Is Social Media Outrage A New Form Of ‘Stoning The Devil’
Many Pakistanis would have seen the Cannoli restaurant video where a couple of Pakistani women owners of the restaurant make fun of their employee’s spoken English. Every other Pakistani on social media is out there expressing their outrage. Such social media outrage is not unique to Pakistanis. It is part of contemporary life where people invest a lot of time and energy scathingly critiquing who said what and why instead of quietly working towards addressing the institutional and systemic problems of inequality and economic exploitation. In some sense, social media outrage may have become the rami al–jamraat (stoning the devils) ritual of Hajj, where pilgrims zealously engage in a purification ritual, sometimes endangering fellow human beings, only to return from the pilgrimage to continue business as usual. In other words, nothing changes after the purification.
Many Pakistanis on social media seem to be expressing outrage on behalf of the manager, though he himself cannot afford to be outraged. In interviews with news agencies, he has expressed that he does not even feel being insulted. Indeed, boycotts can often be a cheap response, when those who are outraged do not take into consideration that their actions could cause the poor employees to lose their livelihoods. Additionally, such social media outrage seems to be a newer trend in a country where one gets reprimanded by parents, teachers, employers, and police officers on a routine basis. Many Pakistanis, especially over the age of forty, can recall being slapped for an imla (dictation) error, caned or given other corporal punishments for minor misdemeanours in school. For such people, a social faux pas easily brushes off their thick skin. Perhaps then, isn’t the response to the “westernised” owners of the restaurant also not “western”?
Social media outrage feels good. It provides a communal activity where people can engage in a purification ritual by casting stones at others rather than engaging in the actual task of looking within. It is much easier to cast stones at external pillars than to wrestle with the demons within. For instance, how many Pakistanis on social media wrestle with the fact that they find it cumbersome to pay their maid an additional Rs. 500 but easily fork out Rs. 20,000 at restaurants? Indeed, this glaring economic inequality is much harder to address than the inanities of who said what and why. They can engage in the latter because it is cheap and because their own skin is not involved.
The video also confirms that the primary source of power is economic rather than gender or sexual orientation. For there are powerful women who humiliate their male subordinates just as there are powerful gay men who abuse their straight subordinates. The fashion and make-up industry are a case in point where vulnerable young male models may have to sleep their way up to financial stability. This point is relevant for those institutions that spend their resources on diversity and implicit bias training but treat their part-time and sessional employees poorly. They end up sounding politically correct, use the correct pronouns, have policies enshrined against racism and homophobia, but fire their vulnerable part-time or sessional workers during a pandemic or expect them to work twice as much on reduced pay. In other words, many people and institutions focus on what is trendy rather than the festering issues at hand.
Political anthropologist, Arsalan Khan also raises an excellent point on how right-wing populism targets elites to exert their anti-West, anti-colonial narrative. I would include left-wing activists in this as well, as both the right and the left sometimes make for strange bedfellows. This was clear in the responses to Malala Yousafzai, where both denied her agency and viewed her as an agent of the western, imperial powers. Regardless, I don’t like to blame the past for the ills of the present. I’m loathe to blame the British generation of more than seventy years ago that is long dead for our own inability to address social problems. You cannot blame your parents when you are forty; at some point in life, you have to start assuming responsibility to fix your broken life. Not everybody is born with a silver spoon in their mouth and horrible things happen in this life. We need to get up and move on. It’s the same here. I am, therefore, averse to framing this incident as the westernisation of the elite class. I prefer to see it for what it is: a lack of decent human values and exploitation of economic power. If we frame this incident as the work of a westernised class, pseudo-liberals or “kathe angrez”, we end up empowering populists, who seek to advance their own jingoistic agenda in Pakistan where space for a difference of opinion is increasingly curtailed.
In essence, there is nothing wrong with speaking English or Urdu. What is reprehensible is humiliating someone for not being able to speak either. This much is clear. But what should also be clear is the need to move on from empty social media outrage to actually fixing institutions and systems that perpetuate economic inequality and exploitation. Otherwise, social media outrage simply becomes a rami al–jamraat ritual where the faithful zealously cast stones at the devils and return home only to perpetuate the devils’ work.