When I first came to work in Pakistan over 10 years ago, the NGO and UN crowd, together with the modern English speaking Pakistanis, had already started using the term “mindset”. It became an in-word that we all had to use. It took me a while to get used to it. I have worked in English for over 30 years and I have lived in English speaking lands for nearly as long. Still, my Norwegian mother tongue remains the language I know best, better than the world’s lingua franca of our time.
Mindset, though, is not only about language. It is about ideas, ways of thinking and reasoning. It is about understanding issues. It is about ‘how’ we see the world, and ‘what’ we see of the world, either by choice, convention or for a number of other reasons. In this article, I shall discuss a few aspects concerning the term ‘mindset’ and I shall give some examples of issues that need to be solved if we can only set our mind to doing so, and if we try to understand issues as the really are, and search for new ways to benefit all.
First, it is useful to consider the wider topic of how we learn and adopt specific mindsets, and how we develop our ideas and opinions. And, indeed, how we change - or do not change - our mindset.
In the field of education, we are concerned about learning theories and practices, especially how we learn new things. Today, we are more and more concerned about what we learn, too, since so much of the vast fields of knowledge are so easily retrievable in our time - not only from books and in printed form, but also from the Internet. Our access is limitless, but then our ability to learn, understand and remember is limited. How to learn and what to learn are fields for cognitive psychologists and for specialists in didactics and many other fields.
We have always been concerned about how to learn new things. But we have been less concerned about de-learning, how we can get rid of old and wrong ideas, impractical ways of thinking and doing things, how to correct misunderstandings so that we don’t keep repeating the same mistakes. We have been less concerned about how to be less stubborn and more open-minded and welcoming to alternatives.
In business schools, they talk about innovation. In design and art schools, they talk about creativity. In philosophy, they talk about paradigms and paradigm shifts, and broad trends in ways of thinking and analysing within academic disciplines. If they become even more advanced, they talk about whole cosmologies, and broad sets of ideas to form cultures. And in politics, they talk about change, yes, an everyday word, yet, so complex to realise. “Change - we can believe in,” said Barack Obama in his campaign for President of America three and a half years ago. And people wanted change. Imran Khan, too, knows that and all the other hopefuls preparing for the upcoming elections.
A few weeks ago I read a book about forced child labour, or slavery by its right name, on the cocoa plantations of the Ivory Coast in the West Africa. In Pakistan, there are children working in brick kilns, with similarities to the cocoa plantations. There are children working on the vast land tracts owned by feudal lords. And there are children working as maids and houseboys in homes of wealthy people, where they may be subject to use and abuse. They have no chance of going to school, and at best their parents get some pay at the mercy of the employer. No, it is not right, and we should not accept it, but somehow we do; we rationalise and explain away facts. “It would even be worse for such children to stay in their poor, real homes,” we say. Really!
We seem not to be able to see that it is wrong. Our mind is set in such a way that we ignore much of the reality. We see what we want to see. It is a form of blindness, or deceit, accepted by ourselves and the public. It is a mindset!
Knowledge with moral and ethical values can change our mindset. Public debate is needed. Groups and individuals should take up issues and tell us what is right and wrong. We should pray that we do the right we want to do, not the evil we do not want to do, as advised by Issa. Laws that are there to protect the weak must be enforced. Laws that belong to another time, and prejudiced interpretations must be changed. We must not accept gender-based violence, and not excuse it when it happens - for the sake of the victims as well as the perpetrators. Often, we seem brainwashed to live within unreal mindsets.
The huge socio-economic inequalities that exist in Pakistan cannot be swept under the carpet. The first step to change it is by admitting that such inequalities exist and that they are negative to everyone, also for the minority, say the 20 percent, at the top of society, and indeed so for the majority 80 percent of the people whose efforts run the society. Our mind is set in such a way that we almost believe class differences to be an inevitable “world order”. But it is not! The same goes for violence and war. It is not inevitable and there are peaceful ways of solving disagreements and conflicts - if we set our mind to do so.
Mindsets change, too, luckily - sometimes very fast, but usually after persistent challenging over time. The rulers, the powerful and the opinion leaders have to admit fault. Take, for example, South Africa’s apartheid system, which lasted in an institutionalised form for half a century. It became politically unacceptable, and economically too costly to maintain. But before it happened, even some good people defended it, perhaps against better judgment, or perhaps they belonged to the class and colour that benefited from the system. People were told it was right, and people were told not to challenge authority and hierarchy, which we say is part of any society. Sometimes, it is said that certain orders and ways are given by God. Through it all, people’s mindsets become fixed and kept in a screw. But then, South Africa’s apartheid is now history; America’s racial discrimination, too. Our mindset has changed. Yet, many more structural changes are needed in the aftermath to reduce inequality and differences.
When I grew up in Norway in the 1950s and 60s, reducing regional and class differences were top on the political agenda. Improving women’s situation came a bit later. In a couple of generations, gender equality has come far, evidenced, for example, in the Norwegian government where there is now 50-50 representation of men and women, likewise, in the boards of publicly registered companies. In Pakistan, Afghanistan and other countries in the region, there is need for political debate of gender equality. There is also need for debate about gender equality in the practicing of Islam. Our set minds must be “set free”.
Often, new ideas that lead to new mindsets get impulses from outside. But they can only flourish if they grew roots within a society. Real change can only happen if the concerned members take part and have deciding power. The leaders must facilitate the debate, as it would be expected that they are more knowledgeable, open-minded and tolerant than the masses, often lacking sufficient information, knowledge and examples from elsewhere to inspire change. Only outdated leaders live in closed mindsets, afraid of change, worried about the consequences of opening the windows, fearing what change and broad participation will lead to, and simply not trusting people’s judgment and decisions. But changed mindsets do not change the world - you may say. But I say, it does! It is the basis for further change.
The title of this article, Changing mindsets, can be read as if mindsets are already changing, a passive action that is already happening. It can also be read in an active way: How can we change mindsets? That is what I want. I want us to find ways and strategies to change our closed mindsets. We should all be active in identifying how change can happen, how improvements can be made, for ourselves and for others.
The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist based in Islamabad. He has served as United Nations specialist in the United States, as well as various countries in Africa and Asia. He has also spent a decade dealing with the Afghan refugee crisis and university education in Pakistan.