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November 20, 2017

Building character


November 20, 2017

Late in June this year, an overturned oil tanker burst into flames near Bahawalpur engulfing scores of people who were busy trying to get the petrol leaking from the 50,000-liter vessel. The gory incident that claimed about 200 lives attracted coverage in the media for some time but quite soon lost its relevance.

In a more civilized country, such an incident would get singed in the collective memory of the nation and cause serious reflection and soul-searching both at the policymaking and grassroots levels. But we typically refuse to learn from mistakes and experience. We have long ignored the need to reform institutions, develop human resource and take steps to build the character of our youth. We, instead, have to work extra to keep cleaning the mess created by the ruling elites. The role of the rulers appears in sharp contrast whenever the nation suffers a tragedy.

It is important to analyse the social and political factors behind the loss of life in the Bahawalpur inferno. Although it is true that the victims met a tragic death because they were scrambling for a ‘share’ in the ‘spoils’, it would not be appropriate to lay the blame entirely on them.

It is not surprising that the law and order and civic agencies once again failed to fulfil their responsibilities and prevent an ordinary road accident from turning into a horrifying disaster. That failure only confirms what we already know of the creeping institutional decay in the country. Let us for now focus on the attitudes and their causes that determine ordinary people’s responses when they face choices in critical situations like Bahawalpur.

Not much has been written on the development of attitudes that determine the reflex social responses of people in Pakistan. Empirical literature from around the world, however, is there to guide us. According to philosopher Walter Mischel, national character gets formed in a long accretional process. But, individual and collective attitudes get shaped as people assimilate social and environmental cues. It is where the role of leaders acquires primacy as they create precedents for the common people, more appropriately the youth, to mould their perspectives. Professor Lawrence Pervin of Rutgers University has written extensively of the development of personality and the environmental factors affecting it. He discusses at length the trend-setting role of national and local leadership in disseminating values and shaping sentiments over a range of situations.

The role models for the Pakistani public are leaders tainted with various scandals of character and integrity. The youth are steadily reminded that relying on ‘merit’ is not as rewarding as investing one’s energies and talents in currying favour with the elites. The term meritocracy in this country has been relegated to the realm of impossibility.

Children have very representative symbols to imbibe the concepts of fairness, honesty, fortitude, impartiality and integrity – essentially needed to build their self-esteem and self-confidence among younger generations. On the contrary, values have been so distorted that school children take pride in what their parents make by getting bribes and through kickbacks. Corruption has become our national pastime.

The only fault of the Bahawalpur incident victims is that, from their suicidal ‘herd behaviour’ they exhibited at the local level what now characterises us at the national level. It takes several generations for a nation to forget their values; it will take at least an equal number of generations to revive them. But while taking concrete steps toward once more defusing these ideals in the national fabric, we need to take some concurrent and fundamental measures.

Former president Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia transformed a country with social indicators much worse than those of Pakistan within a short span of eight years by crafting and earnestly following the motto ‘zero tolerance for corruption’.

In his highly-acclaimed book ‘The Power of Habit’, author Charles Duhigg argues that, to rid oneself of bad habits, one needs to get rid of the “reinforcers” of that habit. As a first step, Pakistan needs to immediately embark on purging all such “reinforcers” of malfeasance among politicians and civil servants.

They say it is people, not soldiers, that fight actual wars. The younger generations, already low on self-esteem, will lack in the Hobbesian ‘fortitude’ needed to survive in a world with breathtaking competition. We need to immediately take steps to boost the morale of our youth; inculcate in them the willingness to face challenges head-on; and encourage them to confront fear, pain or intimidation. These attributes our next generations need to compete on the political and economic fronts locally, regionally and internationally.

We cannot afford wasting any more time, as losing on this front will amount to willingly losing on national sovereignty.

The writer is a civil servant in Sindh. He has a PhD in public policy and also teaches at IBA, Karachi.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @ibhatti

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