February Issue 2014
Nothing Shocks Us Anymore
Aitzaz Hasan, Chaudhry Aslam, polio workers, police officers — it seems the more violence is inflicted, the more heroes emerge. But what good are heroes if they die alone, without consequence, without anyone remembering them? Their stories of extraordinary valour have hardly brought about the ‘tipping point’ many in this country anticipate to fight the many evils that plague us. Despite their own sacrifices to better the Pakistan they live and work in, society has not replied in kind.
There is philosophical precedent to this.
In her book, The Human Condition, the political philosopher Hannah Arendt defines our capacity to act as one of those characteristics that have historically made us human. Arendt defines this capacity to act as simply speaking and doing. It is our most political activity because of the simple fact that it requires other people. Our words and our actions are meaningless if nobody reads or perceives them, and thus one cannot act in isolation. An action, then, does not physically ‘produce’ anything, and is finite. An action is complete when the speech is over, or when the deed is done.
But it is also dangerous and boundless. Once complete, an action may set off an irreversible series of consequences that may be impossible to control. And that is dependent on the action’s capacity to surprise. Actions shock us; they compel us to think, to act ourselves. Looking at the example of the Tunisian fruit vendor that set off the Arab Spring, one man setting fire to himself resulted in a revolution, a counter-revolution, two civil wars, the violent death of a dictator, another dictator stepping down, radical reforms in Jordan and Morocco, chemical weapons, and thousands of people dead. Broadly speaking, it led to the complete derailment of an entire region from its political trajectory.
And in this example, we can see the infinite capacity of individuals to surprise us, to change the way we perceive the world, from Rosa Parks to Gavrilo Princip, Oskar Schindler to Gandhi.
But action, in order to matter — to exist — needs to take place in the public domain. It needs to be perceived. And Arendt’s own opinion is that action is mattering less and less. According to her, action is being reduced to a statistical aberration because the public sphere, in which action is to be perceived, is shrinking.
Arendt has her own explanations for why that is, but for altogether different reasons, this trend is also true in Pakistan. Public places and institutions are being destroyed. Places of worship are being targeted. It is increasingly dangerous for people, especially minorities, to express their religious sentiments in public. The breakdown of law and order in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Karachi, Balochistan and other parts of the country do not even make it conducive for people to leave their homes. Even free expression online is being curbed. The PTA recently restricted access to QueerPK, one of the only websites facilitating an open forum for the queer community of Pakistan. Women are being raped on the streets. Journalists are being attacked. Girls’ schools are being destroyed. People have been hounded in public parks.
This has meant greater isolation. People are frightened into staying at home, have been blocked from accessing public forums online; their space to act is receding.
At the same time, acts of either horror or valour fail to surprise. We’ve become accustomed to people beating their maids to death; to children giving their own lives for causes like education or the safety of fellow students; to explosions, to gunfire. Nothing shocks us any more.
Salman Taseer’s assassination was succeeded by Shahbaz Bhatti’s, without either of them setting off the action both wanted: to repeal the blasphemy laws. Over a hundred Tibetans have self-immolated themselves last year, without a hint of the reaction that took place in the Middle East. Despite consistent movements against climate change legislation, we are nowhere close to any domestic or international agreement. Iran had a failed revolution, and so did Bahrain. The ‘Malala moment’ never came.
Despite the lack of mobilisation, acts are still important, because by acting, “men show who they are, reveal actively their unique personal identities and thus make their appearance in the human world,” Arendt says. Thus, one’s actions are the fundamental manifestation of one’s identity. And in expressing that identity, they also express their freedom. One is free as long as one acts. In this way, freedom is to be done, not had.
But if there is no public sphere in which one can act, then one is not free. Arendt said that it is principle that guides action. In oppressive states like Pakistan, freedom itself becomes that guiding principle.
So while plenty of individuals have shown the courage to put their lives in danger by acting — Christians that continue to attend Mass, health workers that continue to administer polio vaccines, troops that continue to fight, girls that continue to go to school — because of that ever-shrinking public sphere, people have not responded, and not remembered them.
Ideally, a girl going to school should not be a political statement in the first place. But in a country where extremism and lawlessness have eaten away at any semblance of normality, this act becomes as defiant as the man standing in front of the tanks at Tiananmen Square.
People’s acts have not diminished; they consistently inspire. People like Malala Yousufzai, Parween Rehman and Aitzaz Hasan give me faith that there are enough people who care enough about the world to put their own lives at risk to preserve it, or change it. While most us spend our lives just trying to survive, those who care about the world — who have always been in short supply — escape their four walls to do something about it, despite the risk to their lives. My only fear is that the rest of us might simply not care.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s February 2014 issue.