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A tale of two cities

March 22, 2013

MOST of us grow up being taught that patience is a virtue. And rightfully so. Almost every modern society, including this one, would be more humane and just if respect and tolerance for others was part of our basic socialisation.

Yet even a cursory appraisal of Pakistani society suggests that too much respect and tolerance does the cause of justice no good whatsoever.

Spend a little bit of time in any government department, police station or district court in this country and it becomes obvious just how patient a people we are (or should I say how patient the poor are).

Without contacts or money, one sits waiting in lines for hours, days and weeks on end to get a certificate made, obtain a vaccination or have a case heard in court/at the police station. Indeed, those of us with influence and the financial means do not know what the word patience even means.

The rich and powerful — for whom time is money — are quite content in the knowledge that the poor and voiceless will not rise up against the everyday injustices that they face. The latter will continue to loyally nod their head in deference, utter the standard “yes sir/ madam”, and then grovel at the feet of their masters without shame when confronted with a crisis. The elite is used to this state of affairs, and would be loath to see it change.

This is notwithstanding the daily diatribes that one hears in affluent living rooms across the country about just how dysfunctional the government is, how nothing outside the home actually works, and, how servants and employees are the personification of inefficiency and ineptitude. Yes, things are bad, but rarely for those who like to complain about them.

It is not as if the otherwise silent masses do not express anger and resentment at the status quo, including those that they serve. But they do so mostly in the private spaces where their patrons cannot hear them; releasing their repressed rage periodically so as to be able to ensure that they return to their places of work ready to fulfil the next quota of subservience.

Is it “culture” that explains this often grotesque patron-client logic so pervasive in our society? I would argue against any such explanation. While there is a “culture” of deference that is inculcated in most of us from an early age, it cannot be separated from the exercise of power.

For example, girls and women who know only obedience to fathers, brothers and husbands might not be so respectful if they were not constantly under the threat of having their “honour” compromised or their livelihoods withheld.

Similarly, being treated with utter disdain by a clerk, magistrate or police constable is a virtual way of life for the prototypical Pakistani subject because even expressing dissent might lead to an already bad situation being made completely unbearable.

Having said this, it is worth dwelling on the reasons for ordinary people tolerating all that they do. Perhaps even more importantly, we should ask under what circumstances — almost always exceptional — this tolerance dissipates and gives way to reaction.

As I pointed out above, all of this is about power — who exercises it, who is on the receiving end of it, and who ultimately benefits from its prevailing structure.

Progressives these days — particularly those hailing from affluent backgrounds — cringe when the otherwise patient masses turn the proverbial tables and decide to exercise power rather than have it exercised against them.

This is because relatively disenfranchised segments of society more often than not affiliate themselves with right-wing causes.

Many of the enraged protesters who ransack the homes of Christians and the killers who exterminate innocents hailing from another sect, for instance, have probably spent most of their lives patiently accepting their fate like most Pakistanis. Their involvement in what are ultimately hideous crimes against humanity is actually deeply empowering for them.

It would be easy to think about such developments in terms of what the French thinker Emile Durkheim called anomie, or what is known as deviant behaviour.

While there is some merit to the notion that certain individuals fall through society’s cracks and therefore become dysfunctional, the “culture” of deference and the sporadic — and often horrific — reactions against it must both be understood in systemic terms.

In other words, ours is an incredibly unequal and unjust society in which historically resilient conceptions of social rank and status have been given further impetus by the modern gradations of capitalism.

This inequality is expressed most crudely in the form of patron-client relationships inside homes, at workplaces, and in governmental institutions. What we like to think of as cultural uniqueness masks the very real and pervasive exercise of power that is common to all societies characterised by such gross class, gender and other social divisions.

That this is such an inegalitarian society is bad enough: perhaps even worse is the lack of concern amongst those with the means to try and understand the sociology of power, including the particular (mass and individual) psychologies and pathologies to which it gives rise.

This lack of concern, as I have suggested, is explained by the fact that those with power and influence actually have nothing to gain from redressing the prevailing state of affairs.

Meanwhile, those who are taught not to ask questions, to dutifully obey their superiors and then accept it all as divine will continue to be an easy prey for the reactionary ideologues that thrive on having a captive public to do their bidding.

If there is to be a happy ending in this tale of two cities, we need first and foremost to empathise with the voiceless masses that keep this country running in spite of, rather than because of, their self-absorbed, slothful and subjugating masters.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.