Public civility at its lowest point

ByM Ali Siddiqi

writer who contributes to leading periodicals


August 6, 2023

Public civility at its lowest point

M Ali Siddiqi talks about a
deteriorating situation

Public civility at its lowest point – Despite a disastrous experience the nation went through in the hot month of May, the Pakistani polity has failed to learn the importance and value of public civility as a national more. Unfortunately, the lack of public civility in Pakistan is aggravated by lack of civic literacy abetted by disregard for fact and truth and by partisan electronic, print media and internet. More often than not the current expression and exchange of views is often an uncivil, highly unpleasant experience full of raised voices, invective, personal insults and outrageous charges. The spiraling down effect of uncivil acrimony is lessening of individual dignity and distortion of public perspective. People are attracted to news and opinion reflecting their biases and they willingly believe it. There is a visible dearth of mainstream, objective journalism that verifies facts before highlighting inconvenient realities. In such an atmosphere it is easy to detract individuals expressing different and opposite opinion.

The end of colonial rule in the subcontinent bequeathed legacy of agitation that, although proved instrumental in achieving a separate homeland, left deep seated prejudices breeding a generation ridden society. Unfortunately, the consequences of partition brought about a spate of instability in the country. The overweening actions of garrison mindset slowly converting Pakistan into a besieged state subjected to contradictory narratives exacerbated the polarisation. The political polarisation rubbed off wider public affairs and started affecting the national fabric. The vitriolic public pronouncements of the earlier generation of populist political leaders set the bar very high. The shining legacy of the older generation was followed by the subsequent generation with the second and third generations of political operatives setting new standards. A new dimension to public discourse was given by religious protagonists lowering public civility so deep that it became impossible to rationalise any argument.

The spiraling down effect of uncivil acrimony is lessening of individual dignity and distortion of public perspective. People are attracted to news and opinion reflecting their biases and they willingly believe it. There is a visible dearth of mainstream, objective journalism that verifies facts before highlighting inconvenient realities. In such an atmosphere it is easy to detract individuals expressing different and opposite opinion. The prevailing civic deficit compels citizenry to believe the spin, even outright fabrications forwarded by self-proclaimed experts who have their own agenda to follow. The nasty political discourse having scant regard for truth has put off many capable and deserving individuals from public life. People refrain from joining the political milieu for the reason that partisans sitting on the other side of the fence castigate activities of the other as illegitimate. Pakistanis are dearly paying for denigrating political activity and are facing the consequences of neglecting civic education.

It is often argued that a society is predominantly governed by primary natural instincts: generosity, large heartedness and pluralism or meanness, discrimination, and individualism. Since instincts relate to human behaviour therefore the public domain is affected by civil or uncivil attitudes. Public civility pertains to social behavioural patterns that keep partisan considerations subservient to achieving common good. A civil approach clearly draws a line between realistic discourse and high-sounding rhetoric. Directly proportional thus is incivility that violates a laid down standard. It is rather difficult to strictly follow normal codes of civility in this age of rampant invective and ever-increasing coining of below the belt phraseology. The current trend of one-upmanship has mortally wounded respect for other views and people expressing them. The over-riding aim of today’s script is simply to beat the opponent irrespective of consideration of civility. The primary reason for resorting to incivility is the lack of respect an individual holds for his adversary.

The lip service accorded to civil behaviour by Pakistanis, particularly in the field of political and public affairs, is enormously inferior to such adherence in developed societies whose social attitudes Pakistanis try to copy as Pakistani consciousness cannot fathom the essential tolerance embedded in western social bahaviour. In the cloistered social atmosphere of Pakistan lacking in inspiring make-believe cine world, trendsetting dramatic expositions, irreverently tickling comedy and lively debates, the only lively activity available to its people is political debate making Pakistanis the most politically aware people in the world although a fragment of their opinion affects actual policies of state. It is the political repartee that sets the trend and its feigned bravado inspired content has shaped the current social scenario. Utterly devoid of the lovely turn of phrase, loaded puns and attractive euphemisms the current medium of public exchange leaves a brackish taste and intolerant aftertaste.

Further complicating the issue is that languages and modes of expression in Pakistan strongly adhere to political correctness by allowing little room to use free and frank expressions, consequently usage of unconventional language is considered ghastly. The intention behind strict adherence to formal language is to avoid giving offence and provoking unpleasant reaction therefore any expletive is surely to be deleted although it may end up depriving natural growth of linguistic expression. The West, on the other hand, is fairly liberal about employing prohibited vocabulary in common written and verbal usage and it is often used by male and female genders. The cagey Pakistanis relish uninhibited usage of free-for-all linguistic expressions on social media platforms. They have speedily grabbed such words and expressions from English and use them with impunity but the real catch is widespread use of prohibited Urdu words muddying annals of social media.

The theoretical solutions offered for ameliorating the problem are well known platitudes: tolerance for opposite views, respecting legitimacy of position taken by opponents, exploring shared values, concentrating issue in hand and not digressing from it, avoiding ridiculing adversaries, accepting that disagreement will exist without giving up convictions, refraining from responding until hearing the other side and considering consequences of argument. But this is just academic and will not prove effective because it is precisely the lack of such attributes and their willful disregard that the situation has come to this pass.

Real corrective measures can only come from strong social censure of aggressive public expression recently witnessed in diatribes of populist political leaders. The widespread condemnation of these frolics will surely compel electronic media to rethink its rating-based coverage of frenzied public events. Electronic media should be impressed upon to cease covering hate speeches particularly witnessed during the last three weeks in the illegal congregation in Islamabad. A consistent media campaign emphasising civility in public behaviour may be launched along with holding seminars and symposia particularly in academic institutions. The government may chip in to assist media houses in increasing rates of advertising to compensate for ratings loss.

In a deeply conservative society like Pakistan there appears to be a rather lopsided emphasis on social media. Different sectors in Pakistani power paradigm appear to be desperately competing for registering supremacy of their point of view. It looks that divergent groups have a dominant urge to be considered more credible and loftier than others even at the expense of others. They fail to realise that an individual, sitting in cozy confines of home, is venting his spleen full of fluid made turbid by hearsay, biased analysis and unrealistic perceptions. Opinions expressed by such wayward class in Pakistan are required not be taken seriously. It may not be possible to wean away Pakistani gadget addicts from social media but it may be possible for responsible quarters to discount its impact and widely portray it as an unreliable medium. The Weekender


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