It’s a switch, actually. You can flip it on and click it off as per convenience and requirement. Outrage is a growth industry in Pakistan, and by the looks of the latest outpouring, going strong on-street and on-line.
But here’s the thing: you may be waving your fist or waving your flag, you may be shouting slogans, writing slogans or sharing slogans, you may be hating on the roads and liking on Facebook – you may be doing any or all of the above and yet the cause that has got your blood boiling may have a deeper reason than the mere boiling of individual and collective blood.
Many among us are rebels looking for a cause. A cause is a good thing to look for because it can either make you believe in something or it can help you reinforce some other cause. Outrage is usually a direct by-product of a cause that remains un-realised. Outrage expressed outrageously also gets you noticed. Getting noticed has its advantages in a crowded world. Advantages come in many shapes and forms and benefit individuals and organisations peddling outrage linked to a cause that remains unrealised.
Outrage matters then only if it is shared generously among friends and foes.
Take the sudden outpouring of grief and fury over the plight of the Rohingya Muslims and the shameful role of Aung San Suu Kyi. The United Nations has termed the Rohingyas the ‘most persecuted minority in the world’. The latest round of violence perpetrated on the Rohingyas by the Myanmar security forces has led to widespread killing of the Rohingya Muslims forcing tens of thousands to flee from their homes.
The Nobel Peace prize winner Suu Kyi has blood on her hands and muck on her face.
The state of Pakistan has condemned this brutality by the Myanmar regime. The Foreign Office summoned the ambassador of Myanmar and gave him a diplomatic dressing down. The official statement contained the appropriate level of outrage as per the norms of diplomacy.
But outside the laid down narrow confines of diplo-speak lies the other form of outrage: frenzied delirium couched in rabid, raging, raving fury. Yes this is institutionalized outrage linked to the flipping of a switch and clicking of a button; a planned release of an outrage deluge that flows fast and furious through the streets, over the barricades and into the loving embrace of salivating cameras. This outrage has a method and a madness; a planning for possible mayhem; a well-coordinated and controlled element of violence that may spiral out of control just in case it is required, of course after due permissions. This outrage feeds the appetite of an electorate and pumps political protein into the veins of the organisation sparking this display of outrage.
The legitimacy of the cause and the manufacturing of the outrage do not necessarily have a bearing on each other. The plight of the Rohingyas will sadly not be influenced by the demonstrations in Islamabad and Lahore. But the demonstrations in Islamabad and Lahore will gain much from the plight of Rohingyas.
Is that a cruel and shockingly callous way to describe an act of outrage over an issue that demands an act of outrage? Perhaps. But placed within the context of the selective application of outrage in Pakistan, the statement may not sound that shocking after all.
Outrage is by its nature selective. Different people and different groups get angry over different issues. Moral ambiguity is a norm, not an exception. Anger is personal. But it is also political. It is often uncontrollable and yet mostly it is fully under control. Anger is useful. Anger is convenient. And anger can be harnessed for a greater cause.
Outrage that is planned cannot be an outrage that is linked to human emotion. If it is not an emotion in over-drive, it is a tool to further a cause. Such outrage de-links itself from any moral moorings and veers into manipulative territory. And by doing so it becomes selective. The ambiguity of standards then becomes a trifle easy to understand. Why do the people who storm the Red Zone over the plight of Rohingyas do not storm the Red Zone over the plight of the children in Thar? A case of: “not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more?” Why do many among us share pictures of persecution in various parts of the world but look the other way when it comes to the hounding of minorities at home?
There are various factors at play here. Outrage is not a zero sum game. Most of us have the ability to be outraged at the plight of Rohingyas without diluting our outrage at the plight of the people of Thar. We can be outraged at the way we treat our own minorities without diminishing our outrage at the horrendous persecution of Muslims in India. The reservoir of outrage is not a well that can be depleted.
And yet it is perceived as such. The invariable reactive question: “well what about, etc., etc.” is an indication that outrage for one takes away from the outrage for the other. The argument then degenerates into “my outrage is better than yours” mantra that ends up diluting the legitimacy of one’s cause or the other in the mind of the person countering the argument.
But is outrage really that complicated? Not if at the end it serves a purpose – any purpose – and is calibrated to do so. The sudden outpouring of anger that brings maniacal crowds into the streets does happen. But rarely. It’s not that people are not outraged when children die of malnutrition in Thar; or when a woman is gang-raped on the orders of a panchayat; or citizens disappear and end up dead on the roadside – it’s just that acting upon this outrage does not suit their cause.
For outrage to be a growth industry, it has to be manufactured and stored in warehouses. Once the supply is sufficient, demand can be generated with the flip of a switch and the click of a button.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 10th, 2017.