The consequences of using trash talk in politics
When Ali Amin Gandapur used foul language to curse his woman counterpart Maryam Nawaz at an election rally in Azad Jammu and Kashmir last week, it became clear that the cesspool of Pakistani politics has become gorier than ever before.
Experts believe that invectives exchanged in political discourse are a reflection of a decaying society. Part of the reason to believe them is the sheer madness in confrontations with the opposition. No stone is left unturned in cornering, jabbing, and hitting out. It’s not that Pakistan is the only country facing a dip in political values, but since we have slipped so low on other fronts, this new low has come as an additional burden to an already deteriorating culture of mannerism and ethics.
But why do politicians resort to foul language? Usually, what politicians aim at, especially during electoral campaigns, is to come out forcefully. But there is a delicate balance between being forceful and tipping on the rough side of the argument. Unfortunately, Gandapur was unable to maintain this balance. In any other setting, remarks on a woman’s looks are anything but a recipe to get implicated in charges of harassment, but since retribution is not part of our political culture, Gandapur was neither admonished nor suspended from his ministry. It’s not that all PTI supporters were happy with the trash talk, but the voices raised against his profane language were few and far between.
This is not the first time a parliamentarian has stooped low in recent months. Last month some of the vilest scenes broadcast to our TV screens were telecast live from the National Assembly of Pakistan. The scenes were a mixture of verbal and physical threats, xenophobia, sexism, bullying and intimidation.
The trend of viewing the opposition as an enemy out to defeat the country’s national interest is damaging for parliamentary democracy, which under its composition is designed to work through both dissenting and confirmatory voices.
Other than polluting minds, the use of inflammatory language in politics stokes divisions and hatred. Similarly, hateful rhetoric used to mobilize and unify political supporters has also deepened political polarization.
According to fascinating research done by James Plazza, a liberal arts professor of political science at Penn State University, in countries where politicians rarely use inflammatory language, such as Costa Rica or Finland, the occurrence rate of domestic terrorism has been an average of 12.5 incidents between 2000 and 2017. Compared to that, countries where politicians resort to hateful speech, such as Iraq, Russia, Turkey, and Sudan, the occurrence of domestic terrorism hovered around 107.9 terrorist attacks in the same period.
In the last couple of years, words like “traitors,” “betrayal,” and “thieves” are being frequently used in political discourse and arguments both inside and outside parliament in Pakistan. It is a fact that not a single speech that Imran Khan had ever delivered was void of these words. The aim to use these terms frequently has been to caricature the opponents as foes and not as partners to run government. According to a researcher at Lancaster University who has been analyzing Commons’ journal ‘Hansard’: “Such a narrative is clearly designed to be reductive because it frames an ‘us and them’ binary narrative with an equally reductive binary choice.” This is precisely how it has transpired. The cleavage between the ruling party and the opposition has deepened over the years. The trend of viewing the opposition as an enemy out to defeat the country’s national interest is damaging for parliamentary democracy, which under its composition is designed to work through both dissenting and confirmatory voices.
In 2019, the UK was in the grip of hate speeches by politicians for political point scoring. Even women were not spared with the result that a number of them stepped down from parliament.
At the time, a group called ‘Compassion in Politics’ launched #StopTheNastiness. The movement aimed to “encourage candidates to campaign with respect, call out hate, and promote compassion.” It also reached out to media houses and requested them to stop exaggerating politicians’ abusive rhetoric. Finally, it encouraged them to call their representatives to remind them of their pledge to talk decently in the public front.
We are in dire need of such a movement to bring decency and compassion to our politics. However, for any such initiative to become successful, the pre-requisite would be electoral reforms. For how long will we live on the slogan of corrupt leadership and a system that has lost its self-corrective mechanism. Unless trust is restored in the system, we will keep seeing anger, hate, fear, and emotions run amok on political scenes.
- Durdana Najam is an oped writer based in Lahore. She writes on security and policy issues. Twitter: @durdananajam