THERE is no way to sugarcoat the bitter fact that we are a society at war with itself.
As 2022 slumbers into its second week, there are no indications that this warring is about to give way to healing. The hate, yes it’s still intensifying; the polarisation, yes it’s still widening; and the venom, yes it’s still spreading. In the process, we have witnessed the death of civility, the debasement of discourse and the dilution of values. This society is bleeding from a thousand self-inflicted cuts.
The self-harm was premeditated. Or at worst, it was the unintended consequence of premeditated plans. Those aghast at the leaks of audios and videos should not be. This was bound to happen. When you climb up the escalatory ladder, laws get trampled on every rung. So does decency. And social mores. From there on, it is a natural regression towards mediaevalism while clutching the trappings of modernity.
Today’s Pakistani society is more divided than it has been the last five decades. This division is not measured in intensity — we’ve had polarisation as a continuum within our political evolution — but in the depth to which it has ruptured the fabric of society. The poison has seeped deep and will not go away even if those injecting it do so. When leaders cannot work with leaders, and followers cannot converse with followers, know that malignancy has infected the body politic down to its tissues and muscles.
It has also created superficial and superfluous binaries and impeded the flow of organic social, political and even cultural evolution. When your national discourse embraces blacks and whites and banishes the greys; when it frames politics as an epic struggle between good and evil and leaders as heroes and villains; and when the logic of loathing begins to twist and bend the requirements of due process — when all of this happens then know this: the system that governs us all is creaking at the joints, and the norms that bind us all are bleeding through all pores.
We are weakened today because we have debased the fundamentals of statecraft.
For a constitutional state this state of affairs is unnatural. And unsustainable. Sooner or later the framework that holds everything together — the deference and reverence for law and for institutions that administer the law — will begin to sag under the growing weight of mutual revulsion and disgust. The tribal instinct will overpower the constraints of jurisprudence and statecraft and force people to submit to this frightening reality. In some ways, this has already happened. The rot is not just around us, but also inside us.
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Ask yourself this: can you today analyse the state of affairs in the homeland with rationality and without the crutches of emotion? Are you losing the ability to sift right from wrong without resorting to justifications that are dangerously convenient? The answers may surprise you. And shock you.
How then can a society bruised and battered by its own hands nurse itself back to health?
The answer seems impossible to find in a polity that has straitjacketed itself in a zero-sum game. It is a game in which destroying the rival, not just defeating him, is the priority. That’s not possible. The last few years have illustrated this with ample evidence. Time is gradually bringing the greys back into the black and white framing of life. Pakistanis hypnotised by the falsity of their own hopes are slowly rubbing their eyes in realisation that there are no heroes and villains but a long line of flawed men and women trying their best to rise to their level of mediocrity. The inadequacies of the system are swiftly catching up with the inability of those wanting to run it. The gap between the expectations of the citizens and the ability of the leaders to deliver upon them is widening by the day. The magic is wearing off.
Pettiness of intent, and of rhetoric, is hard to disguise for long. If the last few years have taught us anything it is that there are no shortcuts to capable governance and statecraft. Frivolity in the exercise of power can often do more damage than the abuse of it. If healing has to begin, it has do to so by acknowledging that politics and governance needs to return to the framework of process, procedure and proper policy planning; and that it has to be conducted not as a zero-sum game but as a complex enterprise in which checks and balances are an essential ingredient, not an inconvenient hindrance.
We are weakened today because we have debased the fundamentals of statecraft. A low-trust society cannot afford to barter away trust for political one-upmanship. The accountability process is in tatters because this is exactly what we have bartered. So is the weakened criminal justice system because of its increasing inability to investigate, prosecute and convict via a process that builds trust, not cripples it.
It does not inspire confidence when you conduct an experiment and blow up the lab. Having romanced with glorious intentions and charismatic saviours, it is time perhaps to return to the dullness of politics that promises less and delivers more. We could do with the tediousness of governance and the boredom of statecraft. There is work to be done. Becoming normal again will not be easy. Contrary to popular opinion, there is no shortcut to healing a ruptured society and disinfecting a poisonous discourse.
We need a timeout. All may have to put down their swords, sling back their shields and retreat to their tents for the night. Or two nights. The damage has to be reviewed, the wounded have to be treated and the dead have to be buried. It is time to hunker down and rebuild our defences; to sharpen the blades and repair the ramparts; and to pore over battle plans and craft a new strategy for victory.
There will be a time for swashbuckling heroes and heroines, but now is not that time; there will be a time for grandiloquent politics and soaring rhetoric, but now is not that time; and there will be a time for saviours to whisk us away to the land of our dreams, but now is not that time.
Now is a time to heal. Just heal.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, January 8th, 2022