The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has recently found out that we, the people, are not moral enough and has decided to put its foot down which has, for the time being, been put on hold. There is a list of words that the PTA deems ‘indecent’ and any text message including those words will be blocked. I do wonder about the mental health of the person or persons executing this task. This reminds me of a story about Dr Samuel Johnson, the great lexicographer. Dr Johnson was credited with compiling the first comprehensive dictionary of English language. After the completion of his great work, he was attended upon by a delegation of respectable middle-aged ladies of the London nobility. The ladies congratulated Dr Johnson and expressed their delight in the fact that the dictionary did not include any indecent or obscene words. Dr Johnson replied, “Ladies, I congratulate you for being able to look them up”.
The proposed list made public by the PTA displays not only an astounding ignorance of any language but is also indicative of deep, rather scary perversions. The problem with this stupidity is not the petty quarrel regarding what words should be included in the list, etc. It is vaguely more fundamental, primarily that the PTA or any other organ of the state has no business telling us what is fit to be said or watched. The second question is, well is it really that big a deal given all else which is going on in the country? People communicating profanities in text messages are not engaged in a particularly noble endeavour, so nobody is truly furious if this is stopped. The short answer is that it is a very big deal. The quality of text messages in general, even those not including obscenities, is such that one is tempted to condone any ban on them. Yet, it is textbook totalitarianism.
The attempt to curtail language and speech is probably more despicable than the effort to police our morality. This applies to bad and offensive speech, as a matter of fact, applies especially to offensive speech. Lest I be accused of romanticising this PTA small-mindedness too much, in my opinion, speech and language in many ways are the seminal challenges facing our society. It has often been said that almost all great ideological conflicts in the history of the world are between the literal and the ironic mind. We have the misfortune to live under a depressingly, hermetically literal society, only to be outdone by Saudi Arabia and North Korea. Salmaan Taseer was killed for using the term “Kaala Kanoon” (literally translated as a black law) for the existing formulation of the blasphemy law in the Pakistan Penal Code. His cold-blooded murderer and his supporters possess no ability or inclination to understand the context. The fact that offence is caused by something is never an argument for shutting someone or something up. Mansur alHallaj was brutally and publicly executed only because his audience took him a tad too literally.
George Orwell wrote 1984 in the year 1948, the same year the North Korean republic was formed. Christopher Hitchens once said that at times it almost seems that somebody gave a copy of 1984 (obviously in Korean) to the ‘Dear Leader’ (Kim II-sung) and said, “do you think we can make this fly?” Well, it seems that we wish to give North Korea and Saudi Arabia a run for their money. The Danish cartoon fiasco saw the entire country going into frenzy, with mobs torching up vehicles and buildings owned by their own fellow countrymen. All this was in response to mediocre caricatures made by an unknown and, apparently, pedestrian cartoonist and published in some obscure newspaper in Denmark. There is some insanity in that. The appropriate and perhaps the only response should have been to ignore. However, it seems that we have become a people who wish to be offended, who will go out of their way to seek out things that might be offensive, only so that we can violently protest.
Salman Rushdie is a name that you do not hear often in the Pakistani media. Even the mere mention of the name is terrifying. I have no intention of putting up a defence for him at all. However, by banning his undeniably and even irresponsibly provocative book, The Satanic Verses, it was ensured that most people had to be offended by something that they had not read and will not read. It is absolutely justified, even necessary, to be offended by things and writing. However, it is never justified to kill people on the basis of fiction that you do not like. That particular book was, in any event, not Rushdie’s best work. The best way to condemn it was to write about why it was offensive. On that issue, the particularly squalid compromise was made by the literary community of Pakistan, who implicitly and rather meekly signed the warrant for lives of self-censorship. Most of them now do not need the state to censor their work; they willingly do that for themselves. Nobody’s faith should be so flimsy that it be shaken by a work of fiction.
All of this seems to be quite a stretch from the PTA’s pick-nose freakishness. Well it is not. If one word is banned for causing offence, almost everything can be banned. We have become extremely inarticulate as a nation. W H Auden predicted the Prague Spring, as he saw that the oppressors had everything at their disposal, except one i.e. they could not speak. He wrote his beautiful poem, “August 1968” which goes, “The Ogre does what ogres can, Deeds quite impossible for Man, But one prize is beyond his reach, The Ogre cannot master Speech. About a subjugated plain, Among its desperate and slain, The Ogre stalks with hands on hips While drivel gushes from his lips.”
As a general rule, one should be very skeptical of anything done for protecting the ‘moral fabric’ of society or ‘for the sake of our children’. The reasoning will apply to Nabokov and Manto before you can say “Jesus Christ”.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 27th, 2011.