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Citizen Voices

Pakistan’s (Anti-)Elitist Culture Has An Uncomfortable Nuance To It

In the age of social media, there is perhaps no bigger sin than being tone-deaf. Largely speaking, being tone-deaf is seen as being oblivious to reality itself. How ridiculous is it that Maria B. and her spouse sent their house-help back to their village whilst the pandemic roared on? How stupendous is it that an actor like Nouman Ejaz would deliberately evoke the description of him sleeping with multiple women, on a discussion pertaining to something as sensitive and divisive as the #MeToo movement? What about students from a private university dancing on New Year’s Eve in Malam Jabba, with little regard for local tradition and the management of the hotel? And now we have the icing on the cake: two giggling women, Uzma and Diya, mocking their manager for not being able to converse in English.

All of these incidents are, of course, distinct. Each evoked a distinct public reaction. Yet there is an obvious pattern that can be seen in all of these. In all these incidents, there is at least one individual who is deliberately tone-deaf, belongs to “high” society and is purposefully removed from the masses. In each instance, there is also someone who is a victim to some form of humiliation and becomes the object of our sympathy – the secondary hero, so to say (the primary being our own virtuous selves of course). In all these instances, there is also the widespread public reaction. In some sense, the humiliation is flipped on its head; Instagram stories and Facebook memes make an intense parody of the elitist and dethrones them. Their dethroning, however, is almost always only temporary. Celebrities, politicians and other elite groups join in the fray to condemn the elitism on display – and then we all forget about it. The question worth asking is if this can be seen as some sort of socio-political win for the masses? The ones called out soon resurface quietly and continue to make millions, and the incident becomes merely a hiccup in their impeccable profiles. Essentially then, what purpose does our sustained response against these virulent elites serve? Is it an act of solidarity with the poor victim, or is there perhaps a more complex nuance to it? Answering this question requires a little thought experiment.

Imagine if the object of our condemnation (the elitist with his/her superiority complex) is reversed; imagine in their place a poor man who disregards social convention and is caught red-handed in the act? Now of course this man cannot be an elitist. Would this hypothetical scenario still lead to public outcry and a swathe of social media responses? A scenario that can help us think about this situation is available to us. Sarmad Khoosat, the nascent director, imagines in his Oscar-nominated movie Zindagi Tamasha what would happen if a poor man committed an unforgivable act of deviance. The movie follows the man being caricatured on social media and spat on in his neighborhood. You could perfectly well argue that this is a dystopian tale, and so let us not make hasty generalisations. Yet (and notice the irony!), the masses condemned the movie as elitist and Western propaganda against the religious majority. Paradoxically, Khoosat himself argued spiritedly for the character of this movie being grounded within the world of the common Pakistani, and not detached from it. This is seen again in Khoosat never releasing the movie in the country despite getting approval from the three national censor boards, nor on any streaming platforms like Netflix or Amazon, despite being guaranteed viewership that usually arises out of any film’s notoriety. He argues in a webinar that this movie was inherently meant to be watched by the masses that the movie represents, and describes himself as being “heartbroken”.

You may wonder, what is the link between violent outrage against a movie and that against two ridiculously tone-deaf women? On the surface, these are inherently different incidents, one pertaining to religious sentiments and the other to condemning elitist behavior. Yet, both incidents are characterised by the response of the masses to the incident – a “virtuous” response against the perils of elitism. It shows that elitism is not just a social category but also a matter of the perception of the masses. In some sense it becomes the “big bad wolf”, the enemy of the masses and the social evil that causes various other moral “ills” like obscenity, drug abuse, prostitution and so on.

Elitism and upper-class detachment from society and what it entails is not a new phenomenon. The Victorian novelists often showed its most outlandish sides, the Marxists saw it as an impediment to life itself and our own founding fathers often described the devilish colonisers as the tyrants of their times, oblivious to the common Indian. With an increasingly integrated and accessible social media, elites and their bizarre elitism is directly berated by all. But elitism is not the sum total of elites being inconsiderate of the context, it is an entire system that benefits those who are a part of it – the politicians, the movie stars, the CEOs and the ones with their parents’ fortune. In every facet of life, they benefit unfairly from nepotism, access to resources and getting away with violence (unless they’re caught, and even then the legal system benefits them). Being anti-elitist is not just criticising those who engage in elitist behaviors, but rather questioning the system that perpetuates these standards of behavior and simultaneously questioning your own politic: am I condemning them because they go against societal mores – a criterion that hardly gets settled – or is it because I oppose a system that gives way to structural inequality? It is only in answering with the latter option that we can formulate a discourse against elitism. One feels cautiously optimistic that, if the number of social media users and their activity is anything to go by, the tools of emancipation may finally have arrived.

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Naya Daur