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Patriotic emotion

February 17, 2019

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The writer is a lawyer.
The writer is a lawyer.

ALL societies have to overcome the problem of promoting cooperation between unrelated individuals. That is often done through coercion, as when the law taxes your income for redistribution, or by offering incentives where you get tax credits or rebates on contributions made towards a specific programme. At times, societies will try and cultivate emotions that promote cooperation or sacrifice. Patriotism is one such emotion — an emotion that has always been, and still is, a popular choice of the Pakistani state.

At its very core, the notion of patriotism involves being attached to one’s own country. In that sense, one can see its value: it allows people to transcend their individual self-interest and work towards collective goals because some problems cannot be solved without sacrificing things that are dear to us. Patriotism makes that sacrifice easier by enlarging what Martha Nussbaum calls our “circle of concern”.

Field work from evolutionary biology shows that there is a tendency in human bei­ngs to be sympathetic and altruistic towards one’s own kin because people have learned to survive by supporting each other through centuries of evolution. If kin-selection theory is true and we are genetically wired to be concerned only about people who are close to us, then the argument goes society should try to cultivate emotions that can help people sympathise with those outside their kin.

Jingoism or an excess of patriotic pomp can be dangerous.

But how far should such sympathy extend? In the 19th century, nationalists like Mazzini argued that nationality can serve as a useful proxy for making that determination. Today, nationality and patriotism play an important role in helping us escape kin-shaped affection by engendering feelings of compassion towards our fellow countrymen by asking us to extend our circle of concern beyond our kin to cover all Pakistanis irrespective of their ethnicity, race, religion or caste. There is no longer me, my family, my relatives but me, my fellow citizens, my countrymen.

That is good. But like all other things, jingoism or an excess of patriotic pomp and display can be very dangerous when it comes at the cost of reducing the space for critical thinking and free speech. A number of countervailing considerations caution against fully embracing the sentiment because of the inherent risk in its misuse.

First, a social construct that allows us to include some people in our circle of concern would by definition allow us to exclude others. The state can therefore use it as a tool for inclusion as well as exclusion depending on where and how it wants to draw the line. This is evident in the state’s response to the PTM. Instead of addressing their legitimate grievances, the state has — from day one — been leading a concerted effort to discredit the movement by linking it with foreign governments. By so doing, it has tried to remove the movement from our circle of concern and has risked alienating ‘them’ from ‘us’.

Second, because the concept of patriotism is intrinsically linked to national security, it gives the arbiters of what does and does not constitute national interest immense power to dish out certificates of patriotism to whoever they like and withhold it from those who fall out of favour. Slapping treason charges on a journalist over an interview viewed in some quarters as detrimental to the state’s interests is one such example.

Third, if the state has the power to determine who is and who isn’t patriotic, it can pressurise people into compliance by stifling dissent and thrusting homogeneity on others. This is becoming evident in the increasing tendency to label people, who hold views different from the official state narrative, unpatriotic. Critics of the chief justice-prime minister dam project have previously been thr­eatened with treason. Media cha­­n­­nels and an­­chors that do not project a positive image of Pakistan have their sincerity questioned. Peo­ple raising concerns about the accountability process are jeered.

Using the loyalty card to shoot down alternate viewpoints without having to engage with them on the merits is easy but it carries the dangerous consequence of stigmatising both the viewpoint and its holder. This has the concomitant effect of shrinking space for free speech because it discourages others from voicing such views.

Fourth, patriotism is not necessarily a virtue because it has no moral content. There is no necessary connection between patriotism and morality; one can be a patriotic person and still be morally depraved. If the history of Nazi Germany ought to teach us one thing it is that patriotism alone does not make good citizens or good human beings; its telos must be tied with other values that are independently worth aspiring to. Patriotism is then only instrumentally, not intrinsically, valuable.

Many people will find that hard to digest. But that is true for just about anything that you might say in Pakistan today. So who cares?

The writer is a lawyer.
b.soofi@gmail.com
Twitter: bbsoofi

Published in Dawn, February 17th, 2019