Why civility matters

Feisal Naqvi
Sunday, Oct 02, 2022

About a week ago, Federal Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb was accosted and harassed in London by a group of PTI supporters while on her way to a coffee shop. She was accused of being a thief, of helping thieves, and of being shameless. Repeatedly and loudly.

To her great credit, Ms Aurangzeb responded – as she has done previously to similar provocations – with nothing more than a bemused smile and a raised eyebrow. Eventually, videos having been recorded for posterity, the crowd dispersed in search of fresh victims and Ms Aurangzeb was allowed to enjoy her diet coke in peace.

Criticism of the ‘gherao’ was immediate and sharp, perhaps because the videos called to mind not a band of fearless citizens speaking truth to power but rather a rabid pack of pitchfork-bearing medieval villagers in search of a witch to burn. The Insaafi faithful were, however, unrepentant. The standard response was to point to the arrest of Shireen Mazari (among other alleged outrages) as justifying what was done to Ms Aurangzeb. The less polite response was to say, and I paraphrase, “Who cares about civility? They are all thieves who have destroyed the country.”

Since I believe that civility is actually important, let me try to respond.

To begin with, the PTI cannot excuse the behaviour of its supporters with reference to the sins – alleged, real, or otherwise – of the PML-N. If something is wrong, then it is wrong. You cannot excuse unethical behaviour by saying “well, they did it too”.

Second, the world of Pakistani politics is bigger than the death-match between the PTI and the PML-N. The standards applicable to the PTI are the standards which govern the PTI’s relationship with the Pakistani public at large. Thus, whether or not the PML-N has also behaved reprehensibly is irrelevant. If the PTI wants to represent all of Pakistan, if indeed it wants to claim that it is the best option for Pakistan, then it has to act in a grown-up manner and not applaud supporters who act like a bunch of thugs.

Third, vigilante social justice mobs put us on a slippery slope to hell. If today, a random group of PTI activists can mete out their form of justice on a London street then tomorrow, a different group of activists will dispense justice in a harsher form. Salmaan Taseer was shot dead by one such self-righteous activist. And more recently, Ahsan Iqbal survived a murderous attack by a different activist.

This last point is particularly important in the context of expatriates because they live in a context removed from the physical consequences of their belief. In this regard, the PTI activists shouting “chor, chor” in a London coffee shop are much the same as BJP activists parading a bulldozer through the streets of Edison, NJ in the name of Hindu pride.

Fourth, civility isn’t just a minor virtue. In fact, if you define civility as including the courtesy to listen to opposing viewpoints, it becomes the foundational virtue underpinning the very concept of parliamentary democracy. As elaborated by Jurgen Habermas in his theory of communicative rationality, a meaningful conversation by definition includes the assumption on the part of the parties involved that the conversation can result in progress towards a shared truth.

The structural embodiment of this philosophy is parliament. By creating a physical (and legal) space in which anything can be said, the constitution embraces a vision in which a socially acceptable truth is to be determined through debate. And note, there are very few legal limits on what can be said in parliament. Instead, the only limits imposed by the speaker of parliament are those which preserve the integrity of the debate itself. In other words, parliamentarians can say whatever they want, subject only to rules of civility (or as alternately phrased, the obligation to avoid ‘unparliamentary language’).

The refusal to be civil is therefore intimately connected with the refusal to acknowledge any other option as reasonable. However, this “I alone can fix it attitude” (to quote Donald J Trump) is profoundly anti-democratic. Democracy combines faith in processes and debate with doubt in beliefs. Fascism offers the reverse: contempt for processes, and absolute faith in one set of beliefs.

At this point the Insaafis will again say that Nawaz Sharif and his cronies are a bunch of thieves. Why should they respect them? Why should they be civil to a bunch of thieves?

The answer, once again, is that they should respect the leaders of the PML-N if only because almost 13 million Pakistanis voted for the PML-N in the 2018 election. And PTI voters cannot choose to ignore those 13 million Pakistanis. To disrespect the PML-N is to disrespect the people who voted for the PML-N. And while PTI voters may believe that PML-N voters are misguided or foolish, it is the democratic right of every Pakistani to make foolish and misguided choices at the ballot box.

There is a final point to be noted here as well. Democratic politics in Pakistan plays out under the overhang of a hugely imbalanced civilian-military relationship, overshadowed by a history in which Pakistan has been directly ruled by the military for decades at a time and indirectly controlled for most of the rest of its existence. To argue that a civilian party should be ignored because it is controlled by kleptocrats is to accept that the wishes of millions of votes can be ignored because of the actions or identity of their leader. And history is witness to the fact that each and every one of our multiple military interventions has been justified on the basis that civilians are incompetent, untrustworthy, corrupt and that the “constitution is not a suicide pact”.

Let me spell this out. The Insaafi argument against the PML-N is the military’s argument against democracy: that X is incompetent; that Y is a thief; that democratic norms are irrelevant because we are right and you are wrong. The Insaafis don’t see this logic because they think their leader alone can ‘fix’ Pakistan. But they are being blind. All that they are doing is sawing off a branch on which they themselves are also perched. If they succeed, the end result here will not be a PTI victory but only the further weakening of democracy.

The writer is a lawyer of the Supreme Court. The views expressed in this column do not represent the views of his firm. Twitter: @laalshah