Cycle of shame

Published October 22, 2022
The writer works at New York University’s campus in Abu Dhabi.
The writer works at New York University’s campus in Abu Dhabi.

SEPTEMBER marked suicide prevention awareness month, while Oct 10 was World Mental Health Day. As hesitant as we are to speak about them, incidents of self-harm linked to mental health problems aren’t uncommon in Pakistan.

Each time such a case occurs, it sets off a chain reaction — social media activity, WhatsApp exchanges, expressions of grief and anguish, even shock and regret, at not having done more to prevent such an outcome. It raises questions about what might drive a person to this point, the stigma around speaking up, dangers of shaming and glorifying cancel culture and, above all, how can we do better?

Looking at less privileged households in Pakistan, where there is lack of formal education, we can clearly perceive the patterns of shaming: honour killing and slut-shaming of women, punishments meted out on the basis of flimsy rumours and neighbourhood gossip. But those of us from advantaged echelons claim to know better; we detach ourselves from these incidents by relegating them to the work of jahil misogynists, steeped in violent patriarchal notions.

The allegation of deep-seated misogyny in parts of Pakistan isn’t misplaced; however, the assumption that this is a problem far removed from our ‘urban, educated world’, is inaccurate. Not recognising our own culpability makes the issue less discernible, a stumbling block in seeking change.

Gossip can be a weapon to ostracise people.

The tendency to pass uninformed judgements based on casual gossip and half-truths prevails across Pakistani society, including among ‘elites’. At coffee mornings and kitty parties and in corporate corridors, flippant conversations passing social verdicts against others are rife. Trolling, too, has become a way of life, rarely involving critical thought about the subject matter in question. The social norm emerging from this practice is presumptuous, entitled and devoid of empathy. It assumes it has the prerogative to don the role of judge and jury about people’s personal choices and actions, and eventually shove them into a cycle of shame.

Women’s morality is on particularly tenuous ground, inviting policing, backlash and social sentencing — not only from men but also from other women. Relationship politics, parenting struggles, alleged affairs, academic rat races, body shaming, financial upheaval, among other issues, make for especially enticing gossip fodder — and gossip is a slippery slope whose impact is often underestimated.

Gossip and trolling have the potential to aggregate and instantly diffuse, like Chinese whispers, transforming into a subtle weapon to shame and socially marginalise other individuals. The emotional and psychological toll of such ostracisation can be immense: a glance at growing incidents of suicide and other mental health problems among Pakistanis illustrates how it can push people over the precipice.

The insidious impact of social disapproval, humiliation and rejection slowly accrues over time, potentially leading to self-harm. In a country where conversations around mental health are still nascent, where we are far from normalising depression, anxiety, panic and post-traumatic stress disorders, such uncritical, pejorative dialogue is akin to tossing a lit match into a powder keg. What may be a petty, time-pass chinwag for one group of people, may be incapacitating or even life-threatening for another.

Similarly, honest, constructive criticism isn’t a problem, but the gusto for democratising free speech, for public shaming and cancel culture, makes us forget, as we type or speak, that the person at the other end of the screen is human. Free speech or the desperation to ‘go viral’ doesn’t legitimise a neglect of kindness and empathy and the preservation of basic dignity. Unfortunately, though, it seems to be ‘woke’ in this age.

As a parent, the fear that our children will face such judgement and rebuke from friends and strangers alike, and have to learn to tackle it with courage and calm, constantly clouds my mind. But fear can be a complex, occasionally empowering emotion: on the one hand, it makes me nervous but on the other, it spurs me to question and topple the benchmarks we have set for social exchange in Pakistani society. It coaxes me to attempt things differently even if that is less popular terrain; to rubbish our own complicity in gossip and recognise the threat it poses to the stability and existence of those around us.

Most of us will deny our proclivity to gossip — broadcast rumours, revel in people’s personal lives — when in fact, we need to be doing much better. Be it in intimate conversations with friends or when striking up a conversation with strangers on the internet, it is worthwhile to reflect on the direction our dialogue could propel others towards — to recognise that a tiny piece of gossip, some form of shaming that appears to be fleeting, holds the power to snowball into a menacing, tragic and often irreversible outcomes for someone else.

The writer works at New York University’s campus in Abu Dhabi.

Published in Dawn, October 22th, 2022

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