The dumbing down of dissent

(First published on August 03, 2019)

“The two fundamental human drivers when it comes to taking information onboard effectively are hopes and fears and many of those are unspoken and even unconscious. You didn’t know that was a fear until you saw something that just evoked that reaction from you. And our job is to get, is to drop the bucket further down the well than anybody else, to understand what are those really deep-seated underlying fears, concerns. It’s no good fighting an election campaign on the facts, because it is all about emotions.”

Thus spoke Mark Turnbull, the Managing Director of Cambridge Analytica, on tape in Channel-4’s undercover exposé that was presented to the audience in March 2018. Frame this in your mind.

“There are two kinds of angry people in this world: explosive and implosive. Explosive is the kind of individual you see screaming at the cashier for not taking their coupons. Implosive is the cashier who remains quiet day after day and finally shoots everyone in the store,” says Dr Buddy Rydell (Jack Nicholson) in Anger Management (2003). Later in the movie when his patient Dave Buznik (Adam Sandler) explodes in anger in an atrociously awkward situation, Dr Rydell records his notes, telling us that the patient has learned the difference between harmful anger and righteous anger. Keep this in your mind too.

Dissent is important. It plays a crucial role in keeping a society and a democracy honest. That is why in a parliamentary democracy you have treasury benches and opposition benches. And being a country with an interesting history of democracy and authoritarianism, Pakistan has an inspiring legacy of dissent.

Within a few years of its independence, Pakistan saw one of its finest poets and editors, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, being apprehended in the so-called Rawalpindi conspiracy case. Faiz’s poetry still warms the cockles of those who dare to challenge the dominant, often forced narratives. In poets, we were also lucky to have Ahmad Faraz and Habib Jalib.

In journalists, we had people like Mazhar Ali Khan. And then there was the whole host of storytellers who would very craftily embed their message of resistance in seemingly innocuous looking stories even during the era of the worst censorship possible. And how can we forget the legend of Asma Jahangir who stood up whenever there was a serious breach of rights and got counted. It is due to such stalwarts and national heroes that even from the darkest recesses of authoritarianism, we managed to restore democratic order in the country.

But decline is a force of nature. We mortals are accustomed to witnessing entropy gradually spreading its wings. Pakistan is no exception. As the age of pranksters, provocateurs, entrenched business interests and foreign psychological wars grew, the cultured and seasoned dissenter met an untimely death.

If in politics, Asif Ali Zardaris were replacing Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and the likes of Sherbaz Mazari and Nawabzada Nasrulllah by the one and only Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the Faiz and Faraz of the nation could not even find token substitutes. In the past two decades dominated by the fight against terrorism as culture came under existential pressure, most of it decided to throw in the towel and leave.

The country’s intellectual class also contributed to this decline to a great extent. Bitterly disappointed by Benazir Bhutto’s two very bad stints in power inundated by allegations of corruption, it first allowed itself to be seduced by the rule of General Musharraf, then by Iftikhar Chaudhry’s lawyers’ movement, and finally by whatever passed for democracy in the past eleven years.

Since it was the age of private television news, TV punditry became a substitute for intellect and journalists/TV talking heads became the dissenters-in-chief.

Obscurantism, ignorance, hubris and shrinking reaction time on television screens colluded to produce a highly charged, highly offensive and highly negative discourse. Conspiracy theories were everywhere, and solid facts were dismissed as pandering to the establishment. As egos grew, so did emotions. Everyone you knew was angry, and jumping to premature conclusions and hasty judgements.

But in the past 11 years, the situation has worsened to a mindboggling level. For a country burdened with the soul-destroying trauma of terrorism, paranoia is obviously expected. Then there is the matter of having a neighbour as hostile and powerful as India. So etched is systemic hate towards Pakistan in Indian power structure that it would hate a Pakistani more than it loved the future of its own children.

Every fault line was then to be exploited by the enemy. But a traumatised society is so given to emotional outbursts, victimhood and harmful anger that it allows exploiters a free reign. When in 2008, elections were held after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, everyone bought the Pakistan Peoples Party’s narrative that systematic rigging took place. But many forget — owing perhaps to the PTI’s sit-in — that it was Asif Zardari who, anticipating the wholesale drubbing his party was to get as a result of bad governance, dismissed the process as RO elections. He was to return to cast similar aspersions in 2018.

As the PML-N came to power and the Panama Papers issue surfaced, anybody could tell the Pakistani establishment could not have anything to do with it. But many allowed the slow burn of the party and the government to fool themselves into believing that the establishment had anything to do with it.

Opportunity after opportunity was presented, judicial panels were formed, but the PML-N allowed a prankster associated with a media group close to Mr Zardari to hack its minds and deceive them into believing that the party was a victim of an elaborate plot.

Consequently, bad choices were made. An establishment that had confronted dissenters within its own ranks during the 2014 sit-ins for democracy gave up the habit of going out of the way to defend civilian politicians.

We stopped asking for evidence. Only rumours were enough to write mighty editorials. When former interior minister Chaudhry Nisar decided to run as an independent with the peculiar symbol of a jeep (chosen to pretend he was close to the establishment), we knew he was a man of many means. His own circle of influence must have reached out to many members of his party in support.

The two alleged pieces of evidence that are often quoted to prove the elections were rigged stem from his campaign. One, a candidate came on television and claimed that a spook standing close by was asking him to run as an independent and use jeep as his symbol.

Whether there was a spook standing there in actuality? We will never know because the camera never showed us his face. Two, a man running against Ch Nisar is picked up by authorities on charges of alleged corruption.

The dissent mill in the country has so dramatically dumbed down that we would never seek to know alternative explanations staring us in the face. Nor would we realise that the people we accuse of manipulating the system are literally dying to keep us safe.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 3rd, 2019.


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