According to Nesrine Malik, in today’s Trumpian, post-Brexit world, political correctness is seen as self-censorship and “restrictive”
According to Nesrine Malik, in today’s Trumpian, post-Brexit world, political correctness is seen as self-censorship and “restrictive”

”Believing in a myth is sort of like taking part in a Ponzi scheme. You are constantly being told that your stake is accruing, sometimes you might even get a dividend, but ultimately only the scheme owners make any real money. There is no real value created, it eventually collapses, and the money winners abscond with the spoils.” — Nesrine Malik

Nesrine Malik is a British-Sudanese award-winning columnist and features writer for The Guardian. She was born in Sudan and grew up in Kenya, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Her book, We Need New Stories: Challenging the Toxic Myths Behind Our Age of Discontent, is a searing and unapologetic look into the method behind the madness that faces the world today. Malik outlines the myths that have been promulgated for the past few decades and have now become firmly entrenched ‘truths’ in modern society, resulting in the present intolerant and suspicious world. The rising tide of conservative nationalism all across the developed Western world, the anti-immigrant discourse, increasing bigotry in supposedly civilised societies towards ‘the others’ and the #MeToo movement and its implications makes this an important book, as Malik provides clarity and much-needed context to understand why these issues were a long time coming.

In the chapter ‘The Myth of Gender Equality’, Malik methodically explores the precarious position of women right now. She dismantles the myth that women in the West are somehow immune from violence and discrimination against their gender because they live in relatively civilised societies that are not prey to inequality or determinism based on religion or narrow societal norms: “From Tehran to New York, women will be told that they are asking for it if they wear a short skirt in a bar or a looser then acceptable burqa in the street ... We have not made as much progress as we think.” She exposes the hypocrisy with which progress in women’s rights is measured: as long as the woman remains within the confines of a pre-determined role that has been created for her, all is well. As soon as she starts to diverge, the general idea is to be quick in reminding her how much better it is today than it was in the past, when women were spectators of their own lives.

Malik explains in detail how men — and oftentimes women themselves — contribute towards maintaining the limitations set by society. She highlights the exceptionalism practised by the West, where it is assumed that progressive secularism and rationalism have ensured a fairer space for women. She uses facts to illustrate how the gender pay gap, women’s right to a safe work environment and their right to choose are all in a state of constant threat, even in developed societies.

The West remains delusional about the state of gender equality in their societies simply because the playing field differs in nature and that “the state of women before them was uniformly awful, hitting a good wind only when John Locke dipped his quill.” Malik dispels this notion and is quick to point out that “When Islam was introduced in the Arabian Peninsula, it eradicated the custom of burying female babies, gave women inheritance and divorce rights, and limited polygamy.” Using empirical evidence, Malik spells out the nature of gender inequality present in the West.

A searing and unapologetic work challenges accepted social ‘truths’ of an increasingly polarised West and offers tools to heal the fractures

On the myths of political correctness and ‘free speech’ crises, Malik’s writing is poignant as she describes how, in today’s Trumpian, post-Brexit world, free speech is often used as a defence to further anti-immigrant, racist and derogatory views. Meanwhile, political correctness is seen as self-censorship and “restrictive.” She uses Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign to prove her point: as the future President of the United States mocked a man with disabilities and called Mexican immigrants “rapists” to a cheering crowd, he communicated to his vote bank that the role of political correctness is one of repression at the cost of other freedoms.

Trump assured his predominantly white voters that he did not have the time to be politically correct and that the liberals and the Democrats were putting political correctness above common sense. In this way, he fed his voters a “grievance-complex”, lulling them into a belief that political correctness is an oppressive tool that has kept them under duress for far too long and that they are, in fact, the victims and that white privilege is a spectre. They must break through the shambles of political correctness and embrace the ideals of free speech. Freedom of speech has, for a while now, become speech without any consequences. Thanks to social media and the lack of filters therein, free speech is an umbrella under which all sorts of Islamophobic, intolerant and racial slurs can be shielded.

Malik takes no prisoners as she highlights the role of the media in all this, with the example of the rise of the United Kingdom’s Nigel Farage, who was one of the spearheads for the Brexit-Leave campaign. His anti-immigrant, nationalist right-wing views were broadcast on television to all and sundry and, by those racist elements who felt economically and politically disenfranchised, these views were embraced and accepted as part of a conversation.

Malik observes, “This is the dirty secret about freedom of speech; rather than being an ideal, it is a litmus test of a society’s prejudices.” Where before the media would exercise caution in airing such notions, now it welcomes the debate, legitimising that racist or misogynistic ideas can be defended on television if it increases audience. The polarisation of society is facilitated as hate speech enters the ambit of public discourse. The media, playing both sides, has added to the hullabaloo: “Every day you can tune into a number of debates where a truth and an untruth are pitted against each other, with the untruth spokesperson’s presence legitimised by the cop out of free speech and marketed in such terms.”

Malik’s writing is urgent in the way it connects the growing discontent and mistrust facing the world to ideas and myths that have dominated conversation and culture. She takes a vital step towards putting things into perspective. Her understanding of complex race and identity politics issues is comprehensive as she pinpoints how white nationalism is encouraged in countries such as the US and how movements such as Black Lives Matter are often sabotaged and warped into a debate suggesting that “to care about black lives is to do so at the expense and exclusion of others.” This appeals to the already insecure white man who believes in the myth of virtuous origin, “the strongest most corrosive myth that lies in the heart of a culture’s failure to self-reflect.”

The editing of history is a practice that all countries engage in. If the ideals of fairness and equal opportunity are to be believed in, then countries such as the US and UK must not acknowledge that their countries were built on imperialistic ideals and slavery. The full influence of Britain’s ugly colonial past has been conveniently left to gather dust.

Malik writes about how school curricula are moulded in an attempt to “exercise mass consensual dishonesty.” This stands true; we can see this “curricular blind spot” — as she calls it — at work in Pakistan as well. For example, the reasons for the breaking up of East and West Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh are edited and borderline fictionalised to present a certain narrative that suits the powers-that-be. Not only does this deprive us of learning from our mistakes, it also condemns us to suffer from repeating the same mistakes again.

These are some of the myths she dispels. In exchange, she offers tools to heal the fractures within our own societies. The calls for making ‘America Great Again’, building walls, Brexit — all are a result of years of neglect towards this narrative that somehow it is the ‘others’, the outsiders, to blame for our (the majority’s) suffering. Weaponising free speech and excluding those less powerful from political and intellectual debate are all part of this discourse.

Malik’s book is particularly chilling because, while most of her writing draws upon the hypocrisy on display in the West, it stands true for us here in the Subcontinent as well. India’s recent swerve towards the ultra conservative right and Pakistan’s constant battles with economic disparity and the fictionalisation of history, are all instances that are more than just worrisome. This is why Malik’s book is essential to understanding why the world stands at such a precipice — where there is so much more intolerance, racism, sexism and bigotry and why this has been allowed to rage on unchecked.

Malik’s voice is one of urgency and resolve. She shows considerable intellectual depth as she confronts a broken narrative and offers her solutions: a steady shift towards redistribution of power. Representation of women and people of colour in the work and political environment will eventually facilitate this shift in power, she says. Malik assures us though that, whatever the case, “As far as the keepers of the status quo are concerned: it is too late.”

The reviewer is a freelance writer with a background in law and literature

We Need New Stories: Challenging the Toxic Myths Behind our Age of Discontent
By Nesrine Malik
Weidenfeld and Nicolson, UK
ISBN: 978-1474610407
304pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 3rd, 2020

Opinion

Editorial

Urgent challenge
Updated 02 Mar, 2024

Urgent challenge

The incoming finance team will have to prioritise economic decisions over political considerations and personal whims.
Contempt ruling
02 Mar, 2024

Contempt ruling

AN Islamabad High Court decision penalising the city’s deputy commissioner, a senior superintendent of police and ...
Streets of death
02 Mar, 2024

Streets of death

A LIFE without a sense of permanence is one aspect of a human crisis as complex as homelessness. But the fact that...
Starting over
Updated 01 Mar, 2024

Starting over

Both govt and opposition must resolve that their decisions will prioritise the public good over anything else.
Missing the point
01 Mar, 2024

Missing the point

IN a change of heart, the caretaker prime minister attended the hearing of the Baloch missing persons’ case in the...
Fleecing power consumers
01 Mar, 2024

Fleecing power consumers

THE so-called independent inquiry committee, formed by the power ministry to probe charges of excessive billing by...