Name Calling In Pakistani Politics
We live in an unfair world where someone is always keen to put down, gossip about, or judge us. This regrettable phenomenon is interchangeably called verbal abuse, or name calling. The insult may be overt or covert, constant or sporadic, and can be directed at an individual or a group. Just because it is not physical, it does not mean the experience is not spiteful; its effects can actually be more damaging than the open wounds caused by physical abuse.
Name calling existed in Pakistani politics but Z. A. Bhutto made it mainstream. His diehard followers found it entertaining, but detractors regarded it as mean-spirited. Regular use of derogatory language for political opponents is beneath the formality of a high office, but Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan has taken it to a new level. The way he patronised it and has got countered, seems to have diminished the political discourse. Twenty years from now, Khan is likely to be remembered as someone whose uncouth language distorted the political landscape of Pakistan forever. He has belittled his political opponents in the hope that some bigoted voters would echo the name calling and support his election bids.
The phenomenon of name calling is unfortunately not limited to Pakistan. We are mindful of Mr. Trump’s antics in this regard where he has called any news that criticised him as “fake news”; and his opponents were dubbed as “crooked Hilary”, “rocket man”, and “losers”. His presidency has marked the golden age of name calling as he abused approx. 400 people, places and things in his derisive comments and tweets. Next door in Hindustan, when Rahul Gandhi raised the issue of exponential business growth of Amit Shah’s son, the BJP’s weird defence was to name-call him “puppoo” and “get out of your diapers”. Such ad-hominem approaches are often used to deflect attention from real political issues but cause serious harm to public discourse and compromise democracy’s potential to inspire societies.
We employ primary dimensions of negative evaluation that are based on deeply held values about human power, intelligence, morality and normality. When people violate these values, we communicate our displeasure through corresponding abusive expressions. Psychological research informs us accordingly that four basic themes are involved in political insults and name calling. These include: worthlessness (person lacks value/merit = incompetent, incapable), stupidity (person lacks intellect = dumb, brainless), depravity (person is immoral = revolting, disgraceful), and peculiarity (the person lacks social convention = odd, whacky). Nonetheless, insults that escape politicians’ oral cavities can wrap themselves around their necks and sometimes choke them to early political demise.
It is interesting to note that different cultures use insults with different themes for their antagonists. Where Germans, Americans and Italians use anal terms of abuse, e.g., variations on “asshole”, Spaniards prefer to attack the offender’s intelligence. British and Dutch lean towards genital terminology, and the Norwegians use satanic curses. The researchers also found that collection of insults can be different in different regions of the same country. In Italy, for example, people in the north use individual insults whereas collectivist abuse is employed in the south. Providing a window into cultural differences, abusing family members, especially women, is characteristic of the Mediterranean and the Asian cultures. In these collectivist cultures, people perceive themselves as embedded in a web of family relationships. Insults are, therefore, utilised to destroy the web rather than targeting the person in isolation.
When the rest of the world was observing Human Rights Day on 10th December, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN) hurled insults at Maryam Nawaz and Bushra Bibi respectively. In our collectivist culture, Media cells of both parties achieved a new low that day when party leaders were tarnished with the dirtiest possible filth for the whole world to depreciate on Twitter. What is gruesome? party leaders having been the role models of bullies. After having perfected how-to-insult-others skills elsewhere, the proverbial ducks had come home to roost on this occasion. Contrast this with what Jeremy Corbyn said, “I don’t get involved in personal abuse. I’m not reducing myself to that level. If people don’t like what I wear, don’t like what I look like, or whatever, that’s their problem, not mine.”
This brings us to the obvious question as to why people or politicians like to insult others? This is an important question because the world is in the middle of a chaos, out of which a new order is likely to emerge. I believe this new world order can arise out of our individual and communal consciousness. For this reason, the recognition of verbal abuse as a means of controlling, dominating, and having power over others should be a real concern for all of us. Since the dynamics of personal relationships and civilization influence each other, it is through our relationships that we might influence this change.
Name-calling is done for several different reasons. In its innocent form, by calling names, someone is trying to be funny or to see how we will react. This is a throwback to childhood; a third-grade behaviour in the school yard. Sometimes, people may call you a profane name to signal that you are a part of their group. This is a teenage behaviour to get your attention and see if you would like to connect with them. In its serious variety, by calling names, someone is trying to put you down or hurt your feelings. They are trying to make themselves look more important or powerful than they really are. An even more concerning motive is that people call names to threaten other people. Finally, some people also use insults to avoid obligations or blame others for things that did not work in their favour.
Calling bad names can be profanity, although it may appear inoffensive. When people use swear words, it is a visible violation of social norms. Research also informs us that such name-calling damages the victim’s mental health, and it can cause physiological changes in their brain. Name-callers are often those bullies who insist on being respected while giving no respect to others. These people wreak havoc on the lives of nearly every person they come in contact with: co-workers, employees, friends, and relatives. When this type of a person becomes intimately involved with someone, there is nothing that person can do to prevent abuse. Their only hope is to get as far away as possible.
Some people, like PM Khan, believe that myths associated with name calling need to be busted. Being called bad names is a cost borne by those who fail to earn a good reputation. Why would we not call Hitler an evil man or a paedophile as so? Negative name calling is just a social shortcut as society is held together by those good people who warn each other about bad people. To pretend that all negative name calling is bad will stunt our growth on moral dilemmas. In a civil society, one can be both civil and realistic, but when tyrants and corrupt are taking over, and act as if they can overrule reality, something has to give in. Between honesty and civility, civility should go first. Knowing that a paedophile has moved into your neighbourhood is not enough; you have to name and shame them to protect the neighbourhood. The Psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud once wrote, “the man who first flung a word of abuse at his enemy instead of a spear was the founder of civilisation”.
Gone are the days when we assumed each other’s best motives and could agree to disagree in politics. Propagandists, rightly or wrongly, use name calling to invoke fear, resulting in the formation of a negative opinion about a person, group, or a set of ideas. When Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) got corrupt and abandoned its base (poverty alleviation, human rights), and the PMLN got more corrupt, and also abandoned its station (religious leaning, wealth creation); they coarsened the national dialogue by righteous denunciation of each other. Soon enough, both were equitably branded as corrupt and as the parties that could not be trusted, after providing evidence against each other. They are the real cause of their own downfall and why Imran Khan emerged as a saviour. So how about being civilised in your future arguments, respecting your base/voter, and assuming — if only for show’s sake — that your ideological opponent might just be a decent human being like yourself?
When anyone abuses you verbally, in politics or otherwise, do not react. Because the words they use against you are the words that are defining themselves who they are. You could just observe, “Oh interesting” – and move on with your day. If you react, it only legitimises their misconduct. Consider your own values and the kind of person you want to be. They might actually be the people who are experiencing emotional upheaval – fear, anger, depression or abuse. Instead of retaliation, show them some love. This may allow them to see what they have been missing and need instead. However, no one deserves to be abused or name-called to have their self-esteem eroded. If it happens repeatedly in the workplace, let your Human Resources manager know. If it happens at school/college/university, tell your parents, teachers/lecturers, heads of the dept./principal. If you are in a relationship with someone who calls you names, it is time to consider moving on.
If it is political abuse, you need to start with the pause button. Now that you know, you cannot feign ignorance. To be concerned is human; and to act is to care. Take time to appreciate your feelings, and consider the best possible response. After acknowledging your hurt, remind yourself that you are not alone, and do not buy into the slander. The surest sign that someone does not have a sound argument, is seeing him simply name-call you instead. Share it with close friends and allies for support; and then report it to the admin/regulators/media cell for further action. Easier said than done but it is always worth taking all the heat generated by your hurt and annoyance, and convert into energy for doing something better – read, write, exercise, donate to a good cause, pray. Keep treating others with respect and be a role-model for civilised behaviour. Come what may; do not stop doing the right thing. Keep speaking up.
M. Aamer Sarfraz is a philosophical psychiatrist based in London.