“A crowd is only impressed by excessive sentiments. Exaggerate, affirm, resort to repetition, and never attempt to prove anything by reasoning.”
― Jon Ronson, So You've Been Publicly Shamed
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s recent tweets have been viciously dissected and intensely debated in hundreds of conversations – offline and online. For those who might still be clueless about what happened, her sister went to the ER, where she was seen to by a doctor, who later sent her a Facebook friend request. Chinoy took to social media, called it harassment and threatened to report him to the hospital’s management. Supposedly, he was fired from his job after this. Without fact checking or verifying any information, the public went into a frenzy condemning her, rallying for him, condemning him, rallying for her, all the while calling each other out. It was an all-out war zone, in digital terms.
Not long ago, pictures of Mahira Khan, wearing a white summer dress that showed some skin, smoking a cigarette and hanging out with Ranbir Kapoor, were splashed across the internet. The public did not disappoint then either. The gloves came off and the claws came out. Tongues wagged in harmony, questioning her morals, her religion, calling her all sorts of names; some even went to the extent of labelling her an Indian agent.
And then there is the nation’s favourite de facto punching bag – Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by the Taliban. After recovering she has become an influential public speaker who works for women’s education and other social causes. When the nation has no one else to hate, they satisfy their vengeful cravings by rubbing their hands together in glee, and turning to her with venom. After all, we love to hate women who are young and successful.
The democratisation of social media and finding and using our voice is still a relatively new phenomenon in Pakistan. We write first and think later (if we think at all); we ‘like’ without reading; ‘share’ without understanding; and ‘comment’ without investigating. In trying to keep up with the speed of the digital world, we do not allow ourselves to think about how our actions or words can impact others in ways that can be extremely damaging to them.
Let’s face it; we are a judgmental nation, and that characteristic is not limited to any social class or demographic. You and I have both judged people for what they eat, how they dress, or who they support. We don’t stop to ask questions or hear different perspectives.
In the case of Chinoy’s tweets, a lot of debate and name-calling began before any facts were shared or verified. People concocted their own versions of the story to push their opinions. Her qualifications and credentials as a documentary filmmaker were questioned, as were her ethics. Factually incorrect articles were dug up from the deepest depths of the internet to malign her. All her life’s work was pitted against her tweets to this incident. She was cornered.
As for the doctor, yes, what he did was unethical and unprofessional, but perhaps he was a new doctor still under training. Was he enamoured by the fact that he was treating Chinoy’s sister? Did he send repeated requests? The answers to these questions will not absolve him, but will only make us look at the situation in a more humane way. My point is, let’s wait for facts before we jump into the swamp.
We cannot be the judge, the jury and the executioners. If we do that, then we are no different from the mob that kills on instinct, or the bystander who enjoys a public execution.
We need to speak out on social issues and we cannot afford to be silent, but where systems and protocols exist, we need to let them play out. We need to exercise patience and responsible behaviour. We cannot be the judge, the jury and the executioners. If we do that, then we are no different from the mob that kills on instinct, or the bystander who enjoys a public execution. Bringing someone down should not be a source of entertainment and we should remember that exercising restraint does not mean silencing ourselves or not voicing our opinions. It means being respectful and not jumping to conclusions.
I’d like to end end with another quote by Jon Ronson from his book So You've Been Publicly Shamed – please read it if you haven’t already: “The great thing about social media was how it gave a voice to voiceless people. Let's not turn it into a world where the smartest way to survive is to go back to being voiceless.”
Sheherzad Kaleem is a documentary filmmaker based in Dubai. firstname.lastname@example.org