Feisal Naqvi

Learned Helplessness

In Uncategorized on May 1, 2009 at 9:29 am

Take a rat and hold it in your hand until it stops struggling. Now throw it into deep water. According to researchers, the rat will drown after an average of about 30 minutes.

Why does this matter?

It matters because if you take a rat and simply chuck it into the deep end, it lasts a lot longer, swimming for almost 60 hours before giving up and drowning.

The difference between the two rats is not physiology but mentality. The rat that has learnt that struggling is useless makes no real effort to protect itself. The one that has not learnt to give up fights and fights until it physically collapses.

What goes for rats apparently goes for people too. The description of the rats comes from studies done by Martin Seligman, a famous professor of psychology. According to Seligman, human beings who have grown accustomed to a lack of control over their surroundings respond to new situations with apathy and depression, even when they are no longer helpless. Seligman termed this behaviour, “learned helplessness”.

So, what kind of rats are we? Actually, I am not too sure.

Much of the discourse in the liberal media over the last week has been taken up by a prolonged session of chest-beating and shirt-rending over our national apathy. If one wanted to refine the position, the clinical argument would be that we have become so accustomed to being pushed around by various dictators that we are now entirely without hope: we are like the rats who have learned helplessness and are now content to drown.

I may well be stupidly optimistic but I just do not buy that argument. Yes, we are a nation that has always welcomed its dictators but there is a huge difference between the embrace of an unpleasant alternative and an indifferent resignation to a malevolent fate.

Other than this bon mot, what evidence could one point to?

The first point of analysis for me is that we have already been through an attempted Islamisation. General Zia-ul Haq’s full frontal assault on our liberties and institutions was backed by the entire might of the state for a period of 11 years. That was a time when the head of the state actually did argue that he had been sent by God to bring about a revolution. And he failed.

Zia’s failure is significant because while it left our legal landscape scarred with numerous eyesores (the various Hudood Ordinances, for one) it also failed to change the essential contours of that landscape.

My former dean, Guido Calabresi, used to explain the failure of legal radicalism to take hold at Yale in the 1980s with reference to the fact that New Haven had actually pioneered legal realism back in the 1930s. Or in his words, “because we had the chicken-pox, we did not get the small-pox.”

Similarly, the body politic of Pakistan carries within it the institutional memory of what happened the last time the mullahs went on a power grab. And that institutional memory remains intensely suspicious of anything bearded that wants to operate outside its appropriate zone of influence (that is, circumcisions and funerals).

A more recent — and more substantial — point of analysis emerges from the recent lawyers’ movement. Let me freely confess that I was an extremely sceptical supporter of the movement. In other words, while I agreed with the movement’s aims, I was considerably doubtful as to whether the movement had more than a snowball’s chance in hell of actually succeeding. I was proved wrong repeatedly because not only did Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry get restored once as Chief Justice of Pakistan, he got restored twice!

All of that matters because while the first restoration (call it CJP 1) was driven by a hardcore group of lawyers, CJP 2 came about because of a genuine popular uprising in which people took to the street in support of a cause.

Armchair conspiracy theorists may disagree with my last statement, but the point here is not whether Nawaz Sharif emerged on the streets as the result of a secret agreement or because he had discovered his manhood. Instead, the point here is that the people now believe (reality be damned) that they are the ones who got Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry restored.

And just as helplessness can be learned, so can it be unlearnt.

I do not know whether we are a nation of drowning rats or a nation of fighting rats. But we are about to find out.


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