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The age of political essentialism

One would have thought the divisive political discourse that prevailed before Election 2018 would gradually phase out after the polls. But the polarisation between the supporters and opponents of the PTI seems to be increasing with time.

Perhaps some political discussions – both offline and online – are still civil and, hence, a sign of a vibrant polity engaging in a dialogue about different visions of the future. But it is a fact that many of these interactions have descended into online abuse and venomous attacks a long time ago.

The hatred that respected journalist Saleem Safi faced on social media from PTI supporters is a case in point. Safi’s crime: he had simply claimed that former prime minister Nawaz Sharif paid for his personal expenses at the PM House from his own pocket rather than through the national exchequer. The implication of Safi’s claim was that PM Imran Khan isn’t the only one who cares about conserving public funds.

However, it takes two to tango. Some vociferous critics of the PTI have also put all young and brash PTI supporters into the rather pejorative pigeonhole of ‘Y*****a’ and the favourite pastime of the former group is Y****a-bashing.

The political discourse has become so reductionist that both groups otherise each other. Anti-PTI activists believe that the PTI supporter is an embodiment of all the negative political and cultural values: conservatism, reactionary politics, misogyny, hyper nationalism, bigotry and intolerance. Some detractors of the PTI also seem to believe that it is impossible for any PTI supporter to have a progressive outlook on politics and society.

Meanwhile, PTI supporters seem to believe that every critic of the party is either a patwari, or someone who has been bribed by the opponents of the PTI, or anti-Pakistan. They also find it difficult to understand why everyone doesn’t support the PTI – a party ‘destined’ to take Pakistan to the heights of glory.

These are the main frames through which PTI activists seem to be looking at their detractors. Of course, there are many exceptions. There are some PTI supporters who have a much more nuanced and empathetic understanding of their political opponents.

There is a context of this ideological civil war of sorts that seems to be at its peak these days. The PTI had been in a political war mode for many years before it came into power. It had to do it to charge its supporter base and to dislodge its powerful opponent, the PML-N. Some commentators in Pakistan rightly blame the PTI leadership, especially Imran Khan, for using high-pitched political rhetoric and personal attacks against his opponents. PTI activists and supporters got their cue from Khan and have, therefore, been quite aggressive and venomous in their attacks against their opponents, commentators argue.

However, there is another cause underlying this aggressive posture adopted by PTI activists. The liberal intelligentsia and Twitterati have been mocking and otherising PTI activists for a long time. Of course, they have had their own reasons to oppose the PTI: the conservative religious and political outlook of Imran Khan; online abuse by some PTI activists; and some reactionary elements in the PTI’s politics. But the lampooning has spurred on PTI activists. who have thrived in an atmosphere of political binaries where their leader “is fighting against all odds and all kinds of forces to save Pakistan from corruption, dynastic politics and anti-Pakistan elements”.

The situation in Pakistan is perhaps reflective of a universal trend of political polarisation where differences have turned into mutual demonisation on both sides of the political spectrum. People on either side aren’t willing to see each other as mere political opponents. Each side looks at the situation as the Armageddon. A lot of this comes back to how human cognition may have developed. We only think in terms of the binaries of good and bad.

Leave alone the ordinary people who indulge in politically stereotyping each other, for a long time even anthropologists thought that every culture, ethnicity and tribe was a bounded whole. They thought that people belonging to a particular race or tribe had certain essential characteristics that set them apart from others. From the mid-20th century onwards, some influential anthropologists, like Franz Boas of Columbia University, rejected cultural essentialism and its effects in politics, ie racism.

The concept of political essentialism used here isn’t too different from cultural essentialism. Based on their political differences, people start seeing each other as belonging to two entirely different cultures. Each group attributes noble values to members of their own group while assigning evil ones to the other group. I would really like to hope that my reading of this divisiveness is exaggerated and that the majority of Pakistanis are sorting out their political differences with civility and tolerance. But that hope is contradicted by the evidence of all sorts of parochialism that exists in our society.

My friend who hails from a village in Punjab told me that when he was living in a hostel in Lahore, he had three roommates. They were all Arains, a caste in Punjab. Yet each of them had a different worldview and attitude towards sharing food, clothes and utensils with others. One of them was generous, while the other was miserly. The third one kept shifting from generous to miserly depending upon his mood.

In any other culture where caste identity doesn’t exist, this story would be unremarkable. But the difference in the attitudes of his roommates was intriguing for my friend, who had grown up in a milieu where cultural essentialism was ingrained.

Every person is different, notwithstanding the fact that they may share the same political or cultural identity. To conclude, all PTI supporters aren’t the same. And all PTI critics don’t critique the party and its newly-formed government out of a personal grudge or a bias. PTI supporters should understand this point and move on. They are no longer the underdogs. Show some empathy to the underdogs in this country: the minorities and the liberals.

Imran Khan, "The age of political essentialism," The news. 2018-09-02.
Keywords: Political science , Political discussion , Public funds , Political discourse , Civil war , Political binaries , Cultural identity , Political differences , Social activists , Pakistan , PTI