The sad art of abuse | Talat Hussain

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Usually getting photographed with Imran Khan is considered to be a positive thing, but it doesn’t always work that way. At a recent wedding in the UK, the head of the PTI was seen – and photographed – sitting next to a young woman. In no time, gossip mills on social media started their endless work.

The photo became viral in no time and all sorts of comments and commentaries accompanied it. This forced one well-wisher of the lady in question to send a stark clarification that read as follows:

‘Just wanted to let everyone know that Mehk is engaged with Hashim, my childhood friend Kulsoom’s son. The cropped photograph going viral was taken at her aunt’s wedding in which the PTI chief attended as an uncle and father figure to the children of Rana Sattar. Please refrain from posting [it] on your profiles. She is our daughter. We must protect her.’

All sensible men and women can relate to the agony of the family on being subjected to the tyranny of gossip and suggestive messaging that went on and on and on – the more so since this involved a daughter.

But this case isn’t unique; there are a million cases of such insane campaigns that go on without any check and remorse and end up destroying lives, careers and relationships.

It is believed that the most common cause of this new disease is new media. Virus-like, it makes everything that is remotely sensational (or made to look sensational) go viral. In no time the information becomes a household topic and gets discussed and debated without any information base or counter-check for as long as another similar ‘issue’ pops up – creating another cycle of the same type of rumour-mongering and insinuations.

However, what makes Pakistan’s case particularly special is that the use of deliberate abuse and misinformation has become an instrument of power politics, championed by all and sundry and encouraged and promoted by the top political leadership.

The philosophy behind using abuse against opponents (and critics) is to damage their credibility and create fiction about them that is so vile that just putting it out in public is enough to inflict certain injury upon the target.

The other reason for resorting to crass propaganda to attack a person is that it obviates the need for any fact or supporting claim to substantiate the charge. The field is held by accusations. There is no need to do the homework of pleading a fair case. If you can kill them with the lash of your tongue (or with the output of your social media team) why bother fighting a legal case with reason and logic?

This paradigm of abuse is now perfectly in place and social media, which generally sets trends, in the case of Pakistan, is actually following this trend – which is flowing from the very top.

If accusations are grounded in incomplete information, one can relate to their political utility for legitimate reason: one can say that perhaps by raising partially-correct points more space is being created for greater clarity on a certain issue. This is why the Panama leaks issue, at core, is not an issue of abuse or even propaganda. Its resolution will bring clarity and answer questions that have been lingering for decades about the Sharifs.

However, what is happening around the Panama leaks issue is no better or worse than what happened to the woman (and her family) who got photographed with Imran Khan. On more than one platform, the legal case has been turned into an artillery attack, pulverising reputations and demonising opponents.

Here, the lines of attack from both sides of the political divide border on the same insanity that propelled Ms Mehk’s picture to become the talk of the town. That the case is in the court is immaterial. What is material is to prove that everyone is lying except those who believe a particular point of view. There is no space for a grey area. There is no room for reasonable doubt. There is nothing to stop minds from conjuring up images that suit their own biases.

This craziness has its darkest side revealed in the language that is used against opponents. You only need to visit different social media sites to discover the unbearable filth and dirt that is heaped upon political figures by the teams that each deploys to destroy the other. A variety of the same method is found in political speeches, press conferences and tweets.

The country’s old tradition of making fun of opponents now looks totally sober in front of this new variety of foul-mouthing that goes on endlessly.

The turning point in this journey of ridicule and abuse becoming a full-fledged theory was the PTI’s dharna in 2014. Till then there used to be spurts of statements (like Shahbaz Sharif threatening Asif Ali Zardari) and bouts of accusations (all political and military leaders have called each other corrupt). But that was the first time a sustained campaign was launched to destroy the name of anyone who was unfortunate enough to be on the wrong side of the political divide, or neutral enough to not be on Imran’s side of the political divide.

From then onwards there has been no turning back. The tonnage of abuse and calumny has grown by the hour and it has come to a point that a slightly sober statement looks odd and unbelievable.

The relentlessness with which political leaders attack each other (for example: Abid Sher Ali and Shaikh Rashid) and the enveloping hate that flows from the mouths of popular politicians like Imran Khan is the context in which social media has become a totally crazy field with limitless potential to damage and destroy reputations.

But then this is an overall problem and is now coming to bite everyone hard. While the PTI’s key lawyer Hamid Khan may have excused himself from pleading the case in the Supreme Court and the Election Commission for reasons of internal wrangling, he was totally trashed on social media by, ironically, the teams that one of his party stalwart runs.

Shireen Mazari discovered the extent of abuse when she had a temporary break-up with the party and her daughter was subjected to vicious attacks online. The same happened to Fauzia Kasuri. These are just three examples. Mariam Nawaz has also had to face character assassination.

While we may all love it when it is happening to someone else’s daughter, we cannot be sure that it will not happen to our own. And therein lies the real tragedy of this unfortunate trend in national politics. Abuse is a weapon now available to everyone one. For one slur there are three ready and there is nothing anyone can do about it.

The case of the honourable family that has been caught in the whirlpool of baseless rumours is both instructive and ironical: it is instructive because we can all relate to it in our imagination, and by putting ourselves in their shoes can attempt to change our own behaviour. It is ironical because the young woman’s picture was with Imran Khan, a leader who has made a huge contribution to popularising this trend in national politics.