The discussion on the Veena Malik controversy has centered on her “Frontline” interview with Kamran Shahid. However, I was more disturbed by Abdur Rauf’s “50 Minutes” on Geo TV, which came on two hours earlier. In a town hall-style format, dozens of people in the room, goaded by their host, parroted the same opinion: Veena Malik had shamed Pakistan as a country and culture.
I understand that many Pakistanis feel this way. But was there not one audience member who had an inkling of doubt, who worried about the implications of condemning a woman based on what she wore or did in another country, or just outright disagreed? There was one, but she was silenced. If there were more, we would never know. The atmosphere was decided, and it intimidated anyone in the room with a minority view to stay silent or convert to the dominant opinion. The show seemed more like a hoax trial before a witch burning, rather than a real discussion meant to inform a national audience.
You don’t need to have seen the programme to understand what I am talking about. What happened on “50 Minutes” is a microcosm for what is happening in Pakistan more broadly: Tyranny of the minority — in this case, an intellectual minority — by the majority.
‘Tyranny of the majority’ is a term usually reserved for bookish college students, signed up for political philosophy 101, but it has a remarkable bearing on what many Pakistanis experience every day, perhaps without realising it. The term was coined by British philosopher and parliamentarian, John Stuart Mill, concerned with determining the rightful amount of authority that one man (or woman) can exercise over another. He wrote that while people have historically been obsessed with the abuse of power by governments — political despotism — an equal threat comes from society.
In short, while the threat of military coups and dictatorships is well-appreciated and oft-protested in Pakistan, it is social tyranny that, unchecked, has greater potential to ruin lives and the soul of the country.
But what if you belong to the majority? Why should it be important to you that people can always express their opinions, even if they are wrong? Mill offers two reasons. First, generally, the so-called ‘wrong’ opinion may actually be right — man is not infallible in his judgment and has no authority to make decisions for all humankind, robbing every other person, and future generations, of the right to judge for himself or herself. Secondly, it is through the process of discussion that the truth, and arguments for it, become elucidated and more fully understood. For that reason, not knowing how to have a civilised discussion is Pakistan’s greatest tragedy.
Instead, mob mentality prevails. And the problem with the masses, as Shakespeare once illustrated in Julius Caesar, is that they are fickle. At one moment, they support a man. At another, they rally around his assassin. Brutus or Mumtaz Qadri, pick your villain-turned-pop-hero.
So how can social tyranny be stopped? Pakistan needs leadership, and I don’t mean the Islamabad-kind (although that would, of course, help). Instead, leadership needs to be more broadly redefined: If the tyranny that Pakistan faces comes from its own society, even our own homes, then the leadership to fight it will be found there as well.
The media is a powerful source of leadership in Pakistan. In this case, the media bears a huge responsibility to ensure that it does not become a tool for social tyranny. Watching “50 Minutes”, I was shocked that Abdur Rauf allowed the time to pass with hardly a diverse thought expressed, while the invited guests clearly self-censored themselves, out of fear of reprisal for dissent. Instead, the host should have probed the audience for minority views, protected those who expressed them, and played devil’s advocate (a figurative, not literal expression), to expose new realisations and further tolerance, as the “50 Minutes” website promises.
Last year, Geo TV’s CEO, Mir Ibrahim Rehman, was a fellow student at Harvard Kennedy School. At commencement, he gave a brilliant speech about the dangers of certainty and the importance of being, of all things, confused. He said: “I came here [to Harvard] to find how I can better serve my people, but learnt instead that my primary service was to frustrate them enough so they would lead themselves… The power of confusion can and should be celebrated. The celebration of doubt can help us see things better, with fresh eyes, open curiosity and a beginner’s mind and heart. The premise of confusion has more potential in bringing peace and prosperity than most think. The audacity, sometimes, is in being too sure. Together, we have learnt about two kinds of confusion, one that leads to doubt and inaction, and the other more positive kind, that leads to pause… reflection and better action. It is this second kind that helps us be smarter troublemakers.”
Many Pakistani leaders make speeches in the West, but quickly shed their promises as soon as they come home and realise how great the challenges are. I hope that Mir will live up to his promise to create positive confusion in Pakistan, by shaking up the dangerous certainty that Pakistanis seek as comfort and protecting the inherent value of dissenting opinions.
But Pakistan also has a bad case of finger-pointing — to foreign governments, their own government, the media and powerful individuals. Ultimately, each individual in Abdur Rauf’s audience bears the greatest responsibility for the discussion that took place there. Similarly, Pakistanis, each one of them, have a responsibility to speak up, resist the pressure to conform, and to own creative and original thoughts. The next time you hear something that doesn’t sound right, say so. Chances are, others feel the same way, but lack the courage to speak. At least ask a question. Civil disobedience, on the smallest scale, would take Pakistan a long way. You may be ridiculed or admonished, but leaders do what is right in the pursuit of a higher good and a sense of service. They are not silenced out of fear of reprisal.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 2nd, 2011.