Silencing the mockingbirds
June 27th, 2020 at 12:17 am
Silencing the mockingbirds

by Munazza Siddiqui;

Not so long ago, the right to criticize used to be a privilege. Before the anonymity provided by social media, even the educated refrained from criticizing things they didn’t have command over, lest they be asked about the assumptions underlying their argument. One needed to be an expert to afford the right to criticize and be taken seriously.

Back then, the right to criticize as part of the fundamental human rights granted in a democracy was clearly distinguishable from the right earned by journalists or experts as panoptic watch persons of government and society. Social media is fast blurring those lines. Ordinary citizens are claiming expertise over every issue under the sun, from how to milk a cow all the way to how to cure Covid-19 and ultimately how to run the country. Initially, this felt liberating, hearing different points of view, attempts at criticism by humorizing an event or action and threads of ultimately meaningless arguments. But as expected, too much of this noise is now creating confusion, anger, frustration and even alienation.

There are 37 million social media users in Pakistan (as of Jan 2020). This is not counting the residents and non-residents living abroad. The race to reach as many people online as possible, for both psychological satiation and monetary desires, by being as unreasonably critical as possible is creating the kind of polarization in opinions never seen before.

When it becomes impossible for those without relevant expertise to make sense of all the noise, they choose a side of their liking and gradually get entrenched in ideas they have no control over. They get comfortable on their side of the fence and no longer have the desire or the need to check out the other side. Real life mob mentality is proudly spilling over to online lynching.

While social media is the great equalizer in some ways, blurring the line between the prerogative to criticize as a basic right and educated discourse via criticism serves no logical benefit to society. When everyone becomes an expert on everything, scholarship stands no chance. Criticism offered by issue specialists is generally “a critique based on the careful analysis of the argument to ascertain what is said, how well the points are made, what assumptions underlie the argument, what issues are overlooked and what implications are drawn from such observations. It’s a systematic, yet personal response and evaluation” (Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum) – a review if you will.

In all the noise, the blurring, the bullying, constructive criticism has been forgotten, both as an act and as a concept. It could be deliberate because constructive criticism refers to the entire process of evaluation which most social media ordained experts are neither qualified to achieve nor capable of it. In the interest of getting the most out of capitalism, the systematic discouragement of specialization in favour of generalization could be a possible root cause of the rise of this jabbering class.

Interestingly, those who refrain from criticizing events or actions on social media or avoid being pulled into online frenzy simply because they know they wouldn’t be doing justice to the issue by offering off the cuff remarks on serious matters, are easily branded as being partisan or pro-this and anti-that, hence further restricting the space for voices of reason and depth.

Social media shallowness, diminishing span of attention and the increasing speed of information exchange is firing up the ‘instant gratification’ portion of our brains like a bonfire, which in turn is fueling the demand for immediate online retribution. Such moral high-handedness takes pleasure from killing a hungry man for stealing bread.

The citizens of a democratic country are not subjects; they have the right to criticize their government without fear. But criticism for the sake of getting the last word in or as a display of authority almost always backfires. It’s become synonymous to negativity, and that’s why ‘criticism’ is also the first of acclaimed psychologist John Gottman’s interpretation of the Four Horsemen of Apocalypse.

Criticism as the First Horseman is easy to identify in any conflict situation yet difficult to eliminate, primarily because it emerges misleadingly on a white horse and by the time it invokes pestilence, chances for productive communication get deeply buried in chaos and egos. The connection between the unwholesomeness of the present social media environment and the moral pestilence brought on by the First Horseman can hardly be ignored.

The writer is an executive producer, Geo News and editor of Jang – The Economist annual edition.

(The column was first appeared on International The News on June 26, 2020)