Talking heads

Published August 20, 2011

—Photo Illustration by Faraz Aamer Khan/Dawn.com

Public reason is a pillar of modern liberalism. We can trace the concept of ‘public reason’ back to the German philosopher Kant, who wrote on the matter of public reason in his famous treatise, ‘What is Enlightenment’: The public use of one’s reason must always be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among mankind; the private use of reason may, however, often be very narrowly restricted, without otherwise hindering the progress of enlightenment.

The media is part of the wider public sphere and we may think of it as analogous with civil society because it represents: A space in which citizens deliberate about their common affairs….it is a site for the production and circulation of discourses that can in principle be critical of the State. (Fraser, 1990, p. 57)

Ideally, many democratic theorists would hope that the media would be a way of injecting substance into democracies – a means to enrich the public debate by raising the standard of discourse. The connections between the media and civil society can also open doors towards activism and social reform – in short the media should nourish the democratic spirit.

But in Pakistan, talk shows are nothing but shameless displays of titillating gossip mired in a stifling political dogmatism that allows little space for genuine dialogue. Take for instance Kashif Abbasi’s show, ‘Off the Record’; it resembles more like a cheap reality-TV show that was hurried into production rather than a news discussion programme. The guests are there for one purpose and one purpose only – who can shout the loudest.

One thinks Abbasi’s career aim is to invite Maria Sharapova on the show and break the sound barrier. But more important than that is the fact that the same tired faces keep appearing on the show – the same numb minded politicians who can barely put a coherent sentence together without spurting out a wholesome volley of spit and righteous anger (‘how dare we have internal party elections!’). The same representatives are sent to do battle by their respective parties hoping that their shouting can induce deafness in their political opponents. Abbasi’s show is an ugly spectacle and symptom of why democracy seems to fail in Pakistan. No one talks with each other – they all spew fire and brimstone at each other.

Any discussion involving these political parties is like watching a couple of dogs fight over the last bone in the yard. The end result is an almighty splatter of verbal diarrohea that is thrown across our television screens with no one left to clean the mess.

Dr. Danish’s show ‘Sawal Yeh Hey’ is however in a different league. For a show that claims to ask tough questions, Dr Danish spends more time giving long winded answers in what has to be the most annoying voice on Pakistani television. Clearly, Dr. Danish has no concept of an ‘inside voice’ preferring to bellow at his guests who once again are strangely familiar having been on every other talk-show hundreds of times! But there are some good talk shows around, ‘Islamabad Tonight’, with the soft spoken and articulate Nadeem Malik is decent viewing all though it too can be guilty of repeatedly inviting the same guests. And Najam Sethi's show is always worth viewing.

So what should we do instead? Kick off all the dreary faced, tired, one liner politicians that keep making appearances and replace them with thinkers, activists and campaigners. Our democracy shouldn’t be at the mercy of these politicians and their feudal parties that only care about justifying their mess. Pakistan has more to offer – we have brilliant university professors, brave campaigners, robust civil society organizations, conscientious reformers and brilliant charity workers.

These are the people who should be given the space to talk about the issues that matter to all of us. I've always wondered if there was a Pakistan beyond the political parties – the impression given by our talk shows is that there isn't.

We need intellectuals, thinkers, writers, poets and scholars to make appearances on these talk shows and raise the standard of debate and discussion. We may not agree with these people but the style of argument will certainly improve. Most of all, we need to hear the stories of ordinary Pakistanis working in charities, organisations who are campaigning for a just cause to come on these talk shows and share their struggles and hopes. We need to go beyond the party politics that plagues our culture.

Ahmad Ali Khalid is a freelance writer and blogger based in the UK. He can be reached at ahmadalikhalid@ymail.com or twitter.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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