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‘Validators’ Can Set Pakistan In The Right Direction

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Jahangir Rauf writes about the difference of opinion over the recent resolution by National Assembly calling for public hanging of child abuse convicts. Some have called it a step in the right direction while others think it is counterproductive, and both sides remain firm on their respective positions. But if a credible person who previously advocated hangings reverses his or her stance, other proponents of public execution may also reconsider their position because we as a nation always look for ‘validators’.

The National Assembly recently passed a resolution calling for the public hanging of convicted child killers and rapists. The non-binding resolution, moved by Parliamentary Affairs State Minister Ali Mohammad Khan, marshalled significant support in comparison to opposition. There have been calls, back in 2018, for the public execution of rape and murder victim Zainab’s killer. There is little doubt about the possibility of a fact that our society at large considers public hanging crime deterrent, and the resolution reflected those antecedent preferences.

However, a sizable minority refutes the idea of public hanging, deeming it futile and barbaric. And they are providing empirical and historical evidence to argue that the public hanging would lead to more violence, and other key alternatives should be taken into account.

A question arises as to what would the resolution achieve when it has no binding force? Since capital punishment and the idea of public hanging have remained norms of our society, such resolution would – inter alia – revitalise the norms which will in turn lead to the further strengthening of preexisting preferences. Also, it will unleash many more people to reveal what they believe and prefer, and act as if they wish regarding the fate of child molesters. For instance, KP assembly – following the National Assembly’s resolution – mulls public hanging of child convicted rapists.

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Furthermore, such resolution would have a transformative signaling effect, providing people with information about what other people think. For example, if A is unaware that public hanging would not work to address the problem of child molestation, he may be moved in the direction of public hanging if B seems to think that public hanging is justified.

If A and B believe that public hanging is justified, C may end up thinking so too. And it would require a great deal of confidence for D to reject their shared conclusion. Consequently, this process would lead to produce cascade effects, as majority of people eventually end up believing something, simply other people seem to believe it too.

Norms are apt to be shaken through private effort or law. The question arises that how can norm entrepreneurs make change happen at a time when the public hanging resolution, a candidate for law, tends to fortify the existing norms? The answer, apparently, seems candid: provide balanced information to both sides. However, recent research indicates that balanced presentation can be counter-productive.

Such studies have revealed that balanced views will permit people to harden their beliefs and divisions will get bigger. In fact, neutral presentation can fuel unbalanced views.

This phenomenon can be explained by the term ‘biased assimilation’. People generally tend to dismiss information that contests their initial viewpoints, and give considerable weight to only that piece of information that resonates with their ideas. In such circumstances, balanced presentation can be self-defeating and make things worse. 

Therefore, it is comprehensible that when people start with opposing initial preferences, balanced reports can increase the intensity of their initial disagreement. Those who are against public hanging, tend to dismiss the information that opposes their views, and the same happens on the other side. As a result, the gap widens.

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What can be done? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer. However, we need to make one up. People discredit information if it rebuts their views, but people can rethink if they cannot dismiss the source of information. In other words, norm entrepreneurs need validators whom people find credible. And people are likely to find those sources credible if they begin in essential agreement with them. They can change their initial convictions if it’s very hard to dismiss the source for being biased or simply mistaken.

Asma Jahangir was probably the greatest lawyer of our country. If there is an all-time democracy advocate award, Asma would be on the short list. Having resisted the authoritarianism and military dictators throughout her career, she, however, surprised many people when she opposed the idea of prosecuting Musharraf in high-treason case. While acting as a validator, she made many people reconsider the idea.

Thus, it follows that turncoats can be immensely influential. If presidential system skeptics oppose the parliamentary rule, or pro government renowned journalists say that they were wrong, people are more likely to change their opinions.

So the larger lesson for norm entrepreneurs who strive to transform people’s attitudes (for better or for worse) is: messenger is more important than the message.

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