December 16, 2014 seems like a very long time ago. The day that was supposed to be the watershed. The day when everything changed. There was the forming of the committees, 16 or more, and then there was the forming of the apex committees in each province to make sure that the subordinate committees were on the job. There was the vote in both the National Assembly and the Senate and by the time these words are read the necessary amendments to the Constitution may have been signed into law. There was the abstention from the vote on the constitutional changes by the religious parties that are mightily huffed at being sidestepped, as well as the abstention by the PTI members who are largely ‘in absentia’ anyway… and then a political leader may or may not have got married. Allegedly. Perhaps. Well… probably. We await developments. Or not.
An otherwise — allegedly — decent policeman got sacked for being lenient, nobody arrested the maulana at the Red Mosque despite there being an FIR registered; and there is a growing sense that the further the country gets from that fateful day in December the less is the chance that anything has or will change.
The political unity that was briefly evident has quickly dissolved and the parties have returned to their default positions, there to take pot-shots at one another ad nauseum. The military is clearly in the driving seat, and we are witnessing once again the collective failure of the political cadre to address the systemic problems that have assailed Pakistan for decades.
There was a brief period of optimism after the last election — not dissimilar to the brief period of optimism that followed the election before that as I recall — which faded as the realisation grew that the new government was going to be no more capable than its predecessor.
The capacity to forget seems to be at the core of the national mindset, an erasure of the short-term memory that does not allow events such as the massacre of the innocent last December to cross the divide into the long-term memory. Also at the core is a propensity for what is known as ‘displacement activity’. This occurs when an animal — any animal, humans included — have a high motivation to perform conflicting behaviours. The displacement activity is usually unrelated to the competing motivations and may seem irrational, indeed sometimes is.
Thus a bird may peck at the grass rather than take the decision to fight or fly. A human may scratch their heads when there are two or more — many more as in our current predicament — to choose from. Most interestingly, when viewed through the prism of governmental action since the Peshawar killings, the displacement activity involves actions that bring comfort to the animal — or politician — such as and here is the kicker… scratching, preening, drinking or feeding.
The response may thus be seen as almost Pavlovian, being an example of classical conditioning. In short (this can get very boring I can assure you) the government response is a piece of learned behaviour in response to a specific stimulus.
Caught now in the fight/flight paradox, the government is busy with all manner of displacement activity, with the forming of assorted committees merely the most visible. The underpinning reality is that it would not behave any differently no matter which party was in power, because the learning processes that preceded political engagement at a parliamentary level have conditioned the body politic to act and respond within the parameters of that conditioning.
Changing learned behaviours as deeply embedded as that is extremely difficult, and rarely successfully achieved as those who have been working on the de-programming of child suicide bombers in the Swat valley have discovered. Learned behaviours that are self-destructive — and counter-intuitive for humans — are akin to addictive behaviour with the drug of choice in this instance being politics albeit in a heavily adulterated form.
The prognosis is poor. The temptation — compulsion — is always to return to those behaviours that bring comfort and avoid those behaviours that do not — in this case addressing a set of manifestly obvious issues that require multiple and conflicting choices. But handling cognitive dissonance was never a strong point in Pakistan, was it? Tootle-pip!
Published in The Express Tribune, January 8th, 2015.
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