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Identity is a vastly debated topic in our everyday conversations with family and friends. It often comes up in academic and non-academic discussions on politics, gender, class and race. What is identity? What makes it so important and what happens to it when individuals move across borders is the theme of discussion of this essay. The British sociologist Kath Woodward defines identity as something that “is always related to the world we live in” (Woodward, 2017). Identity is what makes one the same. Woodward argues that for this sameness to exist, there needs to be an other or different. Identity is also contextual, as an individual brings aspect(s) of themselves to the fore that a specific context demands. In this sense, identity is as much as what is being expressed as what is left unsaid or kept inside, which Woodward calls personality. She argues that “Identity requires some awareness on our part. Personality describes qualities individuals may have, such as being outgoing or shy, internal characterisitcs, but identity requires some element of choice” (Woodward, 2000, 16). Building on Woodward’s definition, I argue that identity is a sum of one’s ideas, experiences and view of themselves in relation to others. I attempt to defend the assertion that identity is a co-construction of the individual and society in which they live.
Moreover, contrary to conventional wisdom, identity, Woodward claims, does not remain static but it is fluid, as it may change with mobility and changing times and circumstances. However, there are core aspects of one’s identity that do not or may not change. This essay proceeds in four steps. First, it attempts to define identity and mobility, and the personal and relational aspects of identity. Then it expounds the relation between mobility and identity, by reflecting on some of my own experiences as an immigrant in the United States. The role of agency and structure is crucial to the debate on identity. The essay explains the extent and ways in which an individual’s agency and social structure shape their identity. Finally, what is culture, and how it relates to identity? I draw on the ideas and theories of Kath Woodward, Jan Blommaert, Anthony Giddens, Owen Sichone, Robert Thornton and other scholars for presenting my argument.
The notion of identity is not easy to pin down. One may define a particular political or religious identity relatively well and easily, but a general definition of identity is rather difficult because of its vast and varied contours. One way to define identity is that it is the performance of a social script. This script changes with the change in place, with where one finds themselves in the world. Woodward argues that identity is always related to the society individuals live in, and “it is always about what’s inside and what’s outside. It’s always a connection between the I and the ME” (Woodward, 2017). Developed by George Mead, the “I” and “Me” theory explains the interaction between individuals and society. In this theory, “Me” is the socialized self or the object self, in other words, the self we are aware of. “Me,” one can also argue, is the passive self that is molded by interactions with others in the community. By contrast, the “I” is a response to the attitude of the community. Additionally, “I” is a subject and not an object of experience. The “I” phase refers to the part of the self which can be identified with impulse, freedom, and creativity; everything which is unique, idiosyncratic, and uncertain” (Link, 2009). This distinction between the “Me” and “I” can also be looked at as the relational and personal aspects of identity.
Identity, Woodward contends, changes with mobility. Mobility is the movement of individuals within and across borders. This movement is not new, as people have for ages migrated from one place to another in search of safety and a better life. In recent years, political conflicts and environmental changes such as floods and droughts have further expedited migration. For instance, the unending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have displaced millions as refugees and asylum seekers to the West, where they have been experiencing the rise in right-wing populist and xenophobic politics. The example of this type of xenophobia was President Trump’s “Muslim Ban,” which barred the citizens of seven Muslim countries from entering the United States. The ban was inspired among other factors by xenophobia, “an irrational and debilitating anxiety induced by fear of strangers, foreign things and places” (Sichone, 2008, 255). This fear of strangers and foreign things and people is in a way linked to identity.
Besides the experience of xenophobia, with mobility, the individual comes to occupy a new social situation, which includes other groups with different ideologies, skills, laws, norms and ways of life that shapes his or her identity or perception of themselves in a myriad of ways. Here they have to perform a different social script because they come to grips with the fact that some aspects of their identity no longer carry any or the same value that they did in their place of origin. That is because the meanings of one’s particular cultural resources, such as language, for instance, shift as one moves across borders (Blommaert, 2005, 2). Blommaert examines a letter in English sent to him by a 16-year old Tanzanian girl, Victoria, in which she makes grammatical and linguistic errors. He says that to an average Tanzanian, Victoria’s proficiency in English carries the meanings of intelligence and eliteness, but to an English speaking European it does not indicate such values and is even perceived as inadequate. In the new place, the individual formation of identity also comes to depend on the choices and opportunities he or she can avail of. Access to quality education, public services, employment opportunities, religious and social clubs and other resources has the potential, for instance, to change an individual’s identity in the economic and social sense, as it enables them to move up the social ladder. Passport is an example, as the people of some nations, for instance, American citizens, can roam the world for work, education and fun without a visa, but others, for instance, the people of my home country Pakistan, are restricted. My family applied for a visa to the U.S. two or three times to come to see me, but their application was rejected each time.
This brings me to shed light on some of my personal experiences in the identity-mobility context as an immigrant in the United States. Born and raised in a humble and conservative religious family in rural Pakistan, coming to the United States was a dramatic change in my life in many ways. On arrival, my cultural resource pack, such as brown skin color, foreign accent and the less obvious cultural ethos such as respect for elders and patriarchal and homophobic views were juxtaposed with the views and experiences of American classmates. Collectively, my resource pack, at the beginning particularly (and in some ways to this day), created psychological and psychosocial barriers for me with Americans. For instance, I am usually fine with everyday one-on-one individual conversation but I feel lost in group discussions. This is because a lot of times I am unable to follow them and do not get the jokes and references made to American pop culture, society and sometimes history unfamiliar to me. Sometimes I feel exactly what the Dutch Journalist Frederike Geerdink wrote about her experience in Turkey, “I feel reduced to a quiet, insecure woman (man in my case) who sits there with nothing to say; one thing I am definitely not” (Geerdink, 2015, 78-79). At the beginning of my stay, everything seemed strange: the names of people, streets, food, dogs, cats, and the smell of beer. I was surprised that young Americans had no issue in disagreeing with or questioning their elders. Students had no problem in being blunt with their professors in the classroom. Besides this, my classmates were surprised, although they were very polite, about my views toward homosexuals. In 2011, a friend from Spain at the University of Nebraska asked me what would I do if my son turned out to be gay. I do not believe what I said to her: “I will shoot him.” She said that I could not say such things, which I learned over the years that she was right. From years of socialization and reading, I have realized that in the new place one needs to renegotiate their resource backpack with their newly emerging identity. For instance, regarding my homophobic views, I have realized that as Yuval Hariri in his book 21 Lessons for 21st Century says, my sense of justice may have been out of date (Hariri, 2018), and that it needs to change.
It is not hard to know the reason behind these differences and boundaries, as we come from different social situations with different expectations of normalcy and appropriateness of behaviour. Furthermore, we all classify and categorize based on certain characteristics, from more obvious traits such as color and language to the less obvious like political and religious views, no matter where in the world we are. The categories themselves are not problematic but it is the meanings ascribed to these categories because in that one pursues a hierarchy of values. And sometimes these values provide some groups with the justifications for violence against others, for instance in the case of Nazi Germany against Jews. However these boundaries, according to some, are imagined (Thornton, 1987, 6). One can counter-argue that these boundaries may be imagined but their consequences are real. And even if one supposes that these boundaries are imagined and therefore can be changed by unlearning them, the question remains: Who does the policing of imagined boundaries or how are they come into being? Some say it is a co-construction of both insiders and outsiders of social groups. Boundaries become real when a group of people agrees that they are different from others, who also, in turn, see themselves differently to them. This agreement about certain essential characteristics of insiders alienates the outsiders, who have a commonly perceived attribute of their own that estranges those they consider as outsiders.
Therefore, this co-construction of the ‘other’ perpetuates exclusion and generates the ostensibly “real” boundaries. But, if it is true as Thornton claims that these boundaries are imagined, then they can be unlearned and reconstructed in ways that serve the common interest of all. This unlearning is, however, not easy given the vast socioeconomic inequalities among groups. In many ways, these inequalities create both mental and physical frontiers between groups. Unlearning mental barriers would mean ending socioeconomic injustice and ensuring equality for all regardless of who and where they are in the world. These boundaries and conceptions of sameness and difference are also in a way the implication of how we understand the term “culture.” Thornton argues that there is one culture, not “cultures,” and that culture, just like air and water, can be used as a resource (Thornton, 1987, 5-7). Examples of cultural resources are language, food, religion and much more that all individuals should have equal access to, but whether they do in reality is debatable. In most societies across the world, there are deep social and economic fissures because people do not have equal access to resources.
Another crucial point is the role of agency and structure in the formation of identity. In sociology, there are three theories about the structure and agency debate. First, the objectivists argue that the behavior of individuals is largely formed by their socialization in particular powerful and stable structures such as religious, educational and political institutions. These social structures operate at the macro-level (such as through distinct social classes), meso-level (such as religious or familial structures) and micro-level (such as communal and professional norms and rules) (Gibbs). The social structures at these varying levels, the objectivists argue, constrain agency. Second, the proponents of the agency theory or the subjectivists contend that individuals have the free will to make their own choices and shape social structures. The third view is that neither the objectivist (aka structuralist) nor the subjectivist theory explains the social truth wholly. One of the proponents of this theory is the British sociologist Anthony Giddens, who gave the idea of “structuration.” Giddens “argues that just as an individual’s autonomy is influenced by structure, structures are maintained and adapted through the exercise of agency. The interface at which an actor meets a structure is termed “structuration” (Gibbs). This reminds me of the election of Sadiq Khan, the son of British Pakistani bus driver, as the mayor of London. If it were left to the role of social structure, Mr. Khan might never have been the mayor of the capital of a former empire that had once subjugated the land of his ancestors. Besides Giddens, other scholars have also contributed to the structure and agency debate. Mead argues that individuals have autonomy in imagining themselves but the have to use existing language and symbols for imagination; Goffman argues that individual can interpret the parts they play but “the parts or scripts have already been written for the role we play,” and Freud said that individuals can shape their own identities by understanding their childhood experience and that identities are never fixed, but he also believed that “social forces can operate through the unconscious, which shapes our identities” (Woodward, 2000, 18).
In conclusion, when individuals move across borders, their agency is constrained by the existence of new social structures at varying levels. For example, when refugees or asylum seekers migrate to a new country where they can not communicate or write in their language, their agency is severely restricted. Even if they learn the language, they will still not be on a level playing field with the born citizens of that country in terms of educational and job success. Moreover, in the new social situation, derogatory perceptions of the locals further dog their advancement, such as the popular claim, “immigrants take away all our jobs,” in the West goes. There is also a widespread and overblown misperception about the success of immigrants because of their inherent hardworking nature. In South Africa, for instance, refugees from other African countries work hard because their circumstances demand of them to pay rent and telephone bills so that they can keep in touch with family and friends there and abroad, not because they are better workers (Sichone, 2005). By implication, most of these poor migrant workers are exploited by the locals by paying them cash under the table and threatening them to expose their identity if they demand their rights
The same applies to migrants in the West, where most of them work for minimum wages and under extremely dire circumstances. Many take two or even three jobs to barely make ends meet. However, mobility may also empower the agency and provide opportunities to many such as women and progressive people who come to enjoy greater freedom and safety in most countries in the West. Further, as an outsider in a new place one also becomes more conscious of wearing a certain type of clothes, communicating in a certain way and paying attention to the more subtle details such as how to approach a woman and etcetera. There is of course room for exercising one’s agency in most of these things, but there are also some agreed-upon social norms for behaving in a certain way. In short, identity changes when individuals move across borders. People also change with time and age from someone with a set of ideas about the world to someone with different views. It is also true that many hold on to some core aspects of their identity such as faith and language, but even these change in unexpected ways with time. Woodward says, “Identity is… beset by troubles because we can’t always secure our identity and things change. So, it’s always about some resolution between the ‘I’ and the ‘ME’ as Mead says” (Woodward, 2017).
- Blommaert, J. 2005. Language and Equality. In Discourse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Geerdink, F. 2015. The Boys are Dead: The Roboski Massacre and the Kurdish Question in Turkey. London: Gomidas Institute.
- Gibbs, B. J. Structuration Theory. In Encyclopedia Britannica.
- Hariri, Y. 2018. 21 Lessons for 21st Century. New York: Spiegel and Grau.
- Sichone, O. 2005. Xenophobia and xenophilia – local lessons in globalization. Available: https://www.news.uct.ac.za/article/-2005-02-14-xenophobia-and-xenophilia-local-lessons-in-globalization
- Sichone, O. Xenophobia. In New South African Keywords. N. Shepherd & S. Robins, Eds. Johannesberg: Jacana Press. 255-263. Sharon, L. 2009. George Mead’s “I” & “Me.” In Great Neck Publishing.
- Thornton, R. 1987. Culture: A contemporary definition. In Academia. Available: https://www.academia.edu/686188/Culture_A_contemporary_definition
- Woodward, K. 2017. Woodward on identity: I, me and the world, (Video 1). In Writing your World. Available: https://www.coursera.org/lecture/writing-your-world/woodward-on-identity-i-me-and-the-world-pyxxw
- Woodward, K. 2017. Woodward on identity: Roots and routes, (Video 2). In Writing your World. Available: https://www.coursera.org/lecture/writing-your-world/woodward-on-identity-roots-and-routes-zRRCz
- Woodward, K. 2000. Questioning Identity: Gender, class, nation. London: Routledge.
Last week, I got the great news of passing my comprehensive exam for the Ph.D., which is required after completing coursework and before defense proposal and the dissertation writing phase. That is the case at least in the U.S. universities. It was a moment of great joy and pride.
I do not usually show pride in my accomplishments, perhaps because of my upbringing in a culture that celebrates humility over personal pride. But, as George Carlin said, “Pride should be reserved for something you achieve or obtain on your own, not something that happens by accident.” I am certain nothing in my case was by accident.
As a full-time Ph.D. student, the firs two years were testing because of the course-load, lack of funding, working multiple jobs and a general certainty of uncertainty in my life due to my immigration status. There were moments of existential crisis.
There were times when I did not have money to pay my rent; skipped the meal of the day or thought ten times before buying a cup of coffee. These moments were not only hurtful but scary as well. There is no wonder why many Ph.D. students go through severe mental health issues and some, sadly, even take their own lives.
Many graduate students in similar situations can surely relate to my experiences. This then must serve as a grim reminder for leaders and policy makers in the United States and in countries where the costs of living and basic needs such as education, health and affordable housing are rising, and where the gap between the rich and the poor widening and income inequalities raging more than ever before.
Anyway, despite these challenges, I recognized early on that I had to keep a positive attitude to survive the journey. I promised myself that I will get Ph.D. no matter what— of course not just for the sake of it but that is what I really wanted to do. I saw the purpose of my life in research and teaching.
My friends tell me I am good at keeping an optimistic attitude, which may be true but frankly it was not easy and it will not be. I have had my fair share of fear and panic in these two years. Just the thought of going through four to half a dozen years years, even under ideal circumstances, for getting Ph.D. is scary, let alone bearing economic hardships and associated worries along the way.
I believe my gratitude came from my past and my childhood experiences. I grew up in a small village on Pakistan’s periphery; a place where children were left to find ways to occupy themselves. We didn’t have TV, internet or video games. Some of my friends were shocked when I told them I had no idea of Tom and Jerry. We played outside, got creative, got dirty, explored our surroundings and worked really hard for everything we had.
As a teenager, I had a list of chores, such as herding, fetching water or wood forging, I needed to get done. There was no choice in performing these duties in my mother’s rulebook for the family. She was the family head after the sad demise of my father in a truck accident when I was two.
These times created ambitious, adventurous, creative and resilient children. I attended my elementary education in a makeshift school in the village and graduated from high school from there as well. I had a work ethic and an aspiration to think big and to succeed. It wasn’t my goal to leave behind the world that created me, but to reap the benefits it provided to me.
Coming to America for higher education was not even in my wildest imagination. At home, no one expected me to go to a large university and succeed, because none in the family had been to one before due to their own inauspicious life beginnings. I did it. I graduated with a master’s degree in Peace and Justice Studies from the University of San Diego in 2015 on Fulbright scholarship.
Where I came from and how I was raised translates to the person I am today. During these two years, I knew that there was no going back for me even though some moments seemed insurmountable. But I had to move on. As Rumi said, “As you start to walk on the way, the way appears.” The way did appear.
I found part-time jobs at the university –Rutgers University– where I go for my Ph.D. in Global affairs. I have taught as a Teaching Assistant and a Part-time Lecturer in the Political Science and English Departments for the last three years. Teaching has been incredibly rewarding
I have always had a drive and expectation from myself to grow intellectually and contribute to knowledge production. These past two years in the Ph.D. program have helped me getting nearer to the realization of this goal. Completing my courses in the program and spending time with excellent professors have broadened my vision and have provided me with new knowledge and tools to contribute to scholarship.
It has made me realize the need for more reading in topics as diverse as philosophy, psychology, sociology, anthropology, political science and more because most aspects of the social and political worlds overlap. I believe a narrow focus on a single subject does not provide one with the necessary insights for understanding an issue.
What I have also realized over the past two years is that humility in scholarship is much more important than I understood before. I have learned to distance myself from making assumptions and unsubstantiated assertions about the world. The world and the phenomenon that are the focus of our study and research are much more complicated than meet the eye.
I have learned that accepting the fact that you do not know a certain thing than making up unfounded claims is the greatest virtue. I have learned, as Yuval Hariri in his book 21 Lessons for 21st Century says, “You know less than you think.” In the years left, I plan to read more, learn a little more, get a little more curious and try to become an excellent researcher.
I write on (human rights and social justice) issues in Pakistan, especially in Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas or FATA. I also write about terrorist violence in these regions. For example, in one terrorist attack in Balochistan’s capital Quetta, 75 people, among whom 55 were lawyers, were killed (in August 2016). The slain lawyers, who had faced hardships of poverty, lack of access to education and other challenges, but had at last succeeded in their careers, were the asset of the province. When I see these issues, I want to write about them.
The problem is that the youth in these regions don’t have access to education. They lack the knowledge and skills to write. Those who can write face problems from the powerful State institutions. Because of this pressure, some choose to remain silent and put down their pens. When I look at the situation and the problems, such as fear, intimidation and threats of violence, that Pashtun intellectuals, poets and writers face, I feel a responsibility to give voice to their grievances through my writing. I live in a country which has provided me the knowledge, tools and freedom to precisely do such work.
I have passion for my work and spend most of my time researching and writing. My goal is to highlight these issues and let the world know that what is happening to the oppressed groups in Pakistan is unethical and condemnable. My colleagues and students at Rutgers University (where I go for my Ph.D. and teach as well) ask me questions about Pakistan. Being a Pakistani, I try to answer their questions, but unfortunately, in my country, there are many problems caused by the State’s (disastrous) policies. Sometimes, I can’t convince them that there is no problem in Pakistan, especially on questions related to democracy, human rights, the rights of minorities and press freedom.
Writing is my passion but I think it is necessary too. There is ban on the media and freedom of expression. Journalists and civil society activists have been receiving threats. They are detained and kidnapped. Through my writings, I want to show the world how some institutions in Pakistan are treating its intelligentsia. I want to be the voice for those who can’t be for themselves because of these constraints. I focus on human rights abuses such as disappearances, extra-judicial killings and the rise of social movements and the reaction of the State to these movements. I also write about issues related to religious freedom and the problem of minorities.
I also maintain this blog, where in my free time, I write about topics as diverse as philosophy, psychology, power and many other themes. Many people appreciate my work and some do not like it because of my criticisms of the State’s abusive and discriminatory policies and practices against minorities. But I will continue to stand with the oppressed and keep writing on issues close to my heart, regardless of where I am. I hope that my work inspires the youth of my region and effects a change for the better.
P.S. I take responsibility and apologize if there are any gaps in translation from Pashto into English. I have tried to be accurate.
Pashtun lawmakers and PTM leaders released after months in prison for a crime they had not committed
Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar, the elected representatives of ethnic Pashtuns from Pakistan’s tribal areas and two of the central leaders of the rights-based Pashtun Tahafuz Movement or PTM, were released after four months from Haripur Prison on bail yesterday. The charges of terrorism against the two lawmakers were unsubstantiated and could not be proven in the court.
During the four months in prison, the lawmakers were treated like terrorists. In a tweet, Mr. Dawar said, “From May to Sep we were kept first at Peshawar jail & then at Haripur. During this transition the State decided to further increase its pressure as in Haripur we were kept in cells marked for terrorists. There was no mobility in jail, we had no access to news & other facilities.”
Mr. Dawar also said, “The most hurtful in all of this was the allegation of violence against us preachers of non-violence. But all of this will not deter us from our goal, which is to win peace & equal rights for our ppl & it will also not deter us from our path, which is the path of non-violence.”
In late May 2019, the State’s security forces arrested Ali Wazir, along with eight other PTM supporters for “assaulting” soldiers at a security checkpoint. Mohsin Dawar surrendered himself to the authorities after he was hounded in the area. Mr. Dawar, in a video message, said that he will surrender because he did not want to put the lives of those who protected him, in danger.
The truth according to PTM leaders was that on May 26, 2019, during an attempt to provoke PTM on violence in the Kharqamar area of North Waziristan, the soldiers opened fire on unarmed PTM protestors, leaving 13 dead and many injured. The incident came to be known as the Kharqamar Massacre.
Ali and Mohsin are the two outspoken critics of Pakistani military establishment’s deadly policies in the Pashtun populated tribal areas, which have destroyed the region’s peace. In an essay, Why Pashtuns in Pakistan are Rising Up, in April this year in The Washington Post, Mr. Dawar wrote:
“The residents of North Waziristan, whom I have represented in Parliament since July 2018, are perhaps the worst victims of the games that our military plays. But the more than 200 million Pakistani citizens stand helplessly by as our democracy, Parliament, judiciary and media outlets are manipulated by a powerful security establishment.”
He further said that the security establishment’s “policy of supporting militants and conducting proxy wars over the past four decades has resulted in death, destruction and economic disaster for Pakistan.”
Ali Wazir in an article, What Does the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement Want?, in The Diplomat wrote, “Amid the volcano of violence, thousands of civilians have disappeared, and thousands have fallen victim to extrajudicial killings. We are profiled as suspected terrorists across the country, face humiliation at security check posts, and our innocent civilians face violence during security sweeps and operations. As the world’s largest tribal society, the Pashtuns are known for their hospitality, commitment, and valor, yet we were falsely reduced to terrorist sympathizers despite the fact that we are their worst victims.”
In the same article, Ali wrote, “I am aware that since the beginning of the PTM’s campaign, our criticism is blunt and direct. We name names and are not shy to address powers that the rest of society, the media, and politicians are too scared to identify, let alone criticize.”
Afraid of the two leaders’ ability to speak truth to power and their capacity to mobilize their people, the State concocted a conspiracy to put them behind bars, to slow down the movement’s activity and eventually quell it. Pakistan’s powerful security establishment, including its notorious secret service, has used fear, intimidation, kidnapping and arbitrary arrests to discourage Pashtun rights activists from supporting PTM.
Although the State’s oppression has made it difficult for PTM to mobilize and speak freely, it has certainly not altered the spirit of its leadership. After release, both Ali and Mohsin have said that their struggle for the equal rights of Pashtuns will continue undeterred.
In a tweet, the lawmaker Mr. Dawar said, “Salam, we are back with same zeal and enthusiasm, the tragedy of
#KharQamarMassacre will be known in history as an example of a State’s brutal response to peaceful protest. In its aftermath, this State piled up even more violations of human rights & decency in its treatment of Ali & myself.”
He also said, “We are willing to lay our lives for our people, jails are a very small price…”
One moment, there is excitement. One feels elated and on top of the world. Full of passion, energy and hope. But then a single text message or a call about the death or tragedy of close someone changes everything. It blows up one’s hope and elation and creates fear and despair in the mind, at least for a while.
In such moments, one wonders why is life so absurd and fickle. Why can’t one refuse to suffer? Why is it that one can’t be in grief on their terms? Where is free will or one’s agency to erect a wall of safety against things that hurt us emotionally? One can understand that there are biological, physiological or psychological reasons for emotional dread but these explanations don’t justify its very existence.
The questions that haunt the mind the most in moments of extreme distress is why is suffering necessary. Why is it an essential condition for one’s inner peace and happiness, as most claim it to be? They give the examples of the opposites of day and night, hot and cold and so on, to show that just as these pairs of opposites are necessary for each other’s existence, so are happiness or peace and suffering.
I am not a scientist and hence ignorant about the natural makeup and processes of the phenomena of day and night and other pairs of opposites as to why one can not exist without the other. But that still does not prevent one from questioning the teleological logic of suffering. In other words, what purpose does it serve?
Sages across the millennia have pondered on this existential dread and have offered thoughts, but pain or suffering’s teleology remains a mystery. However, a deeper reflection on suffering has brought to the surface ideas that relieve many from its imperiousness. Epicurus (341-270 BC), the Greek philosopher, said, “Pain is neither unbearable nor unending, as long as you keep in mind its limits and don’t magnify them in your imagination.”
Marcus Aurelius (121-80), the Roman emperor and philosopher, said, “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
No one is an exception to the experience of pain and grief. For the psychologically normal being, it may be less severe than for the one who is oversensitive/over-empathetic about their own and the pains of others. The nature of being is essentially such that each one of us, like Sisyphus in Greek mythology, have a boulder of grief and pain to roll up a hill. Some have to, sadly, do it more frequently than others. This inherent lack of justice and inequality is itself absurd.
However, lucky is the one who has a lighter boulder. But, given the absurdity of being, lucky is also the one who gets a heavier boulder to roll up, for if they succeed in doing so, rolling the lighter ones becomes a routine. In the end, life, in moments of distress, is really about how well one trains their mind to deal with suffering, as it is intrinsic to the unreasonable nature of being.
There is no escape from experiencing grief and pain, no matter how much one wishes. Philosophers and psychologists advise one possible escape is in accepting it and becoming one with it. In other words, letting the grief and pain be. Fighting it, they guide, only makes it worse. Pain comes and goes on its time, and while it does all one can do in such a moment is hope and trust that they will be ok.
Unlike suffering, hope is reasonable, because it is the hope of a better tomorrow that we survive a difficult today. As the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel in Homo Viator said, “I am inclined to believe that hope is for the soul what breathing is for the living organism.”
I have been to the New Brunswick train station in New Jersey State, where I live, hundreds of times in the past four years. For the past three years, I have boarded the train from here to work and school at least twice a week. During this time, it never occurred to me to sit and observe the place, people and their activities while waiting for the train, although I am generally curious about things around me.
Today I went there and sat on a bench at a distance from people in the waiting room. I wanted to observe the waiting behaviors of the people. As I sat down and began to observe, I thought about my behavior, as to why I sat where I did— aloof and distanced. But soon I shifted my attention towards the people and the big room, which had seven benches— one of which was very long. It had two huge round pendant lights hanging from a high ceiling, six ventilators and eight windows— one of the windows was of giant size. The room had two doors exiting towards the station’s platform. It had a stairway for exiting the station.
Six people were waiting for the train when I entered the waiting room. Four of them were sitting at quite a distance from each other. The remaining two were sitting relatively close. Within a minute or two, the train arrived and the room emptied. Then within the next two to three minutes after the train left, more people began to come into the room. Again, they sat at a distance from each other. This time a cop also came in. He stood close to one of the corners in front of the bathroom.
As I was observing the room, I felt being observed by the cop. As a brown man with a thick black beard and a mix of Afghan, Arab and Iranian facial features (although I am ethnically Afghan/Pashtun), I feel seen with suspicion every time I face a white cop. Then another train arrived and people left the room. Again, more people arrived. This time, two more cops showed up with the crowd into the room. Usually, these cops wait in Dunkin Donuts on the floor below the waiting room. While waiting there, they chat, drink coffee and eat donuts. As many New Jersyians would agree, Dunkin Donuts is a favorite spot for cops in the State. They seem to spend more time in coffee shops than on duty outside.
To my left, a man and a woman, most probably a couple, were leaning against one of the windows. They were quiet and expressionless for the most part except when the man spoke over the phone for a few minutes. In the corner to my left, a black woman seemed lost in her thoughts as her gaze was fixated on the plain wall and at the same time engaged in nose-picking for about a minute. The rest of the people, the young and the aged, were busy on their phones— listening to music or surfing the Internet. At one point, eight people including two cops, out of fourteen people, were busy on their phones. Others were quiet. The only people talking were the three cops and the two aged white women sitting side by side.
As the number of people changed with the trains arriving and leaving, at one point, there were 27 people in the waiting room. About ten of them were white and the rest were people of color. To my right, a man in about his forties sat and began to read the book, Consciousness and the Absolute, as I spotted the name on the front cover. Out of curiosity later, I searched the book and found that it is written by Nisargadatta Maharaj. Nisargadatta “was a Hindu guru of nondualism, belonging to the Inchagiri Sampradaya, a lineage of teachers from the Navnath Sampradaya and Lingayat Shaivism.” The man with the book was the only one in the room, who was reading. Then the next train came. The room emptied again. The bookman left. And I left too.
While exiting the station and strolling the streets of the city, I thought the most remarkable and strange thing about my observation was that people rarely sat close to others and rarely did they talk to each other. They hardly acknowledged the presence of others, let alone looking at them and saying ‘hi’ to them. Most people kept to themselves. There was an aura of coldness and lack of human warmth. I feel behavior such as this generates certain cultural expectations of “appropriateness.” This socially constructed appropriateness, in turn, dictates the interactions of people in public spaces like waiting rooms.
P.S. This observation is part of an assignment I completed for an online Qualitative Methods course with the University of Amsterdam. The assignment was to find and describe a place where people are waiting (e.g. in queues at stores, at public transport stations etc.). I thought it would be nice to share my observation with readers here.
The Modi government’s recent revocation of Article 370 in Kashmir caused a moral uproar in Pakistan. Both the government and the people felt outraged at the revocation and Indian government’s continued atrocities against Kashmiris.
No one with a sane mind and a little empathy in their heart would deny that condemning India’s atrocities in Kashmir is the right thing to do, morally.
However, when moral outrage becomes selective, such as outrage over atrocities in Kashmir and deafening silence over egregious crimes against minorities inside the country, it should also be condemned.
Why? What is wrong with selective moral outrage? Spencer Case, Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Colorado Boulder, says, “To be selectively outraged is to be guilty – of irrationality at least, and probably of moral hypocrisy as well.”
A counterargument to this claim, as Case explains, is that a moral human being, especially a psychologically normal human being, can not be evenly morally outraged in a world so full of outrages.
This is true, as our moral outrage and empathy have limitations, but there is also a counterargument to this view the support for which is found in theology and moral philosophy.
In Islam, your neighbor and your community have the utmost right over your solidarity and support. For example, Zakat (obligatory alms-giving) should be given to the deserving in the community first. Once this responsibility is fulfilled, then one can support the economically deserving elsewhere.
Similarly, if the members of your own community or nation are in some kind of suffering, they are the first deserving of your solidarity. The rest of the people come later. In moral philosophy too, you have the utmost responsibility and solidarity to show with those who are the closest to you geographically and in other ways.
Again, you can counterargue that moral outrage at the fate of others and your own are not morally competing interests. That is true. They are not and should not be, but only if you have your responsibility to those in need and close to you fulfilled first.
In Pakistan, the ethnic and religious minorities have suffered for decades, but the government and the majority of the people have been silent.
Religious minorities such as the Hindus, Christians, Ahmedis and Shia Muslims have been persecuted by Islamists for decades, but one sees from little to no moral outrage in the country.
Similarly, ethnic minorities such as the Baloch, Pashtuns and Mohajirs have been persecuted by the state, yet again the moral outrage at the atrocious acts from the successive elected governments and the people is from little to non-existent.
Moreover, elected parliamentarians are in jail. Thousands of activists are missing and as many killed extra-judicially. A large number of bodies of political activists have been found in mass graves.
There have been curfews in Waziristan. When people speak about their rights, they are silenced, detained and even killed. The state’s secret service harasses and surveils activists even outside the country.
The Baloch have been calling on the UN for help for decades. The Pashtuns after the emergence of the rights-based Pashtun Tahafuz (Protection) Movement and state repression, marched on UNO in Geneva for their constitutional rights last month.
Most people are silent on these atrocities against their own people but outraged against India’s atrocities in Kashmir. This is a fake and selective moral outrage. I am enraged at this selective outrage.
What is the state? Why do we obey it? Should we obey even when it oppresses us? And what can we do for our freedom against its tyranny? These questions come to mind every time I see the appalling treatment of governments of their subjects. In quest for insights, I have read extensively, but nothing has struck me so profoundly as the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883).
The book covers a multitude of themes but in one of the sections, “Of the New Idol” in Part I, Nietzsche talks about the state: “The state? What is that? Well then! Now open your ears, for now I shall speak to you of the death of peoples.” He says, “State is the name of the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly it tells lies too; and this lie crawls out of its mouth: “I, the state, am the people.”
“Zarathustra as character in the treatise,” Richard Falk notes, “is presented as a prophetic voice of Nietzsche, the person who stands outside and in solitude so as to understand better what is taking place inside, a voice that is shrill with anger, impassioned by conviction, and dedicated to truth-telling, however heretical.” Falk contends that it is important to remember that “Nietzsche was experiencing a young German state that was seeking unity by promoting an intense cult of nationalism that would eventuate in self-destructive major wars twice in the 20th century.”
In Nietzsche and the State, David Gordon says that although Nietzsche was in politics far from an authoritarian, in his youth he supported the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, whose militaristic politics he then rejected in later years. Most probably, it was the political situation of the time that influenced Nietzsche to write one of his most famous and great works.
Nietzsche’s depiction fits the character of all modern states but of some more so than others. While reading “Of the New Idol”, I kept thinking about my country of origin, Pakistan, and what it has been doing to its people, particularly the oppressed groups. For far too long, innocent people have gotten killed in bomb blasts, target killing and numerous other mysterious ways. Many have gone and keep going missing for raising their voice against this cruelty.
However, rarely has the state caught these criminals and terrorists. The perpetrators turn out either suicide bombers found in shreds on blast sites or “unknown” assailants, who are so adept at escaping that the entire security machinery is “clueless” as to where they come from and where they go back in hiding. The state does not feel responsible at all for the safety of the people.
But, for the thinking man of this merciless polity, these are all cold lies, as Nietzsche would put. Where it serves its interest, the state would find law breakers out from the bowels of cities and the highs of mountains. But when upholding the law goes against the state’s interest, it would turn a blind eye and look the other way.
In Pakistan, the conscience-stricken citizens among all the many obedient subjects, who have challenged the state, are silenced, harassed, detained and even killed. These great souls have, in Falk’s words, risked “a life-threatening response by challenging the authority of the repressive regime in power.” No one listens to them because the monster roars, “On earth, there is nothing greater than I: the ordering finger of God am I.”
The cold monster whispers dark lies about its god-ness and greatness to all and sundry. The ways in which technology has facilitated the spread of the propaganda of the modern state would be unthinkable for Nietzsche, but the good news is that it has also almost equally empowered the people. The passage maintains that this cold monster would surround itself with “heroes and honorable men” and “bask in the sunshine of good consciences.”
These are usually normal men with normal roles as fathers, brothers and uncles in the family, but when it comes to the relation between the people and the state, they become uncontrollable and evil monsters. Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Bashar al-Assad and others have shown this cold monstrosity. I have wondered how are these men capable of such extraordinary coldness. Sometimes, the answer is nationalism. Sometimes power. Or greed, sociopathy, pleasure and wealth. Or a combination of all of the above.
Nietzsche maintains that this new idol will give you everything if you worship it. In this way, “It buys the splendor of your virtues and the look of your proud eyes. It would use you as a bait for the all-too-many.” But if you oppose it, even for the most righteous of reasons, you risk irking the monster, hence inviting its ire upon yourself. That is why most subjects choose complacent ignorance over conscientious dissidence. But if pushed too hard, the subjects, like in Tunisia and elsewhere, do rise to challenge the coldest of all cold monsters’ authority. In Pakistan, the 26-year old Manzoor Pashteen, the leader of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, challenged Pakistan’s mighty army at the beginning of last year.
Surprisingly, 139 years after publishing his book, Nietzsche’s words are relevant and invigorating even today. Most states, even liberal democracies like the United States, violate the rights of their citizens. African Americans are routinely killed by the police and incarceration rates are the highest in their community. Myanmar, India, Israel, Turkey, and on and one, most states violate the rights and dignity of their people.
What should be done when the state violates its citizens’ rights but demand compliance? This is perhaps one of the most difficult questions that some of the greatest thinkers/philosophers of all time have tried to explore. Anarchist philosophers reject unjust hierarchies of power in favor of ” self-managed, self-governed societies based on voluntary, cooperative institutions.” Philosophical anarchism is the view that citizens don’t have obligation to obey the law, although they have good reasons to comply with it. Philosophical anarchists believe that the state lacks moral legitimacy: However, they don’t advocate violence to eliminate it.
Liberal philosophers believe “that government is necessary to protect individuals from being harmed by others, but they also recognize that government itself can pose a threat to liberty.” The English-born American political activist and philosopher Thomas Paine expressed in Common Sense (1776), “Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one…”
According to liberals, the solution is to devise a rules-based system that not only gives government the power necessary to protect individual liberty, but also prevents those who govern from abusing that power. Libertarians, like liberals, strongly value the protections of individual freedoms. But unlike liberals, “Libertarians usually see the kind of large-scale, coercive wealth redistribution in which contemporary welfare states engage as involving unjustified coercion.” In other words, the libertarians advocate the minimalist state.
To conclude, one should listen carefully to Nietzsche for his depiction of the nature of the state helps us understand the gross violations of rights by almost all states in varying degrees. But one should also remember that without the state, the regulation of human behaviour and the protection of individual rights would remain a pressing challenge for society. Moreover, would a stateless society or societies, as some anarchists advocate, be ever realizable? It is especially difficult to imagine so, as the modern state has brought most tribal and indigenous communities in its fold.
In the end, in Falk’s words, “To remove the blindfold, and see the state as the coldest of monsters is a necessary wakeup call for which we should thank Nietzsche for, even now, 139 years after Zarathustra was published. And yet we also need to resist the temptation to fall into a deeper sleep by adopting a posture of unrealizable and unacceptable negation of this strange political creature called the state. In the end, the state is not a monster, but a work in progress.”
Yesterday, a friend and I talked about the violence against peaceful protestors in Sudan. She said she can’t believe what is happening to innocent people. What is worse, she said, is no one cares about them. No one is helping.
I said I share your sentiments. But the problem is not that no one cares; it is just that such conflicts are quite complex. Yemen, Syria, Libya and other cases are before our eyes. Intervention or no intervention. People have been dying.
She said but why can’t we do something. Why can’t we be with them, so they don’t feel alone and scared? Why can’t we share their fear and pain, she said.
Again, I said I share your kind thoughts. But one also has to feel mentally and emotionally safe themselves to be able to help others.
It is sad that they are trapped but we can’t do much if we get trapped with them. One can’t help their crying child by starting crying with them. One has to feel ok and take action.
I said I love how empathetic you are but you need to separate emotional empathy from cognitive empathy
The Yale psychologist, Paul Bloom says emotional empathy means feeling the pain and suffering of people. Emotional empathy does not always help and it is not healthy. In work of peace or in life in general, one needs to make sure first they are ok.
Cognitive empathy, he says, refers to understanding other people’s problems and empathizing with them. Cognitive empathy is mentally appreciating the pain of other people and not necessarily feeling their pain emotionally.
Bloom says, another limitation of empathy is that we don’t empathize with strangers as much as we do with people we know. Therefore, individual actions and governments’ policies should base on rational calculation rather than purely on empathy.
As an activist, I follow the news of conflict in my country, Pakistan, and across the world closely. The events in the past year in Pakistan and in countries such as Syria, Yemen and Sudan affected me emotionally.
At one point, I could not watch the videos of Pakistani security forces’ oppression of the protestors of the rights-based Pashtun Tahafuz (Protection) Movement or the PTM.
This was one reason why I took a break for four months from social media. I have read and have realized that it is ok to share the pain of fellow human beings. But it is not necessary to feel the way other people feel.
I agree with Bloom that emotional empathy is not good for one’s health. Hope this helps the readers and activists in the field.
Since the onset of the rights-based Pashtun Protection Movement or PTM in February last year in Pakistan, its supporters have hopes from America to pressure the Pakistan military establishment to accept their demands. The PTM is a nonviolent movement that is demanding justice for war crimes committed against Pakistan’s largest ethnic minority— Pashtuns. The PTM supporters have protested in various cities of the U.S., including in front of the White House in the federal capital, Washington DC. The Trump administration has not issued a single condemnatory statement on the issue. From such a lack of interest, it is clear that the Americans are not interested in the Pashtun problem in Pakistan. There are a number of possible reasons. Some are general. Others are specific to PTM and Pakistan.
Generally, America has a negative historical track record of supporting regressive forces over democratic forces in numerous parts of the world. In the Spanish–American War in 1898, America supported the “independence” of Cuba and the Philippines against Spanish imperialism, but soon after the Spanish withdrawal it dominated the governments and peoples in these countries. When the local people resisted, America went to war against them. The Philippines did not become independent until 1946, almost half a century after dethroning the Spanish Empire with America’s help in 1898. America’s imperial project goes all the way back to the subjugation of the Natives in first few decades of the 19th century, the occupation of Hawaii in 1898 and subsequent exploits in Latin America and in the Middle East in the 20th century.
More recently, in 1986, the United States drew up sanctions on the white-dominated apartheid regime of South Africa, ending constraints from international sanctions on state repression of the anti-apartheid movement. Around the same time, the Reagan administration and Pentagon supported President Marcos of Philippines despite his government’s indiscriminate repression of the democratic opposition. It was because Marcos was America’s ally against Communism in the Philippines. However, Reagan withdrew his support of Marcos when the military-backed civilian uprising against Marcos transpired. There was also a growing wedge between the State Department and Congress and the Reagan administration and Pentagon. For details on the two cases, you can read chapter two of Kurt Schock’s book, Unarmed Insurrection: People Power Movements in Nondemocracies.
There are other cases of America’s support to dictators against democrats, but the question is will America support the PTM in Pakistan. The answer I am afraid is in negative. I may be wrong, but here is why I think so. First, America has more to gain from cooperation with the Pakistan army, especially for the endgame in Afghanistan, than hapless Pashtuns. This is despite the fact that America and the Pashtuns of Pakistan seem to have a common objective: The end of terrorist proxies allegedly backed by Pakistan army and used in Afghanistan. America is also preoccupied at the moment with the peace process with the Taliban in Afghanistan. A senior American expert on the region also confirmed this in a private conversation.
Second, America has supported generals over civilian leaders in Pakistan in the past. That realpolitik equation has not changed yet. With the Trump administration it has become more robust than ever, although he put pressure on Pakistan at the begging. My fear is that just like America and other powerful Western countries left East Timorese to the butchery by the Indonesian military, they will leave Pashtuns to their fate in Pakistan. It behooves these countries to avoid antagonizing Pakistan’s dominant military while it is blatantly denying rights to the Pashtun victims of war.
Third, one of the PTM demands is the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate possible crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity by the Pakistan army. America will not get itself involved in this, because its own leaders and armed forces are guilty of committing war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last year, the International Criminal Court (ICC) received 1.7 million cases of war crimes allegedly committed by the NATO and U.S. forces, Afghan secret service and security forces and the Taliban, combined. Since America is not a party to the ICC, the Trump administration cautioned the ICC Prosecutor not get involved. The Prosecutor responded that Afghanistan is a party to the ICC and crimes committed on its soil will have to be investigated. The point is that America will not support PTM in this regard.
Noam Chomsky says America has supported democracy where it has served its interests and opposed it when democracy would threaten American interests. This is true in the light of history. The PTM may stand a chance with the European Union subtracting the United Kingdom, which is the main historical culprit behind the past and current woes of the Pashtuns. Having said that, PTM should knock on all doors for justice, including that of the Americans. It is those who strive for justice, get it someday. The Polish Jew and lawyer Raphael Lemkin got the international community to adopt the Genocide Convention of 1948 after years of campaigning. Don’t forget that Jews were not the favorite of the West at the time and endured conscience-shocking atrocities at Hitler’s hands.
PTM should plead its case and keep telling its story to the world. As my favorite Native American proverb puts, “Those who tell the stories rule the world.”