Artwork by Abro

Former Prime Minister Imran Khan is known for his remarks which are often castigated by his detractors for being uttered in bad taste.

Not only does he issue explosive threats to police officers and judges, but he also has a habit of mocking his opponents with crude rhetoric and mannerisms bordering on misogyny, sexism and bigotry.

Former US President Donald Trump used similar “tactics”, as did Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

The other common point between the three men is that they are all considered populists.

According to their political agendas, populists mobilize existing prejudices in society, which encourages transgressive behaviors of their supporters

According to political scientist Pierre Ostiguy, populists rely on “doing what is culturally qualified as rude, ill-mannered and vulgar”. Compared to more traditional politicians, populists are willing to bring rhetoric that is generally considered unpalatable into the public sphere. They know there is an enthusiastic audience who will interpret it as ‘honesty’ and ‘simplicity’.

Mainstream political decorum tends to leave little room for the rude and rude. But populism disputes this. According to political scientist Cass Mudde, “populist leaders tend to use plain and even vulgar language.” What they do to disrupt the prevailing decorum and create space for themselves as the “voice of the people”. It is made with such audacity that opponents of populists are forced to aim for it. Populists appreciate the attention it brings.

For political scientist Maria Casullo, populists have an “antagonistic vision of society”. They see society as being at odds with an elite. Populists present themselves as champions of the malcontents. The articulation of this antagonistic vision is done in a performative way, through dramatic rhetoric, gesture and theatricality. It is a performance that shapes the political personality of the populist.

Imran Khan’s “performances” include rallies that have a live soundtrack interspersing his speeches with bits of songs and music, chosen to match his words. He mixes raw “humor”, grandiloquent claims and outbursts of anger to express his antagonistic vision. This has shaped a perception of him as a person who is an “outspoken speaker” and “young at heart”.

He also often quotes selected extracts from the Holy Scriptures of Islam. Frequently shown images of him praying and associating with Islamic evangelists broaden the perception. For his supporters, therefore, he is not only an “honest” man, but also a very spiritual one, chosen by fate as a savior.

Various political scientists and sociologists have often used the word “transgression” to explain the function of “bad language and bad manners” in a populist’s arsenal. This is one of the ways populists disrupt mainstream norms, because they believe these norms are the domain of elites with whom “ordinary people” cannot identify. It is a notion that populists convey and proliferate. Some even go so far as to justify their “vulgar” outbursts with the concept of “freedom of expression”.

Trump mocked people with physical disabilities. He broke the rules of a new norm in which the word ‘crippled’, for example, was replaced by more ‘respectable’ terms such as ‘disabled’, ‘visually impaired’, ‘hearing impaired’, etc. In Trump’s mind, the new terms were part of a liberal elite project to transform the way ordinary people spoke. For him, it was an ideological project aimed at burdening ordinary Americans with the guilt of being rude and politically incorrect.

Imran Khan often describes one of his enemies, Maryam Nawaz, as a ‘naani‘ [grandmother], even though she is 48 and Khan is 70. Indeed, she is a grandmother. But Khan portrays this fact in a rather misogynistic way, more than hinting that she is a naani who dresses fashionably and has undergone cosmetic surgery.

It is as if, for him, grandmothers, whatever their age, should be simple and modest and certainly not in politics. He, on the other hand, can be 70, married three times, and doing everything he can to look like the handsome kid he was decades ago. The “beau gosse” track is essential to its performative populist appeal.

Speaking as he does of Maryam, Khan challenges the idea that women don’t need to start looking “old” as soon as they become mothers or grandmothers. He does this by reinforcing the caricature of grandmothers with white hair and few teeth. In her mind, this is how “ordinary people” imagine grandmothers (and so, so should it be). Therefore, the opposite and more evolved view in this regard becomes a “Westernized” construction that must be denied.

But what is the impact of transgressive rhetoric beyond instant applause and excitement among populist supporters? A May 2019 study, published in The European Journal of Policy Research, posits that populists mobilize existing prejudices and divisions in a society. They undermine the idea of ​​solving them by more democratic and consensual means and, on the contrary, encourage direct action. The opposing party is demonized and dehumanized so that their misfortunes can be celebrated and mocked without any guilt.

This is why physical attacks on minority groups in the United States have increased during the Trump presidency, as have attacks on Muslims in Narendra Modi’s India. Existing prejudices have been mobilized by Trump and Modi. Khan, on the other hand, intensified his opponents’ perceptions of being “corrupt” and then mobilized those perceptions. This results in frequent transgressive behavior from his supporters on social media as well as in the physical spaces where his opponents are present.

Two years ago, a good friend of mine, who is from Charsadda in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, told me about an elderly relative who was very concerned about Khan’s impact on young Pakhtuns. The relative lamented that the young men had lost all respect for opposing views and were prepared to physically attack anyone who disagreed with them. He added that a young man wouldn’t even hesitate to slap his own father if he found him disagreeable.

The most disconcerting part of the story was that the parent feared that even if Khan were to be ousted from politics, the transgressive behavior that his rhetoric normalized would persist and could eventually find a new outlet for young people in militant organizations. .

For the loved one, the damage was already done.

Posted in Dawn, EOS, October 16, 2022

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