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    Pakistan needs to unlearn the politics of polarization

    Pakistan needs to unlearn the politics of polarization

    It goes without saying, “there is too much at stake for us to surrender to the politics of Polarization” (Henry, 2022). Diversity should be sustained by discouraging the politics of hatred and divide.

    The recent political standoff in Pakistan has polarized the socio-political fabrics to a level where the ideological disagreements are gradually transforming into antagonistic demeanors, at different levels of the society. Indeed, polarization is not a new sensation, but its diffusion with the widespread social media content has created a self-righteous radical mass who retain hostile tendencies toward the mainstream social and political institutions. Populism, being a lucrative and simplifying mechanism, has entirely resonated with the irritated nerves of the frantic youth who believe in odd solutions. A dark storm of intemperateness is brewing and, it is eliminating the values of inclusivity, tolerance, and peaceful coexistence from the social and political realms in a frenzied manner.

    Perhaps, the recent political environment in Pakistan is the culmination of its deep-rooted social aspirations. Since its inception, two broader areas dominated nation-building in the country. First, religion has been incessantly used as a tool to amalgamate people from diverse ethnic backgrounds. Secondly, the national security paradox, in the subsistence of a venomous enemy, has been excessively evoked to sustain national unity, aligned with the concept that wars—in case of Pakistan the Indian threat—make nations (Akturk, 2015). Realistically the policy worked until the disintegration of Bengal and remained intact hitherto but, it created grievous consequences. This type of nation-building initially nurtured illogical absolutism in the public thoughts that halted the nourishment of an essential critical or diverse mass, given the impoverished learning environment in the country.

    The lack of quality education has lingered on, for decades, as the major reason behind the overall social plight. Simply, the policymakers don’t bother with quality education for two core reasons. First, investments in the education sector would mean a reduction in military spending which policymakers deem implacable. Secondly, it is easy for the policy elites to govern illiterate people instead of informed mass because Ignorance is a bliss to perpetuate the status quo. At times, this policy has backfired in the form of violent protests and social unrests. Religion and national security were weaponized against individuals, especially the critical minds, in trumped-up fashions; labeling people traitors and Kafir, and forcing them to live in exile. The downright denial of logical and imperative discussions has polarized the nation into various extremes. Instead of handling the situation, the elite section of the society usually benefited from the staunch disagreements. Ideological divergences piled up, uninterruptedly, hand in hand with the objective conditions of the country that intensified hatred among the adherents of different ideologies.

    Today, the social fabrics are different, and people have easy access to social media wherein perceptions are deliberately created and replicated in huge numbers. The state no longer remains the sole custodian of public narratives. According to a report, 71.70 million people in Pakistan are social media users. For instance, Meta alone has around 43.55 million consumers in the country, and its estimated ad reachability is 52.5 percent (Kemp, 2022). Whereas the statistics from the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE) show that 31 percent of the nation’s youth are currently unemployed, and the ratio is highest for the age group 15-30 years that stands at the historic high of 60 percent. Double figure inflation along with a sharp currency depreciation has augmented the current challenges. Around 40 percent of the female graduates are out of work, illustrating the level of gender disparity (ANI, 2022). At times of institutional incompetence to address immediate issues, social media has attracted more public attention. The exhausted youth, generally spend hours and hours on social media whereby they consume alternate perceptions. But the unregulated information on social media does more harm than heal.

    The outpour of misinformation on social media obscures reality for its consumers who get manipulated through distorted facts. In cyberspaces, misinformation is intentionally created and propagated to influence the minds of the people. Reports show that in the 2016 Presidential election, the ‘alt-right’ shrewdly relied on tweets, hashtags, blogs, memes, and trolling to generate strong support for Trump (Rae, 2021). When it comes to the regulation of social media, algorithm rules. More often, giant advertising firms create great illusions to influence the consumers’ psyche.

    For instance, digital influence machine (DIM) campaigns are often weaponized to amplify the existing resentments, anxieties, and the emotional stakes of particular issues (Nadler et al., 2018). People are channelized to a particular type of information whereby they connect themselves with other like-minded people to form a uniform mass. Oblivious of the plot, members of such homogenous groups in many cases even disregard the evidence that would prove their arguments wrong—confirmation bias (Spohr, 2017). Being not informed is bad where you can’t do anything about the situation but being disinformed is harmful where you do things that trouble others.

    For Pakistan, the institutionalized version of polarization is perhaps the evil, but the intent to fix it by criminalizing individuals and key institutions through distorted facts is even lethal. Imran khan’s populism has left no stone unturned to undermine the capabilities of public institutions, democratic procedure, and constitutional mechanisms. His party mainly relies on the alternate platform (social media) to decimate and even distort the facts to put forth its populist narrative. It has fueled the social anger against the national institutions and political opponents by making the former and latter controversial.  

    The sharp division, at the social level, is getting vibrant where the populist narrative alongside the massive disinformation has exacerbated the socio-political hatred in a deeply polarized country. Ideological disagreements have transformed into rivalries and the disregard for credible organizations and public institutions has become the new normal.

    The way out is simple, and yet, it is time-consuming that requires substantive investments in education, fact checks on social media, utmost commitments to discourage all forms of violence, and media freedom for constructive criticisms.

    Shujaat Amin

    Author’s Bio: Shujaat Amin. M.Phil. Student in the field of American Studies at Area Study Center, Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad. Have keen interests in the fields of global politics, foreign policy, and Sociology. Twitter: @shujaat_amin

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