More on fence sitting —Munir Attaullah

A jockey knows the value of both the bit, and blinkers, to get the horse to do his bidding and focus on the race. ‘Principles’ are both ‘bit’ and ‘blinkers’ when considering the tools that are employed to both manipulate and exercise control in human societies

The ancient art of appearing to say something profound, while actually saying nothing, has a long and distinguished pedigree. A particular variant, much favoured by experienced columnists when feeling vacuous, is the resort to the curse of intellectual ‘padding’.

This thought came to me after I had sent in last week my column on fence sitting. For, the column was basically a load of rubbish that said absolutely nothing (or, at most, very little). All the ‘padding’ I used meant much that might otherwise have been sensibly discussed in context was conveniently omitted.

That was the bad news. The good news is that those omissions allow me to effortlessly produce this week’s column without pain or thought: a sort of ‘one for the price of two’ transaction. For, in this case, DT — and you, effectively — pay for two columns but really only get one!

I take it, it has not escaped the more astute amongst you how all I have written so far is itself as good an example as you could want of the point I made in the opening paragraph.

But, getting back on track, what were those matters that might have been discussed in last week’s column but were omitted? Remember, I was talking about inescapable existential dilemmas; how we all have to cope with them all the time; and how (and why) we sometimes plump for one side of the fence and sometimes for the other, and at other times we choose to straddle it or, indeed, not to make a decision at all. The additional important point I could have — should have — made was that sometimes the really clever ones among us attempt to create the illusion that, being men of principle, they really are above such existential dilemmas, even as they are fence-sitters too.

Let me back up my claim through some obvious examples. As we all know, our ex-General President never tired of reminding us in the past (and still does) that he is a firm democrat at heart. Now I have no reason to disbelieve him, for, if nothing else, it is given to no one to decipher another person’s true intent. But what did his actions tell us? Is he, or is he not, a ‘democrat’ (assuming we can agree what that word means)? Anyone now remember that delicious nonsense — ‘to keep the Army out bring it in’ — we were once served up?

Mr Zardari is pro impeach-the-President, and wants the judges restored, but is quite prepared to have a working relationship with Musharraf and go easy on the restoration. Mr Sharif is part of the ruling coalition, happy to govern Punjab with PPP support, but he is not prepared to join the government at the Centre. Also, like a goodly number of us, he is of course against religious extremism but thinks of the Lal Masjid hooligans as ‘innocent martyrs’. Then we have our civil society and lawyers. They obviously have no desire to destabilise and undermine a nascent and uncertain democratic experiment, and yet are quite prepared to unleash the sort of dangerous and inflammatory agitation that could easily go out of control, with unpredictable and possibly disastrous consequences.

And, on a more general rather than specific level, we all want everyone else to be upright, incorruptible, and law abiding, but are not averse to cutting corners when it suits us.

And what of that woolly current nonsense that holds we should be ‘talking’ and ‘negotiating’ with our Lal Masjid and Taliban types, instead of confronting them and disabusing them of their fantasies? I take it no sensible person welcomes the establishment of a state-within-a-state, or approves of gun-toting groups enforcing their own vision of right and wrong on society. So what exactly will ‘negotiations’ with such people achieve — unless we are really that stupid to think they can be persuaded to lay down their weapons and eschew their obscurantist causes — except to encourage them in the belief that they have us on the run? Nevertheless, many continue to sit uncomfortably on this particularly spiky fence because, it is argued, ‘we must not wage a war on our own people — Muslims to boot — to protect American interests’.

Incidentally, in a sort of mirror reversal of the above argument, a goodly number of such people (including sundry TV panellists and anchors) strongly favour a tough, forthright, and uncompromising stance by the government when it comes to the restoration of the judges (“What is there to ponder over and discuss? Is it not agreed that the PCO judges occupy their positions illegally? Then let the government — through a simple executive order — exercise its rightful authority to nullify an illegal act and summarily throw out the illegal occupants”). Curiously, they do not apply exactly the same logic when it comes to dealing with religious extremists.

What conclusions should I draw from such speculations? The first one is that practical life is a complicated and messy business, full of equivocation, much though we would not like that to be the case. That at least has been my experience, and I concede no ground to anyone when it comes to conducting myself on the basis of perceived moral principles. But we should be wary of being hung-up, ourselves, on the principle of ‘high moral principle’. Excellent guides though they are in most situations for the pursuit of a ‘good’ life, they are just that: guides; rules-of-thumb; formulas; something to tilt the balance in decision making when confused or unsure. Certainly they are not sacrosanct; and, often, good reasons must, perforce, give way to better ones. There can be no ‘one fits all’ framework. The rules of Euclidean Geometry are unsuitable for a Hyperbolic Space, and it would be folly to apply standard algebraic techniques in the domain of Boolean algebra.

If the first conclusion is inward looking, the second — and the more important one — faces outwards. We common folk need to look with jaundiced eyes and natural suspicion upon those in leadership positions (and I use the term in its widest sense, not restricting it to politicians) who thunder on about ‘principled stands’. Why?

A jockey knows the value of both the bit, and blinkers, to get the horse to do his bidding and focus on the race. ‘Principles’ are both ‘bit’ and ‘blinkers’ when considering the tools that are employed to both manipulate and exercise control in human societies. To successfully persuade others to ‘follow the rules’, and behave in a predictable manner, while you retain a degree of flexibility of action, confers a huge advantage in furthering personal agendas.

The writer is a businessman

Source: Daily times, 2/7/2008

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