The Problem of Habituating to Authoritarianism

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If you move into a neighbourhood where a railway line passes, you are likely to struggle with the noise of the trains that use it regularly. But when you ask the neighbours who have lived there for a long time, you might be surprised when they tell you that they do not even notice the train. They will laugh it off and reassure you that you will be fine in no time. “You will get used to it,” they might say with a smile before adding, “You won’t even know it’s there!”. And indeed, chances are that after a while, you will get used to it.

Psychologists have a term for this phenomenon. They call it habituation. It is defined as a reduction in response to a stimulus when it is repeated over time. The stimulus here is the sound of the train. When you are exposed to a sound, it is easy to take notice of it at first because it is new. However, as the sound is repeated over time, your mind becomes accustomed to it. When you get used to it, you no longer pay as much attention to it. It is this reduction in response to the sound that psychologists refer to as habituation. You become habituated.  

They say habituation is our way of learning as humans. It is how we manage to focus on things that we think matter while ignoring supposedly non-essential things. We encounter and experience habituation in our daily lives even if we might not know it. As I am writing this article, there is a big clock that is ticking in the room. I have only noticed it because I thought about it now. I sit here every day and hardly notice the sound. Imagine the sound of the refrigerator. It might be distracting at first but as you become accustomed to it, you will cease to notice it. It is not because the fridge would have stopped making the sound. On the contrary, it will still be making the same sound. You will simply have become accustomed to it. There is that small green light on some gadget in your bedroom. You switch off the lights, and you can see it. Over time, you might not even notice it. That, too, is habituation. 

Psychologists have several theories to try to explain why habituation happens, but this is not intended to be a treatise on the phenomenon. I do not qualify, so we will leave that to the experts. The reason why I found the idea of habituation attractive is how it can be applied to several areas of life, including relationships generally and for our purposes, the relationship between the government and citizens. For example, when you have been friends with someone for a long time, you become habituated to their way of doing things, both the good and the bad. There are things that you might have disliked at first, just like the sound of the train when you move to a new area, but you have now become accustomed to them to the point of toleration. You become habituated to your friend’s way of doing things.

But I am more interested in the adaptation and application of this theory of habituation to the relationship between the government and citizens. I want to understand how individuals, communities, and society generally end up tolerating and accepting bad government practices, including human rights violations, incompetence, and corruption. The same people who are victims of these violations will even be seen voting for the government which is the author of their problems. In my opinion, habituation offers a lens through which we might understand this relationship. This is not to suggest that it is the ONLY explanation. That would be too simplistic, because the relationship between the governors and the governed is complex, which means it defies a single explanation. But even accepting these qualifications, I think it is an angle worth examining. I started this article with an example of the sound of a train that runs through the neighbourhood. Everybody gets habituated. Let us consider another example.

When the pipe carrying sewage in the neighbourhood bursts, residents will at first respond with serious complaints to the local authorities and government because they do not like the bad smell. They will be concerned by the health hazards, but it is the smell that hits them that gets them to act. However, if nothing is done to fix the pipe, persistent exposure to the bad smell might mean residents eventually become habituated. They will just carry on, having adjusted to their new reality. A visitor to the area will doubtless notice the pungent smell and will be surprised at how residents are getting on with the daily business as if there is no problem. But if that visitor stays a little longer, they too might adjust and carry on. They would have become habituated!

This is the reason why the sight of rubbish strewn in the streets might have shocked people at first. But today, it is not unusual to see mounds of refuse all over the place. People will even be throwing their rubbish on those dumps. Residents of the ever-growing cities have become habituated to the shortage of piped water. The majority queue to fetch water at public boreholes, a phenomenon that has been described by others as the ruralization of urban areas. The better-off have either dug private boreholes or they buy water from private suppliers. When potholes appeared on the roads, motorists and other road-users were shocked. But over time, they have become habituated because potholed roads are the norm, rather than the exception.

Consider corruption both in public and private spaces. There was a time when it was unheard of for a police officer to demand a bribe and if that happened, they would be in serious trouble if a case were reported. If they demanded bribes, they tried to be discreet about it. Nowadays, however, corruption is so commonplace that few are shocked by it. It is not unusual for individuals to offer bribes to get out of trouble. That is the language they know. They see it at the highest levels of the government: corrupt people are treated with kid gloves and if anything, they are rewarded. It might be argued that repeated exposure to corruption has caused individuals, communities, and society to become habituated to corruption.

In this regard, it is not unusual to hear otherwise well-meaning people defending or justifying a corrupt person. Indeed, some even celebrate and would like to emulate people they see as wealthy even if their sources of income are mired in dodginess. A person like Henrietta Rushwaya who was caught red-handed trying to smuggle gold out of Zimbabwe is not only presented as the leader of the gold miners’ federation but has the cheek to appear on a public broadcast claiming to have “zero-tolerance towards siphoning of the yellow metal”. It’s a reflection of a lack of seriousness regarding corruption, which is tolerated as a way of life the same way sewage flows in the streets without anyone noticing. 

Normalized Power and Habituation

French thinker and philosopher, Michel Foucault described two kinds of power: coercive power, which is based on command and control, and normalized power, which derives from various subtle tactics. Whereas political discourse in Zimbabwe often focuses on coercive power, the pervasive and influential nature of normalized power is severely underestimated. This is probably because coercive power is easy to see through the apparatus of the state such as the army and police. It is also easy to observe through the decrees that are regularly issued to control society. By contrast, normalized power is harder to see because it often operates in subtle ways. Normalized power gets citizens to do what the government wants without necessarily forcing them to do so in open ways. This hidden power is far more potent than coercive power.

With normalized power, all that the government needs to do is to set the discourse and you end up doing the things that it expects you to do, even if you did not like to do those things at first. Citizens might be irritated by ZBC’s partisanship toward the government and the ruling party, but they have learned to live with it. The majority still watch or listen to it. Even the alternatives that are there are not very different because they are wired to toe the ruling party line. Habituation is, in my opinion, a necessary accessory in the realization and confirmation of normalized power and it is a powerful instrument for authoritarian regimes. When society habituates to bad governance, it adjusts and not only tolerates poor and corrupt practices but might even support them.   

Take voting as an example. At age 18, everyone is eligible to register as a voter. Voting is the primary way for citizens to express themselves politically and to choose their governors. It allows a chance for citizens to reward good governors and punish bad governors. However, the government has no real interest in citizens exercising this fundamental right. If citizens are going to vote at all, the government must control not how they exercise the right. Since it cannot ban people from registering to vote or from voting, it must find other ways to prevent people from voting. It does this by making it unattractive to exercise the right to vote. Historically, it has used violence as a form of coercive power. But it has learned that violence is too open and unattractive, so it employs more insidious ways. Today I want to highlight one of them, which incredibly uses anti-government critics as its principal agents.

How the Regime Uses Opponents

This insidious way is to make voting unattractive by making citizens believe that it is a pointless and ultimately futile exercise. When people first got the right to vote in 1980, the majority believed in the utility of the vote. The 1980 election had demonstrated that voting could change things. However, before they got used to this experience, subsequent elections began to sow doubts in the minds of voters. These suspicions worsened after the 2000s when the MDC became a powerful political force but was thwarted by coercive power. People might have been irritated at first but over time some became habituated into believing that voting did not change anything.

Interestingly, this belief is held and propagated by well-meaning individuals who oppose the ruling party. They do not realize that they are simply fortifying the position of the ruling party, which does not want people to vote but has no power to ban them. ZANU PF knows that the easiest way to prevent citizens from voting in large numbers is to make them believe that voting is pointless. If this belief is repeated long enough, people become habituated. And lo and behold, the greatest agents of this position are not in ZANU PF, but those who oppose it! It might be argued that they are victims of normalized power and habituation. The effectiveness of normalized power is that it makes you do things that the regime that you are opposing wants and you do not even see it.

Habituating to bad governance

Returning to habituation, although there are several things that citizens find disagreeable, from potholed roads, a weak healthcare system, uncollected refuse, water shortage, burst sewage pipes to currency shortages, high prices, and corruption, persistent exposure has meant that they have become accustomed to them, and they are no longer paying as much attention. Their response to these things has diminished. They are not moved anymore by the stench of sewage flowing in the streets or the rise in the prices of goods and services. They might be appalled by police violence, but it is no longer a source of outrage. The persecution of opposition members and activists through arrest and detention does not surprise citizens anymore. In some ways, it might even be said that they expect it to happen. Where once citizens might have demonstrated against price rises in the 1990s, they have adjusted and gotten used to it. This reduction in response is the very essence of habituation and it is a great gift to any authoritarian regime. When citizens habituate to bad governance practices and experiences, there is no opposition.

In the past, citizens might have expressed their unhappiness at the disagreeable things that the government would have done. But in a sign of the combination of normalized power and habituation, most citizens exercise self-censorship. Self-censorship is a good example of normalized power. The regime does not want you to say certain things. But it does not want to issue a ban on saying those things because that would be too open. Instead, it creates a situation where citizens censor themselves.  

What can be done – the power of imagined realities

The first thing is to appreciate the reality of habituation and its implications as outlined in this article. How then do you get citizens out of a state of habituation? This is no easy task. It requires leadership that inspires people to believe in a new order; a new way of doing things. It requires inverting the current state where society appears to have adjusted to and accepted the abnormal.

It is the task of political leaders to create and sell a different imagined reality. Imagined realities are products of collective human imagination. They are built on the unique ability of humans to imagine things that do not exist in the physical sense. According to historian Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind, the ability to create imagined realities is at the centre of institutions that run the world. This includes governance systems, religions, corporations, currencies, human rights, and much more. A democratic system is a creation of the human imagination. But a monarchical system is also a product of the same human imagination. It held sway for centuries in different societies taking various forms such as an absolute or a constitutional monarchy. Modern democracy is an idea that triumphed over other imagined realities, but its survival is by no means guaranteed.

To understand this, we must appreciate what makes one imagined reality more successful than others. The imagined reality can persuade a greater number of people to believe in it. Modern democracy succeeded over absolutism, resisted the challenge of Fascism and Communism in the last century because it managed to pull more believers. This does not mean democracy is perfect or will reign forever. Like other products of the imagination, its survival depends on its ability to retain the large numbers of people who believe in it. Already the early period of the 21st century has revealed several challenges to the more liberal version of democracy, with populists gaining ground in what commentators have described as backsliding of democracy. 

For us in Zimbabwe, our imagined reality of democracy has been severely challenged for the better part of the last 40 years of independence. Democratic backsliding does not quite capture the state of Zimbabwe’s political system, no. What is happening currently, and especially post-coup period is authoritarian consolidation. Unfortunately, while most citizens saw this after the initial euphoria, the disappointment is turning into habituation. Like the new resident who eventually gets used to the sound of the train passing through the neighbourhood or to the stench of sewage, citizens are getting accustomed to life in an authoritarian system.

There is some pride among Zimbabweans that when something goes wrong, “we always make a plan”. When running water stops, we dig a borehole. When there are too many potholes on the road, we create a diversion, and when that gets bad too, we create another one. When the sewage flows on the street, we go around it. When there is no electricity, we look for firewood. When schools are not functioning well because teachers are underpaid, we pay for private lessons.

The analogy of the Fallen Tree

I once ran a rudimentary survey on social media. I created a scenario where a large tree fell across the only road between two towns and asked what people would do when faced with that situation. The responses were hilarious but also revealing how we reflected upon our approach to problems.

Some said they would look for axes and hacksaws to cut parts of the tree for firewood because there is no electricity. They would use the firewood in their homes and sell the excess to make a quick buck.

Others said commuter omnibus crews would simply divert and create a new path around the fallen tree and other motorists would follow. But others suggested that commuter omnibus crews would see a business opportunity: they would start a service beginning from one town ending at the fallen tree while other crews would start a service from the fallen tree to the other town. Commuters would now have to pay for two services where they used to pay a single fare, but Zimbabweans would still pay.

Another group said huge crowds from both towns and surrounding areas would gather around to see and talk about the fallen tree, taking videos to share on social media. Someone said long after the tree had been removed, if that happened at all, that spot would forever be known as “pazimuti”, meaning the spot of the fallen tree.

Others said the police would take longer to come to the scene because they would say they have no transport. The fire brigade would arrive in their trucks but without the tools and equipment to remove the tree. There were many more humorous responses, with some people suggesting that the ruling party would blame the opposition and sanctions for causing the tree to fall, while the opposition would blame the ruling party for the same. Prophets would also weigh in, claiming to have foreseen the fall of the tree or explaining its meaning for Zimbabwe.  

While there was a lot of jesting in the responses, keen followers of Zimbabwean political and social life know that among Zimbabweans a lot of nuanced observations are often couched in humour. The moral of these contributions was that no one would be concerned about removing the fallen tree, but they would readjust and find ways to satisfy personal interests. That in many ways was an interesting analogy of the Zimbabwean problem: people know that there is a problem, but instead of solving it, they just find a way around it. What starts as a problem becomes a part of our lives because we adjust. In the language of psychology, we, as individuals, communities, and society, habituate.

Most people have heard of the analogy of a frog in boiling water. It is said if you put a frog in boiling water, chances are it will jump out because of the immediate heat that it feels. However, if you put it in cold water, and you apply heat gradually, it will not move. As you raise the temperature, the frog simply readjusts. By the time it realizes that it is boiling, it will be too late. Some think it is an accurate description of what has happened to us under the dictatorship. The frog was habituating until it was too late to escape. 

The great challenge of the day is to overcome habituation. I do not have the answers but as I stated earlier in this essay, there is a need for leaders to create new imagined realities; imagined realities that can persuade many people to believe in them and overcome habituation.

WaMagaisa