COMMENT: The flip side —Syed Bakhtiyar Kazmi - Thursday, March 03, 2011

Source :\03\03\story_3-3-2011_pg3_4

If views are not allowed to be freely expressed or are strangulated, then how is a democracy better than a dictator? We need to swallow our vanity and accept that sometimes the other guy can be right

“ favourite sin,” said Al Pacino in his role as the devil in the movie ‘The Devil’s Advocate’. No wonder, since times immemorial, the downfall of mankind has had its origins in vanity. Every morning, standing in front of the mirror, each one of us sees a superman; a fantasy if contained in the seclusion of our bathrooms would be harmless. Unfortunately, our ego travels with us everywhere we go. Most disturbingly, it permeates the logical mind resulting in close-minded, opinionated individuals. It would be miraculous to find an admirable personality who accepts the other side’s view in a debate. Recall the talk shows that we are subjected to endlessly; when was the last time one of the participants graciously acknowledged that he was misinformed? The irony is that none amongst us can claim to be ‘master of all trades’.

Predominantly, the educated amongst us are more susceptible to this characteristic, and they represent the segment of our society, which formulates the national view. Pakistan’s literacy rate is stated to be around 50 percent, which suggests that more than half the population is dependent on the intelligentsia for guidance on issues facing the country. This is a serious responsibility and should entail comprehensive debate prior to arriving at conclusions. However, for any debate to be productive, it is imperative that all sides of the argument are considered and thrashed out in an environment of mutual respect, which requires humble and open minds. How often has that happened? An additional complication is that historically Pakistan has been plagued with the ‘bandwagon of the mighty’ syndrome, if it can be called that. Whatever the might say is right even when it is wrong! Rarely are the mighty humble.

Previously, the bandwagon was led by the ruling elite, be it a democratic government or a dictatorship. With the advent of the electronic media, the baton seems to have been passed on to our journalists. The paradox is that the media cannot flourish if everything works right; sensation is the recipe for increasing viewership. With scores of news channels competing to be the first to break sensational news 24 hours a day, the journalists by necessity have to be innovative. Such a daunting task then becomes the motivation to sometimes project even weather as the ‘breaking news’ when all else is well. Generally, this kind of professionalism begs indulgence, which is understandably and sympathetically granted. However, issues of national importance require rational and unbiased projection. Wielded by skilled hands, the pen is mightier than the sword, but competence is as common as common sense is uncommon.

Thrill and excitement are addictives and once the trumpet is blown everyone follows suite. As soon as a story starts selling, it is repeatedly projected to the masses, creating a mob-like hysteria. Interestingly, there is almost a consensus on the analysis and related implications of major events, which should be considered an anomaly. The apparent explanation is that financial gain is the only known slayer of vanity.

Referring to a famous analogy that five fingers of a hand are not equal, there most likely are views, which differ from the popular view. Conceded that in almost all cases the popular view holds sway, but if even in one case it does not, and the consequences are fatal, would we not be better off to encourage debate? Additionally, it is one thing to be right and an entirely different thing to determine the consequent action or inaction. It should therefore be appreciated that to arrive at a conclusion all views and alternatives should be debated and considered. Seemingly, even today, with an independent judiciary and free press, the other view hesitates to come forward. With power comes responsibility; the media needs to acknowledge its responsibility to determine the cause thereof.

To clarify, let us look at some examples. Everyone who has an opportunity today to voice his views aggressively supports democracy, and probably in current times rightly so. However, just three decades ago we were experimenting with socialism and let us not forget there is a segment of society, which distributes sweets on the imposition of military rule. Pakistan’s own experience with democracy thus far has failed expectations, so is our infatuation based on the experiences of our trusted western allies.

Congratulations to the Egyptians on the resignation of their president. There are those of us who wish them success in their efforts to introduce democracy in their country, and then those who wait to snicker a few years later, “We told you so”. There are probably a few who will congratulate them even today on brokering in military rule. Nevertheless, historically revolutions in most cases have resulted in chaos and instability. The Egyptian elite now needs to be engaged to guide the process henceforth, but will the jubilant youth fresh from felling a 30-year-old dictatorship step aside? Hardly! Rationally, for how long can thousands of citizens assembled in a square govern a country?

Amazingly, there are those of us who are totally disheartened with the game of cricket. Pakistan really does not need to be used as a punching bag in sports. What exactly are we gaining from sponsoring cricket? Are fame and fortune ahead of national pride? Maybe, after tennis we should apply our meagre resources on supporting the game of golf. Imagine the next lion may be from Pakistan. Why not focus on squash and reclaim our glorious past. However, if we intend to continue idolising cricket, then at least revamp the system.

There are those who feel that the increase in petroleum prices should not have been reversed. Eventually, we will end up paying much more. Why could all the stakeholders not build a consensus when, on an intellectual level, everyone concurs with the facts? Would the energies not have been better spent in figuring out targeted subsidies for the affected poor rather than pursuing one’s own agendas? Considering the circumstances and the adversity, there are those who believe that the president and prime minister are doing a great job. After all, even when given an opportunity, no one else wanted the job.

There are those who wonder why did the need arise for a suo motu action to recover billions of rupees of bad loans and why were these written off in the first place. Do we not have an institution charged with the responsibility to monitor the banks? If we do, then what are the causes of bad loans? Did the institutions fail? How does one-time intervention protect against future lapses?

The objective is not to defend or contradict any of the above statements, only to illustrate that different points of view can exist. It is also acknowledged that for most issues there are for and against arguments only, and the rest is just noise. However, it is still necessary to provide space for all views to be heard in order avoid the incidence when the ‘other view’ is right. If we cannot achieve this, how is today better than the previous regime. If views are not allowed to be freely expressed or are strangulated, then how is a democracy better than a dictator? We need to swallow our vanity and accept that sometimes the other guy can be right, so let us listen to him. While this article may have postulated the problem, it does not claim to have a solution. The elite of society probably need to identify a mechanism to protect the person who tells the emperor he is naked!

The writer is a chartered accountant based in Islamabad. He can be reached at

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