Fallibility and Democracy

 Ahmad Ali Khalid


Many Pakistani commentators have spoken on the absence of a charismatic figure that can bring about change; however, this is a mistaken analysis. Yes, charismatic authority can be a source of inspiration, but also of corruption and unchecked power.

 The issue of fallibility has been a source of great inspiration and discussion throughout literature and the arts. It is a sobering examination of the human condition, about the fragility and vulnerability of human beings in their thoughts or actions. In the political context (disregarding philosophy and epistemology), however, in the works of great political theorists, the issue of fallibility can be one of the crucial psychological and social bedrocks for democracy.

Since human beings are fallible and equally fallible at that, and none of us can hope to achieve supernatural authority, we must engage, debate, discuss and criticise with the aim to refine and reinterpret our notions of ethics and politics. No single human being among us mortals has the right or the merit to rule in an authoritarian fashion, since, firstly, the best solutions to our social and political problems can never be achieved perfectly and, secondly, no human being possesses the vision for a perfect and practically working utopia. ‘Truth’, in the political context, is not naked. It is obscure and requires deliberation. If this political and social truth cannot be accessed and is not self-evident, one does not have the right to impose and coerce the nation for these ends. This allows — in a simplistic manner — a middle ground between absolutism and relativism. There may be objective standards of ethical conduct and there may be an ultimately ‘perfect’ system of political arbitration and interaction, but we human beings can never be conclusively in possession of or determine these standards.

This simple presentation illustrates the necessity of such an attitude in the establishment of a democratic culture. The problem with Pakistan specifically is that such an attitude is not widespread. Our political consciousness is still shaped by the experience of the Mughals and their benevolent and pious autocracies in the name of faith, coupled with the notion of a ‘redeemer’, a quasi-messianic complex that will deliver the people to a state of bliss and salvation. This is tinged with religious language. However, as many scholars and commentators — both pre-modern and modern — have shown, the Quranic narrative of man shows him as essentially fallible, though endowed with free will and reason. There are standards of objective truth present in faith and revelation, but the act of interpretation and the act of deliberation on this message is an exercise in human reasoning, which again is fallible. This ‘religious fallibilism’ is abundantly present in the canons of Sufi poetry, with sober rendering on this very delicate view of man. The reasons why in Pakistan the democratic experiment has never really taken off are many, but surely one of them is the psychological complexes of the electorate.

Many Pakistani commentators have spoken on the absence of a charismatic figure that can bring about change; however, this is a mistaken analysis. Yes, charismatic authority can be a source of inspiration, but also of corruption and unchecked power. Ultimately, it will be in vain unless a democratic culture on the notions of fallibility and pluralism is constructed. A nation cannot be uplifted on the will of one person. This dissonance in political psychology, on the one hand stating in a benign manner allegiance to democratic principles and on the other, fervently waiting for a modern-day Saladin, is endemic in the electorate. This Saladin complex is reflected in the spurt of new radical movements.

 Idealism is welcome but utopianism is a poison that has been responsible for much loss of human life. Utopianism, particularly of a religious flavour in Pakistan, is deadly to the democratic spirit; it is deluded and is bereft of rational analysis. Utopianism, more often than not, is a corollary of fanaticism and extremism and is emptied of the reservoirs of rational analysis, emphasising passion and emotion at the cost of reason.

A cessation of false, distorted historiography for ideological ends, an end to hagiographic depictions of the past and a sober and critical look at history is in order. To learn from the mistakes of the past, and to improve and build upon the successes, engaging in a type of philosophical anthropology that focuses on the construction of a democratic culture is imperative.

There are signs of change in the emergence of independent media structures, but if one is to say that this phenomenon is a sign of ‘liberalisation’, then we are mistaken. Yes it can be seen as sign of democracy — a minimal conception excluding rights and liberties, taking the literal meaning of the word at face value without further elaboration — but it is not the sign of an enlightened, pluralistic and liberal democracy. It is rather an indicator of a brutish majoritarian democracy. The content of this newly freed press has to be considered when talking of a paradigmatic shift in the political conscience and thinking of the electorate.

Fallibility is important because any individual who thinks that s/he is endowed with special privilege from a supernatural source or otherwise, or imagines that politics and statesmanship are expressions of divine right or believes that they are in sole possession of the truth and that truth alone is what matters in the final analysis (and not the means by which you implement this truth), will and can easily fall prey to violence. This type of intolerance and absolutism is the biggest threat to democracy, since in this notion violence becomes a duty in the pursuit of implementing this inviolable truth.

This attitude is becoming rampant in Pakistan. Autocracy is autocracy whether it is of a religious hue or some other shade. There are examples in our culture (mostly in poetry) that emphasise liberty and pluralism, but the notions of free will, human fallibility in relation to the majesty of God and the notion of a common humanity with the same Creator, who can rejoice in the love of God regardless of creed, have to be explored and elaborated further before they can be presented in intelligible and modern forms of democratic thought.

The liberal democratic experiment Jinnah envisioned for his new nation state was always fighting against the historical tide of an authoritarian political culture. Now it seems this tide is threatening to sink this fragile ship of democratic politics altogether.



Filed under Pakistan

4 responses to “Fallibility and Democracy

  1. Ammar

    Democracy is a credible weapon against terrorism. As democracy strengthens its roots in Pakistan, our role in the war against terror has also changed we are now an ally in this war and we have taken ownership of this battle which is why we have reclaimed Swat and South Waziristan.

  2. Farukh Sarwar

    It is true of the author that democracy has always been weakened in our country. Perhaps the authoritarian culture first practiced by the Moghals and later by the British resulted in the indoctrination of people and that’s why they are slow in adapting to the democratic culture.

  3. Tilsim

    This is a deeply reflective piece. Lots to reflect upon and chew on here.

    I agree with the central thrust of the article that the problems seem so overwhelming and there is such as lack of confidence to overcome them at an individual level that we seek a political authoritarian messiah for our deliverance.

    I would add some other features of our national pscyhe which I think are hampering our progress into a democratic dispensation:

    1) A self perception not supported by the facts, both on the positive side (leading to hubris – mostly by the religious and cultural conservative lobby) and on the negative side (leading to excessive fatalism – mostly by moderates and liberals). The latter tendency is the most prevalent.

    2) A winner take all approach to everything we do without accepting that others have rights and interests too.

    3) A rush to assumptions rather than a rush to seek the facts that might support an assumption.

    4) A money for nothing attitude. We don’t like hard work (at problem solving or value creation) and have no problem in asking for and taking handouts

    5) An inability to question the received truths from our family, our community or our leaders about our country or our understanding of religion.

    6) A pursuit and admiration of power for it’s own sake.

    7) A lack of community spirit.

    There must be other features that define our national psyche and this makes for an interesting debate.

  4. NAS

    Should be : the connection between effort and result …