For the past few weeks I have been watching different morning talk shows. Two days ago, I happened to watch one such show. The guest was a self-described mind sciences expert who has a PhD in mind sciences. Given the solutions offered by the mind scientist, it was overall a very funny show and I thought it could make anyone laugh for free till a gentleman from Lahore phoned in and put his problem across to the mind sciences expert. The gentleman said that his poor parents had done all they could to have him educated. Through his hard work he had completed an MBA, but had not been able to find a job despite persistent efforts. He sounded extremely depressed. He asked the expert if he could show him the way.
Always eager to prove that he could solve any problem in the world, the expert set into a long harangue about what the gentleman could do by forgetting about his qualifications and searching for a job and by thinking about starting a small business. The gentleman said that he depended upon his parents even to buy things related to his very basic needs. But the expert would not listen to him, “You should think not of your education but your abilities. If you just start thinking about setting up a small business, one day someone will appear out of nowhere and give you money to start a business.” But the gentleman kept emphasising that he could not afford to even put up a small stall, let alone set up a small business and wait for the sudden appearance of a man with a bagful of money. But the expert persisted with his advice; he even seemed to have lost his composure. He had no answer for the gentleman. At that, the talk show host intervened and said the most unbelievable thing, “Tomorrow you should phone in on our ‘Sitaaron Ki Chaal’ programme and discuss your problem.” After that the gentleman was cut off.
Now ‘Sitaaron Ki Chaal’ refers to the way the stars affect one’s fate. If you watch any morning TV programme, you will find one thing common to many of them: every show has a witch doctor who, in the name of Allah, psychology or horoscopy claims that he or she can fix your problems no matter how serious or incurable they sound. Another popular morning show hosts an Islamic scholar-cum-fortune-teller who can predict your future if you tell him only your name. Recently a man told this fortune-teller about the problems he faced with his wife. “What is your wife’s name?” asked the fortune-teller. The man uttered her name and the fortune-teller said, “You have lost the game!” By which he meant that the man in trouble could never hope to reconcile with his wife.
Another morning show hosts a dream interpreter whose interpretations alternate between the outlandish and the ridiculous. Many examples can be given, but this is not the point. The point is that our morning shows are feeding extremely unrealistic ideas to people. Worse, given the number of these shows and the increasing volume of their viewers, it appears that people have begun to have faith in them. Pakistani society is already marred with untold problems and miseries. By subtly forcing people to believe in the powers of stars and mantras, these talk show hosts and experts are depriving them of what can be termed a nation’s most treasured asset: independent, critical thinking. When people start believing that their future or fate depends not on their hard work (despite extremely adverse circumstances), but on what certain witch doctors tell them, they will stop believing in themselves. One positive consequence (if I can use this expression) of deprivation and injustice — and our society is matchless in the intensity of the existence of these two aspects — is that the people, at some point, can stand up for their rights and through protest they can change their circumstances to some extent, sometimes to great extents. But when all depend on supernatural actors through the agency of an ‘expert,’ people lose the power to see the hidden and not-so-hidden hands and agenda behind their problems.
By waiting for things to happen for them, and by not acting on their own, people allow the exploitative, anti-people and anti-democracy forces of status quo to last and gain more and more strength and legitimacy. Societal living is an arrangement in which people function sometimes in collaboration and sometimes in conflict.
An abusive social system such as the one that prevails in Pakistan is a creation of the ruling elites who employ different agents — religion, patriotism, conspiracy theories and a mortal enemy — to cow them down and render them inactive. No factor leads to the undermining of a society more than the inaction of its people. The morning talk shows have consistently been acting against the people.
Abbas Zaidi is a journalist, teacher, and writer of fiction. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org