Unfit for public consumption? - By Hajrah Mumtaz - Monday, January 31, 2011

Source : www.dawn.com

OUR legislators are up in arms against television channels again. On Thursday, treasury and opposition MNAs found themselves in rare accord in parliament when they spoke angrily against private television channels.

They were upset because of the broadcast of material in dramas and advertisement that they felt was objectionable. The Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting, Samsam Bukhari, thundered that “language, subjects, obscenity and the vulgar scenes are all objectionable in most of the dramas and in advertisements of the cellular companies. What kind of message are they sending to the children as they give them temptation to talk all through the night offering certain packages.”

Other legislators nodded in agreement as he further pointed out the presence of what he referred to as ‘vulgar’ talk shows where parliament was disgraced and disrespect was shown towards parliamentarians.

One may sympathise with Mr Bukhari’s concerns, but little can be said about the matter other than the fact that free speech is not always sensible or intelligent speech. Much can and has been said about the problems of quality and content in Pakistani talk shows. That is up to the channels. But what parliamentarians can do about the problem is make sure they do little to draw the ire of hosts. That includes appearing to care about the disaster that Pakistan has become.

The concern about obscenity is more interesting. It is no new issue, and television is not the only medium to have been targeted. In the past, voices from parliament to the judiciary have been raised on the subject, and in Lahore the matter once went to the extent of dance being banned from the theatre stage.

The point, as always, remains that one man’s obscenity is another’s art — or in the case of advertisements, money. And while the influences on children, in whose hands the country will soon be, are an important matter, would they not be more badly affected by the other matters that have become everyday, such as terror attacks, public lynchings and the violence and frustration that have become the hallmarks of Pakistani society? I may not love much of what passes as entertainment in our local programming, but I certainly can’t blame them for trying to depict a world where free of care people flirt and talk to each other all night.

This issue ought to die already. The greater obscenity is the state of the country and we, the public, would be far more grateful if those who run the country turned their full attention to fixing that situation. Really, it’s having a very negative impact on the sensibilities of younger generations.

But the calls for bans are not without precedent, and neither are they exclusive to Pakistan. Neither is their ridiculousness. Earlier this month, the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council ruled that Dire Straits’ classic song ‘Money for Nothing’ be banned from the Canadian airwaves because it contained a word that was offensive to members of the gay community. The move came as a result of a complaint filed by a listener.

Many Canadians are not happy, and hundreds of letters of complaint against the ban have been filed. The song is, after all, one of established staples of rock. It was written and recorded a quarter of a century ago, and was a product of that time and that world.

Reality is a dirty place, and so is history. In my view, the effort to sanitise cultural fare to bring it in line with current sensibilities is not only an endless exercise but also a foolish one. There is no possibility of an entirely sanitised world. And, not only does such an exercise lead to unnecessary restrictions and a decreased number of choices for consumers, it also belittles their intelligence and ridicules their capacity for tolerance. Surely someone who finds a song or a book or whatever offensive can choose not to take an interest in it.

But that, it seems, is a wisdom that has not been learned. Take the example of Enid Blyton’s books, which also faced similar calls for sanitation. The golliwogs in them are, of course, racist. But unrestrained racism was a reality of the world when these books were written, and censoring them will not change that. True, new such material ought not be produced now, and in many places across the world there are laws to ensure this. But Blyton’s books are a product of their own times and ought to be left as such.

Similarly, as an example that such sanitisation is a path without an end, Blyton’s books can also be considered sexist. Remember how, almost across the board, the message they sent out was that girls were the carers and had to be looked after, while boys did things and made decisions? George of the Famous Five was interesting precisely because the character was conceived of and presented as such a curiosity. Will we one day hear calls to fix this aspect of the books too? And what will happen to The Taming of the Shrew, a misogynist piece of work if there ever was one?

The world is full of things that any community may potentially find offensive, once you start looking. In 2008, the UK government agency’s award panel turned down a digital version of the classic story of the three little pigs, warning that “the use of pigs raises cultural issues”. As the book’s creative director said at the time, rather than preventing the spread of racism, such an attitude was likely to inflame ill-feeling. “Does this mean that secondary schools cannot teach Animal Farm because it features pigs?” she asked.

But, given the world we live in, that is not outside the realm of imagination.

The writer is a member of staff.


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