Are memes a harmless yet effective way of getting your message across? When do we cross the line from harmless to offensive?
According to a notice issued by Lahore’s FAST University on Saturday June 27, a group of students were given severe punishments for being involved in posting memes on a private Facebook group. The institute’s admin charged them for “Facebook Defamatory Memes” and for damaging the university’s reputation.
While six students were straight up expelled, thirteen were told to write a public apology that should be sent to the admin and also be “uploaded on their [student’s] individual Facebook page’s Timeline within 10 days of the issuance”. Other penalties included punishments such as lowering of students’ grade by a letter, community service of removing “…litter from the campus lawns and highways/walkways…”, expulsion from Fall 2020 and/or Spring 2021 semester. The notification further read: “Failure to comply with the orders will render the respondent liable for either cancellation of the degree; or blacklisting; or reporting to authorities for trial under cyberbullying and harassment laws; or all of the mentioned punishments,”
It has been reported that the Manager Academics and Deputy Controller of Exams FAST Lahore also released a rather intimidating email to the student body about the disciplinary action, and his tone apparently suggested that FAST would not welcome such discord or dissent in the future.
Immediately after this notification, students and activists, under the banner of #ShameOnFAST, took to social media to express their outrage. They were appalled and angry at FAST for taking such a harsh action against some memes that were posted on a private group, and for trying to control freedom of expression.
Here are some tweets featuring memes and public anger
Students against the admin?
Needless to say, this incident brings to light a topic that is extremely relevant in times like these where people in authoritative positions continue to exploit the powerless, and this time, it is students vs. educational management.
Amidst lockdown, when people are already getting laid-off and are struggling to make their ends meet financially, this is the last thing a parent would want to hear that their child got suspended for partaking in an online harmless activity.
We do realize that students should be more responsible about the kind of content they generate on social media, especially these days when the culture of online bullying and trolling is so rampant and devastating. Indeed, including professors’ name as part of memes is disrespectful. But, right now, we are talking about an action that has outright put students’ future in jeopardy for taking part in an activity that they were not even warned about.
These are such activities that all of us, at some point in our student life, take part in. It is natural and normal. Whether it’s mocking the inefficient online enrollment system that collapses at the very moment of registration, or a lack of available equipment or seats in courses, students like to entertain themselves during their academic (stressful) years through such sarcastic gestures.
In fact, from where I see it, students tend to use these light-hearted memes as a way to highlight the inefficiency and incompetency of our educational institutes. Most times, taking up a direct complain is met with an unfavorable or no outcome at all, and therefore students’ resort to such sarcastic means to communicate their concerns. However, this time, to much of our surprise, students’ attempt in doing so was met with a dire consequence.
It is difficult to believe that an institute can exercise such cruel punishments as a result of some mere memes. In fact, it rather looks like an authoritative form of management using its unchecked power to curb down any criticism that might come there way.
Instead of dealing with it in a manner where students were AT LEAST given the opportunity to rectify their mistake, the institute directly opted for drastic measures and further went onto threaten susceptible minds with charges like “cyber-bullying and harassment”.
It goes without saying that the suicide rate among the youth is on rise. Especially, in our Pakistani culture where mental health and depression is not even taken seriously, let alone be acknowledged, such extreme measures by the school admin only adds to students’ stress.
One of the kids, expressed his concerns in the following post…
Listen to your students
In the end, I would like to say that we all need to be careful when venting online. Our chances of getting heard will increase if we voice our concerns without causing any disrespect. At the same time, it is equally incumbent upon the educational institutes to initiate a dialogue with students and pay more attention to their concerns. Be it a sexual accusation against a student or a professor, spike in school-fees, policing of students on-campus, or a plethora of other problems that students face, their dissent should not be discouraged.
The youth is the future of our nation. In respecting their voice, we are giving them a hearing and that’s already half the battle won! Sometimes, we just need to be heard!
Hiba Shoaib is a student of social development and policy at Habib University. She is currently working as an Undergraduate Research Fellow at Center for Transdisciplinary Design and Innovation Lab. As an aspiring policy-practitioner, she aims to address socio-economic concerns. She uses her research and critical-writing skills to empower people and advocate for social justice.