Memes: Free Speech in the 21st Century

Memes: Free Speech in the 21st Century
The internet is flooded with new and interesting memes every day. They have become an inseparable part of digital life; a popular culture in and of themselves. More importantly, memes are a powerful tool in the hands of people to challenge status quo, without necessarily being offensive.

The word ‘meme’ is taken from Greek word “Memema” meaning ‘imitation’. Therefore, memes are made on a comic imitation or representation of nearly every aspect of life; ranging from entertainment and politics to religious and societal issues. People express their likes and dislikes through memes, and many have compelled the authorities to cater to the demands of people in the face of mounting public pressure.

One such incident involved a couple kissing on a domestic Pakistani airline, which brought the Civil Aviation Authority into action and calls were raised to investigate the matter. Memes on the issue ranged from how such public displays of affection were deemed unacceptable in Pakistan’s ‘civilized’ society, to how the general public would be offended by such an innocent exhibition of love but would fail to intervene if a man was violently manhandling a woman or domestically abusing her in public.

Politicians have become the most favorite and easiest target of meme creators, and it has also been seen that memes taking jabs at politicians go viral quickly and easily. While it adds a comic element to even the most serious statements made by politicians, one can argue that it also makes them more relevant, especially among a generation that is more enchanted with K-pop and completely apathetic as regards politics. In this regard, memes over Bilawal Bhutto's remarks “Jab ziada barish hoti hai tu ziada paani aata hai” and Zardari's “Aisa dil rakhte he nahi jo koi todd de” became viral sensations. Imran Khan's "Ghabrana nahi hai" is also a classic. The Sindh Government was widely criticized due to an ineffective response to last year's monsoon rains which essentially drowned Karachi.
Whenever prompt action by government authorities is required and government functionaries fail to resolve the issue, people retort in such a satirical way to not only criticize government policies but also introduce a modicum of levity at the appalling state of affairs.

Besides, journalists are also not spared. Media personalities are widely criticized for bias in their reporting and for yellow journalism (i.e. selling themselves to a personality or an agenda). CNN journalist Bianna Golodryga became a new target of memes, especially in Pakistan, when she labeled Shah Muhammad Qureshi's remarks as anti-Semitic.
Memes are also an effective way to address deep-rooted misogyny and irrational expectations.

Stereotypes pertaining to gender roles are shattered through new memes. Interestingly, internalized misogyny within females is also highlighted. Placards during the recent “Aurat March” became viral overnight. Demands for true equality between the genders became more pronounced through memes and incisive comments on these placards by netizens and Twitterati. When daughters are expected to sit at home and behave in a particular way, or even when a ‘traditional’ mother's role in a family is compared to that of a western mother – to juxtapose how a desi mother's reaction is different from her counterpart in the west, in the same given scenario – have also been subjected to thoughtful memes.

Memes on religious scholars of all sects and leanings, especially on their illogical statements, have ‘broken’ the internet a number of times. “Yeh tou hoga” and MTJ Narra  memes are cases in point. A religious scholar claiming he would arrange marriages of his adherents with multiple underage girls invited the ire of many as well as the caustic sarcasm of some meme makers. It shows that memes have become efficient critics of religious superstitions in Pakistan: they are a viable and potent tool used to invoke logic and reason in the matter of ‘universal truths’, and are especially helpful when it comes to surmounting the ubiquitous fear that many feel when challenging the powerful and deeply entrenched ‘religious establishment’ in Pakistan.

Memes themselves have evolved from symbols of pictorial protest – a modern and digital form of pictures worth a thousand words, sometimes more. From Che Guevara's iconic picture to Leila Khaled holding a kalanshnikhov and Aylan Kurdi's dead body on the shores of Libya, these images delivered powerful messages to the world that in turn caused changes in policies, be they internal or external. This power of a single poignant image is the primary reason behind the internet blackout in Indian-occupied Jammu and Kashmir. According to Indian political analysts, pictures of strong resistance by young school girls holding stones in their hands, and young fearless Kashmiris facing off against the bullets of the occupying Indian army with these rocks and stones, are more dangerous to the Indian narrative than routine rebuttals and condemnations from foreign offices of the Muslim world.

Having said that, there is a dark side to all digital platforms and memes are no different: while they may be used with humorous intent, they undoubtedly exacerbate internal divisions within societies, further polarize politics and trivialize the derision of minorities across the globe.

The fact of the matter is that it is nigh impossible to regulate digital communication platforms and protocols; including the memes that are shared and publicized on them. All that can be done in this regard is to sensitize people by imparting education, promoting tolerance and prioritizing harmony. The people need to understand that in this brave new world, which is a digital village, there will always be views that one may find offensive: the best response is not to erupt in anger, but to report that particular social media as offensive – and all social media platforms offer this service with each and every single post. However, we can see that in Pakistan, the case is completely different: a single post, cartoon or video can incite a mob and result in riots on the streets. Pakistan desperately needs less moral policing and more tolerance: memes are the least offensive and sometimes most effective way to force us all to think 'outside the box' and challenge our own inherent biases.

Till the time our people become more aware, and are sensitized to these new global realities, all we can do is just wait for new memes popping up here and there, highlighting in a single image or with few words what people wanted to express directly, but failed due to restrictions from state or intolerance from society.

Kashif Ali is a geologist-turned civil servant.  He holds a degree in Geology from University of Sindh. He has interest in global politics and current affairs and writes extensively on diverse subjects ranging from culture and education to religious extremism and public administration.