17 Dec After Veena Malik: Thoughts on Morality
By Anjum Altaf
Veena Malik has provided Indians and Pakistanis something to talk about – to, at, and across each other. There is much that can be ignored but a few strands strike me as promising and worth pursuing.
Most of the outpouring, at least on the blogs, is a voicing of individual personal opinions for and against Ms. Malik’s act. That, to me at least, is the least interesting aspect of the fallout. Why should my personal opinion carry significance for anyone besides myself? If the objective were to run an opinion poll, people could vote yes or no anonymously and be done with it.
It would be different if the person offering the opinion were a public figure. Take Imran Khan, for example: his opinion on the incident could provide a clue where he might lead the nation if given the opportunity. How would his yuppie fan base respond if he took the line of the born-again Muslim? And how would his conservative supporters react if he came out in favor of individual choice? It could be useful to know how he might negotiate this cultural minefield. No wonder Imran Khan is keeping his lips sealed while those who have less at stake shout themselves hoarse.
Individuals voicing their opinions do believe they are supporting them with arguments. But these are nothing more than reiterations of the cultural positions that give rise to their opinions. Those against consider the act irreligious, immoral, contrary to social values and dishonorable to the family and the nation. Those for consider it an expression of free choice and individual right. The hard line separating family-value waalas from individual-choice waalas leaves hardly any grey area for meaningful discussion.
It is noticeable that there is barely any attempt by either side to try and understand the reasons for the conflicting opinions. The immediate recourse is to resort to name calling: the disapprovers consider the others depraved; the approvers deem the others backward or apologists for social oppression.
It is equally remarkable that individuals simply assume their social and cultural norms to be the touchstones for the rest of the world. Any deviation from their values is taken to be a deviation from propriety or common sense. Why that should be the case is not considered worth discussing.
Five issues seem worth exploring. First, does it make sense to judge a subset of society by norms relevant to another? Second, can problems in a subset be attributed primarily to social and cultural norms? Third, what is it that gives rise to the notion of a moral order used to judge individual acts? Fourth, how do moral orders change and evolve? And fifth, what should be the strategy for those working for change within heterogeneous societies?
The answer to the first question is that it is always possible to pass a verdict on one subset of society from the vantage point of another. If something doesn’t raise an eyebrow on a beach in Sydney, why should it be such a big issue in Pakistan? One answer, most often found on blogs, is that Pakistan is socially and culturally backward compared to Australia and should strive to be more like the latter if it wants to be part of the advanced, civilized world. This is hardly a useful answer and of little help in suggesting what should be done in the real Pakistan of today given that there is no magic wand that can transform the terrible is to the wonderful ought. If the objective is not just to score points but to suggest a concrete strategy for change there is no alternative to understanding a social subset of society on its own terms. This is not an argument for cultural relativism in which everything is considered right; it is to recognize the difference between explanation and approval, between finding a way forward and passing judgment.
The second question speaks to the charge that there are horrible things going on in Pakistan that stem from its notion of family values and family honor. This may be true, but surely one is not arguing that horrible things of a different nature are not taking place in Australia or the US. What is to be gained by attributing all those horrible things to an unmitigated individualism? Once again, the vacuous desire to score points overwhelms any serious attempt to get at the bottom of what drives the ills that plague various societies or subsets of societies and what they should be doing at the margin to move in the desired direction.
The third question actually begins to provide the conceptual apparatus needed for concrete analysis and action. Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist, has made a useful contribution by identifying five psychological drivers of our sense of morality. These comprise our attitudes to fairness, protection (of the vulnerable), loyalty (to one’s group), respect (for authority), and purity (or sanctity). According to Haidt, liberals place more value on the first two while conservatives stress the last three more. Every society has its mix of liberals and conservatives (how they get to be either is a separate question of much interest) and not much is to be gained by talking past each other. What is needed is a way for the two sides to engage and figure out the concerns that motivate moral judgments rather than to pass judgments of right and wrong. Thus, if Haidt argues that every subset has to be understood on its own terms, one needs to understand the rationale of his argument (and oppose it if warranted on grounds of logic) rather than to label him an apologist for patriarchal oppression.
The fourth question points to the fact that almost all societies are in a state of cultural change. Every society has its fundamentalists, conservatives, liberals and radicals. Every society, at least in recent times, has cultural tension across generations. Acts like those of Veena Malik push at the margins of the acceptable and set off a chain of reactions. How the equilibrium shifts and where it settles temporarily is very much a factor of the strength of the various subsets at any given point in time. Cultural change is not always in one direction; there have been many examples of severe cultural backlashes in the world – from Weimar to Nazi Germany being a particularly egregious recent example.
The fifth question brings us to the nitty-gritty of what is to be done to fight the widespread gender discrimination in countries like Pakistan. I doubt if Veena Malik’s act was spurred by a desire to strike one for oppressed women but it certainly provides an opening to take another look at the phenomenon. And this connects back with the strategic assessment of the balance of forces in society and the tactical need to understand rather than judge contrary moral standpoints. Those involved in this struggle in Pakistan have noted that the number of radical feminists has not increased much over the last many decades. The feminists who have felt it necessary to make a point of their individualism (say by smoking in public) have simply alienated a lot of women who might otherwise have been receptive to arguments that relied on a more familiar point of departure. As a result, it is actually the conservatives who have been gaining ground to the surprise and frustration of the liberals and radicals.
To castigate this trend without trying to understand it is to miss the point entirely. Veena Malik has given us one more opportunity to fathom the emotions that circumscribe our moral judgments and to tailor our strategies accordingly.
Jonathan Haidt, Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion.
Jonathan Haidt, What Makes People Vote Republican.
Ellen Willis, Escape from Freedom.
South Asian, The Confusions of Imran Khan.