Understanding ‘jahalat’ as incivility, rather than illiteracy

What are some of the things that come to your mind when you hear the word ‘China’?

1- Large population

2- CPEC

3- Chaptay (‘flat faced’, in local parlance)

4- Godless

5- Food (more specifically, Chicken corn soup and Chinese rice)

6- Weirdos?

Do any of these responses sound familiar? There is probably a lot more to the only sophisticated ancient civilisation that has resisted the throes of Western modernity than a chicken corn soup recipe.

Indeed this is but one instance of our stereotype towards people of other nationalities. And, it should be of concern to any rational Pakistani why he/she has such a limited understanding of a country that they believe is an all weather ally.

But this post is not about clarifying stereotypes.

The responses above also say a lot about our media diet; a healthy doze of local television and newspapers and a large platter of heresay (word of mouth on WhatsApp or face-to-face conversations with others like us). It shows how what we have seen, read and heard about China has shaped our views, attitudes and behaviour towards it. You can do a similar mental exercise for any other country, object or individual.

The information we consume shapes our reality.

See there is nothing inherently wrong with consuming the local media content (which will gradually mature). Living on Pakistani soil we are dependent on it and have entrusted it with the sacred duty to provide credible information and serve the public.

As do citizens of other nations on the content of their media industry.

After all, Chinese people may have similar misgivings about Pakistanis; ‘brothers of the Chinese people’, ‘unsafe’, ‘supporters of Islam’, ‘women and hijab’, ‘terrorist’, etc. going by the typical comments of Chinese tourists on their travel websites.

Nor is there anything inherently wrong with our local media system. It gives us a sense of identity and projects a point of view that is typically Pakistani in the global market place of ideas.

However when we become dependent on this media diet it becomes a problem. Or in other words when what we see, read or hear comes mostly from our local media.

Now despite this seemingly common sensical explanation the ignorance in our society (myself included) about the media never ceases to amaze me. For instance, we blame television channels for broadcasting junk but conveniently forget that it is our tastes that it cater. And by the way, I have lived in Hong Kong for four years where the Chinese chicken soup looks and tastes nothing like you would imagine. Hint: they don’t ever add cornflour!

Last Monday I led a workshop titled “Thinking beyond professionalism: the role of journalism outside the newsroom”, at the Centre for Excellence in Journalism (CEJ) at IBA in Karachi, where I elaborated on this point.

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Participants were masters students of the journalism program at CEJ-IBA. Image: author

The problems of the media industry are manifold but a crucial part is our lack of basic media literacy. It’s important to understand the distinction between ‘literacy’ and ‘media literacy’ here. Although I suspect we are implicitly aware of it when we use the cheeky phrase paray likhay jahil (a countryside bumpkin who has acquired formal education, transliterated from Urdu).

Typically it is assumed that the rote learning centred public education system is the root cause of our jahalat (‘iliteracy’ – if transliterated from Urdu; ‘incivility’ – more accurately as I will now argue). This argument doesn’t explain the many foreign educated Pakistanis who return to their home towns with the same attitudes towards women, religion, family ties, tribalism etc., they took with them.

That we must ‘do as the Romans when in Rome’ is a bit off-mark as well; many of us think it is justified to break laws because of circumstances. Although there are those who break laws as a natural right or a force of habit. Similarly, many educated Pakistani expats seem to harbour a tribal mindsets with those of us back home.

While I’m not an expert on education psychology the need for ‘civic education’ for Pakistanis of all colour, age, creed, class and education is abundantly clear. Have a look at this TedxLahore talk by Usama Khilji, director of Bolo Bhi on the issue for further clarity.

Media literacy continues in this tradition of raising standards of civility in a society. It aims to inculcate critical and clear thinking about the messages we receive. But at it’s core is the creation of an informed society. Where civic values, fact based reasoning and consensus building are cherished and go-to method to solve problems.

Learning about media is thus necessary for everyone. Not only for quality television content that will be needed for an informed public unwilling to accept junk but also for a public that must learn to co-exist with mutual respect and harmony in practice, rather than paying lip service to these values.

Media discourses after all occupy our public airwaves similar to what we do in our public squares, D-Chowks, roads, malls etc.