SMOKERS’ CORNER: HEROES, VILLAINS AND FOOLS

Published December 31, 2023
Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

The former prime minister of Pakistan Imran Khan often referred to his opponents as ‘Mir Jafar’ and ‘Mir Sadiq.’ In Pakistan, these two names are often synonymous with acts of treachery. Mir Sadiq and Mir Jafar were 18th century figures who allegedly betrayed the kings of Mysore and Bengal.

The two Mirs aided the British in overthrowing their respective sultans. Their ‘betrayal’ and characters were mythologised as subjects of vilification by the poet Muhammad Iqbal — even though, at least Sultan Siraj ud-Daulah, who was betrayed by Mir Jafar, was an unpopular sovereign infamous for his cruelty and opium addiction.

Secondly, as the historian Mubarak Ali has rightly pointed out, the two Mirs were not ‘betrayers’ of nations because there were no nation-states in the region in the 18th century. The two men, in fact, betrayed their kings — an act not uncommon in the ‘palace politics’ of the time.

The reason Iqbal poetised the fading memory of the ‘treachery’ of Jafar and Sadiq a century later was to create villains that could be vilified by a Muslim community that, in the 20th century, was attempting to turn itself into a nation. There were many within this community who were unwilling to unite on the nationalist platform. So it is likely that, to Iqbal, these were the Mir Sadiqs and Mir Jafars of the community who were to be vilified. Vilification, too, can work as a political act and have purpose.

Most societies create ‘heroes’ as a source of inspiration and pit them against ‘villains’ that must be vanquished and demonised

In 1962, the American sociologist Orrin E. Klapp wrote that, in times of rapid change and instability, society produces three archetypes: the hero, the villain and the fool. Out of these, two can’t exist without each other: the hero and the villain. These stereotypes emerge as socially constructed protagonists and antagonists to contextualise complexities in a simplified manner during translational and unstable periods of time.

In the 1920s and early 1930s, an economic collapse and the resultant political instability and polarisation in Germany saw various social forces create villains to vilify and blame. Then the same forces created a hero who was to vanquish the vilified. The villains were Jewish people, communists and social democrats. The hero was Adolph Hitler, a once-obscure former German soldier who rose to power as a ‘conquering hero.’

According to Klapp, archetypes can help societies mitigate the effects of instability, even though, and as in the case of Hitler, the hero can end up creating even more disruption. What about the fool? What is he needed for? Klapp wrote that the fool is created for amusement and is someone to ridicule — perhaps by a society suffering from a collective lack of self-esteem. It thus shapes a ‘fool’ so that the social forces that created him may feel intellectually superior.

Clever propaganda is used to create these archetypes, but they are essentially society’s handiworks. A mediocre man can be turned into a conquering hero, a not-so-villainous person or community can be shaped into becoming villains, and an intelligent figure reshaped as a fool. But all of this can reverse itself if the need arises and society is faced with a new set of crises and conditions.

The former US president Jimmy Carter was often praised for elevating his status from being an obscure peanut farmer to becoming a president, ready to diligently police human rights abuses at home and abroad. However, after he disastrously failed to get American hostages released from Islamist radicals in Iran, he suddenly found himself being taunted as a weakling and a harebrained man.

Ronald Reagan, across his two terms as US president, was often framed by his opponents as a ‘buffoon’ whose government was being run by a cabal of ‘neo-conservatives’ who were widening the gap between the rich and the poor and undermining American secularism. However, when the Soviet Union crashed in 1991, even some of Reagan’s most left-leaning critics began to hail him as a ‘genius’ who ‘defeated’ the Soviet empire. A constructed ‘fool’ had been transformed into becoming an equally constructed ‘hero’.

Then there’s the curious case of Imran Khan. During his political career starting from 1996, he has been labelled a fool, a hero and a villain. He wasn’t taken very seriously till 2010. To most, he was a babbling fool. During a tense period when Pakistan was facing a deadly insurgency by Islamist militants, another politician, Nawaz Sharif, was vilifying his counterpart, Asif Ali Zardari, as a villain, and Imran Khan as a fool.

Society was searching for someone to blame, and Sharif offered them Zardari. Large sections of the society (outside Sindh) did begin to frame Zardari as a villain but, within these sections, there were also many who weren’t willing to see Sharif as a hero. There was also the possibility of the military establishment being viewed as a villain, as the security situation continued to deteriorate.

But the establishment secured itself from receiving this label by ‘choosing’ Khan to fulfil society’s need to create a hero and vilify a villain. With the establishment’s support, mainstream media’s aid and help from the judiciary, Khan suddenly evolved from being a fool to a hero out to vanquish villains, which now also included Sharif.

Till his election as prime minister in 2018, certain prominent sections of society continued to shape Khan as a hero. But heroes are burdened with high expectations, most of which they cannot fulfil. Khan’s regime was a disaster, enough for the establishment to stop supporting him. He fell to a no confidence vote in the parliament.

As segments of society began reframing him as a villain, other segments changed the nature of his ‘heroism’. They now turned him into a David fighting Goliath in the shape of the establishment. This segment wants to continue perceiving him as a hero. But there is also a section of the society to whom he had remained a fool. This exemplifies the deeply polarised nature of Pakistani society today.

According to the American psychologist Scott T. Allison, the creation of heroes is a healthy practice that aids societies because they provide benefits that span many dimensions of human wellbeing. However, those who hold this view often forget that heroes cannot exist without villains, who too are socially constructed.

So, indeed, heroes can work as inspirations, but with the simultaneous creation of ‘villains’ for them to vanquish and demonise, this process and tendency can strengthen existing divides, biases and tensions in societies.

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 31st, 2023

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