As the US election rolls in, we take stock
Victorian England’s rivalry between Gladstone and Disraeli, produced some of the wittiest exchange of political insults. Gladstone once addressed Disraeli as “my honorable friend” but then hastened to add – “that is a mere expression for neither is the gentleman honorable nor is he my friend”. Disraeli returned the compliment stating that “the gentleman (Gladstone) does not have a single redeeming defect.
Contrast this with today’s world of 24/7 TV and social media- 150 years later. The insults are significantly more lethal, with pluralism losing ground to obdurate – all or nothing positions. At a rally during the US elections we heard Donald Trump supporters shouting “hang her, hang her” referring to Hillary Clinton. At the same time Trump himself said on live TV that “she should go straight to jail”.
Both are probably the two most detested candidates to stand for US presidential election. In a survey almost half of Trump supporters said they were voting for him – not because they liked him but only because they did not trust Hillary. Similarly almost forty percent of Hillary voters, including all Bernie Sanders supporters, are only voting for Democrats so as to prevent Trump from winning.
In Britain during the traumatic Brexit referendum the referendum itself was so charged that it led to a pro-remain Labour Party MP Jo Cox being shot and killed by a remain supporter. The media particularly the social media has add fuel to the fire in an attempt to increase their respective footprints. For example after the recent ruling by the High Court that parliament must be consulted prior to invoking article 50 that starts the Brexit process, three tabloids including the Sun and the Daily Mail, lambasted the judges calling them “enemy of the people” and “who do they think they are”.
Such adversarial position does no favors to the country especially where the Leave won by a narrow vote. These headlines only triggered a new debate about judicial activism and maligning of the judicial process. Instead of maintaining focus on the core issue, namely what exactly is the government’s position Vis a Vis Brexit.
In India after the Uri massacre we had the entire Indian media trying to outdo each other as to who would bash Pakistan more, and the louder they shouting the higher were their ratings. This even led to an armchair “analyst” to claim that India could absorb a nuclear first strike and rise to annihilate Pakistan, such drivel would ordinarily have been dismissed as just that, but instead was popular on social media and its bigger brother live TV. With political parties piling into the bandwagon in an attempt to increase their popularity. A typical wag the dog phenomena.
In Egypt President Sissi’s supporters all rallied behind him, even as his courts sentenced hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters to death in what many believe are sham trials. The “Ansaar e Sissi” as they are called are just as active on the social media in accentuating their mission, as is the Egyptian state controlled media.
In Pakistan too it appears that journalism is being done by Twitter and Facebook with TV channels regularly reproducing tweets on its ticker tapes. As the recent fracas in Islamabad shut down demonstrated, social and TV media instead of injecting sanity into the proceeding, only adding to vitriolic febrile exchanges.
Hate is an effective but dangerous ingredient to introduce to any debate, particularly if you can claim or demonstrate that someone else is benefitting at my expense. As any marketing specialist will tell you, if you have a bad meal at a restaurant you will tell twelve people about it, if you have a good one you will only tell four. Hate is a stronger emotion than love, and damnation is easier than salvation. But that is the paradox, because the ratings game as is ruthless as it is inexorable in fulfilling its objectives, namely maximising viewership. Accordingly one may gain more traction with a negative comment than with a positive one.
Admittedly as the American showman Mr. Phineas Barnum said “there is no such things a bad publicity”, but the bad blood that hate creates can easily get out of control, or worst linger for a long time, like a hydra resurfacing later in a different and even more toxic form. The 24/7 TV news cycle, widespread reach by satellite and cable TV, and of course social media greatly amplifies the noise, drowning out any calls for objectivity or sanity.
Such is the insecurity of today’s rulers’, that we are moving to a binary world where on hand – all power is centralised into the hands of a few chosen family members or close advisors and on the other people inciting mob rule – all controlled by social and TV media gods.
It’s a pity that in today’s world, judicious and thoughtful dialogue has been voted out in favor of soundbites and on-air deafening shouting matches (or equally vicious exchanges on twitter and Facebook) all of course in the name of democracy. My New Year resolution shall be more books and less TV and Twitter (except for sports). All power to the cocoons.