Angry young nation - Mosharraf Zaidi - Tuesday, November 02, 2010

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On October 30, The Indus Entrepreneurs or TIE held a national conference on entrepreneurship whose theme was “Unleashing Change”. Without a generation of innovators and entrepreneurs, job creation in Pakistan will stay dormant, while our population and its appetite for consumption goes through the roof. TIECON 2010, as the conference was branded was a great success. It brought together many experienced entrepreneurs to share their experiences with aspiring tycoons. The issue of entrepreneurship and the value it adds to the economy, to society and to politics needs greater attention than it gets, and organiser Moonis Rehman did very well in bringing it to light through TIECON 2010.

The one aspect of the conference that disappointed however was an aspect, that in recent months, I have found to be common to virtually every conference, workshop, seminar or discussion I attended. It may be the single most disturbing aspect of public life in Pakistan. Our national public discourse has become so irrational, personalised, emotive and imbalanced, that a substantive and honest discussion about important issues has become nearly impossible.

At TIECON 2010 as at other recent events I have attended, through no fault of the organisers, I have seen people stand up and make speeches, where they’ve been invited to ask questions. Not speeches about the depth and breadth of the topic at hand. No, no, no – political speeches that belong in Jamshed Dasti’s kutchehri and not in a serious policy discussion. I have watched young people, students no older than 18 years of age shout into microphones, wailing about inflation, and corruption, and terrorism. Were these young Pakistanis at a political rally or were they participating in a drunken discussion about teenage angst and their collective frustrations? No. They were attending a serious conference in a room full of senior business leaders, government officials and social workers. I have watched retired senior Pakistani citizens veer off course from painstakingly crafted seminar agendas so that they can postulate tired old Marxist, or Islamist, or post-modernist theories about what is wrong with Pakistan.

Everybody wants to make a speech, and be angry. Everybody wants to make rebuttals based on how they felt when they woke up. People are getting bolder and bolder. I’ve watched otherwise serious people begin questions and comments with a very honest and disturbing acknowledgment of their anger, “You know, I am very angry...”. Old people, young people. Women and men. Leaders and followers. Everyone is part of this new culture of shouting and screaming and making the quality of the national public discourse nearly unbearable. If you are getting tired of the migraine from this unending national shouting match, you are probably not alone.

What is the answer? Rather, first of all, what exactly is the issue? Far too many times we misdiagnose the problem. Two of the most commonly made assertions about the problem statement, ideology and manners, don’t accurately reflect the real problem.

Partisanship often tends to drive a lot of the criticism in national discourse. The terms liberal extremists and media Taliban are used by folks occupying different ends of the ideological spectrum. If two people at either end of a debate are shouting at each other, the problem of shouting isn’t that one person is a so-called Taliban, and the other, a so-called liberal. Clearly, the quality of the national discourse has little to do with what ideology you follow or represent – even if one group has, by dint of larger numbers, a greater capacity to shout and intimidate. A generic lack of civility or manners also seems to be a poor explanatory instrument for the poor quality of the national discourse. We don’t have to be civil just for appearance’s sake. Civility is a personal choice people make based on how they are raised as children, and what their view of courtesy and its social value is. Indeed, aggressive speech may not always be a bad thing.

One’s ideology or degree of civility does not constitute the real problem in the national public discourse. The real problem is that the discourse is divorced from facts, from data and from reason. It is a largely irrational public discourse.

The anger with which people are expressing themselves, at conferences, in living rooms, and on the television talk shows that help sell millions of bars of soap, mobile telephone connections and fizzy drinks is a product of frustration. This frustration is a product of ignorance. We simply do not have a culture of numeracy. We don’t use enough data to engage in a constructive national public discourse about any of the major issues confronting Pakistan and its future.

This is terrifying in a country of 180 million people that requires urgent and drastic changes in virtually every sphere of public life. We need data to conduct better delivery of social services, like education. For example, did you know that more than 40 million Pakistani kids between the ages of 5 and 18 are not in any kind of school? If you did, would teacher-training, or curriculum reform deserve the same attention in a discussion about education as school enrollment and dropout rates?

We need basic facts to decide whether we should roundly condemn entire countries, or whether countries are vast and large and offer a multitude of things. For example, did you know that among the most credible sources of information about drone attacks are in fact American non-profit organisations, some that are funded by the US government? These American think-tanks and advocacy groups have done the lions’ share of work in quantifying how many drone attacks take place, what kind of damage they do, and what kinds of problems are involved in the deaths of innocent civilians. Two of the most important American organisations working on drone attacks are the New America Foundation, and Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC). CIVIC has recently published an excellent report on the deaths of innocent civilians in Pakistan, titled “Civilian Harm and Conflict in Northwest Pakistan” by Chris Rogers. It is a vital piece of research in the debate around drones that has scarcely received the attention it deserves. Yet every evening someone or the other is railing about these drones on television.

Fiscal policy, interest rates, foreign affairs, cricket management, post-disaster relief and recovery. No matter what area of public life, none can be addressed without data, and information – of which we use so little in our national discourse.

It is easy to throw unsubstantiated allegations into the atmosphere in Pakistan because numeracy and evidence have no place in the debate. The frustration of not knowing is what produces a culture of all-knowing ignoramuses – frothing at the mouth on television talk shows, spewing venomous allegations about international conspiracies on Twitter and Facebook, making Bhutto-esque speeches during question hours at serious conferences. This high-volume nonsense is an expression of our collective helplessness. This helplessness can only be addressed through the empowerment that knowledge offers. How can we start? By turning off the TV and opening a book.

The writer advises governments, donors and NGOs on public policy.

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