OVER A COFFEE: A tale of two societies —Dr Haider Shah
Incidents of cruelty and inhumanity occur all over the world. What is worrying in our case is the lack of social interest in following up such stories and making sure that the perpetrators are brought to book and the victims receive justice
Whilst browsing through the pages of a newspaper recently in a local workshop waiting for my car to be fixed, a story about ‘Anne’ caught my attention. She was in old age but had been subjected to cruel treatment by her carers. Even though suffering from bone ailments, Anne was made to do difficult physical tasks. The newspaper report about the blatant neglect of Anne generated countrywide anguish against her carers. Social and political groups geared into action and even the office of the prime minister got involved. No wonder the media generated frenzy about Anne achieved its purpose in less than a week. The aging Anne, the last elephant in a circus in Britain, was rescued from her owners and now leisurely resides in Longleat Safari Park. The director of the park wanted to keep the media away to give Anne the dignity of privacy. However, so great was the interest of the general public that The Guardian was granted an audience with Anne. The newspaper staff had to deal with a tsunami of phone calls wanting to know how Anne was doing and photographers keen to capture her every roll and rub.
At about the same time, I watched with horror an item on a Pakistani news channel. The news was relayed only once but the story took my peace away and intermittently keeps disturbing my conscience to this day. According to the news item, a newborn baby was left in a local cemetery where wild animals devoured him through the night. All beheadings done by indoctrinated religious extremists or by criminals linked with various political parties already indicate a lack of much needed empathy. However, this incident about a nameless infant was much more shocking and revealed the level of insensitivity that we have grown accustomed to. The news is not a one-off tragedy. More recently a news item appeared about a person apprehended carrying a bag of newborn corpses who then linked the bag to a lady gynaecologist. In all such stories, it is not just the immediate crime of killing newborn babies or letting them die that is gruesome and appalling. More disconcerting is the fact that our social norms and attitudes lead to the commitment and perpetuation of such dastardly crimes. Just as pimples or swellings appearing on a body are symptoms of some underlying disease, crimes also need to be understood as the culmination of a social phenomenon.
“Every child comes with the message that God is not yet discouraged of man,” says Tagore. What prompts a mother to overcome the instinctive bond of love and let the messenger of hope become a meal for wild animals? The answer is obvious: our society is obsessed with valuing women only in terms of their chastity. Its hypocritical social norms take a lenient view of the complicity of males but impose vicious sanctions against females. So authoritarian and ruthless our norms are that the urge to save loss of face proves stronger than the natural compassion that a mother should have for a newborn. Another incident reported recently in the media relates to a girl gang raped by certain individuals in Shahkot. The shocking aspect of the incident is that the girl involved was a topper in the Matriculation exams. Instead of feeling proud of her great achievement in life, now she is left to nurse the scars of a horrible personal tragedy on the one hand and face the ruthless taunting of society on the other. As is customary, the girl was cold-shouldered by the police and was able to get some attention only after a prominent media channel aired her story.
Incidents of cruelty and inhumanity occur all over the world. What is worrying in our case is the lack of social interest in following up such stories and making sure that the perpetrators are brought to book and the victims receive justice. A concerted effort towards the rehabilitation of the victims of heinous crimes such as rape is often missing and females are left to their own fate.
The animal kingdom is characterised by the ‘survival of the fittest’ rule. However, keen natural life observers find the presence of compassion and social bonding among animals as well. Adam Smith, in his influential Theory of Moral Sentiments, comments that the selfishness of humans is tempered by sympathy and that is why human societies do not break down. I feel very alarmed when sometimes I hear well-off members of our society remark that they do not listen to the news because it is depressing. If turning eyes away could make unpleasant scenes disappear then pigeons would have starved to death all attacking cats.
Why is no protest activity seen in cases of genuine victims of violent crimes? Perhaps we need to rethink our social norms and attitudes. No doubt, some NGOs and a few spirited members of civil society do make some noise. However, the extensive social empathy that characterises humane societies is still missing. Perhaps we remain so immersed in issues relating to the heavens that we forget that we owe some duty to the society that we live in as well. Anne is enjoying a life of leisure, dignity and fame in her new luxurious abode. Why can newborn babies in Pakistan not be rescued from becoming the meals of wild animals or getting dumped into a sewer? Why can females not be saved from licentious men who use rape as a weapon of degradation against helpless women? Those who think that they need not disturb their peace and joy by feeling concerned over such depressing incidents must remember that when a Titanic sinks, the elite in their luxurious rooms also go down with the ship.
The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org