A house divided

If you search “Bret Weinstein Evergreen College protest” in YouTube, you will come across a video of a large group of students, giving a piece of their mind to a middle aged college lecturer. The video is of an incident in Evergreen College, a public liberal arts college, located in Olympia, Washington. The person trying desperately but failing miserably, to explain himself is Bret Weinstein, a liberal white professor at one of the most liberal colleges in USA. One would expect the progressive minded professor to be highly popular and admired at such a place.

This incident was sparked by his opposition of, a day of racial segregation, at the college, “the day of absence”. There has been a tradition at the college, since 1970s, inspired by a play written by Douglas Turner Ward. In the play, the black community of a fictional town, chose not to turn up one day, hence making everyone realize their importance.

On college campus, students belonging to minority would not turn up on said day. When the college proposed to reverse the traditional absence day to “presence day”, asking all the white faculty and students not to show up on specific day, Weinstein objected on the basis that choosing not to come and being told not to come based on race, are two very different things.

As obvious from the video, Professor’s stance was perceived as an act of racism and white privilege. A group of students stormed his class, screaming and yelling, and when he asks, “are you interested in what I have to say in reply”. Students shout in unison “NO”.

What Professor Weinstein was facing, is called mob mentality. In private he may have had intellectual discussions about his opinion on the matter, but mob thinking is different, it is very black and white. Despite his intentions being quite the opposite, Professor was ‘seen as’ representing racism and white privilege. Rest is obvious from the video.

This raises a question, is media and especially social media,turning our society into a mob? The level of division and the subsequent abuse, expressions of hate and division, is resembling that of an angry gathering about to light a bank, at Bank square. The impact of mass media in building perception and shaping ideas is undeniable. Though the word media is pleural of medium, a medium of access to truth and facts. But unfortunately, reality is not so simple.

The business model for mass media in today’s capitalist economy is based on selling their product to, and serving the needs of, the customer. It is a common misconception that mass media’s product is news or shows, and the source of income are the meagre 500 we pay to cable company. In reality, the product of mass media is its viewers.

Big corporations, governments and institutions of power invest big bucks, to get access to the public, hence making them customers in this model. Main aim of the media groups like any other business organization is to satisfy the customer. That shifts the role of media, diverting it from delivering facts, and directing it towards spreading propaganda, running campaigns and manufacturing environment that best suits its customers.

This model is true not only for Pakistan but for media all across the globe, and was advanced by Noam Chomsky, a political activist, philosopher and historian, and Edward Herman in their book “Manufacturing Consent”, in 1988.

Chomsky called it the propaganda model. In his words “propaganda is to democracy as bludgeon is to a totalitarian state”. Controlling social media is cheaper, easier and workseven better, as it gives a sense of self-empowerment and controlto commoner, hence if one is resourceful, propaganda spreads like wild fire here.

Current environment that suits the institutions of power is that of intolerance, due to political movements heavily reliant on intolerance of the other. In words of Weinstein, for any such movement to advance, it must appear to have popular support and be perceived as if it is in line with wishes of majority and anyone standing against it or opposing it, must be seen to have illegitimate reasons.

Take the example of Imran Khan’s campaign, with one of the most organized and resourceful engines propelling it, it is flying high and supporters are more enthusiastic than ever. After all, even when being misled, there is a satisfaction of being lead, giving it a sense of purpose and direction but the consequences may differ from expectations.

This has been the history of political cycle in Pakistan and most of third world. So, the recent news of PTI reaching out to PML Q, to make joint election strategy should come as no surprise. After all, PML Q have made sacrifices to the same Pantheon, that PTI is now bowing to, and Nawaz has been banished from.

The reason Nawaz is orphaned, I wish was corruption. Sharif family has probably been corrupt all along and so are the lot now portrayed as the pious brigade. To hide the real reasons, it is of utmost importance that he is seen as an intolerable and filthycharacter, hence the need for defamation campaign on media, likes of which have been unprecedented in Pakistan, but we can find similarities abroad.

A similar campaign was run by Trump in the last US presidential elections. Washington Post was probably the first one to realize Trump’s campaign strategy and how successful it was going, mainly due to his use of social media in spreading hate and intolerance. In the 5 months of campaign analyzed in 2015 by Washington post, Trump alone tweeted 777 tweets containing insults and attacks, which were retweeted a staggering 1,079,869 time.

Overall Trump spent 322 million USD on election campaign, which was much less than his opponent Mrs. Clinton at 565 million USD and Obama the previous turn at 775 million. This was because of his heavy reliance on free media or earned media. MediaQuant, a firm that tracked media coverage of each candidate, weighed on the reach of the media source, that is how many people are likely to see it. Trumps free media usage was estimated to be worth 4.96 billion USD and the success is evident. Controversy and hate speech sells.

While the intolerance-based campaign may not cost in money, there is a price. The lefts and the rights have expanded their circles of hatred, to such a degree that there is no space left in the middle. On social media death threats, condemning to hell, wishes of opponent to be shot in public, are a norm.

Nawaz Sharif should thank his stars that it was just a shoe hurled towards him, unfortunately Ahsan Iqbal was not so lucky.Events that unfolded in Sialkot recently, were instigated by one such campaign, rooted in intolerance. Incidents like these are the side effects of an atmosphere of abuse and hatred, that has beencreated.

America is reaping the consequences. Gun related deaths were reported to increase, by 12 percent in Trump’s first year of presidency, while number of children under the age of 12, shot by a gun, increased by 16 percent. Statistical report released by FBI in end 2017, showed a rise in the hate crimes in USA, to a level unprecedented in recent history. This was despite fewer police departments taking part in the survey than previously. Just the southern poverty law center found 867 cases of hateful harassment or intimidation in the 10 days after Nov, 8elections.

While Pakistani society which is already highly volatile and intolerant, mere discussion about certain topics, may not get one a death sentence in court but surely will get one on the street, adding more fuel to fire can have disastrous consequences. But in politics, present is much more important than future, especially if you want to win an election. The age old either you are with us or against us, is taking real meaning. As Abraham Lincoln quoted in his famous speech, “a house divided against itself cannot stand”.

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Dr. Faisal Chaudhry

Dr Faisal Chaudhry is a graduate of King Edward Medical University and is currently working in Oxford University Hospitals. He is an avid traveler and an advocate of social awareness and dissidence.