By Shazia Anwer Cheema
As the recent political and social turmoil in Pakistan started to get worse day by day, it got me wondering how we reached here from a formerly relatively stable state. Seeing the insanely destructive and blind to the social norms, Imran Khan’s followers seemed a big concern to me. I could not comprehend how so many young and bright people were driven by his words and took to the streets of Pakistan bringing about a pseudo-revolution.
It was a big question in my mind what Imran Khan instilled in them to make them so violent and disobedient to the state and society. I also started to wonder where the Pakistani society is heading now. As, I started to gather some research on Social Psychological phenomena to understand the thinking behind these recent social changes, the insights that I got led me to a horrifying conclusion. As I dig deeper into these phenomena, I came to realize how easy it is for leaders and politicians to exploit these concepts of Social Psychology to make people believe what they want them to believe. And unsurprising then, is the fact that politicians have been, in fact, exploiting social psychology to remain in power both in the past and the current times.
I am not here to find that the difficult childhoods of Hitler and Modi and had also been experienced by Imran Khan when his father was terminated from his government job due to corruption charges along with other 323 top corrupt officials of Pakistan in the early 70s and Imran Khan had gone through social trauma and stigmatization and I am not comparing that three had very turbulent married and love lives. I am here to find similarities among the modus operandi of all three to exploit their followers to such a high level that their followers can do anything against anybody even slaughtering people due to their teachings
The two prominent cases of exploitation of Social Psychology by leaders to make people follow them blindly, one from the past and one from the present, apart from Imran Khan, are those of Adolf Hitler of Nazi Germany, and Narendra Modi of present-day India. I am not here to give a personality profile of all three and to find similarities in their personalities because one can find handy material for such purpose because a lot of work has been done so far for documenting personality similarities between Hitler and Modi and work is also available about comparative study of them with Imran Khan. I am not here to find that the difficult childhoods of Hitler and Modi and had also been experienced by Imran Khan when his father was terminated from his government job due to corruption charges along with other 323 top corrupt officials of Pakistan in the early 70s and Imran Khan had gone through social trauma and stigmatization and I am not comparing that three had very turbulent married and love lives. I am here to find similarities among the modus operandi of all three to exploit their followers to such a high level that their followers can do anything against anybody even slaughtering people due to their teachings.
Imran Khan while in PM Office had been calling the Indian Prime Minister a Hitler of the 21st century because he himself had been using the same modus operandi that Modi had been following.
The psychological profiling of Hitler, Modi, and Khan confirms the extreme self-obsession, and twisted ideological internalization based on narcissistic traits. Three of them made their followers change their views to fit within what they considered appropriate
A cursory look at their mechanism is hereunder:
Adolf Hitler rose to power when he was placed in charge of the Nazi Party in 1920. Narendra Modi got strength when the RSS managed him to lead the far-right Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). Similarly, Imran Khan got his super-human status when he, got into power in the 2018 general elections with the support of the establishments. One thing common with them all was that they received massive public support and popularity. They also got immediate gratification and validation once they experienced power. And, as an obvious outcome, all three of them decided to remain in power until eternity.
The psychological profiling of Hitler, Modi, and Khan confirms the extreme self-obsession, and twisted ideological internalization based on narcissistic traits. Three of them made their followers change their views to fit within what they considered appropriate.
Now, exploring the consistencies in all of their approaches, I came across the following insights:
How and Why People get motivated to do something in the first place?
Ryan and Deci in 2000 worked on a theory called the ‘Self-Determination Theory’. According to them, people who got motivated to do something automatically and without any pressure, were those whose basic psychological needs were fulfilled, these needs were; Relatedness (feeling relatable and in the company of like-minded people), Autonomy (feeling independent and in control of your actions), and Competence (succeeding in what you do and feeling confident in your abilities). All that a leader needs to control people’s motivation is to make sure to fulfill these basic psychological needs of theirs. Let me illustrate how the leaders in the discussion achieved this.
Relatedness: Adolf Hitler created a culture of hatred against minorities, which were already hated by the people up to some extent, giving him a safe space to be relatable to people, when his apparent priorities matched with those of the majority, he achieved the relatedness in the community. He also created young scouts’ teams for children and made sure to teach them all the same values that were alike.
Narendra Modi, too matched the majority’s hatred of minorities and the spirit of far-right nationalism. Similarly, Imran Khan matched the hatred first against traditional politicians and then against the Pakistan Military and state institutions.
Autonomy: All of these motivated their subjects by making them feel that their decisions were important and are being valued. Hitler, for example, had an award for the women of Nazi Germany for giving birth to children, with traits that he considered desirable- blue eyes, blonde hair, and white skin. Imran Khan, too makes sure to motivate his subjects in similar ways, though, less dramatic and widespread.
Competence: They make sure to assign tasks to their subjects, which they know are quite achievable. For example, the Nazi Germany encouraged the Nazis to leak information on the whereabouts of the Jews. Modi gave them the tasks such as bringing down mosques. Imran Khan assigned them tasks such as mass protests and violence on the streets and attacking military-related buildings. They were quite aware that when people achieve these targets, they are going to be far more motivated than ever before.
How New Social Norms Were/ Are Created to motivate people to become extremists:
Social norms keep us stable for centuries to come. In fact, they are the spirit of any stable society. A society with stable social norms can focus on prosperity and development. China, for example, has had the same social norms for thousands of years, leading it to become one of the world’s superpowers. However, in Pakistan, today, these social norms are changing too rapidly. And so, did they in Hitler’s Nazi Germany. There are two kinds of social norms:
- Injunctive Social Norms: These are the norms that people know they are supposed to follow based on what is considered to be right, for example, according to their religions, or cultural values.
- Descriptive Norms: These are the norms that people follow based on what they see other people doing.
Now, here comes the interesting part; these leaders created new social norms by targeting the descriptive norms. They knew that people were more likely to follow the descriptive norms than the injunctive norms. Think about it yourself, if everyone is throwing garbage at a common space, do you really think it is right or wrong morally? Or do you just go ahead and throw your empty juice pack in there, too? Congrats on being quite a conscious person if you don’t, but most people would go and contribute their empty pack to that garbage pile. This is because descriptive norms turn out to be a stronger influence on people than injunctive norms.
Hitler made people kill others to normalize the holocaust and killing in Nazi Germany and Modi has normalized hate speech against Muslims as well. Similarly, Imran Khan is normalizing riots, hate speech, slurring, calling names, and hatred against the institutions.
Is Everyone Mad About the Violence?
People have different kinds of In-Group and Out-Group Behaviors. It does not necessarily mean that everyone is mad. All it means is that they are mad when they are in the group, which is leading the violence and hatred. Now, this group could be an online space, a physical riot, a small discussion, or any place where these people might find someone like-minded. However, they might behave quite normally when they are with their families or friends with even contrasting values (Out-Group Behavior).
The three leaders in the discussion made sure to create a huge group, and that, too in different spaces, including, online and physical spaces, to make people follow their In-Group behaviors.
Hitler achieved this by creating military learning teams for the youth of Germany. Narendra Modi is achieving this by creating a community of hate-speech propagandists. Imran Khan is achieving this by spreading his ideology of hatred against the Army institution in the youth of Pakistan, as they contribute to a considerable group of the population. He makes sure to get them engaged on the internet and in riots.
These groups also alienate those who don’t identify as the majority in the long run. For example, everyone knows how anyone who was not Hitler’s idle “Aryan candidate” was alienized and then further dehumanized and deindividuated. In Khan’s Pakistan, it is a small level of the same concept. Khan is making sure to alienate anyone who does not align with his ideology. He is creating a bubble for his followers, and they consider anyone outside it as the “other”. These others are deindividuated and sometimes even killed during the riots and protests when they don’t comply.
Also, this does not mean that all people are inherently violent or evil. As demonstrated by the Stanford prison experiment of Philip Zimbardo, the formation of these In-Group Behaviors and fulfillment of basic psychological needs can indeed make any group of normal people turn evil. And these are normal Pakistani people, who are being exploited by an insane leader to walk the path of evil means.
Why are people listening to and blindly following Imran Khan?
Now, it might seem like we are returning to square one. But we are progressing. It is an important question to ask once again why are people complying to and following him blindly when there could be many other ways out there?
The answer lies in the concept of conformity in psychology, which explains why people comply in the first place.
So, people comply for a number of reasons, but the most important ones, which we can watch on a loop among all of the cases mentioned above of leaders exploiting people are reciprocation and authority.
I came across the theories of some prominent sociologists and realized that during any revolution, big or small, people tend to find scapegoats. And the Pakistani state and institutions especially Army are merely the scapegoats in this case.
These leaders reciprocate the feelings and emotions of the people to make them feel that they can rely upon them to achieve their vision. Imran Khan, for example, is reciprocating the wild thoughts of Pakistani youth about the ideal state and anti-American sentiments. Without realizing the ground realities of their decisions, he is ready to make them feel that he is going to make their baseless wishes come true. Imagine, a father fulfilling every thoughtless wish of their child. If a child asked for a dozen pizzas, the father would get them those. Does this make any sense? This is unhealthy pampering and leads to only damage. Khan is on the same route of fulfilling the wishes of Pakistanis who have unrealistic and baseless demands by making them feel that they can rely on him to achieve those.
Similarly, he is exploiting another weapon of his, the power of authority. Stanley Milgram, in 1967, conducted an experiment, where he commanded his volunteers (subjects) to deliver electric shocks to an actor, who would pretend to be in pain. On the command of Stanley Milgram, who was the authority for the subjects. Now, he ordered them all to increase the voltage to a point, when the actor, whom they thought was an actual person in pain, would die. Most of these subjects agreed to listen to Stanley Milgram and did not hesitate to increase the voltage despite seeing the person suffer from the shocks.
To this day, the results of this study haunt us as human beings. Milgram explains that this happened because people are more likely to execute any action if they are being assured by their leader or the authority that the responsibility is of the authority and not the individual himself.
Hitler did the same, he made the Germans think that he was responsible for even the killings executed by the German individual citizens. Modi is on the same page. And of course, Imran Khan has historically always made those violent groups of rebels and rioters feel that whatever they are doing, they are doing under his command and he can never make wrong decisions. He is always on the front foot, as spoken in his language of Cricket.
However, before you attempt to answer those questions, let me leave you with the final insight that I received. I came across the theories of some prominent sociologists and realized that during any revolution, big or small, people tend to find scapegoats. And the Pakistani state and institutions especially Army are merely the scapegoats in this case. No serious and realistic solution is going to be proposed by assigning the scapegoat titles to anyone or anything. The solution lies in being consciously realistic about Pakistan’s position and situation in the global framework and acting accordingly.
Most importantly, the youth of Pakistan need to understand that populists always exploit the citizens of any country to execute their missions and stay in power for as long as they can. This is a brutal truth about populist politics. It is their (public) responsibility to realize their place in society and not be exploited by these cunning ways, even though, people are inherently vulnerable to getting exploited by psychological and sociological methods.
Nevertheless, I hope to minimize that exploitation by allowing you to reflect a bit upon actions and weaknesses and get a one-on-one ground reality check. History could not have stopped destruction by Hitler but as far as Modi and Khan are concerned, there is still time to stop them.
Shazia Anwer Cheema is an author, and analyst and writes articles for national and international media outlets. She did her M.Phil in Cognitive Semiotics from Aarhus University Denmark and is currently completing her Ph.D. in Semiotics and Philosophy of Communication at Charles University Prague.
The views and opinions expressed in this article/Opinion/Comment are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the DND Thought Center and Dispatch News Desk (DND). Assumptions made within the analysis are not reflective of the position of the DND Thought Center and Dispatch News Desk News Agency.