To say that ours is a country with many problems is a huge understatement. But the one problem that has captured my mind with part fascination and part denial is how some problems capture the nation’s attention. The problem at hand is quite simple – one of our better esteemed politicians has, in what was supposed to remain a private conversation, uttered a slang word. The media and the people’s subsequent reactions were violently swift, unnecessarily moralizing and merciless. The former national cricket captain and current Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chairman Imran Khan is the eye of the most brutal storm surrounding a person because of, in my opinion, pathetically inane reasons, i.e. he had called some international cricket players phateechar (trash).
The video in question was taken during an internal party meeting that was, by its very nature, a private conversation. The journalist, who works for the Supreme Court Press Association (SCPA), unrulily decided to take the mobile video and upload it on social media. For his/her action, the SCPA issued an apology and has promised to take action against the journalist in question. But the damage had long been done. The video had gone viral, with the hashtag #phateecher becoming the most trending hashtag on Twitter. Aside from the mass shaming ritual our media loves to enact, he was also being called a ‘traitor’ by a Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) leader during the National Assembly proceedings.
Special Treatments and Mundane Issues
This event has led me to consider a few things. What does it tell us about a country whose biggest concern is, not a terrorist threat, or an economic bust, or the dead bodies of our martyrs at our borders, but a political leader using a slang word? It tells us three important things. First, that the Pakistani people hold Imran Khan in an abnormally high esteem, reminiscent of pre-Renaissance kings who were thought to never shit and queens who never fart. As Michel de Montaigne, the 16th century French philosopher, put it, ‘Kings and philosophers shit, and so do ladies.’ Granted, he is a man holding public office and is subject to the population. But that does not constitute opinions held in private conversation.
Second, it elucidates that important issues in the country – like the fact that our poverty rate has increased during the past ten years, that half of our people are still illiterate, and that corruption is still entrenched deep within our social and political structure – are being replaced by hot newsflashes. The public attention that these issues deserve is being channeled towards the eccentric as ‘mundane’ matters like murders, corruption and terrorism being boring materials for the news-cycle. With increasing incidents of journalism intimidation and suppression of free speech being a commonplace practice, journalists should focus on the interests that pertain especially more to themselves than on topics that don’t serve better needs.
Blaming the ‘Gormint’?
The #gormint ‘movement’ a few fortnights ago was unraveling in the same way: it wasn’t corruption itself that was debated, but the reaction of a specific person to the corruption that was headlining the news. It had fulfilled all the conditions of being a great meme. As Richard Dawkins, the man who coined the phrase, puts it, a meme needs retention (on Youtube), transmission (via social media) and replication (remixes of the video) for successful propagation. I don’t think phateecher will be a meme even though it has a lot of potential for it. This is because while in the former’s case, the narrative on corruption is something that is entrenched in Pakistan, the narrative against Imran Khan is much more fragmented. This is amplified by the fact that his popularity is high among the net-literate youth who are the vital second ingredient of transmission.
Third, those who make the argument that giving cricket players a judgement of value isn’t the job of a politician, don’t give the required weight to Khan’s previous role as national captain. I believe Khan shouldn’t have had to elaborate or back down as he did in his explanation of his statement. During a national television program, he clarified that the word in question was actually a cricketing term, and not a derogatory one. Even if it weren’t the case, he should be free to state his opinions even if he is a political and public official. This is because in a private conversation, his words and his opinions are his own and most sensible journalists hold a tacit understanding of this concept. This is damaging not just to him as a person, but also to the trust between the media and political leaders when they agree to keep something ‘off the record’. As citizens of a country that is sinking deeper in quicksand faster than a struggling donkey, I think we have better things to do than ‘phateecher’ things like this.