So, initially, this was going to be a tiny rant on Instagram. But, the more I delved into it, the more I realised that this conversation needs nuance. And the Instagram algorithm is many things; but a platform for multifaceted conversations is not one of them. So, instead, you’re getting a full scale bout of my overthinking self getting into how Pakistan television may have scarred us.
Now, the point of this article is not to bash the local television industry. Albeit I have a love-hate relationship with the institution itself, many of my favourite stories are Pakistani television productions. But, since this year has forced all of us to reflect, I couldn’t help but reflect on the media that formulated my view of the world. As while I no longer watch Pakistani television productions, they have had an impact on my formative years.
When you grow up in a country, its stories and how they are told, end up impacting you. In particular, they shape your view of the world around you. And therein, as far as Pakistan television productions are concerned, we might have a problem. Or several problems.
(Slight spoilers for Humsafar and Meri Zaat Zarra-e-Benishan ahead).
Nice Guys Not Finishing Last
Now, when I was around seventeen years old, Humsafar was all the rage. As was its predecessor (which may or may not have inspired its storyline) Meri Zaat Zarra-e-Benishan. I forced myself to sit through both, and both shared quite a few similarities.
Most notably, the female protagonist in both stories is tormented by women in more powerful positions. In both cases, social norms are weaponised, and the likeable, naive protagonist suffers for the first half of the story. And then, because of divine providence more than anything else, the truth is revealed and the balance of power shifts.
By the end of the story, the protagonist (that is, the ‘good’ person by social standards) wins. Either literally, or as it pertains to the more important moral fight. At any rate, the fatalistic characters and the simplistic storylines affirm one thing; that good will triumph over evil.
Cognitive Distortions And Storytelling
Almost a decade after these shows aired, I think we can have somewhat of a nuanced conversation about their impact. We have already heard the many laments about how flimsy the logic was, and how one-dimensional the characterisation. However, my grievances lie elsewhere. Like I said, the stories we grow up with, shape our view of the world around us. And stories like these have encouraged all of us to adopt a distorted world view.
The term ‘cognitive distortions’ refers to biased perspectives which we hold with respect to ourselves, and the world. Albeit irrational, such perspectives are routinely and unconsciously reinforced by us. According to research conducted by Aaron Beck, and built upon by David Burns, cognitive distortions can be immensely damaging.
Common Cognitive Distortions
There are many examples of such perspectives, and I’d encourage you to check out the full list here. But some common ones include;
The ‘everything or nothing’ way of thinking; can lead to an inability to appreciate nuance. When a person sees things in terms of extremes, they may regard themselves as a total success, or total failure.
Using one instance to make generalised deductions. For example, seeing a less than perfect grade as proof of academic inadequacy.
The inability to see any positive information when it comes to a situation or phenomenon. For instance, using one negative comment made by your partner to decry the relationship as a whole.
Based on beliefs that we’ve internalised as absolute truths. We might hold on to what we “should” do, be or say.
Fallacy of Fairness
The belief that the world is inherently a fair place, and whatever happens in life is justified. When faced with an unfair situation, holding on to such a belief may lead to feelings of hopelessness.
Heaven’s Reward Fallacy
The belief that one’s suffering, hard work and efforts will always result in a just reward. This can lead to a lot of heartache if the desired results are not achieved.
Now, these are the ravings of someone who struggles with their own mental health. So please, do not misconstrue this as professional advice. If you’d like to learn more about Aron Beck’s research, here is a book that could help. For the sake of this post, I only want to look at cognitive dissonances as they relate to media and stories.
In the case of Pakistani television, I think that two that apply most strongly are the ‘Fallacy of Fairness’ and the ‘Heaven’s Reward Fallacy’. In both Humsafar and Meri Zaat Zarra-e-Benishan, the protagonists suffer, and are rewarded in some way for their just struggles. And both stories quite blatantly pander to the persistent beliefs held in Pakistan.
Pakistan Television And Pakistani Society
The stories we tell both reflect and reinforce our beliefs. With respect to Pakistani television, such narratives reinforce notions of ‘deserved endings’. That in life, as in Pakistani television, good triumphs over evil. We continue to believe that the world is a fair place. Where ‘good’ people will always be rewarded and ‘evil’ people will be punished.
Now, of course notions of good and evil are themselves socially determined. And far too often, a moral judgement rather than objectivity dictates who according to society is good, and who isn’t. But if we just look at the two characters in the shows mentioned, they are women who weaponise their privilege. That is, they weaponise class differences, piety and mother-son relations. Objectively, we all may have met such individuals. And at the risk of generalising; they can be terrifying.
But, here’s the thing, such people are not always taken to task. Often, they continue to hold on to their positions of power within society. Simply, because societies are not perfect. They certainly are not fair. I mean, given the discussions surrounding systemic inequalities that we’ve had on the blog, this can’t be a surprise.
Conversely, just because someone is objectively a good person, and works hard, doesn’t mean that they’ll persevere. It doesn’t mean that they will succeed, or even that their sufferings will be alleviated.
Now, this is understandably a bitter pill to swallow. Because how exactly do we continue to be hopeful, if social inequalities hinder any chance of us succeeding? The thing is, cognitive behavioural therapy is not a study in pessimism. As indicated by the ‘Mental Filter’ cognitive distortion for example, an overly negative outlook is also faulty. But, expecting good things to happen, simply because you tried, without acknowledging existing hurdles sets you up for failure.
The way that I look at it, is that we have to reevaluate our understanding of success. The ‘Fallacy of Fairness’ might convince you to overlook your own efforts. If hard work is necessarily rewarded, then not getting the desired results automatically means that you didn’t work hard enough. If you adopt this kind of a worldview, then not getting your exact desire can be devastating. You could feel angry, and even more-so, betrayed. What’s more, you could spiral into feeling truly hopeless, or that you are inadequate.
Conversely, if you value not the results, but your efforts themselves, then your perspective changes. Particularly, since you have more control over your efforts than the results that they yield. Acknowledging pre-existing inequalities and unfairness doesn’t mean giving up. Rather, it means valuing how hard you have worked. And, being objective enough to realise that you might have to do some things differently.
Like I said, this is not professional advice; I can only speak from personal experience. But, letting go of the ‘pious suffering’ mindset has been one of the most liberating experiences of my life.