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December 17, 2019

The black and white of power

Opinion

December 17, 2019

The yin-yang is arguably the most famous colour symbol of all times. Originating in the ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism, it is represented by a circle consisting of two parts: a black portion encapsulating a white dot — called yin — and a white portion containing a black dot, which is known as yang.

The yin-yang dialectically describes how in both natural and social orders opposite forces — life and death, day and night, strength and weakness, the negative and the positive — need and balance each other.

Two classic validations of the yin-yang philosophy are the ascendency of capitalism in the 20th century and the resounding success of the Chinese development model. When faced with the communist threat, which in the post-World War-II international order seemed capable of taking the entire European continent, capitalism responded by incorporating some elements of its adversary. The capitalist response to the changing circumstances started with pro-worker legislation and culminated in the welfare state. Beginning with the collapse

of the Soviet Union, in the end, it was communism that was wiped out from Europe.

On the other hand, China overcame the state-market contradiction by adopting the philosophy of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics,’ under which a closed and socialist economy was gradually and carefully opened to both the market forces and foreign competition without giving away overall state authority. The experiment has had spectacular success and converted an agrarian economy into an industrial powerhouse, where the Communist Party continues to call the shots. This makes socialism with Chinese characteristics one of the most powerful political philosophies of all times.

Let’s turn from the world of the giants to that of the ordinary mortals. Like the yin and the yang, we too have our powerful black and white symbols. These symbols, however, don’t rest on a philosophic foundation — and understandably so. Instead, they represent two popular and noble professions, law and medicine. Lawyers are the torch-bearers of rule of law — the securest foundation of any polity — and custodians of citizens’ rights against excesses by both state and

society. Doctors are the last hope of the sick and the wounded; they are often the bulwark between life and death, health and disability. That explains why medicine and law are among the oldest and highly regarded of professions.

With prestige and utility comes a sense of power. In itself, power is amoral — it can be used for both ethical and unethical purposes. In a culture where abuse of power is a norm, it would not be realistic to expect doctors and lawyers not to go over the line. Knowing that no government can afford to have hospitals shut, doctors employed in the public sector frequently resort to strikes, leaving the patients, even those who are in a critical condition, to fend for themselves, to press for their demands, which often pertain to a better service structure. Not only that, in case one doctor is proceeded against for negligence, the entire cadre pulls the shutters down on hospitals and dispensaries to force the authorities to pull back.

As for lawyers, their sense of power magnified during the 2007-2008 movement for reinstatement of judges. If lawyers could lock horns with a mighty dictator and eventually force him to step down, no other opponent was too strong for them. Since then, lawyers have ransacked courts and attacked judges, not to speak of wading into cops and ordinary citizens, who are always a sitting duck. In most, if not all, such cases, rogue lawyers have gotten away scot free.

It was only a matter of time when the two machismos would clash. That happened recently when a group of lawyers, hacked off by the thrashing and mocking of some of their colleagues by doctors a few days earlier, attacked the Punjab Institute of Cardiology (PIC) in Lahore, smashed the equipment and forced patients and the attendants to flee. If they wished to prove who was the brasher of the two professionals, they proved that.

The attack on the PIC will go down as a textbook example of mob behaviour. As a rule, mob behaviour is dramatic, unpredictable and frightening. The starting point is the development of a common sentiment towards an object of hatred — a person, a cultural or religious symbol, or a physical asset owned by the group at the receiving end. Thus in the eyes of the belligerent lawyers, the PIC was a symbol of doctors’ power.

Once the object of the attack has been identified and emotions have been aroused to a high pitch, the crowd goes all-out against it. Any interference, discussion of the desirability of acting and dissent from the course of action are disallowed. Mob behaviour possesses three overriding characteristics: it is more-or-less unanimous, it is intense, and it is different from conventional behaviour.

The mob feels it is placed in a special situation created by perceived violation of some vital norm, beating of some members of the legal fraternity in the PIC case, in which a special moral code — ‘an eye for an eye’, ‘fighting fire with fire’ or ‘nipping the evil in the bud’ — applies. The demands of the situation are felt to be so strong as to dissolve normal restraints. Loot, plunder, pillage, taking a life or even massacre may be considered justified in view of the ‘enormity’ of the situation.

Thus while to an outsider the lawyers who ransacked the PIC clearly went over the line, for the perpetrators their response was perfectly logical — a befitting response to an extraordinary situation. Not only that, as the footage shows, they were drawing immense satisfaction from the pillage. What for the patients and society at large was an ineffable tragedy, turned out to be a carnival for the lawyers.

The mob is imbued with a sense of its own power and impunity. It believes in accomplishing the aim — causing maximum possible loss in terms of life or property belonging to the other side — come what may. It is also convinced that its actions will go unchecked or unpunished, which accounts for the ruthlessness.

American psychologist Neil Smelser has outlined some critical conditions for the development of mob behaviour. These include: (a) the social structure must be peculiarly conducive to the behaviour in question; (b) a group of people must experience strain; (c) a distinctive type of belief must be present to interpret the situation; (d) there must be a precipitating event; and (e) the group must be mobilized for action on the basis of the belief. All those conditions were evidently present in the PIC incident.

Mob behaviour is thus an expression of both cultural conflict and organizational failure. It lays bare the cleavages and schism present in a society. That’s why the action earns both approval and disapproval, admiration and condemnation. One side regards the perpetrators as heroes serving a ‘just’ cause; for the other they are despicable villains.

The most critical condition for the outburst of mob violence is conducive social structure. A society putting its trust mainly in force is a fertile ground for mob behaviour. Such a society exhibits a strong tendency for sanctifying killings and other forms of violence in the name of a collective cause pursued with immense fervour.

As well as targeting the object, mob violence has two apparently mutually contradictory outcomes: On the one hand, it erodes the faith of a considerable segment of the people in the government’s ability or willingness to protect their life, property and cultural symbols — the very raison d’etre of the state. Thus it sets in motion a chain of events, which posits mob violence as the only way to get ‘justice.’

On the other hand, a large section of society looks upon even peaceful protests and assemblies with disapproval, believing such gatherings may also become violent. On both counts, the result is a shrinking space for peaceful conflict resolution.

The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @hussainhzaidi