In 1999, two students of Columbine High School in Columbine, Colorado, shot dead 12 students and a teacher, a tragedy that later became the subject of Michael Moore’s documentary, ‘Bowling for Columbine.’
In the aftermath of the school shooting, the American gun lobby led by the National Rifle Association (NRA) did everything to misdirect and deflect the blame for the shooting on the shooters’ association with the school bowling club (hence the name of the documentary), their taste in music (Marilyn Manson, Rammstein, etc), films (Pulp Fiction, Natural Born Killers, etc.), computer games (Doom, Quake, Duke Nukem 3D, etc); anything but easy access to firearms.
Since then a torrent of research has studied the link between aggressive behaviour and violence in computer games pushed by the gun lobby but found no credible evidence for it. In Pakistan, consulting research is not part of the decision-making process. Decision makers are still 20 years behind, remain blissfully ignorant and are still drinking the NRA’s Kool-Aid which the rest of the world has discarded. A few months ago, it was this same kind of lazy, uninformed and reflexive decision making that made the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) ban the first-person shooter game ‘Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds’, popularly known as PUBG.
And as if to prove my point, just last week the PTA banned TikTok, dubbed the middle and lower-middle class’ social media platform. What caused this ban? On the weekend, a PTA official made himself available to an evening talk show to answer this question. Apparently, “a few families” reached out to Prime Minister Imran Khan and complained about the content on TikTok. When the host of the show asked the PTA official who these well-connected families are that can decide what media is suitable for consumption by 220 million people, he defended the decision by disclosing that the PTA had received independent complaints as well. How many? A few dozen!
Pandering elected representatives and stuffy bureaucrats are quick to reflexively ban content and platforms they do not understand, regardless of whether it is effective or even justified. Unfortunately, they can always find plenty of support for their decision in the name of decency. We do not have a shortage of people who can dig up a moral objection to anything. In this Islamic republic you can rest assured that you can always find someone more conservative whose sensibilities are more offended than yours. On top of that, the side calling for a ban earns itself a certificate of moral superiority in the process.
The default demand for any content we do not like is to ban it. The kinds of ‘solutions’ people offer as ways to avoid bans betrays their lack of understanding of the technical limitations and scale of the challenge of policing a platform’s content according to sensibilities accommodative of all 220 million Pakistanis, whatever those may be. As a market for these (free) online platforms, we do not enjoy the kind of clout we imagine. For us the choice is rather simple: Take it as it is or leave it.
Whether it is a book, film, game or app that offends a segment of the population, for some reason not reading it, not buying it, not watching it, not playing it or not using it is never considered an acceptable solution. People feel compelled to demand an action that makes the decision for everyone around us (ban it!). Instead of challenging the principle of one side imposing its morality, values and taste on others, the discussion devolves into one where both sides try to change the other’s opinion of the content in that instance.
The state has appointed itself the moral guardian of the people. It decides what content is fit or unfit for their consumption by applying its (uneven) standards. The state should be too busy addressing economic and education emergencies, delivering justice and ensuring rule of law than concerning itself with how teenagers, already deprived of all kinds of recreation, spend their time.
There is an utter lack of deliberation behind such bans and, like the YouTube ban from a few years ago showed, it is always easier to ban things than to unban them. Oftentimes, the realization that a ban has been a shot in one’s own foot only dawns much later. Just now, during the Covid-19 pandemic, absent any indigenous video content hosting platform, government officials were encouraging schools and colleges to put their online classes on the same YouTube that was banned just a few years ago.
Whether it is YouTube or TikTok or anything else, when bans like the ones we had in the past are considered, there should at least be a careful weighing of the pros and cons. These are massive platforms with hundreds of millions of pieces of content. In the case of YouTube at least, I have no doubt that the pros of its content far outweigh whatever its cons may be.
Regarding TikTok, businesses around the globe are already integrating its use into their communication and advertising strategies and are seeking people adept at making 15-second videos with a punch. Meanwhile, our state, lacking in innovation and imagination, instead of garnering this home-grown talent for its own communication needs, is closing another avenue that was allowing some young people to make a decent living.
Our struggle with and against technology is perennial. My parents told me that back in 1969, when Apollo 11 landed on the moon, many refused to believe it possible. Some religious folk even declared it haram. In the 70s and 80s, TV became the corrupting influence, in the 90s it was widespread availability of telephones in homes, in the 2000s it was the internet and cellphones, and in the 2010s you can add social media platforms to that.
With anything vaguely interesting getting banned, what is there for a teenager to do anyway? Recreational facilities are hard to come by for most people. Better run municipalities leave undeveloped, dusty pieces of land nestled in densely built cities and designate them ‘playgrounds’, avoiding any further responsibility. Parks are becoming a rarity, theme parks are non-existent, TV channels offer no relevant local content for teenagers, and country clubs are out of the reach of most people. Aside from our national pastime (eating) and catching the occasional movie at a cinema, all that leaves young people with is finding escape in their smartphones. No, the partisan ‘Tiger Force’ does not count as recreation.
Most of the local content on TikTok is banal and harmless. It is in the nature of young people to try to speak up, stand out, show off a little, to want to be seen and noticed, strut their stuff! TikTok and platforms like it let them do that, and safely. If some of that offends a segment of society, no one is making them watch it. What constitutes bounds of morally acceptable behaviour differs from one household to the next. If their families do not have a problem with it, then who is anyone else to object?
Teaching children morality is the primary responsibility of every parent, possibly with the aid of pre-school teachers. No one else has this right – not a qari, not children’s friends, and certainly not the state. Right vs wrong, empathy, thinking about the well-being of others, sharing, cooperating and playing together with others are behaviours acquired in pre-school.
Parents can outsource the learning of many things to others but learning to be a decent human being is not one of them. If you are counting on textbooks and overburdened school and university teachers in packed classrooms to do it for you, you missed the boat years ago. If you have not prepared your child for using the internet and cannot trust him /her with a phone and to exercise oversight, maybe it is time to take that phone back.
As a parent, would you trust your child to the hands of a teacher you know to be dishonest, undereducated, cruel, corrupt, contemptuous and violent? No? Then why would you trust a nanny state, with the same qualities and which proves itself inept at everything almost daily, to raise your child for you?