Plagued with a short-term memory

April 15, 2011

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Humans have an innate tendency to forget things they feel aren’t very important to them.  This attribute is clearly evident in Pakistanis as well, in the way we have chosen to selectively internalise/forget/brush-under-the-carpet/ignore/evade (use whatever phrase catches your fancy), our failings as a people.

It is not because we don’t know what our failings are. In fact, we know them all too well. We are in constant chatter. If it isn’t the drones, then it’s Raymond Davis; if it isn’t the ICC World Cup, then it is Shahid Afridi; if it’s not the education emergency, then it’s the education emergency. We are a nation that loves to talk, speak, write and let us not forget: over-analyse. We do it in our drawing rooms, on television, in newspapers, on the internet, in conferences and round-table discussions. From unpacking Zohair Toru’s hairstyle, to the inner-level conspiracies of the government-ISI-US-UK-CIA-FBI-KGB-ABCD nexus, we think we know why and how it all happens.

Yet, we still forget – all the time.

We forget that the issue we debated yesterday is still relevant today. We forget that what we protested against last week still remains unresolved. We forget that the senseless murders that took place only a few weeks ago, continue to rack up the body count for the year.

In an age where news and information changes faster than rupees change hands for dollars, attention span is a dying human characteristic (just like long-term memory).

You want to know the scourge of Pakistan’s problems? We forget the past faster than we live the present. And no, the past here does NOT refer to our “colonial history”. It is actually much, much more recent.

One cannot even begin to recall the multitude of events that we, as a people, have chosen to brand “national catastrophes” and “a shame on the country’s honour”, and in the same breath, move on to whether Pakistan’s defeat and India’s win in the World Cup was a fixed hand. We rant about a failing economy, we crib about foreign intervention, we cry about senseless murders and a total lack of apathy, but we don’t seem to want to see any of them through to their rightful end.

Does anyone remember the Sialkot lynchings last year? How horrified were we when those videos hit out television screens? The country was ablaze with shame and revulsion. “The culprits (who were caught on tape) don’t stand a chance!” we all remarked. A year later, does anyone even care to know whether justice was served to the victim’s families? That the culprits are actually out on bail, roaming the streets of Sialkot? Doesn’t seem like it.

The rape case in DHA, Karachi only a few months ago – made infamous not so much because of the crime, but because of a certain government spokeswoman’s disparaging remarks on television – was as if it never happened. Sure we did not hear the end of it for the first few days in the media. Civil society “rallied” to make the streets of Karachi safer for women; doesn’t seem to have made much of a difference as the crimes have continued. “Which rape case?” they strain to recall.

We balked in shame when Shahbaz Bhatti was mercilessly gunned down. We (as in us enlightened English-speaking moderates) flooded the mediums with condemnations and condolences in its immediate aftermath. But very soon, there was silence.

One can argue that these cases carry with them “the weight of controversy and fear,” so most of us chose to be weary of them. But for heavens sake, does anyone even remember the floods that devastated the nation only seven months ago? Floods that have supposedly thrown our ecosystem out of whack, not to mention stunted our food supply. “Has reconstruction work begun in the affected areas?” a friend in the UK asked me. “I don’t know,” I answered sheepishly. I couldn’t remember.

We claim this to be a survival mechanism kicking in, so that we can continue to move on with our lives unfazed, avoiding the recesses of deep depression. But I dare to disagree. We – and by “we” I now include all of us, under, above and beyond the poverty line – forget because we feel helpless to do anything about any of this. Or maybe we are just plain lazy. It is easier that way. Why relive an event over and over again, so that it is a conscious memory on our minds, urging us to do something about it, when we can simply tuck it away and forget about it.

It is true that it is often difficult to put our finger on any one thing to coherently focus on. Maybe it is because we don’t have enough fingers and toes to cover everything. Maybe it is because we still don’t know exactly what to put our finger on first.

So the question is, if we as a nation can cry foul and urge the rest of us to rise and make a difference “now or never,” why complain about the state of affairs at all, if we most often tend to chose the “never” option by starting with a bang and ending with a whimper? And then we wonder why Pakistan isn’t moving forward.

Themrise Khan is a freelance social development consultant based in Karachi who occasionally dares to venture into the Pakistani media.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.