In case you missed it, the Panama Case judgment is out. It is hard to know who won, since every party involved celebrated. Imran had a cake, and the Sharif brothers hugged. There were rallies all over the country too. It is still hard to know who won.

This article is not about who won, or who should have; this article is about how everyone won, and the larger trend that points towards. Victory is everything, because it is good optics. Introspection is not, because that makes bad optics. But before we get into this, we need to talk about this term. Trevor Noah termed the passage of the American Health Care Act as an example of ‘optics’, the passage of a bill for the sake of appearing successful.

The term has existed for a while before this, but has gained prominence in the past few years, as referenced by a 2010 article on the New York Times. A fair few factors has precipitated its ‘rise’, and almost all due to the fact that it replaces a term that would now be bad optics: public relations.

PR has existed for centuries: before, it was power projection, strength by virtue of giant structures; think of the Great Pyramids of Giza, the Badshahi Mosque, and so on. The term was formally coined in the first half of the twentieth century by psychologist and marketing man Edward Bernays, who also authored books with titles as scintillating as The Engineering of Consent and Propoganda, in the latter of which he stated:

“...the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society….we are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested.”

If the sentence above sounded cringe-worthy, it reflects a slightly innate desire most individuals have of not being ‘controlled’; we like to consider ourselves governed by our own desires and thought processes, or to use the sociological term, of possessing ‘agency’ in our actions. At the same time, we wish our leaders to possess the agency we presume such a role would have, free from bureaucratic hurdles, political in-fighting, and the vagaries of thought that accompany being human.

Political leadership has changed to reflect this in the past few years: consensus building is suddenly not in vogue, populaces long suffering from the short end of neo-liberal policies (or their perceived slights) finding outlets in loud-talking demagogues like Trump, Duterte, and Farage, who promise to steamroll through gridlock and ‘deliver’. This is good optics, and actuality and delivery does not matter.

The Sharif brothers are legendary for their use of optics to imply good governance: from sprawling infrastructure projects to laptop schemes to the Daanish schools (whatever happened to the Daanish schools?). A line of reasoning is often given that the Sharif government(s) side-step meaningful reform for the sake of optics. While this is not absolutely true, it is a fact that given their attempts at police reform and accountability, they have chosen to do so by ensuring good optics; such as when street crime was countered by a new police force on expensive high powered motorcycles.

Optics then, might have changed how politics work, but to a degree. This is a worrying trend, since this is working, and the arguments utilized by hardened and casual followers of the House of Sharif center around job creation through massive infrastructure projects. This is, again, not to denounce the merits of such projects, but it is perhaps why the Imran Khan approach towards governance in KP has not found equivalent sway (outside the PTI’s respective hardline jiyala circle), since it focuses on the bureaucratic incrementalism that is so endemic of modern society (at least, according to Weber). Part of the argumentation used for why new development plans for the province contain plans for infrastructure projects similar to those carried out in Punjab, which could be why it is also considered bad optics, since Mr. Khan is seen as copying the homework of the party and family he despises.

For the time being, optics is working, not just in Pakistan, but globally, but only if a percentage of the products that are being promised are delivered. Donald Trump, unable to deliver so far on a border wall, and unable now, to provide a decent replacement to Obamacare, has undermined two of his fundamental strengths: being a tough negotiator, and of possessing a keen business acumen. While the maxim “the bigger they are, the harder they fall” seems like the legitimate end to this cycle of more talk than action, it seems that at least in Pakistan, the use of optics is working, which is bad news of us, but great news for your neighbourhood bakery, and people who like hugs.