On Sentiments – Individual and Collective

Ibn-e Eusuf’s reference to the fable of Boris and Ivan to characterize one dimension of the relations between Pakistan and India (Pakistan’s Favorite Indians) has elicited comments trying to identify the sentiment implied by the characterization. Let me repeat the fable before attempting to address the comments.

The Russian fable is about two poor peasants, Ivan and Boris. The only difference between them is that Boris has a goat and Ivan doesn’t. One day, Ivan comes upon a strange-looking lamp and, when he rubs it, a genie appears. She tells him she could grant him just one wish, and it could be anything in the world.

Ivan says, “I want Boris’ goat to die.” 

In Ibn-e Eusuf’s telling Ivan is Pakistan and Boris is India. The question posed is whether Ivan’s attitude could be characterized as jealousy and how does individual jealousy translate into collective jealousy?

There is an entire spectrum of sentiments that could be considered in this context. They are related in that they shade into one another and yet distinct because the motivations can exhibit significant variations. Personally, I am unconvinced that jealousy is what is involved in the case of Ivan and Boris.

A good place to start would be our discussion of humiliation some time back. Humiliation is triggered in Ivan by what Boris does to Ivan. We are concerned with a different context in which, let us assume, the achievement of Boris is independent of anything that Boris has done to Ivan. Now assuming further that Boris and Ivan started out with similar endowments, what are the ways that Ivan can look upon Boris’ fortune?

We could consider the gamut of emotions that begins with shame/embarrassment at one end, moves through jealousy/envy, and ends with resentment/hate at the other. Of course, Boris’ success could also inspire Ivan but let us disregard that and focus only on the set of negative reactions.

Much would also depend on how Ivan sees the reasons for Boris’ success – whether they are attributable to hard work, good luck, or unfair advantage. But let us ignore that too for the moment and assume that Boris merits his success.

We can rule out embarrassment/shame because such an emotion should generate the feeling in Ivan that he ought too or could have done just as well, a feeling that should give rise to a positive effort – a positive-sum outcome. Jealousy/envy captures the sentiment where Ivan looks positively upon Boris’ success and wishes that the success had gone to him instead – a zero-sum outcome. Resentment/hate, on the other hand, captures the sentiment where Ivan doesn’t really care whether he gets anything or not; he just doesn’t want Boris to do well – a negative-sum outcome.

My reading of Ibn-e Eusuf’s reworking of the fable is that he had hoped India’s success would trigger a sentiment of embarrassment/shame in Pakistanis causing them to demand similar results from their own leaders. And he is quite surprised to see that the actual sentiment is closer to resentment/hate – Pakistanis just don’t want India to do well even if they have to sacrifice their own welfare in the process.

Is Ibn-e Eusuf right? As we have mentioned in other posts, it is unwise to generalize broadly in South Asia with its many dimensions of diversity. We know very little about the feelings of our rural populations that constitute the majority in most countries; we haven’t tested regional variations; and we haven’t polled by gender or by age. If I were to take a guess, I would say that Ibn-e Eusuf captures the sentiments of a vocal minority that is young, male, urban and concentrated in the Punjab and perhaps in Karachi. However, this is a minority that gets disproportionate exposure because a majority of media persons belong to this group.

We are still left with the question of how individual sentiments translate into collective emotions. I think of the theory of market demand as a useful analogy. Market demand, in text-book versions, is nothing but the simple and mechanical aggregation of individual demands. Into this picture come the big advertising machines proactively shaping individual tastes and generating buying frenzies for one commodity or the other.

In the same way, sentiments of humiliation or shame or jealousy exist at the individual level based on the interactions of one person with another. These take the shape of collective opinions giving rise to the identification of in- and out-groups. Political forces enter into this milieu to channel some particular opinion for strategic purposes and in doing so find ways to artificially strengthen that opinion till it turns into a powerful force for action

Hitler played on anti-Semitic feelings in this way to create the monster of Nazism. There is little doubt that leaders in Pakistan have used their monopoly of the media and of education to heighten feelings of resentment and hate against India. At the same time, both Pakistan and India have worked hard to stifle any contact between citizens that would dampen this kind of false and one-sided indoctrination. Thus collective opinions are formed less through a process of the aggregation of individual sentiments based on personal interactions and more by myths that cannot be refuted propagated by political forces

As soon as people get an opportunity to meet and talk many of the myths begin to fade away – we have seen this happening again and again in neutral locations. Unfortunately the majorities are denied such opportunities. That is one reason why forums like The South Asian Idea that leverage technology to leapfrog state-imposed restrictions on contact and dialogue offer us an opening that we need to exploit to the maximum.



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