Knowing your biases

A lesson in critical thinking that I am taught as a potential PhD candidate is to always make an opinion knowing my unique biases. Now this may seem a matter of fact notion but its unbelievable how people take things for granted, at least I have and probably will continue to do so. For instance, its common for me to greet someone by saying ‘Hi’ followed by the conventional ‘How are you’. Now this rather dull sometimes even annoying salutation is very widely used among the people of various  nationalities I’ve had the pleasure to chat with, but among many Hong Kong locals it is not customary. In fact, Hong Kongers find this a personal question to be answered frankly only after the preliminary small talk is over. Can you imagine thinking of how-are-you’s like that?

It gets funnier, in Hong Kong people greet you by asking if you have eaten yet. Yes, there are some combinations for instance they will add lunch or dinner depending on the time of the day but the emphasis is always on food. If you are doubtful about the strangeness of this, imagine yourself in an elevator with a scrawny looking old guy at night as you leave the office. The guy gives you a grin and asks ‘Hello, have you had dinner yet?’ – excuse me? Did you just ask me out for dinner!? I don’t know you man! Alright I may be exaggerating for effect but living in Karachi or even London, nobody ever asked me if I had eaten right of the bat unless they really meant it. Although I must say it’s a different affair if the hot receptionist in the building is asking – it’s an elating feeling until you realise she neither cares if you have eaten nor is interested in dating you. Hong Kongers feel equally perplexed if you ask them ‘How-are-you’ although its strangeness is some what diluted, after all this is a former British colony in East Asia.

It is important to appreciate our differences and the nuances since that gives us a wider perspective and helps us make better choices. For me, knowing that I was brought up in a traditional muslim family in Karachi makes me appreciate the subtleties of a community living in a sometimes violent and mismanaged society. So I am always careful how I phrase ‘patronage’ or ‘connections’ or baradari, which in the West is looked upon unanimously as undermining meritocracy. Not all baradari is bad right? After all in the US people have replaced the term with the ubiquitous ‘references’ and in China they give it an entirely new meaning, Guanxi. But being self-aware of this bias also makes me realise its potential for abuse which otherwise I would have overlooked in the name of ‘getting-business-done-in-Pakistan’; it is no coincidence that developed countries have significantly less corruption than developing ones.

I am in no way implying that any one paradigm or school of thought is correct but the point here is simply to remember your eccentricities. To know why you believe in what you do, to know why you are likely to say something and to know why you recommend a certain course of action. This ontological bearing is not just about having a genuine conversation with others but also about being truthful to your self. As Stuart Hall writes – common sense is the biggest ideology of all.

Biases are great, they gives us character. But know that you have them and always admit them. Always.

What Electronic Media can learn from the Lawyer’s Movement

In the award wining journal article, Miscarriage of Chief Justice: Judicial Power and the Legal Complex in Pakistan under Musharraf, author Shoaib A. Ghias explores the expansion of judicial power of pro-Musharraf judges that ironically led to their confrontation with the regime. The author argues that instead of blindly supporting economic liberalisation in a period of economic growth, the Supreme Court expanded power by scrutinising certain questionable urban development, privatisation and deregulation measures in a virtuous cycle of public interest litigation. The premise of that article is poignant given the ruckus that has recently engulfed Pakistan’s electronic media industry. 

Two lessons are of utmost significance; first, the author contends that the basic political function of the bench in Pakistan’s military regimes had been legal legitimation of regime conduct. However, the pro-regime Chaudhry Court found a space to legitimize its independence in the form of public interest litigations in urban development, deregulation and privatization vis-a-vis the liberal economic policies of the regime. Actions such as suo motu against Capital Development Authority (CDA) and construction companies in the aftermath of the collapse of a high-rise residential tower in Islamabad in 2005 earthquake, the investigation of Oil Companies Advisory Committee (OCAC) and sugar price hike by NAB under the directive of Chaudhry in 2006, annulment of Pakistan Steel Mill privatization by the court, all sought to question certain adverse effects of rapid de-regulation and target high level corruption. Such cases caught the nations attention through the media when Chaudhry Court used its clout to defy perceived expectations about judicial function in Pakistan. It was the investigation of missing persons in 2007 that finally led to the inchoate conflict of interest with the establishment and Chaudhry’s suspension, which morphed in to the Lawyer’s movement.

The reason for the success of this movement was not just Chaudhry’s astute political maneuvering but more significantly, his initiative to investigate specious policies that were against public interest. In fact it must be noted that suo motu powers were not new to Pakistan at the time but his court took the onus to utilize it for the common good.

The media of Pakistan must not only be ‘seen’ working for the common good, they must take concrete measures for it. Issues such as chronic water and electricity shortage, corruption, internal security, high population growth and intolerance are far more poignant for Pakistan’s future survival than settling petty scores within the status quo. The electronic media in its infancy can take the onus to utilize legally a journalistic code of conduct to work for the common good before it can earn the public trust to fight political adventurism.

Second, the author contends in that paper that patterns in research on the legal complex show that the autonomy of the bench and the bar, and their interdependence are not only a distinguishing feature of political liberalism but also a condition in the fight for it. Based on this theoretical framework the author concludes that the Pakistani case (Lawyer’s movement) shows how the bench influenced the legal complex by not only protecting the autonomy of lawyers and the legal complex but also by intervening in bar politics to consolidate pro-bench and politically liberal factions. In a nutshell, the ‘united’ legal complex under the banner of astute leadership and strong public and civic support, upheld an important tenant of democratization i.e. judicial independence.

The key emphasis here is unity. The divisions among Pakistan’s press regarding ideology, subordination, allegiances, policy on freedom of expression or otherwise and etcetera are quite well known in the industry. Now with the Hamid Mir stint they have regurgitated in the public sphere. Indeed, media systems of any nation are inextricably linked with, and thus aptly represented by her politics. But it is up to the collective wisdom of the electronic and print media to work together under a common code of ethics and a strategic intent to form a 4th state that is not a farce.

As for the political economy of the intensely saturated electronic news market of Pakistan, it is inevitable that some players may succumb to financial woes; if experiences of our rather mature advertising houses are taken as an analogy. There are countless players who initially started off as ad creatives for instance, but ventured in to commercial production, digital entrepreneurship, real estate marketing and public advocacy. There are many opportunities in the emerging Pakistani public sphere notwithstanding the introduction of 3G/4G technologies. It’s high time media barons and the establishment realize that the trust bestowed on them by the public cannot be held hostage over squabbles and personal vendettas.