Nice is good

This year has been nothing more than what Shakespeare called “a tale told by an idiot”

Farrukh Khan Pitafi December 30, 2023
The writer is an Islamabad-based TV journalist and policy commentator. Follow his WhatsApp channel ‘Farrukh K Pitafi’ for the latest updates

It is customary to write a summary of an entire year’s major events in its final days. I have been doing this invariably for the past twenty-five years. Yes, that’s a quarter of a century. But this year, I am going to spare you of this abuse. First, this year has been nothing more than what Shakespeare called “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. Second, the new year has already been banned in Pakistan. Then what’s the point? Third, how about letting bygones be bygones? Let’s try to do something productive this year.

Mike Judge is known for his quirky little comedy productions. From Office Space to Airheads and Silicon Valley to The Cleveland Show; and the list goes on and on. But it is his 2006 production Idiocracy that interests us today. For a time travel comedy, it has a fairly simple storyline. A fairly average soldier whose main job until now is to man a library that no one uses and a female sex worker are selected for a military experiment. They are to be put into stasis for one year to see if they come out hale and hearty by the end of the experiment. Bureaucracy and corruption being what they are, something goes wrong, and they do not wake up for five hundred years. In the intervening period, mankind has grown dumber and dumber. And instead of trying to fix the problem of declining IQ, scientists are kept busy by the attempts to restore receding hairlines and male vitality. Result bedlam. Our hero accidentally wakes up to find out that humankind has so dumbed down that it cannot even handle its garbage. Language has deteriorated. Agriculture is devastated because corporate America has replaced water everywhere with electrolytes and soda, which are used for agriculture, too, killing vegetation and kicking up dust storms. Gone is the understanding of technology, arts, culture and a tasteful sense of humour. People mostly communicate with each other through insults and crude language. This last bit is what interests me most. Let me show you how.

When Donald Trump got elected with him, he brought his posse, including Stephen Bannon, Stephen Miller, and Sebastian Gorka. If you go through their deep backgrounds, you may notice that none of them was a natural-born bigot. In fact, they were mostly broken, tormented shells of men. And yet, the administration made a genuine effort to be seen through a dark prism. You might have seen the internet memes showing how some pictures presumably featuring the evil laughter of his team imitated scenes showing Dr Evil laughing along with his minions in the movie Austin Powers. It was as if the administration wanted to present itself as evil. Bannon said as much. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, he said, “Darkness is good. Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power. It only helps us when [the liberals and media] get it wrong. When they’re blind to who we are and what we’re doing.”

It is surprising to think that he allowed this to go on as it ran counter to his carefully cultivated image of a dapper, debonair showbiz, and business tycoon. But then perhaps Spencer Ackerman had the administration’s number when, in his book, Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump, he painstakingly put together the backgrounds of key officeholders who were single-mindedly selected, keeping in mind their disturbed past. Also, if Trump’s chief motive was to be liked, what does one make of his acerbic speech announcing his candidature? And the way the media coverage of his supporters as mindless zombies was encouraged. You will be surprised how many journalists who did so have been in Trump’s debt and are his close friends.

I gave Trump this much attention because he started a chain reaction. Before Trump, Elon Musk, Ye, formerly Kanye West, Joe Rogan and several other public figures displayed only guarded behaviour. The Trump era, then, was like permission to behave badly, the proof of a concept that this business model worked. But it did not start the fire. The origin of that madness lay in the dumpster fire of the internet.

We know negativity sells. The first lesson in journalism I learned was what constitutes news. A dog biting is not news; a man biting a dog is. It took me a long time to learn that, like other stories and lessons, the lede was buried here. Journalism focuses neither on the man or the dog in the above example but on the act of biting. It sells.

But if that was how things were, the hyper-agitated world of social media has brought it to the breaking point. And then there are the internet’s dirty sewers of mutating hate with chat boards like 4chan and 8kun pumping out new ways to hurt people. If you don’t believe me, read Dale Beran’s It Came from Something Awful and Talia Lavin’s Culture Warlords. The most depraved phenomenon is the clusters of trolls that exist online to prey upon the most vulnerable and encourage them to commit suicide. When they end their lives, these monsters celebrate by awarding themselves stars. The higher your number of stars, the more accomplished you are in this disgusting community.

It is understandable, then, that many attention-seekers among public figures would opt for the polarising route. After all, Machiavelli had said, “It is better to be feared than to be loved if one cannot be both.”

But Machiavelli was darkening the 15th century. We live in the 21st. Must we take instructions from a benighted man whose work obscured the divide between the Renaissance and the dying days of the Dark Ages? We are in a unique age where we have a choice about the kind of world we want to live in. A world where internet monsters prey on our vulnerable kids and shame them into taking their lives or a world where we can have serious conversations like adults.

Perhaps a perfectly ordinary man like me, to say the obvious. Being nice is good. It makes people happier and can get things done, too. As for the vitality of the negative sentiments, well, it can very quickly change. That’s what countercultures are for. When toxicity dominates the culture, at least some people choose to push back. It is inevitable. It will happen. But if you pay attention, it may happen faster. You should know this is the right thing to do.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 30th, 2023.

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