OVER the years, tolerance of difference of opinion in our society has receded significantly. It has now come to the point where many of us only talk at rather than talk to one another. Dialogue has been the obvious casualty in the process.
Since many today are not willing to listen and then respond intelligently with a counterpoint in case there is an argument, it is only buzzwords that one picks up in a conversation to jump to a conclusion. In the social discourse today this is becoming the norm: the inability to listen, grasp what is being said and then add to the conversation. Thus, partisanship in ideological/ political grandstanding gets the better of so many today.
There is an increasing inability to hold a focused conversation without juxtaposing two conflicting personalities, ideas, opinions or stances. For instance, it is almost blasphemous today to critique Imran Khan’s stated position on a given issue without being labelled as anti-Imran, and by implication, pro-Zardari, pro-Sharif, pro-America, etc. The buzzwords that work as a smoke screen to block a dialogue the minute you have opened your mouth, in this case, may be ‘Imran Khan’, ‘Zardari’, ‘Sharif’ and ‘America’, which will trigger a rehearsed reaction instantly. Similarly, Pakistan, too, cannot be discussed without juxtaposing it with India and vice versa.
There is this abiding inability to discuss Imran Khan’s politics without Zardari and Sharif being brought into the debate. Which is not to say that this tendency does not work the other way round; you cannot discuss Zardari’s conduct without reference to Sharif’s or vice versa. The space you require to discuss one indivdual or an idea at a time is simply not there anymore. This is precisely what makes any argument fluid and without a focus, thus thwarting intelligent debate and dialogue.
Ours has become a society of political heroes and villains, each having their defenders and detractors. The people are so loyal to and besotted with one or the other party leader that the minute they hear their leader’s name mentioned an auto nerve reaction sets in. The desperation with which people seek a messiah is perhaps the underlying factor for this conduct. If you are somehow convinced that such and such person is your hero, regardless of whether he or she actually represents your legitimate interests, you’ll go all out to defend your hero, often by presenting a critique of his or her opponents.
The ability to reason is thus subverted into a cult worship of sorts in the process. Opinions are hurriedly heard, read and processed as facts or their misrepresentation, with your favourite leader’s personality always acting as a prism through which all facts and opinions must pass for their validation. To think independently of such a prism is a sin which must not go unpunished.
Consequently, in one’s own mind, one’s leader appears with a halo over his head; he is infallible and can say or do no wrong. In the case of Imran Khan, the justification for such unstinted loyalty among the more rational of his followers is that he’s better than the rest of ‘them’; this line then leads to proving how bad the rest of them are, thwarting the debate to ascertain what Khan has said on a given issue. The pragmatic conclusion drawn is that in a democracy you have to choose from amongst the leaders that are there, and on that criterion alone Khan is the best choice. Inherent in this line of argument is the footnote that reads: ‘regardless of what he says’.
That the urban youth and the chattering classes, who are supposedly better informed, are Khan’s constituency is a given. The revolution he is leading is one like the freedom movement of the 1940s, where the people did not fully understand nor were they told in the vernacular what starting a new country would translate into for them. Pakistan was presented as the panacea that would set all wrongs right without revealing the blueprint that would help achieve that goal. Khan’s promise of starting a new Pakistan today follows the same pattern: get rid of corrupt leaders and the rest will follow.
For Nawaz Sharif, that panacea is not a blanket scrutiny of all corrupt leaders but that of Zardari & Co alone. For the latter, it is democracy which, if given a chance, will overtime weed out the political mavericks who derail democracy every now and then. For the Taliban, it is the enforcement of Islamic Sharia, only as they define it, which will accomplish the needful. For the MQM, it is the empowerment of the urban middle class and the breaking down of the entrenched stranglehold of the feudal system that is the panacea. For the ANP, Baloch and Sindhi nationalists, it is all-out provincial autonomy. For the people of southern Punjab and of Hazara, it is the creation of new provinces.
In the end, they all have their valid points but where is the cohesive debate and dialogue or concrete step-by-step planning that can accomplish and further those respective goals? Most debates even when held under the glare of the media end up as shouting matches. No political party really has a democratic culture within the party itself; none has technocrats who are put to work to lay down strategies to achieve their cherished goals. Such is the poverty of the political culture. It just revolves around the myriad visions of the respective party leaders. Unless such proclivities and tendencies based on political exigencies change, there is little hope of any meaningful change taking root.
The writer is a member of staff.