Unending violence syndrome

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

LAST week, the print and the electronic media flashed two images that were striking in their similarity. One was that of the Hafsa Madressah girls draped in black burqas and veils marching in Islamabad and demanding the imposition of the Sharia in the country. The other was the picture of the rally organised by anti-Musharraf lawyers who were protesting against the treatment meted out to Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry.

Many members of both groups waved sticks threateningly in a massive show of strength. These scary images sent a shiver down one’s spine. What was unnerving about this display of force was how the violence syndrome is catching on in Pakistan, so much so that even lawyers, who are supposed to be civilised individuals operating within the ambit of the law by exercising their intellectual power and not their physical prowess, do not mind being seen in public armed with sticks.

Have you noticed how people conduct themselves during talk shows? They constantly interrupt each other as they try to shout each other down. This includes even top comperes whose job is hardly to prove a point. In the slanging match that is conducted on television I have often found ministers to be equally guilty of misconduct.

It is not simply an issue of how we conduct ourselves. It is the resort to violence that is a matter of deep concern.

What is happening is that the ill manners of people are being translated into physical violence. This is affecting the social atmosphere which in turn exposes the majority to a display of violence — thanks to the television. Quite naturally, the people, most of them good people, subtly imbibe this violence. The fact is that, as the psychologists say, if you put “good apples in a bad situation”, the good apples will turn bad.

Philip Zimbardo, a social psychologist living in San Francisco, conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971. He set up a mock prison in Stanford University and 23 volunteers were randomly divided into two groups. One acted as prisoners while the other played guards. Since the guards were allowed freedom to treat the prisoners as they liked — barring the use of physical force — they resorted to psychological punishment, something they could not believe they were capable of doing in normal circumstances.

Zimbardo concludes that human behaviour is more influenced by things outside of us than inside. In other words, the external environment influences our behaviour more than the inner environment that comprises genes, moral history and ethical values taught to us at home and in school.

Prof Haroon Ahmad, an eminent Pakistani psychiatrist, who has observed the behaviour of people in our society very closely, says that people’s moral values are affected more by the wider social environment — the macro environment as he calls it — than by the immediate family (micro) environment. In a study he had conducted many years ago to determine the influence of the cultural milieu on the delusions of schizophrenic patients, he found that people with magico-religious delusions belonged to families whose religiosity level was quite low and vice versa.

That is why a person who might have imbibed a healthy moral philosophy from his family so easily slips into the evil ways of his environment even when that contradicts the training he may have received at home. What is the message we are conveying to our people, especially the youth, who are at an age when their moral values are being formed?

According to Dr Haroon, the message that is coming through clear and loud is that power comes through the barrel of the gun. If you do not have a gun but have money, don’t worry you can still get what you are looking for. Money allows you to take short cuts.

The lawyers were witness to the antics of the stick-wielding guardians of morality and saw that in spite of the rebukes from the government the Hafsa students could actually kidnap three women, accuse them of running a “vice den” and then get away with it to the point of having their demands met. The lawyers were quick to adopt their ways. The minister found the anchor person on the TV raising his voice and he did the same.

Does this mean that with the environment not very conducive to civilised behaviour, we will go from bad to worse till we hit rock bottom when things cannot get any worse? Dr Haroon Ahmad points out that two key requisites for stable behaviour are missing in our society. One is security — physical, economic and social — which is extremely important for the mental health of people. Given the deteriorating law and order situation and the rising crime graph, how can one expect people to feel secure and, therefore, stable?

The second element, Dr Haroon emphasises, is predictability as well as constancy. Considering the whimsical approach of the administration to matters which are basic to people’s lives — be they running water, power supply and transport — men, women and children are living permanently in a state of uncertainty. They cannot take even the normal day-to-day routine of their life for granted.

Take the example of school holidays announced at 9 pm on television channels and the eleventh hour changes in exam schedules which can be most unsettling for students. Quick changes in financial policies that undermine people’s monetary planning do not create an environment for stable behaviour.

In such circumstances, what can one hope for? Obviously, the change will have to come from the top because those who control power determine the macro atmosphere in society. They are the ones who make the laws, are supposed to enforce them and thus set the pattern of public compliance that is to be the norm.

Regrettably, those who are in a position to change the social environment are not interested in doing it. Since their words do not match their deeds, deception and dishonesty are accepted as the norm. Violence is punishable, they say. But do not punish the perpetrators of violence.

How is this trend to be changed? The onus is on those who wield power and can change the macro environment. While there may be a few islands of virtue in an ocean of evil, they cannot survive for long and are engulfed by the evil in the environment, like the good apples that decay when put with the rotten ones.