FOR society in which such a premium is placed on ‘moral’ and ‘righteous’ behaviour, scant attention is paid by thinkers and political actors to just how fluid ethical conduct is.
This is perhaps because of the overwhelming emphasis placed, at the rhetorical level at least, on Islam as the foundational pillar of being a ‘good’ Pakistani. One either accedes to standard practice in this regard, or expends a great deal of time and effort in arguing that socially acceptable and progressive norms can and should be determined on the basis of secular criteria. In short, on both ends of the spectrum there is insufficient interrogation of ‘actually existing ethics’.
Notwithstanding the insistence of those who believe that morals are frozen in time, our notions of ‘good’ behaviour are not independent of the real physical environment that we occupy. In other words, there cannot be eternally abiding values; material changes over time are coeval with changes in our conception of suitable ethical practices.
Pakistani society is indeed a veritable laboratory for those who wish to understand the linkages between material and ideational change. Contrary to what too many of our urbanites think, ours is a society that is anything but static.
A large number of people in this country are literally in a state of flux: migration has been a major feature of the social landscape since even before Independence, not to mention the period after the Green Revolution of the 1960s.
Migrant workers almost always live two separate yet intertwining lives; there is the relatively isolated urban environment in which they live and work for most of the year, and then the extremely intense embedded networks of (predominantly) rural life that they return to for short intervening periods.
Yet it is never the case that their values are either confined entirely to one realm or the other. The notions of ‘good’ behaviour that exist in either realm are constantly in competition with each other.
This suggests that the rural-urban binary that informs much of our thinking about the world can, at some levels, be quite misleading (even if there is little doubt that the rural-urban divide in terms of political and economic power is still very pronounced).
Those who we consider to be ‘backward’ and unexposed to the sights and sounds of modern life are privy to many more aspects of the urban metropolis than we are typically willing to consider.
Certainly, it is now more or less a consensus opinion amongst scholars working on the topic that working-class migrants hailing from rural backgrounds (of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in particular) have been instrumental in bringing back to their villages wealth, consumer goods, and values that have heralded considerable changes (and conflict to boot).
Yet it is true that in many of these same villages certain customary practices are intact which are considered unacceptable to almost all self-proclaimed progressives. But let us not forget that social conservatism is not confined only to the prototypical rural setting.
It is common for the TV media to hype a particularly gruesome case of misogynistic violence in a village of its choosing from time to time, but this does not mean that structural violence against women is a rural phenomenon.
There are a great many number of anecdotes about male heads of household who have lived in cities and towns for the entirety of their lives who deny their wives, daughters and sisters even the most basic freedoms.
The point is that there is no linear path to enlightenment and socially acceptable behaviour. It would simply be incorrect to argue, as too many progressives do, that all will be well in Pakistan as soon as the rural (read: illiterate and ignorant) gives way to the urban (read: educated and aware).
This proposed transformation has been under way for decades and has yet to produce the outcomes that we are convinced it will.
Having made this qualification, there is one underlying trend that must be flagged. The deepening of capitalism has, for much of the past 200 years, been the central feature of modernity in the subcontinent, alongside the emergence of the (post) colonial state. Everyone in society is affected by, and largely accepting of, the spread of capitalist technology.
What we are less cognisant of is that this technology and the relations of production that come with it also imply changed values and, therefore, notions of ‘good’ behaviour.
Going back to the example of women and overbearing men in urban settings, I would suggest that it becomes increasingly difficult for fathers, brothers and husbands to regulate the behaviour of women once the latter come into possession of a cellphone.
The limitations imposed upon women in terms of public space in particular can be transcended, in the ‘virtual’ realm at least.
This newfound ‘freedom’ necessarily entails conflict, but then conflicts over changing values are as old as human society itself.
In this case capitalist technology may precipitate what is considered progressive change. In most cases, I think, the ‘new’ values which are coeval with capitalism are far more ambiguous, and often retrogressive.
I can see nothing positive, for example, in the fact that education, health and other basic human needs are being commodified to the point that it becomes morally acceptable for large numbers of ordinary people to be deprived of access to these services.
To return to where I started — there is a need to think much more deeply about how Pakistanis conceive of what it means to be ‘good’, or, for that matter, ‘not good’.
It can easily be argued that ‘actually existing ethics’ in this country are less about ‘righteous’ behaviour than the proverbial survival of the fittest.
The poor and voiceless have to contend with all kinds of oppressive structures on a daily basis; if they concern themselves with some prescribed definition of ethical conduct they may just be biting off more than they can chew.
This does not mean that we should not hold firm to some universal notions of socially acceptable behaviour. We should, and we must. But in the struggle to change society according to an ideal that we can agree upon, it is necessary first to understand what exists in the here and now.
Being contemptuous of ‘actually existing ethics’ by dismissing them as the product of a hyper-religious society mirrors the standpoint of the anti-secularists who argue that there cannot be ethical behaviour without reference to religion.
Both sides miss the point entirely.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.