the bone, having never stolen even a single penny from the pubic exchequer. But the same GIK conspired against elected governments and set one ‘corrupt’ political leader to catch another.

Gen Pervez Musharraf, the 1999 coup-maker, started off with promises of across-the-board accountability. A good many politicians were put in the dock for alleged corruption. But it was not long before it became evident that the accountability process was in fact an instrument of a forced change in loyalties or of political victimisation and manipulation. The moment some of the ‘corrupt’ politicians joined the king’s party, they were given a clean chit. Musharraf was forced to step aside in 2008 but the accountability mechanism that he put in place continues to damn the ‘sinners.’

Just as Ziaul Haq set down all society’s evils to the ‘secularisation’ of society, Imran Khan put it down to corruption. Just as the Zia regime was a dab hand at passing religious edicts – declaring who was a true Muslim and who was an imposter – against his opponents, Khan and his moral brigade excel in passing moral edicts on political rivals, declaring who is an epitome of uprightness and who is corrupt to the bone. Needless to say, evil, whether it takes the form of vulgarity or corruption, or for that matter witchcraft, deserves exemplary punishment.

A large and growing segment of the youth has been taken in hook, line, and sinker by such misleading narratives. For such youth, tolerance, dissent and ratiocination are the unmistakable signs of moral weakness, but reviling, demonising and punishing ‘enemies’ personally are the highest virtues of a patriotic Pakistani and a true believer.

Such toxic narratives suck a society dry when their exponents come to wield power. With the law and the machinery of the state at their beck and call, the self-righteous create hell on earth for those who are sucked into a difficult situation. The more sensitive of them are forced to take their own life to protect their honour.

The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist.

Email: hussainhzaidigmail.com

Twitter: hussainhzaidi


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