How potty-mouthed politicians are polluting public discourse

Those who believe abusive language ‘leads’ to violence are mistaken; it is violence in and of itself.
Published March 23, 2022

Prussian statesman Otto Von Bismarck once said, "Politics is the art of the possible". Over the years, people have derived different meanings of the phrase, depending on what suited them at the time.

In the Pakistan of late, the saying seems to have been polluted a bit. It may now be read: "Politics is the art of profanity". In fact, so bad has the situation become that it compelled a prominent religious scholar to urge politicians to exercise some restraint.

Over time, Pakistan has witnessed a spike both in the use of foul language, and in the mannerism depicting such faux bravado and machismo that it borders on thuggery. Proponents of the former include but are not limited to so-called religious personalities, cadres of political parties, their leadership, and in certain cases the party supremo.

The latter is discernible more in the ranks of state institutions. This is both a cause for concern and embarrassment, if not outright disgust.

The latest incidents involve the use of abusive language during nationally televised programmes, followed by its defence by the same or similar characters at public forums covered by even more media. The perpetrators are not just ill-behaved, they seem to be reaping rewards for their extremely crass behaviour. Their chutzpah knows no bounds, as they go about claiming that the use of abusive language is a part of this region’s culture.

In their defence, they bring up the archaic usage of various terms to prove that if it was alright to use them in the past — albeit in entirely different contexts from their present connotation — it should be kosher to use them today. In response. those taking exception to their vitriol question whether it should be OK then to use these abusive terms for the offending party’s leadership, their progenitors and progeny?

Thankfully, the reality of power-dynamics dawns and they stop at only referring to the possibility, at least for now.

Most would be biding their time, waiting for the trappings of power and the ability to hurt or dole out favours — that comes with it — to fade before they get their own back. Hence the question: when will it stop? The answer unfortunately is ‘it will not.’

Violence at large

It may come as a surprise to some that the use of invectives in political systems, especially in representative polities has been studied and pondered over for centuries, nay millennia now. The gist of the analysis has always been that abuse and foul language does more harm than any imagined benefit or spin put on it.

Invective is usually employed by people to overcome cultural anxiety, including their own. Political scientists believe that instead of curing any anxiety, cultural or otherwise, abusive language perpetuates it, defeating the very purpose of managing conflict in a representative polity through dialogue and pushing it into the realm of violence.

And yet, those who believe abusive language ‘leads’ to violence are mistaken. It is violence in of itself against not just its immediate targets, but against anyone unfortunate enough to come within earshot or sight of it.

This is why most of the country feels ‘violated’ by these vile characters. Equating their erstwhile party colleagues and the opposition accused of luring them for the no-confidence resolution in the National Assembly to what rhymes with ‘wimps’ and ‘constitutes' hits a new low.

This vitiates the ‘public sphere’, driving out a myriad of stakeholders from the discourse. The dialogue is then left to a limited number of participants, depriving it of richness.

Before returning to politicians and other public figures who are definitely leading this sorry cast of characters, let us have a look at how others representing the state have created the toxic environment we are living through.

Remember, the ‘commando’ who said "women are lining up to be raped to get foreign immigration”. If this is not invective, then nothing is. The mannerism of certain chief jurists of the land was no less threatening and abusive of the constitutional office they held as the chest-out swagger and man-spread of the uniformed lot.

Who can forget the threat to those thinking of taking to the mountains: “They won’t even know what hit them”. Nor did Benazir Bhutto.

One must also ask what responsibility the media shoulders in all of this and the same must be asked of its watchdogs — the regulatory authorities such as the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority.

In Pakistan, the media can be divided into two groups — those who enjoy certain perks for being ‘in bed’ with the dispensation of the day and having an incentive to facilitate heaping abuse on the opposition.

The other half falls in the category of ‘undesirables’ for displaying any editorial independence. They are slowly asphyxiated by cutting their advertisement oxygen. The Television Rating Point (TRP) becomes the only game in town for them and foul-mouthed talk show participants provide inexpensive content.

Targeting the female anatomy

The use of invective also has a gender aspect to it. Though all genders are guilty of employing it, women at large are disproportionately hurt by it because most invective revolves around the female anatomy and the threat of violating the target's female family members.

Beyond the immediate shock and hurt it causes, it traps women into this vicious cycle of a) denial of their right to be an equal, and b) becoming the sole repository of honour and as such, a ‘commodity’ to be locked away, prevented from full participation in economic activity, and squeezed out of the public space, all in the guise of “protecting honour.” And the most repulsive and dishonourable form of hoisting women to this ‘place of honour’ keeps recurring as ‘honour killing.’

Some egregious repeat offenders have gone to the extent of defending their current favourite invective whose vernacular iteration rhymes with the Urdu word for a cricket bat that it, a) does not refer to any part of the human anatomy, and b) it mostly denotes the male gender.

In their sick minds, this, and its archaic usage for property dealers working as commission agents qualifies it to be taken off the invective list and treated as a cultural heritage reclaiming its past glory.

In that vein people are asking: “will the estate dealers both registered and unregistered, take this lying down?

Returning to the politicians, as promised; be it the prime minister who goes about threatening people, saying “you are in the crosshair of my gun”, to members of the opposition who stoop so low as to refer to a member of the treasury benches as “tractor trolley", one must say what is uncouth of one side is equally crude of the other.

In the prime minister's threatening confession, its ludicrousness notwithstanding — instead of shist, the Urdu word for crosshair, he said nishist which means ‘seat’ — his violent intentions and obsession with the ‘seat’ did not go unnoticed.

Header illustration adapted from: MaryValery/ Shutterstock