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Wednesday December 08, 2021

A matter of manners

November 04, 2021

Small things make big differences. This is true for our daily life. We appreciate when we are greeted politely when we enter a bank or even when being pulled over by a policeman and when a government official or a stranger on the street, at a shop or at school talks to us in a polite manner. Unfortunately, the Pakistani nation is fast losing its manners, and the people rarely speak to each other in a voice that others would like to hear. There are many examples of this unfortunate loss of grace and the disappearance of ‘tameez’ and ‘tehzeeb’ (social etiquette and manners) that were once an integral part of our society.

Recently, prominent journalist Asma Shirazi experienced unparalleled vitriol when she was strongly criticised for her vague references to some of Pakistan’s cultural traditions. And even though no names were taken or no details were mentioned, she was attacked in the most vicious manner. Some sexist slurs that were made against her came from members of the PTI.

This is not the first time that this has happened, and other women journalists have faced precisely the same treatment. The kind of language that sitting ministers and government representatives use on Twitter sets the tone for a country that appears to have lost its direction and has become a more rude and violent place than ever.

Recently, a shocking incident happened on the streets of Lahore. A group of boys verbally abused an elderly woman going about her daily work and passed comments on her perfectly appropriate appearance and remarked on the way she walked and the way she wore her dupatta. To the surprise of the boys, the woman, old enough to be their grandmother, hit back – and hit back hard. The exchange ended there. But there are multiple such exchanges that happen in parts of Lahore and elsewhere, highlighting the fact that the very nature of society seems to be changing.

On government websites and from government emails, there is no answer to queries or questions sent in by citizens. In today’s Pakistan, citizens have little standing and apparently no right to basic respect or dignity. People who write or post their opinions on the internet are particularly at risk.

Recent comments made by Maryam Nawaz could have been answered in a polite manner. But she became a target of condemnable virulent attacks. Such attacks have also occurred in the past, but the kind of language used against people and the lack of respect shown for the people, even for the elderly, is shocking.

In schools, at least in some high-tier schools, we no longer see children stand up out of respect to greet teachers when they enter the classroom. We no longer see them address even their principals with courtesy or to carry books for teachers, especially elderly teachers who, at times, are clearly struggling.

We need to find out what has caused this change in attitude and whether the fault lies within just social media – or goes well beyond that. The point is that in other nations, where teenagers and young people are also exposed to the internet in equal measures, or perhaps to an even greater degree, good manners are still present. These young people answer politely and respond to queries, and there is none of the hidden rage that we see so often in the people of our country.

One of the examples of this growing rage is that which occurred recently in an urban area of Lahore. A man had accidently walked across a patch of cauliflower. The owner of the mini vegetable garden attacked the man with a spade. The attack was completely uncalled for. Fortunately, the victim survived and suffered injuries that were treated in a timely manner. But we know that the worst has happened, and minor squabbles have led to terrible attacks – even deaths.

The Noor Mukaddam murder case is an example of extreme violence that has crept into our society. Perhaps the unchecked abuse of drugs is one of the factors for this growing violence, although there is no certainty of that. But certainly, we have lost a great deal of our culture and we differ now from many countries including developing ones where culture is prized, politeness is a way of life and children are taught these manners from a young age.

The reasons for this rage are easy to understand. Today, people can simply not pay their electricity bills; they cannot afford petrol for their vehicles, and they, even middle-income or salaried families, can barely put food on the table for their children. In all sections of society, frustration and a sense of helplessness is building up. People don’t have an outlet to express or be freed from them. Under the present circumstances, a leader who could convince people to come out on the streets against unrelenting price hikes and the apparent indifferent attitude of the government would succeed. Unfortunately, we have no such leaders.

In the meanwhile, we hear stories from houses where brothers shoot their sisters merely for talking to a male friend over the phone. We have heard of fathers who attack their daughters for wearing clothes which they deem ‘inappropriate’. All this is a part of the rage which exists deep inside.

We see this rage at sporting events at education institutions where richer parents attack those who are less privileged including small boys who compete on the basis of merit and undermine their confidence as far as they can by insisting that their children, who study in elite schools, should be given the trophy or the medal even if they do not deserve it. This is also an example of class division and the lack of respect for each other that has entered our society and eroded its values like a virus.

In many ways, this virus is even worse than the Covid-19 pandemic that we are currently experiencing. There is no denying that there are exceptions to the rule. For example, Motorway police personnel generally speak with respect, although recently there have been some exceptions. The same is true for the staff of the excellent 1122 rescue service in Punjab; officials act in a courteous manner and with excellent levels of competency.

But there are too many examples, everywhere, of extremely poor manners and disrespect. In order to build a society that can stand unified and support each other in difficult times as it moves along an uncertain path into a future that is difficult to imagine, we should respect each other. It can be said without any doubt that ‘religiosity ’itself cannot instil manners in a person. We still remember the colourful language of a late cleric who also had a short stint as political leader. It is said that his son is keeping the legacy of his father alive.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.