Sunday June 26, 2022

Mad, bad and dangerous to know

May 08, 2022

When Lady Caroline Lamb described Lord Byron – one of the greatest English poets – as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”, she was of course sharing her personal impressions of Byron.

This expression comes to mind when you look at today’s Pakistan and find an entire breed of people who seem to be ‘mad, bad, and dangerous to know’. For ease of conversation, let’s call them MBD here. There are multiple factors that have contributed to the emergence of this phenomenon among some Pakistanis living at home or abroad. They have made plenty of observers seem clueless about what shape this anomaly would take next. They let rip at the slightest provocation – or even without it. Mostly they are instigated by their leaders who are equally clueless and ready to let rip. What they did in Madina on April 28 is just one example of their uncontrollable behaviour that they have become prone to display.

MBD is not a new phenomenon; we have seen such cases both nationally and internationally. The trick of their leaders is to make such behaviour appear perfectly normal. Some commentators have made comparisons with fascist and Nazi tendencies in Italy and Germany in the first half of the 20th century. We may also recall the Altaf-Hussain times in Karachi, when he unleashed a reign of terror on all who disagreed with him or dared to raise a voice of dissent.

The prime span of fascism and Nazism was nearly 25 years, after which their steam was snuffed out. Nearly all followers of these ideologies were mad, bad, and dangerous to know. They wreaked havoc within their homelands and on their own people, and they would have continued with their destructive behaviour for decades to come. Even after an end to their violent extremism, their remnants are still around and reemerge here and there with their fossilized thinking patterns and a potential to erupt any moment.

Specific to Pakistan, this intolerance was pioneered by the state itself. A curious and dispassionate reading of history makes facts clear, which Pakistan Studies textbooks tend to hide. Though it will be a slight exaggeration to blame everything on the state, there is ample evidence that state policies and practices cultivate – to a great extent – ideas of self-righteousness and narcissism among common citizens, through education and propaganda. The state loves to nurture birds that fly blind, and this flight leads them to mostly wrong destinations. Authoritarianism or pluralism, democracy or dictatorship, humility or hubris, prejudice or tolerance – all are there to crush or groom. The state makes most decisions about where to lead the nation. There are bursts of affection for certain personalities that develop personality cults.

Does this have anything to do with dogmas, religiosity and sectarianism? Of course. The more dogmas are propagated, the more intolerant people tend to become. Dogma means a blind faith in unquestionable ideologies and personalities. If there is one ideology you can’t question, there will soon be more of the same ilk. When you revere a personality at the cost of a more balanced assessment of personal traits, there are greater chances of more leaders emerging with the same claims of infallibility. It becomes a kind of a crusade for their followers to defend their leader at all costs, no matter how destructive or dumb that person may be.

The question is: why does a state nurture or tolerate such mad, bad, and dangerous behaviour? Perhaps the answer lies in understanding the nature of the state itself. In countries such as Pakistan there is always a cosseted elite embedded in the state itself. This elite comes from diverse sections of society: bureaucrats, capitalists, feudal lords, generals, industrialists, judges, and many more. If they are not from the existing elite, the state co-opts them for its own and their benefit. They are mostly complacent in their own attitudes and want to keep the people engaged in one preoccupation or the other.

These elites are safe in their own guarded compounds and their well-defended capital – or they think so. The country carries on its downward spiral from which it always struggles to emerge. When people are exposed to excessive chauvinism, ideological and narcissistic overdoses, religiosity, sectarianism, and xenophobia, they seldom think about their real problems such as illiteracy, unemployment, lack of public healthcare, and shortage of power and water. The elite that composes the state itself, is unaffected by these problems and sits comfortably while the people are fed with personality cults and chant slogans against purported enemies.

Gradually, malign forces in society take a deep hold of the people who fail to understand the real conspiracies within – while believing in imaginary conspiracies from outer lands. It may be Afghanistan, America, India, or even Iran, hatching sinister plans against Pakistan while our own elite is safe and sound; bunging up nearly all sectors of society from education to health to power to security and water and sanitation, and what not. That’s how the mad, bad, and dangerous behaviour thrives. There are segments of society that pose a lingering threat to the constitution, democracy, financial stability, and overall health of society but the elite in power does not consider them a threat to itself.

Amid this chaos emerge authoritarian personalities who may be from civilian or military backgrounds. They offer precise solutions to imprecise challenges. Such leaders master the art of grabbing people’s attention without disabusing them of their false notions. People tend to overlook their leaders’ abusive language, their acerbic tongues with brimstone rhetoric. Once these leaders come to power, they try to stack the country's institutions with pliant people. They bully political opponents, criticize media outlets that refuse to support the great leader, and curb freedoms of assembly and expression.

They develop a mad, bad, and dangerous following that targets even a flicker of resistance. Such people are irrelevant in the broader scheme of things both nationally and internationally but assume an air of importance as if the whole world is conspiring against them. They struggle to become relevant, and while doing so they inflict even more harm to their country internally – and to its standing externally. Their system of thinking is premised upon a desire to dominate; this desire underpins nearly all their acts, including violence. They try to sound impressive but lack substance.

Then what should the state do? An immediate solution is legal proceedings against them. But, unless there is a realization that we need to democratize our society as a whole through education and economic opportunities, there is hardly anything that can control this mad, bad, and dangerous to know lot. Democratization does not mean just holding elections; and modernization is not just reflected in constructing bridges and buildings. What is needed is a democratic outlook that is opposed to authoritarianism; and a modern education that is not chauvinistic, conservative and sectarian. The state needs to initiate and promote a culture of dialogue in education and politics.

Be it with constitutional matters, nationality question, provincial autonomy, or relations with neighbours – all need a democratic discussion and not MBDs opposed to debate and more interested in eliminating ‘enemies’. This mad, bad, and dangerous attitude engenders hostilities in society; the state needs to reduce those hostilities. In its attempts to control all policies, the state itself has been hostile to democracy and that hostility has generated even more hostile forces in society. Some introspection and self-awareness please – the only way forward for this country.

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK. He tweets @NaazirMahmood and can be reached at: