A paradigm shift is needed on discourse in public life

Columnist  | Shahbaz Khan

Opinion, Columnists

No one is without sin, yet those who criticise their rivals are often the same people who would have committed far worse deeds.

Jawaharlal Nehru

Jawaharlal Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten’s relationship has been a subject of interest, both during their lifetimes and after. At the time, however, no solid proof existed to substantiate the rumours regarding their liaison — or so it was thought, for Mohammad Ali Jinnah is said to have received certain letters exchanged between them that confirmed the public’s suspicions; a wonderful opportunity for Jinnah to use these against his political foes.

These days, when exposing details of politicians’ private lives is hardly seen as novel, it may come as a shock that Jinnah declined to use those letters and returned them. “Caesar’s wife should be above suspicion,” he said, “The shame is ours, not theirs.” Such was the dignity and grace of the politician who liberated us; such was his level of esteem and respect even for his rivals.

Contrarily, our politicians today would cross entire oceans to procure any evidence to blackmail and defame their political foes; discarding any such self-presented opportunity is beyond imagination. While undoubtedly impassioned in their rhetoric, it is usually to denigrate their opponents and point fingers, often accompanied with a perverse joy in watching the misfortunes of their intended targets.

No one is without sin, yet those who criticise their rivals are often the same people who would have committed far worse deeds. Our esteemed politicians wistfully may not be such devout followers of the truth or even their religion, as opposed to how blind they are in advocating their parties and its respective stance, always prepared with a loaded gun to fire away at all times whether right or iniquitous.

As a result, public discourse is divisive and devoid of substance. What we see is a propensity for disorderly conduct, impertinence and negativity, with hostility towards any idea that contradicts our own views. However, what we need is to set aside inflammatory rhetoric targeting individuals to make room for sincere dialogue focused on actual issues.

Unfortunately, no one is open-minded, willing to listen, make compromises or concede that the other might be right. Instead, we resort to brazen personal attacks when contradicted, perpetuating an endless circus of egos with circumscribed thinking and clouded vision, and leaving no room for arguing on merit, let alone taking concrete steps towards development on any front.

Personal attacks are of no interest to the state, except, of course, paving way for those seeking power for personal gain — a vision of public service despondently cynical to the core. This trend has proved disastrous, for it not only diverts attention from the bigger picture but also strips us of any prospect of progress.

Speech has a significant impact on a state and its society, determining its success or failure. An effort to confine speech limits intellectual freedom and concomitantly results in a botched, stultified economic system. The present government was initially very fond of free speech, but the tide quite turned after it came to power, perhaps due to the anxiety that speech which does not favour them might reveal truths endeavoured to be kept suppressed.

Nevertheless, there is a thin line between what is considered free speech and unmannerly, abusive speech — and ample tutelage is needed to understand the difference. Criticism and disagreement are no doubt crucial as legitimate concerns should pass untrammelled, but the manner in which we do so must be within an atmosphere of unconditional respect and tolerance.

In the midst of confusion and self-interest, we have forgotten these basic principles. It was hoped that the prevailing atmosphere would eventually change. However, despite many promises of change, things have become worse; the word “change” becoming the most abused word of the decade, now virtually synonymous with empty promises and duplicity. If this persists, the public’s confidence will plummet — beyond repair.

This has already led to a breakdown of civil discourse that has shredded our social fabric by inciting impressionable spectators to adopt the same mannerisms. Young minds who aspire to be leaders of tomorrow witness the very same stream of gruesome verbal (even physical) brawls on television. What values this inculcates in them is a no-brainer. Yet history offers us many lessons from leaders who should instead serve as inspirations for us today, leaders such as Jinnah.

If we are hell-bent on pointing fingers, let us start with the man in the mirror. Let’s remind ourselves of basic courtesies like politeness, respect and forbearance — not only for our own sake but for the next generation. We cannot hope for this nation to prosper if the majority of its politicians, if not all, are devoid of such virtues. Sometimes, the answer may be as simple as learning to listen than to speak, to hold back than to fume, and to appreciate than to humiliate.

By arrangement with Dawn