Keyboard warriors

Updated 09 Mar 2020

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The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

FIRST, a disclaimer: the premise for this piece is narrow, but it speaks to a larger problem within Pakistani public life. The number of people to whom this critique applies may not be large, but the underlying issue is one that has a disproportionate impact on society.

At the time of writing, Sunday’s Aurat Marches around the country would have taken place, hopefully, with great success and enthusiasm. Almost as if it is a competition, this year the cultural politics against the march seemed to have become even more vitriolic, more conservative, and more confrontational.

Much of the violence stems from just really base-level conservative and patriarchal anger. The scale of it is such that even a one-day, absolutely temporary loss to dominance in social and cultural space is enough to instigate uncontrolled anger and shatter thousands of fragile egos. Unfortunately, while the scale of this anger rises with alarming speed, the phenomenon itself is utterly predictable. Women have to contend against great odds to their participation in everyday life on a day-to-day basis; combating those odds through public politics is an even bigger challenge.

Associational politics and citizens taking responsibilities for the causes they care about is what sustains democracy.

Among the cacophony of complaints, there exists another genre of critique which in my view is probably worth talking about and engaging with. This particular one starts with, as its premise, a commitment to whatever larger liberal or progressive cause is being espoused, whether it is women’s rights, minority rights, democratisation, social justice etc. Its opposition usually emerges against those members of civil society fighting for these causes — NGOs, particular activists, journalists, public intellectuals — who they find to be either compromised, hypocritical, biased, or, in some instances, too utopian.

This particular genre is fairly common around the issue of women’s rights (and more broadly human rights and social justice) activism. It ranges from finding placards to be ‘too aggressive’ or the charter of demands to be ‘too radical’, or the type of issues being taken up as ‘too controversial’. The critique usually boils down to how such activism is strategically counterproductive and how the people actually doing the legwork (organising, producing content, engaging in activism) as ‘unworthy’ for the actual cause.

Let us leave the substantive critiques of content and strategy to one side. People can have differing views about what may or may not work, and nearly every cause or movement has internal tensions on the age-old question of sequencing, prioritisation, and incrementalism. The larger issue here is the outcome of such critiques, which, as already stated, are apparently emerging from a consensus on the importance of the overall cause.

For the last eight to 10 years in particular, swathes of social and mainstream media have been awash with people finding faults with established liberal/progressive activists, journalists, and academics. The term ‘fake liberals’ and ‘liberal fascists’ has been deployed by many, particularly so by segments of supporters of the current ruling party, and in some instances, even by its members. Again, much of it stems from finding fault in their personal associations, their political and social biases, and their criticism of the current ruling dispensation.

As mentioned, this type of critique cannot be waived away so easily, precisely because those making it will also pay (at least rhetorical) homage to the larger cause. Some of it may even be justified in several instances. But what is the outcome?

If I am committed to a cause, but I do not like the strategy or the politics of the people pursuing it, what options do I have? I can either accept their faults and side with them in service of this larger cause, or, if I think they are dishonest to the task at hand, I can critique them, disengage from such organisations, and develop alternatives. This appears to be such a simple and straightforward choice, and yet we almost never see it happening in practice.

Countless individuals will spend hours finding faults with human rights activists, make extensive efforts to expose (‘xpoze’ in local parlance) their failings, cast all manner of aspersions, and yet will never think to act for the cause they apparently so dearly care about.

This speaks to two fundamental problems in the way that urban civil society is (d)evolving in Pakistan, especially with the advent of social media. Firstly, that actual legwork in service of progressive causes — whether it is organising, arranging protests, undertaking and publicising analysis of important issues, and running institutions — is supposed to be someone else’s job. Finding fault with those undertaking such efforts does not logically lead to the adoption of some responsibility.

Secondly, with heightened partisanship and the increased association of personal moral identity with a political party, the belief is that the preferred party of choice is best served to take up all these issues, even when the actual evidence in service of this belief is scant or nonexistent.

Associational politics and, more broadly, citizens taking responsibilities for the causes they care about is what sustains democracy. Parties cannot be expected to take up every issue in the most productive manner because they speak to a wide range of electoral segments, many of whom may actually be opposed to the kind of progressive change one wants to see.

If you are tired of fake news and agenda-laden analysis, develop an alternative. If you think the current state of human rights activism is biased, create your own platforms. If you think demands from certain activists are unjustified and counterproductive, organise like-minded people for whatever you think is more likely to work. Ultimately, the instant gratification that comes with criticising someone (mostly online) has to give way to something more substantive and purposeful. Otherwise, it is only logical to assume that the desire to see change and the self-stated commitment to progressive causes does not really exist.

The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, March 9th, 2020