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Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Dumb questions invite dumb answers - By Aziz Ahmad

Dumb questions invite dumb answers
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Aziz Akhmad

The Mumbai attacks had not even ended yet, when a TV reporter of a Pakistani channel, armed with a microphone and a camera -- and a dumb question -- hit the streets. He pushed the microphone in the face of a young man who appeared, from his demeanour and speech, not to have spent too much time in school, and asked this question: "India has threatened to attack Pakistan (which, in fact, was not true), what would you say?" Since dumb questions are likely to invite dumb answers, the reply the reporter got was: "One Muslim is equal to 10 Hindus. Let India attack, we will teach them a lesson." Visibly satisfied with the answer, the reporter repeated the question to a few other people in the same crowd. Since bravado and chauvinism can be infectious, other responses were equally spirited.

Semi-literate and misinformed people, however, do not have monopoly over dumb answers. Seemingly educated and responsible persons are equally forthcoming. A former federal minister, when prodded by a talk-show host with a similar question, had this to say: "What is the bomb for, after all? It is meant to be used, and not just stored in a cupboard" He then went on to warn the enemy ominously in these words: "Neither grass will grow there, nor bells would ring in their temples!"

Shouldn't we count it a blessing that this federal minister lost the last election on both the seats he contested, and is no more advising the government in any capacity. God is merciful, after all.

The same federal minister was on another talk show (obviously the increased competition among TV channels did not necessarily translate into quality of talk show guests) discussing the imminence of India-Pakistan war. This time he had this insight to share with his host and the audience: "Ho, ji, hum ne koi chooriaan pehn rakhi hain?" (Are we wearing bangles?) In other words, are we women that we would be afraid of a war? This is a terribly sexist comment, to say the least, and tells you where the man is coming from.

We know from our own history and the history of the world that women can be as courageous, if not more, in the face of a threat as men. Didn't Benazir, Margaret Thatcher, or Indira Gandhi "wear bangles"? While Benazir ran circles around two military dictators and literally looked death in the eye, Margaret Thatcher humbled the Argentinian military junta in the Falkland war (1982), and Indira Gandhi, in 1971, tamed a chest-thumping general who called himself "Tiger".

Ironically, a PPP senator also repeated the "bangles" comment a few days later on a different talk show. It seems the PPP-wallas didn't want to be seen lagging behind in the on-going macho contest.

Another talk show host, who always wears a sad and helpless look and, for some reasons, reminds me of a Kola Bear, was out to stir the nuclear nest on his show. After his doom and gloom introduction, he called his panellists, a retired four-star general and a retired diplomat, over the phone and asked them about the possibility of a nuclear war between India and Pakistan. Both of them, sensibly, ruled out a war in the current circumstances and the general, to his credit, discouraged the host from even talking about a nuclear war.

Disappointed with the answers, the "Kola Bear" climbed another tree, so to speak, in search of some juicy shoots. And he found them in the form another retired general, who is known for keeping his "horses ready" --- and galloping into nowhere. Listening to the general and the host for the next 15-20 minutes, one got the impression that the whole world was busy conspiring against Pakistan, and that the only way Pakistan could save itself from an imminent disaster was to keep its "horses ready".

You must have noticed that many of the frequent guests on TV talk shows do not write. Writing requires, first, thinking, which is hard work, and then putting one's thoughts on paper or computer in a logical and coherent manner, which is still harder. Speaking, on the other hand, can be done without any of the hard work.

Having been a student of communication, I recall three tips that communication gurus at business schools usually give to the talk show hosts and guests. Here they are, for whatever they are worth:

1. DO NOT promote your own agenda, ideas or story. You are the INTERVIEWER, not the SUBJECT of the interview.

2. Remember, you are there to help everyone learn something --- information, insight, analysis --- and not to vent your anger.

3. A great guest on a panel has energy, is conversational, and says either very intelligent or very stupid things.

Yes, saying stupid things also makes a guest entertaining on a show (remember the 'long arm of the law'?).

While I am writing these lines on Saturday night, another TV host (he had disappeared for sometime) on a late night TV show has just concluded his mournful sermon and announced the presence of his guest on the other end of the phone (Iss waqt hamaray saath line par mawjood hain …. ), guess who? Again, the former federal minister! Mercifully, the light went off as it does these days at 11 o'clock at night in this part of Islamabad. (The News)

The writer is a consultant who divides his time between Islamabad and New York. Email: azizakhmad@gmail.com

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