‘Irrational’ violence

December 16, 2019


The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

AS with all pieces on the issue, this one too starts off with the premise that no amount of condemnation is enough for the lawyers’ rampage at the Punjab Institute of Cardiology and the persisting state of inaction and grandstanding from bodies regulating the profession. Barring the brave stance taken by a few independent practitioners, it increasingly looks like this incident will go the way of previous episodes of wuklagardi: without any punitive action or lasting impetus for reform.

The institutional causes for violence by lawyers have been summed up well in a few recent pieces: the organisational dimension of such collective violence, ie the bar associations, are correctly identified as a major factor by Maryam Khan and Reza Ali in recent op-eds. Khan’s point, in particular, about funds being funnelled into these entities, as well as the culture of impunity bred within their leadership is of utmost importance. Similarly, the phenomenon of ‘outbidding’ — competing lawyer leaders trying to prove they’re more committed to the community by engaging in or justifying egregious acts — is another key driver of group behaviour.

One aspect, however, that has received somewhat less attention is the broader issue of violent protest and group conflict itself, and why exactly it manifests so frequently in Pakistan. The shock factor surrounding this recent incident was on the profile of the participants — ostensibly college-educated, middle and lower-middle class, white-collar professionals. The reaction pays homage to a time-tested trope in Pakistani popular discourse that somehow education is a great firewall against everything from violent behaviour, to bad voting decisions, to corruption.

The fact, borne out by recent events, is that a college degree does not guarantee against any type of behaviour, let alone violent behaviour. The BFRS political violence dataset (which covers the years between 1988-2010) lists 317 incidents of explicitly violent protests, riots, and demonstrations carried out by ‘professional groups and unions’. That’s at least 14 violent protests a year on average, which is precisely why we need better explanations for such incidents.

The starting point for us is that ‘irrationality’ needs to be set aside as an explanation for any type of crowd behaviour.

The sociological literature on violent collective action provides some interesting insights that can complement the institutional/political explanations pointed out by other authors. The starting point for us is that ‘irrationality’ needs to be set aside as an explanation for any type of crowd behaviour. People who participate do so in their senses, and for a variety of reasons.

Gary Marx’s typology of riots, published almost 40 years ago, is useful in so far that it points out how violence can both serve very specific goals and is frequently underpinned by a shared belief among the participants. In many cases both are present. In the PIC case, the instrumental goal was seeking revenge by intimidating a specific group of doctors who had apparently ‘offended’ the lawyers’; and the shared belief was the consecration of group privileges and group ego that now underpins bar association politics.

The powder keg in this as with so many other violent incidents is the sense of impunity that pervades any reasonably powerful group in the country. Individuals are more likely to participate in transgressive activities, even document them on TikTok and Facebook Live, if they feel that the repercussions are going to be limited at best. This sense of impunity is in itself learned behaviour, accumulated over multiple episodes of getting away with violent behaviour, now spanning more than a decade.

As detailed here, understanding violent acts as utilitarian strategy undertaken by thinking, knowing individuals helps us move past ‘deviancy-based’ understandings that invoke irrationality as explanations. Yet for all their value, they still underplay one key aspect: the values, emotions, and, more broadly, the cultural milieu through which violent rioters make sense of the world around them — a sense, which in this case, made the act of forcefully removing oxygen masks from cardiac patients seem like a perfectly reasonable course of action.

In one of the rare expositions from this particular slant, legal academic, Emad Ansari shed further light on the sociocultural context of transgressive behaviour by lawyers: while many of the participants are credentialled professionals, they on average experience largely unfulfilling careers. They are often caught up in rigid patronage chains with senior lawyers (bar leaders for example), remaining beholden to them for cases and clients, while remaining stuck themselves in precarious material conditions. Demonstrating loyalty as dutiful underlings is expected behaviour, especially in moments of collective response such as a protest or a strike, even when the reward structure is heavily skewed towards a select few.

This is not unique to lawyers, which is perhaps why violence is not unique to them either. Whether accurate or misplaced, feelings of marginality, unmet expectations, and disenfranchisement pervade many societal groups who feel their credentials, occupational, and even caste status, make them deserving of something bigger and better. More broadly, as men in a deeply patriarchal society, an inability to meet societal expectations due to failure in the professional domain and status shortcomings (general lack of respect among peers and others), is another ideational burden that many grapple with.

Going on a rampage is not an automatic (read biological/natural) outcome of this, but it can be deemed as the ‘appropriate’ response to address these issues by years of socialisation and acculturation in particular environments. Violent self-expression, as status/respect-seeking behaviour, should thus not just be seen as irrationality, nor even just as utilitarian strategy, but as socially embedded action.

The point of raising these issues is not to absolve anyone of the crimes they’ve committed; it is simply to add to existing conversations about bar association reform and legal consequences for such behaviour. We need to start thinking beyond impunity-based explanations for why so many find it easy to turn to violence, what are the cultural and social drivers of such behaviour, and whether these drivers can even be tackled by punitive measures alone.

The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, December 16th, 2019