Prof Navid Shahzad has recently recalled in one of her writings what George Orwell said soon after the Second World War. Unlike other thinkers, academics, politicians and economists who were contemplating complex theories to understand the political upheavals and social stresses of their times, Orwell said something simple: “We ought to recognise that the present political chaos is connected to the decay of language.” This resonates fully with the state of affairs we find ourselves in.
Here, I am not making a linguistic observation about the progress and decay of a particular language that we speak in this country. The more important concern is the perpetual decline being witnessed in our verbal and written expression in public and political life, in whichever language we choose to express ourselves. Although the two issues cannot be separated entirely, it is less of an issue of grammar and syntax, and more of an issue of our public expression becoming increasingly devoid of any intellect, humility, tolerance and grace.
Language and literature, forms and genres, idioms and metaphors, subtleties and nuances, are seldom appreciated equally by people from different backgrounds in any society. But in a semi-literate society, a wider appreciation of literature gets even more difficult. That is the reason why, in countries such as Pakistan, public speakers — politicians, proselytisers, media persons — play a key role in shaping the psyche and expression of those who watch them and listen to their words. The language spoken, the expression chosen and the message relayed through the podium, pulpit and television become the language of public discourse, the expression that gains currency and the ideas people shape in their minds. Therefore, it is incumbent upon public speakers and opinion leaders to mind their language. That mindfulness comes with a deep relationship with knowledge and literature.
Traditionally, most of our major political leaders were far more literate than the lot that has emerged now. Exceptions such as Mushahidullah Khan — who remembers hundreds of couplets by heart — may well be there to prove the rule. But Khan, these days, carries a lot of bitterness in his expression. I chanced upon a book once which compiled the literary references made during the proceedings of the Punjab Assembly from pre-Pakistan days to later years. It was a fascinating read. Then we saw politicians such as Abid Hasan Minto writing proper literary criticism and G.M. Syed penning a seminal book on Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai.
In the recent past, not everyone was like Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan, Makhdoom Talibul Maula or Makhdoom Amin Fahim, who happened to be poets of considerable merit. Or like Taj Haider and Raza Rabbani who delve into creative writing, and Nafisa Shah who holds a doctorate from Oxford. But politicians, even if not contributing themselves — which most of them didn’t —were avid readers. Many had extensive interests in varied subjects. This brush with literature produced a more civilised expression. What we see now — from the incumbent prime minister to most of those occupying both the treasury and opposition benches in the federal and provincial legislatures — is that politicians lack decent expression. What they are capable of is brashly verbalising hate for the adversary and showing anger over what they disapprove.
Likewise, being a journalist and writer overlapped on so many occasions. There were quite a few working journalists until recently who were very fine creative writers or literary commentators. In print, radio and the only state television we had, there were language experts and stylists creating content. Those not writing themselves would certainly read. Now there is a near-complete disconnect between most media persons — who occupy our prime air time on television — and the creative literature produced in Pakistan or elsewhere. On rare occasions, anchors even hold shows with academics and writers whom they have never read. Consequently, they push a narrow personal or political agenda through undignified language and crude expression.
If we look at the religious leaders, preachers and proselytisers of yesteryear and compare them to those who dot the landscape in contemporary times, a steep fall can be witnessed. From reading their work or listening to the speeches of the likes of Maulana Abul Ala Maududi and Allama Rasheed Turabi, within a couple of decades, we have come down to enjoying the oratorical skills of the likes of Khadim Hussain Rizvi and Zameer Akhtar Naqvi. The decline in the quality of content, opinion, language and expression is palpable. And, in some cases, hate mongering and religious intolerance are the only offerings from the pulpit. At best, there are descriptions of paradise for the pious that indecently satiate the baser instincts of the followers.
Therefore, the politicians, proselytisers and media persons of today, through their unintellectual, cocky, intolerant and disgraceful language and expression, have helped create a bigoted and impetuous generation of women and men. These people perpetually express contempt and display smugness on any avenues made available to them — social media platforms being the prime example.
What has continued to bother me over the last few days are some responses to a tweet from PPP politician Qamar Zaman Kaira. Although we know how the supporters of the ruling party have taken it to the next level, I sincerely believe that what I read under Kaira’s tweet reflects a larger social malaise — a complete loss of compassion, brutal indifference and diminished human values when it comes to dealing with someone you disagree with. It was the first death anniversary of Kaira’s young son, who had died in a car crash. The dejected father tweeted his son’s picture accompanied by a verse. Some callous, indecent, shameful and cruel responses were received that are better off not repeated. Until recently, with all our weaknesses, there were still some values that remained intact. None — holding any opinion or ideology — would have teased, taunted, ridiculed or abused a bereaved parent, irrespective of how much we might have disagreed with the person. Such attitudes will further fracture our society and polity.
Perhaps, the principal cause for our descent into chaos is, indeed, the decay of language.
The writer is a poet and essayist based in Islamabad. His latest book is a collection of verse No Fortunes to Tell
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 24th, 2020