The tension has been building up for the past few years now. Conceited intentions were always threatening to cut through the seams of dialogue. Gifting pink turbans and saris — even the optimist could see it was too good to be true. It was only a matter of time that the hyper-nationalist ideologies on both sides reclaimed their dominant position.
Both sides suffer from the same fate. The establishment is in full flow: valiant statements are fed for breakfast on a daily basis, images of military prowess shared and of course, the calls for unity. This, in no way, understates the remarkable maturity and restraint that has been show by Pakistan till this point. But getting into these debates is always a tricky process. Lines are blurred, emotions heightened and fear preyed upon. Perhaps, most importantly though, silence is mistaken for consent, and the space for constructive skepticism and countering hyper-nationalist dogma is lost. However, this silence is not always a result of ignorance but of failed attempts to have some sort of rational discourse that is not submerged in toxic ideologies. Rather than arguing with those on the extremes, which we all know is futile, and wearing ourselves out to the point of frustrating hopelessness and resigned acceptance of the status quo, there needs to be an alternate outlet for those who recognise the absurdity of the situation.
This hope is offered by the growing trend of political satire that is permeating into the farthest corners of society on the back of social media. Amongst the raging jingoism, some blessed souls have taken it on themselves to poke fun at the current state affairs, not in a way that trivialises the seriousness of the matter, but provides, if nothing more, a break from the bombardment of sensationalised news and propaganda. It is a reflection of the fact that not everybody is fully indoctrinated and the space for discourse does exist, if provided the right platforms.
Political satire is nothing new to this region. Akbar Allahbadi and Manto masterfully employed satire in their works, a legacy acclaimed author Mohammad Hanif continues to uphold, along with the infamous musings found in The Friday Times. What we are seeing now, however, is an evolution of political satire given the technology boom. Maybe not everyone has access to satirical literary works, but a vast majority do spend their hours on social media, using it a source for much of their information. Social media personalities such as our infamous comedian from Dubai, along with other Facebook pages, are offering a different, more in touch with the reality of masses, opinion of events and highlighting the nonsensical mainstream discourse. Therefore, similar to the growing trend in the post-Arab Spring Middle East, satirical content created by the common folk, often without the creator being known, is becoming increasingly popular as a means of venting frustration and providing some much needed skepticism.
Instead of being a primarily elite tool in the hands of the highly educated, and hence, used to further a specific agenda, the ease with which humorous content can now be created and spread makes it an invaluable tool for the otherwise silent. Creating memes and writing satirical content on social media offers a voice and a channel to those who want to avoid slipping into the pit of ideological debates and just want to get their message across. It cuts across social and national divisions by appealing to humorous side that is within most people — though not all, sadly — and allows them to escape the chains of their internalised beliefs. Only through humour and tragedy can people truly overcome their self-created divisions; the latter is too risky an option. Satire, however, humanises those on the other side and reveals that at the end of day, we are similar when it comes to our mundane daily lives, our trivial worries and our severe social dysfunctions.
Granted, this does not translate into actually debunking people’s beliefs systematically, but what is does do is perhaps even more powerful: it makes one laugh at one’s own self, even if just for a fleeting moment. In moments of such hype and tension, we often find security and purpose, unconsciously, in shifting towards extremes and vociferously defending what we believe we hold dear. Through political satire, that illusion is broken and we can recognise that our beliefs are not as air-tight as they seem, and this opens a little gap in which skepticism can foster in individuals. Since this is an individual and organic process, it avoids the troubles of following a predisposed agenda.
Just like any other tool, political satire is not always neutral and can be co-opted as a means of promoting propaganda under the veil of humorous criticism. Therefore, it is not a substitute for alternate means of voicing criticisms and taking a stand, but it must be recognised as an important corollary to other efforts.
At the end of the day, the question is not about who is right, as much as it about an absence of discourse. Rather than only hyper-nationalists and extreme liberals having a go at each other and polarising society, the disengaged and disenfranchised masses in the centre can use political satire and other non-confrontational means to make themselves heard and not let their silence be mistaken for consent. In the words of Dante, “The darkest place in hell is reserved for those who maintain neutrality in times of crisis.”
Published in The Express Tribune, October 17th, 2016.
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