In school, I used to think that Pakistanis were either an exceptionally evil or else an exceptionally stupid people. To my juvenile mind, it seemed that all of them were high on religion, obsessed with India, believed in fake history and the most bizarre conspiracy theories and were full of hatred towards other religions and societies. Many terrorist attacks on India originated from extremist groups in Pakistan, and it’s TV channels were full of talking heads; ranting and raving about the honour and pride of Pakistan, strange and colourful characters talking about the global Hindu-Zionist-Illuminati conspiracy against their country, and serials talking about the exceptional bravery, fidelity and fighting qualities of the Pakistan Army and it’s many victories against the cowardly and scheming Indians. From the outside looking in, it looked like the perfect extremist madhouse.
I used to think the same about Germans of the World War 2 era – that they must have been either really, really evil or a very robotic people, utterly devoid of human emotion, I mean, how else can you explain an entire nation blindly following a foaming-at-the-mouth, fancy-dress fascist with a toothbrush moustache? Did the Germans of that era really think that Mein Kampf actually made sense? Above all, how could an entire society either actively support or else meekly acquiesce to the methodically-planned, cold-blooded murder of millions of their fellow human beings?
And I don’t for a moment believe the post-war German civilian’s plea that they didn’t know what was going on. They might not have known the exact workings or the extent of what was going on, but they sure as hell knew that SOMETHING was going on. And a critical mass of that society either rabidly supported it, or else quietly went along with what was happening.
How is it possible for an entire society to be so evil and inhuman? Today, we can’t even imagine such horrors, leave aside identifying with the people who did them. The people who did these things – they must have been utter psychopaths, or at best, uneducated, superstitious and desperate. After all, you and me would never do such things, right?
The people who did those things were exactly like you and me, like your neighbours, like the favourite aunt of yours from childhood. They were an absolutely ordinary set of humans caught in the perfect storm of circumstances which moulded them into hate-filled creatures.
I say this because when you sit in class and read about the slave trade, you are being taught that humans are equal, but when it was actually happening there was an entire set of values, attitudes and entire branches of pseudo-science designed to show how the African was inferior, child-like, and indeed, almost a different species. When the British or the Belgians embarked on the colonial project, they were not committing atrocities or genocides, but nobly shouldering ‘the white man’s burden’ by bringing civilization to the savages. A similar kind of logic was applied to women over the centuries by different societies and religions, justifying the controls and restrictions placed on them as being for their own good, for they were too child-like to make their own decisions.
When the next great atrocity comes, it will not come neatly wrapped, with a card inviting you to participate in the evil of the century. Instead, it will drop as if from heaven, the answer to everyone’s prayers, whispering seductive promises of delivering justice, prosperity and reclaiming the lost glory of your race, religion or country. For extreme ideologies and evil leaders do not come to happy and contented populations, but appear in countries where at least a section of the population has long suffered injustice and humiliation, or else is in danger of losing their traditional rights and privileges. They do not appear in static, closed systems, but in societies witnessing rapid change, where traditional moorings are falling apart. It is from such fertile soil that the evil leader sprouts promising quick and ready justice, a return to a pristine (pure) past and someone to blame for all your failures.
Now, to be fair, there is nothing wrong in promising justice, prosperity or glory. Politicians all over the world make such promises, and in a few rare cases, have even managed to deliver on them. However, if you find that these promises of national renewal are contingent upon the exclusion of certain minority groups from society, or if you are told that the path to national unity and discipline requires you – the common citizen – to give up on certain rights; if you find the media and public discourse suddenly saturated with hatred and negativity; if the government and media tell you that more and more sections of your fellow-citizens (such as professors, journalists, artists, students, homosexuals etc.) are traitors; or if you find narratives, slogans and viewpoints tying you more and more to one particular identity (German/Jew etc.), then you should at least be a little suspicious of the new religion and its messiah.
Of course, this is much easier to spot in theory than it is in practice. For, in reality, the seductive promises that will be whispered in your ear will be surrounded by propaganda and popular support telling you that this hatred, the need to expunge traitors, the need to build a united, disciplined society is the right thing, the moral thing to do. There will be journalists and politicians, and media backed by big business telling you over and over again that your moral duty is to protect yourself, your society and your values from ‘the other’. What is confounding about this is that some of the popular discontent against a minority group might be built around a few actual kernels of truth, but these kernels will have been built into existentially threatening castles using propaganda.
Yes, perhaps there are some kernels of truth, perhaps the minority group is over-represented in crime or indeed, has values that you think are ’anti-human’. Yet, there are always perfectly reasonable explanations for these conditions. These are very human problems and there are always mature ways of dealing with these challenges without falling for the politician’s, who frame this as an ‘us vs. them’ problem. For, the moment you fall for this ‘us vs. them’, you believe that this group is something fundamentally different from you, and you leave the door open to believing (with sufficient repetition and authority behind it) the outright conspiracy theories that will follow. Add propaganda to this way of seeing your world, and you, and your society are already on the slippery slope towards fascism.
Even if you belong to the minority that is not swept away by the lies and the propaganda, resisting evil is not easy. You and me, can sit in class and reflect on the inhumanity of the slave trade, and thereby bask in the warm glow of being a do-gooder. However, standing up to the evil of our times, one that has through relentless propaganda been framed as the moral imperative, means standing up and in effect, saying “yes, I am selfish, I do not care about my nation or my race, because it is my hunch that what everyone around me thinks is right is actually wrong”, and “Yes, I am fine with the vile things the minority or the traitors are doing and no, while you send your sons to fight for the country, I will not join you in defending our nation”. That’s what it will sound like to the ears of everyone around you, and as your voice and arguments get drowned by propaganda from the media and the pulpit, resisting or speaking up will basically be like saying that “yes, I am an evil person”.
This was the fate of those who stood up to the Nazis, as they were branded as traitors and ‘Jew-lovers’ who were weakening the nation and the race. Numerous Italian families were humiliated and driven out of their homes to jeers and ridicule from their own neighbours, friends and family, all of whom thought they were in the right. There is no warm glow of being a do-gooder here, but the opprobrium, humiliation and ostracism from your friends, relatives and colleagues. And this is just one part of it, for in places like Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union and in regime after regime like this, it is the concentration camp, the gulag or death that would await you if you spoke up against what was happening. That is why even people who may not be fully convinced about the ideology of the times, go along with it. There is also always a small section of people who see through the lies, and yet jump on to the bandwagon to promote their business and gain money, power and influence.
So, yes, it is ordinary people like you and me, who either due to brainwashing or out of fear or greed, provide the critical mass required for the birth of such horrors. I say this on the basis of things I have seen happening around me in India. As I told you at the start, I used to dislike Pakistanis and Germans and thought that they were exceptional and very different from us Indians. Today, I am not so sure. We have had a right-wing government in power in India since 2014, and to my mind the India of today resembles very closely my conception of Pakistan as a teenager. (It is not there yet, in terms of on-ground reality, but it is certainly there in terms of the mentality and mindset of the people). Over time, I have watched with dismay as otherwise decent and amiable friends, relatives and colleagues have transformed into irrational, hate-filled zombies.
And this is what I want to stress through this article – these are perfectly ordinary, decent human beings, who sacrifice for their family, who donate to charity, who are giving to their friends and have a sense of duty and propriety. Many of them (just like you) love puppies and feed stray animals (not just cows) and are vegetarian to boot (just like Hitler was). Yet, caught in a vortex of economic and social inequality, real and perceived humiliations and a sense of historical wrongs, a deepening identity crisis due to the break-down of traditional structures and relentless propaganda and fake news backed by big business, they have developed an itch to feel strong and powerful, to be told how great and glorious their identity was and to blame someone for all the things going wrong. And the merchants of hatred have been scratching that itch and adding a dollop of lies on top, ratcheting up the hate to fever pitch, for that is how people are controlled. I realise now that the same thing must have happened in Pakistan, where the Army took power decades ago, and used the media, the history books and popular culture to relentlessly brainwash and thereby control the population. I say this because the language and the tactics being used in India are exactly the same as what I saw on Pakistani television channels as a child.
Looking at these changes, I realise that one way for politicians to gain immense power and for big business (who bankroll the leader) to capture a country is to turn people into hate-filled zombies. It’s not easy and requires a combination of many other factors to pull off (such as a floundering economy, high levels of inequality, a lack of independent institutions, a sense of historical victimhood and a high number of frustrated, possibly unemployed individuals who can latch on to an identity – either religious or national or racial – to boost their ego). But, if pulled off, it can result in a politician’s dream – a set of people who are so drunk on religion or nationalism that they have no time to think about or demand jobs, education or infrastructure. In fact, in many such societies, ordinary people can be convinced that their rights are being taken away for their own good, a sacrifice in the cause of the struggle for nationalism or religion. And, since it is the very nature of politicians to try and gain power, and of big businesses to try and capture markets and form monopolies, I believe all struggling societies or economies are vulnerable to such movements.
So, in this article I will first list some of the changes that I believe happen in such societies and then try to list the kind of personalities or attitudes that might be able to resist this brainwashing. My hope is that if such a time ever comes to your country, you will be able to identify it based on the prevailing discourse all around you and will be able to maintain an independent and questioning mind. I also hope that the next time you read about historical atrocities in your textbook, you identify with the perpetrators instead of dismissing them out of hand as something you would never have been.
So, what are the changes that take place in society when an evil regime takes over? Based on what I have seen in India and Pakistan, here are some of the key ones:
- Lies and bullshit: An all-pervasive atmosphere of unreality and lies everywhere. This achieves two things, a) show us how great the leader is and how well he is doing, and b) distracts from or outright denies all failures and mis-steps. TV shows devolve into shouting matches to obfuscate rather than actually analyse any issue, fake news spreads over social media and people are kept on a roller-coaster of highly charged non-issues to outrage over (usually involving religion, honour or the debauched lifestyles and morals of the elites) designed to distract and confuse. Any time any bad news related to the economy, inflation or a failure of the government comes up, it is quickly followed up by some high-emotion controversy that is designed to take over the airwaves and drown out the earlier news. And if the bad news comes from international sources or ratings and rankings, it is all part of the conspiracy against us.
Over time, this also leads to a state where people are no longer able to separate truth from lies, and the most twisted and bizarre conspiracy theories are believed as real explanations for simple, straightforward events.
- Traitors everywhere: If you live in a country where the list of traitors just keeps growing and growing, there is probably an evil regime at the top. It starts first with the obvious identified minority group, but then grows to include those corrupt journalists; the university professors in their ivory towers; the mollycoddled students studying effete, useless subjects (liberal arts); the artists and intellectuals who haven’t done a day of good, honest work in their lives; the westernised, debauched city dwellers and their loose, westernised women; the homosexuals who will destroy family life just by being homosexual in their private lives; the atheists; and finally, even the villagers who don’t want to give up their land for a mining project or farmers protesting against government policies – are all part of this cancer affecting the body politic of the nation.
Celebrity TV anchors (just like the one in ‘V for Vendetta’) hold impassioned programs asking for these traitors to be eradicated, and the list of traitors is never-ending. In some senses, this need to find traitors everywhere arises from the psychological needs of society. The psychoanalyst Otto Fenichel, when writing about antisemitism in Europe, says ‘the working classes in Europe were positioned in a dual and paradoxical relation to political authority; they simultaneously sought to rebel against those who held power and desired to obey. As a ‘condensation of these most contradictory tendencies’, antisemitism channelled the proletarian urge to ‘rebel against the authorities’ as well as offered an opportunity for a ‘cruel suppression and punishment of this instinctual rebellion’.
In other words, this constant stream of traitors serves to channel the revolutionary and perhaps violent impulses of a society away from those in power and towards some convenient ‘fall guys’. In reality, anyone who questions the government or protests against its actions is being labelled a traitor.
- An increased focus on religion: Religion starts appearing in spaces you never saw earlier, everyone and their aunt are overly pious and concerned about the religion and people with religious backgrounds start commenting on the economy and the right way to run a country, and surprisingly their views are listened to with respect.
I saw this happen first in Pakistan, women got the headscarf, men started growing beards, everyday speech became full of Inshallah and Mashallah, some people’s social media feeds became full of religious sayings, and the greatness of the Prophet and all of this competitive, performative religiosity increased side by side with a slide in public morals and an increase in corruption, crime and inequality.
- Right and wrong history, art and science: If many books/artworks/documentaries/movies or certain intellectuals, artists and historians need to be banned or burned for being subversive, promoting dangerous or ‘wrong’ ideas, then you must know that you are in a regime that is trying for thought control. If academic history starts being attacked as a conspiracy to hide the greatest achievements and the true glory of your race, nation and religion, and the government changes the history being taught to children for ‘ideological’ reasons, you should be suspicious. Even science in Nazi Germany was thought to be useful only to the extent that it was useful to the state, and so it is with many such movements.
- Power as the ultimate ideology: It is clear that the whole focus of the great leader is on retaining power, but what is surprising is that the foot soldiers – the people making up the rank and file of the party and part of the social media teams – also adopt the dictum that all means to achieve their ideological ends are justified. Many of these ideologically driven followers know that the people are being lied to, but they justify it to themselves as a necessary sacrifice required to usher in the new golden age.
In conjunction with this, the party at the top has a compulsive need to bring under its own control every institution in the country. Whether it be universities, Bollywood or sports bodies, the party must control all. And if any institutions seek to maintain their independence, they must be ground down and brought to heel using the media and all the powers of the state.
- The cult of the strongman: In Pakistan it was the cult of the Army, while in many other countries today we have a strongman who with his charismatic personality will single-handedly ‘drain the swamp’ and save us. Per the propaganda, success in this society has only one father – our great leader, while failure has many fathers – almost everyone else. If the economy is failing, it is because of that stupid minister or the inefficient bureaucracy, but if oil prices suddenly dropped it is because a great leader personally negotiated prices with Saudi Arabia. In reality, the situation is just the opposite, for the great leader tightly controls everything and every minister on his cabinet says and does what the great leader wants.
The great leader is also the only thing standing between us loyal citizens and our complete debasement and downfall. When traitors attack the leader, in reality they are not after him, they just want him out of the way so they can exploit and destroy you and your family. The great leader just happens to be standing in the way.
Another power of the great leader is that TV cameras magically appear around him, showing his random acts of kindness and machismo. For instance, this strongman might decide to drop in unannounced to meet his mother and sit by her feet. When he goes to meet her, her drawing room is already filled with TV cameramen who have set up their lights and camera angles, and this footage is then played to gushing anchors getting teary-eyed over the great man’s devotion to family. Through many such events is the cult of the brave, incorruptible leader built, and most people believe every bit of it.
- The glorification of the military and a focus on patriarchal values and concepts such as honour and self-respect: The soldier and our military deserve the greatest amount of respect. They stand tirelessly on our borders and protect us, while the traitors sleep peacefully thanks to this protection and yet have the gall to question our society and tradition. Have they ever thought of the sacrifices made by the lonely sentry, spending their time away from their family and guarding our borders in the hot desert or the bone-chilling cold of the Himalayas?
Also, the military deserves all respect, effete and depraved artists and intellectuals and scientists do not. The most important values that you hear about endlessly in TV debates are our honour, self-respect, sacrifice and prestige. Fairness, equality and justice are forgotten. Probably, those values are for “pussies”.
The trends I have listed above might seem cartoonish or even funny to a European reader today. Indeed, these trends are very distinctive to the Indian/Pakistani milieu. Yet, I believe that if the correct (or wrong) historical conditions appear, a customised version of these trends could as well appear in Europe.
Think about it. The world has had almost 70 years during which the free-market based; democratic, liberal world-order has been dominant. And while it can be argued that this is the best period in history to be alive, we have also seen unrestrained corporate greed, the hunger for profits and power drive wars, injustices and ever-increasing levels of inequality. The system has not delivered on its many lofty-sounding promises, and today, as people grow frustrated with the promises of liberalism, grow insecure about their place in the world with growing globalisation, and are just plain tired of being exploited by the elites, there is a danger that they throw out the baby with the bathwater, and instead of refining or bettering the existing systems, go for a radical, purification performed by individual strongmen. This is already happening in a number of countries and one cannot blame the voters for this. Ironically, in many of these countries, the leaders themselves are usually backed by big business (the real elite), while re-directing people’s anger towards writers, artists, professors and journalists as being part of ‘the establishment’ that has ripped them off.
So, there is every chance that such a movement could arise democratically in your country, especially if the economy takes a turn downward. The anger and the voting can be understood, but when many such movements seek to completely control the media, subvert the very democracy that brought them to power and destroy independent institutions – that is the point at which a population starts getting brainwashed.
Think about Norway – a largely homogenous society that has seen less inequality historically than most other countries. What happens as young Norwegians, growing up in affluence and a comparative lack of challenges stop empathising with the poor and the homeless? As many of this generation believe that their wealth is a result of their intelligence and work ethic, will they not start questioning why the Government is taking so much of their income as taxes and distributing it amongst ‘the lazy and the unproductive’?
And now, let’s come to the elephant in the room – immigration. What happens when a tightly-knit society united by a set of values and culture is faced with people from a very different cultural background? What if their values clash with your most cherished ones? There is also the danger that the descendants of immigrants might, perhaps due to a few incidents of racism, start feeling like outsiders in Norway, and fall back hard on their ethnic or religious identities, as a way of boosting their own ego and self-worth. What happens when this section starts aggressively pushing their ‘problematic or incompatible’ values as a way of being seen, as a way of affirming their existence and identity? A disgruntled person who feels like they have been wronged by society is also likely to be vulnerable to extremist ideologies. These are all very real, and very complex problems that have no easy answers. They are also inevitably human problems that cannot be reduced to ‘oh this lot is evil’ or ‘that lot is racist’.
But if such problems do come up in a society that is seeing rising levels of inequality (as is already happening in Norway today), an economic shock or widespread unemployment, then how long before a power-hungry leader comes up promising a return back to the glory days when the ‘land was pure’? Then all that I have outlined above, in this essay, could start looking like a possibility, even in Norway.
If this happens, will you also turn into a Nazi? Who becomes a Nazi, and who doesn’t? My experience is this:
- If you are an ordinary, well-adjusted citizen of your country, I believe that when the majority turn to extremism and get brainwashed, so will you. That has been my experience in India. If, on the other hand, you are not well-adjusted, belong to a minority group due to your ethnicity or sexual orientation or due to the circumstances of your upbringing, or are just plain ‘eccentric’, there is a good chance that you will remain an ‘outsider’ to society and be able to see through the web of lies and the brainwashing that is in fashion.
- If you believe in absolute moral values rather than relative ones, that is, if you have clear red lines (such as murdering people is unacceptable) that are non-negotiable. This is because there will be very compelling reasons for doing something that is morally reprehensible such as fixing the ‘Jewish problem’ for the greater good of the German nation, for the protection of your women and children etc. Such actions are always justified as being a means to a greater end. Only if you have clear red lines, a sense of absolute moral values, will you be able to withstand the pressure to participate in the evil around you. But make no mistake – this will be at a cost. You could be seen as unpatriotic, or as a lazy, coward that does not want to participate in the defence of the nation. Or it could also be much worse.
- If you are an artist of any kind. I can say this from personal experience – for as people all around me in India were being brainwashed and were falling for it, the only social arena where the majority of the people were against the ongoing trends, was at a meetup of writers I was a part of. This was incredibly refreshing, and I believe that this is because artists are usually independent minded and have some level of empathy. Indeed, there is a very good reason why most despotic regimes make artists and intellectuals as their first targets (In Pol Pot’s Cambodia, anyone who wore glasses was automatically a target for the Government – wearing glasses was seen as a short-hand for being educated and informed).
- If you are very well-informed and educated. If you are the kind who is curious and reads anything and everything, there is a chance you will be able to spot the bullshit and the lies being spouted. On the other hand, if you are the kind who enjoys their own life and is not too curious about history, about other societies etc., it might be harder for you to see the parallels with every other PR-fuelled, despotic regime in history.
- If you do not own a TV or are not on Whatsapp and social media: This sounds like I am joking, but never under-estimate the power of small bits of propaganda delivered consistently over days and months and years. Repeated propaganda moves people slowly and surely over time towards slightly more extreme positions. In such a milieu, just the simple fact of not owning a TV can help a person remain unaware of, and therefore un-swayed by propaganda.
- If you come from the elite class: If you come from a very privileged background (in comparison to the rest of society), it is likely you have not faced the same psychic humiliations or troubles that make many people easy targets for believing in extremist ideologies. You have also likely escaped the worst of the historical wrongs that your compatriots are mad about, and are to some extent aware of the ways in which the ‘unwashed masses’ are manipulated. The chances that you will be fooled by the propaganda are lesser.
On the other hand, if you belong to a sizable and powerful elite, in a rapidly changing society where traditional markers (your ancestral privileges) are rapidly disintegrating, there is every chance of you falling for reactionary movements that intend to ‘teach the peasants their place’.
- If you have many interactions with the vilified groups: If the minority groups or the traitors live far away (perhaps in ghettos) and you have no interactions with them, it will be much easier for you to believe anything you are told about them. If, on the other hand, you have wide-ranging interactions with them, you will realise over time that they are just like any other group on the planet with both the good, the bad and the ugly amongst them.
In the final analysis, it is always hard to predict who turns into a Nazi and who keeps an independent mind and does not fall for the prevailing evils of the age. As shown by the Stanford prison experiment, all of us human beings have an evil side to us. And this evil side is often brought out by amoral regimes, using seductive promises, slick propaganda and convincing arguments about one’s nation, culture and religion. It has been so throughout history and there is no reason to think that our generation of humans is in any way different. So, next time we read about historical atrocities, let us not ‘other’ the perpetrators as being somehow less – less educated, enlightened or moral – than us. Let us understand that we, as humans, are just like them and with this awareness of ourselves, guard against repeating the horrors of yesteryears.
Only by recognising the darkness within us, can we hope to fight it.