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May 31, 2016

The shifting baseline


May 31, 2016

Enroute to Karachi on board a PIA ATR turbo-prop, I reflect on the shifting baseline syndrome as it applies to Pakistan. It’s a three-hour flight, and my cramped seat forces me to sit diagonally to avoid squeezing into the next passenger who, equally desperate for comfort, has adopted the posture of a praying mantis. The front and back rows are kept empty to avoid mid-air unbalance and flustered air hostesses have their work thus cut out, keeping irritated passengers attempting to breach this comfort zone, at bay.

Soon all are settled and the horizon casts a melancholic amber luminescence on the juddering plastic insides of this barely stable airframe, the steady drone of its engines combining with the light filtering in from its windows to nudge my already somnolent fellow passengers, into the sporadic catnaps characteristic of uncomfortable journeys. The baseline has clearly shifted for the PIA, and it is sadly no longer the glorious flag carrier it was in the 1980s. It’s story is, however, a mere footnote to the larger saga of decline in our beleagured land.

The shifting baseline is principally an environmental term coined by Daniel Pauly in 1995, to describe environmental degradation that goes unnoticed over time. Friend and anthropologist Faisal Buzdar introduced me to it, in the context of its wider implications, which I learned was later popularised by the marine biologist and filmmaker, Randy Olson, to describe the inability to perceive declining standards in almost every aspect of contemporary existence and not just the environment, in his oft-cited LA Times oped published in 2002 on the subject.

So how exactly does the shifting baseline syndrome apply to our lives? Consider first that it is the phenomenon of tangible yet imperceptible changes occuring over time, that become accepted as the norm, because the baseline – what existed before or rather the previous norm – has been purged from public memory. So if loadshedding was an irregular phenomenon in the 80s – confined only to the summer months – the chronic power shortages that began to escalate from the 90s have become the norm of today.

And because the 80s and the decades before it appear to be in the distant past because the cultural, social and economic aspects of life in Pakistan generally at that time, and in particular with reference to the power shortages of my example, have not been formally documented and are not sufficiently discussed in our present, the baseline has been erased. As a consequence, even a few hours respite from power shortages is now regarded as a marked improvement, supplying the illusion of progress coupled with the sentiment of relief to the unaware mind – the new baseline.

Apply this now to everything else that bothers you about Pakistan: the rise in the inequality of distribution of resources and in the redistribution of wealth; the decaying standards of public education coupled with the absurd increase in the cost of private education; the ever-increasing dilapidation of urban infrastructure. Add to that the soaring population growth rates and the widening gap between the rich and the poor; a burgeoning intolerance in society for differences not only in caste and creed, but also, of opinion; a pervasive culture of bogus religiosity masquerading as faith; the increase in the incidences of terrorist bombings; radicalisation of civilian and military institutions; targeted attacks on minorities and the growing confidence of radical elements in society.

I could go on and on as similar examples abound, but to do so would be pointless as we are all aware of these markers of decline. What is more important is to try and understand how the baseline in all these instances, which are concerned with politics and social change, has shifted, and what it has shifted from.

How does the baseline shift? In the foremost this is achieved by the active distortion of history through propaganda that seeks to define the present in the light of a manufactured past. Governments and rulers have employed this neat trick since forever and our story is no different from that of other developing countries that have endured the whims of tin-pot dictators and incompetent politicians. We witness and absorb this propaganda every day, particularly during independence and defence day celebrations – not to mention holiday television and radio programming.

We are told that we are more capable, more pious, more successful, more equal and more conscientious as a society than our ancestors ever hoped we would be. The voice of minorities, the plight of the poor, the travesties of justice endured by the marginalised and public opinion in general, are censored if not entirely ignored. Incidents of terrorism, for example, are glossed over or treated with mock dismay and presented as infrequent abberations, when these in fact have defined cultural and social space and life in our country in the last two decades.

The shifting baseline syndrome relies heavily on acquiescence. The behaviour of individuals and of society supports it. When we distance ourselves emotionally from acts of terrorism, bribery, theft, corruption, exploitation, domestic violence et al; when we concern ourselves with our individual interests alone and leave the interests of our community to be negotiated by someone else; when we choose to remain silent and not raise a voice or ask the difficult question, we effectively forsake humanity.

It is this emotional distance that breeds indifference and in turn creates the intellectual conditions that enable us to accept declining standards of justice, of equality, of honesty, of life itself. It is this emotional distance that is the final enabler of the shifting baseline.

Why is it important to know where the baseline was originally? Because it exposes the tragedy of our present completely and gives us the only chance for course correction. In Pakistan we have been coerced to give up precisely that: a conversation with and about the past that would explain our present and guide us into the future. As a consequence we are generally clueless of where the baseline was, and have suffered a fracture with our past. And the baseline continues to shift, driving us ever further into a vortex of decline.

Scientists in the US are researching development of space craft that will travel to Alpha Centauri, a star system four light years from our solar system, to enable mnkind to expand its understanding of the universe. We, on the other hand, are concerned with legitmising domestic violence against women. In Pakistan today, citizens and rulers alike would be well advised to take stock of where we are headed. A further shift in the baseline may be catastrophic.

The writer is a freelance columnist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @kmushir


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