The problem with narratives

Perceptions, narratives, projections, and spin all exist at a right angle to reality


Farrukh Khan Pitafi August 20, 2022
The writer is an Islamabad-based TV journalist. He tweets @FarrukhKPitafi and can be reached at [email protected]

Power trips of political triumphalism can be more potent than any intoxicant. You do not want to stop when you think you are winning. Notice the emphasis on thinking. If perception and reality were the same, we would have found little room to disagree. But they are not. Reality is like the blind men’s elephant. Your perception is like your blind grasp on reality far bigger than your physical range. Ergo the often flawed interpretation of the truth. With so many variables at play, can you be sure you are winning when you think you are?

But we seldom are eager to learn from our experiences, let alone those of others. Therefore, this newfound obsession with narratives. Who cares about the objective truths if you can convince enough people of the veracity of that which you are telling them, right? Wrong. Perceptions, narratives, projections, and spin all exist at a right angle to reality as ugly protrusions and are the first ones to go when there is any inevitable circular movement. I am sorry if you think I am deliberately being profuse. I have data to prove this, and if you stick with me long enough, you will have no difficulty comprehending what I mean.

Remember General Musharraf’s emphasis on projecting the soft image of his regime? And for an extended period, he managed to get away with it too. How else could he rule an unruly nation like his for eight successive years and live to tell the tale? No one else has. There was a time when his detractors could not even find an audience. But then life happened, and he made one mistake after another. Just like that, he was gone. Friendly narratives are helpful when the odds are in your favour or someone powerful somewhere deliberately shuts their eyes to unsavoury aspects of reality because you are needed. As soon as the utility is gone, so are you and your precious little perceptions.

I recently heard a remarkable claim. That we all are narratives. I beg to differ. Stories we, of course, are, but we are lived stories. What is the difference? Only that of claiming and being. Substance matters. No matter how many times you tell a lie, it does not become a truth. You can choose to believe it is true. But even a cursory examination of the evidence would punch holes in your belief. There is no superposition — only a binary.

Enough theory already. Let’s operationalise it.

You might have noticed that with each passing day, more and more politicians are choosing to fight their legal battles in the political arena. What does that mean? It means that instead of wholeheartedly fighting their cases in the courts or other quasi-legal forums, they apply their minds to slowing down the process while also publicly decrying it as persecution or witch-hunt. Unfortunately for us, there are enough extenuating circumstances to lend credence to those claims. So, for a limited time, this sleight of hand seems to work. But just because there are some elements of persecution intertwined in the mishmash does not mean that all charges against you are unfounded.

It probably started with the PPP. For decades our state has been rather keen on capturing and punishing the alleged corruption of the PPP leadership. The party constantly cried foul. Who did not know that Zia’s successors did not want Benazir Bhutto to come to power? Or that the same group of people played a crucial role in her father’s hanging. So, this narrative of victimhood initially worked on the committed jiyalas of the party. But instead of refuting the charges in a court of law, alibis and complicated, often hilarious, excuses to prolong the process and defer closure. Asif Ali Zardari remained behind bars for almost a decade, but those cases still haven’t seen their logical end. What happened then? Since reality refused to back their narrative, the party, at one time the largest one in the country, gradually lost traction and is now restricted to one province.

Next is the example of the PML-N. Until the Panama Papers story broke, auguries were in the party’s favour. It had survived several years of exile imposed by the Musharraf regime, the PPP’s five years in office and usually, corruption had little to do with the charges against it. It had even survived Imran Khan’s sit-in. But the story broke, and the party blinked. Coming soon after the exile, the sit-in mentioned above and a hundred micro-aggressions, it was easy to cry wolf. Hence emphasis was on the narrative. The way the case proceeded did not help the case either. So, the party managed to push the narrative of persecution. But when the going was not tough, the party’s government did precious little to change the accountability laws as it had once promised. Nor did it have a coherent legal strategy during the Panama case trial. Even its well-wishers who in a heartbeat point to the manner of Mian Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification and conviction to prove something was awry could not claim that the party’s defence could bring the case to a satisfactory closure by producing a bulletproof money trail. Then other cases of alleged corruption piled on, and no closure was within reach.

In the short term, the narrative of persecution worked. But then the party decided to displace the then incumbent government of Imran Khan and came to power. You just witnessed what became of that narrative in Punjab’s by-elections.

Now the same cycle is repeating itself with new faces. Imran Khan’s narrative of a conspiracy to replace him seems to work. Even those who do not believe there was an international conspiracy think that the unity government unnecessarily became cannon fodder in somebody else’s war. Buoyed by these perceptions, the former premier has concluded that there is no point in cooperating in investigations against him. That is a mistake. These cases will come back to haunt him when people get bored with the shiny new thing that is his narrative. He should cooperate with the legal process, especially because he named his party Tehreek-e-Insaf (the movement for justice). These tailwinds that his party benefits from are just as fickle a friend as the animosity of the headwinds his opponents face. In the end, it is the substance that matters. His advisers are not doing him any service if they have advised him not to try to bring closure to the cases against him through legal means.

You can all listen to those who say perceptions are greater than reality, but when has it ever worked for anyone?

Published in The Express Tribune, August 20th, 2022.

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