Thursday April 18, 2024

Persons, systems and situations

By Mir Adnan Aziz
February 09, 2018

An oxymoron is defined as a figure of speech wherein seemingly contradictory terms appear side by side. British writer Thomas Gibbons characterised it as “sense in the masquerade of folly”. In our context, the truest embodiment of the term – though it isn’t an oxymoron – could be ‘just governance’.

The success and effectiveness of a nation depends on the leaders who make public policies and, in so doing, critically determine their outcome. Centuries ago, Cato asserted that “the worst ruler is one who cannot rule himself”. History is a witness to the decline and eventual destruction of great empires. The death knell sounds once the leadership of a country forsakes just governance. As their passions forge their fetters, reason capitulates and self-interest and self-preservation becomes the ultimate predatory goal. It is an unassailable fact that, over time, this toxic leadership has a trickledown effect, seeping into and becoming an integral part of the social fabric. No wonder we see its horrendous manifestations in each and every facet of our daily lives.

In the realm of psychology, the Milgram and Stanford Prison experiments (both identical) are often quoted. Philip George Zimbardo, who holds a PhD in psychology from Yale, is a professor emeritus at Stanford University. He became known for his 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment. Around 24 students were recruited for a two-week experiment and paid $15 a day. They were randomly assigned to be either prison guards or inmates. As they slipped into their assigned roles, behavioural degradation set in immediately, with the ‘guards’ asserting their new authority with creative evil whereas the ‘prisoners’ became submissive and accepted the punishments meted out to them.

The attitudes within the experiment became so realistically ominous that Zimbardo had to end the experiment after just six days. The conclusion was that ordinary college students willingly became sadistic tormentors because they had the unaccountable permission and the means to do so. After this experiment, Zimbardo’s well-publicised result was based on a three-tiered system: person, system and situation. The Stanford Prison Experiment became an established concept in psychology.

Years later, Dr Zimbardo was called in as an expert witness in Iraq’s infamous Abu Ghraib prison torture case. During the proceedings, he asserted that ‘you cannot be a sweet cucumber in a vinegar barrel’. This was by no means a justification for committed crimes and wrongs, but a fact. If daily occurrences and the national environment are conducive, they encourage positive things. If they are not, the people will be negatively impacted as they begin to conform with the circumstances. Abject dehumanisation and moral degradation finds a breeding ground in such an environment and the sanctity of human life lies forsaken.

A leader (person), state institutions (system) and societal environment (situation) are the foundations for good governance. It remains the mandated responsibility of the state. It is something no administration can abdicate or pass on to others. A sturdy and honest leadership and institutions are the underlying determinant of just governance.

The brutal incident of rape and murder that recently surfaced in Kasur is a manifestation of what our society has turned into. The fact that this is the twelfth such case to surface in this small town epitomises the callous indifference of the pallbearers of our ineffective democracy.

Nothing is more essential to a country’s future than the assertion of control over its own destiny. Over the years, loans – tranquilisers for a failing economy – have made us irredeemably dependent. The outcome has been a mismanaged economy; blatantly misplaced priorities; a lack of accountability; and corruption and nepotism within the entire public sector and administrative system.

Corruption, crime and poverty reinforce each other in a deeply symbiotic relationship that holds the impoverished as pawns in a despicable game of political neglect and economic mismanagement. All these manifestations, if taken together, conjure a fearful picture of the state’s failure. This may also be appropriately conceptualised as a process wherein the state has abjectly failed to ensure the wellbeing and security citizens and their property.

The families of the victims have repeatedly asked the chief justice and the army chief for redress. This reflects a total loss of trust in the state. This, in turn, has led to hopelessness, frustration and fear. In some cases, the people have given in to the seduction of the retributive ‘justice’ of vigilantism – something the state and the media have glorified. What could be a more telling aspect of the failure of our state?

Democracy is a self-regulating system that seeks to run a social order through the competent management of a country’s resources and affairs in a manner that is transparent, accountable, equitable and responsive to the people’s needs. What we have is, as French philosopher Alain Badiou put it, a “democratic illusion”.

Amid the challenges we face from abroad and more so from within, the most dangerous of situations is when politicians disparage state institutions and persuade their ‘Stanford prison’ electorate to do the same.

Winnie Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s wife, said the following words: “with matches and tyres, we will liberate this country”. Africans, who were thought to be aiding the apartheid regime, were brutally murdered by placing petrol-filled tyres around their necks and setting them alight. Nelson Mandela, incarcerated at that time, rejected his wife’s slogan. It was not the fire necklaces that ended the apartheid in South Africa, but the wisdom and towering leadership of just one person: Nelson Mandela. Lee Kuan Yew did it for Singapore and Dr Mahathir did it for Malaysia. In recent history, we have seen individuals transform the destiny of their nations.

Michael Bates, Britain’s International Development Minister, resigned a few days ago because he was a couple of minutes late for a parliamentary question session. He returned to power in October 2016, after quitting as Home Office minister earlier that year to participate in a charity trek across South America. He walked almost 2,000 miles from Buenos Aires to Rio de Janeiro, raising more than GBP 260,000 for a children’s charity. These are examples that are become a guiding light for a nation.

Pakistan is blessed with natural and human resources. What we desperately need is an enabling environment to tap these resources. Instead of crying ‘conspiracy’, the political elite should look inwards to fill the immense vacuum that they have created.

With an increasingly assertive judiciary, things have further slipped away from the government’s hand. It may just be a matter of time before events deem the chosen elite more of a liability than the irreplaceable asset they fallaciously think they are. Governance, like nature, abhors a vacuum.

The writer is a freelance contributor.