Social media gives you the opportunity to say the sharpest things, says artist and activist Salima Hashmi – Art & Culture

In today’s social media age, we are plagued by a sense of radicalization. Not only in the traditional-religious sense, but a radicalization of self-proclaimed morality, their identities and that of ideas. Adaptation to the opinions of others is limited, sometimes leading to government censorship or worse, self-censorship for the purpose of social preservation.

A discussion on ‘Can Art Defeat Censorship’ cut this particular topic into different dimensions at the 10th edition of the Lahore Literary Festival on Saturday, asking if we are circumventing censorship and if so, how? The panelists were Turkish writer and cultural theorist Sureyya Evren, Pakistan’s acclaimed artist, activist and professor Salima Hashmi and Uzbek author, poet and journalist Hamid Ismailov. The panel was moderated by Harris Khalique, poet, activist and Secretary General of the Human Rights Commission Pakistan.

Hosting the literary world’s elite, the LLF’s 10th anniversary celebrations boasted creatives from Pakistan, as well as some from around the world. The LLF 2023 raised essential questions about today’s society in various discussions spread over hour-long sessions.

This particular discussion delved deeply into the types of censorship and how to circumvent them. Writing in metaphors, a common theme emerged, namely the use of social media to circumvent censorship, followed by censorship’s favorite ally – abandon culture.

Ismailov, a 28-year-old exiled Uzbek writer, explored his experiences writing The Devil’s Dance, a novel criticizing the Uzbek government, which has been banned in his home country. To outwit the censors, he published his book as a series of posts on Facebook. He recalls that the book’s popularity was such that people in Uzbekistan printed the material and distributed it for reading in closed circles. He reiterated, “The beauty of writing is breaking taboos and exploring forbidden areas. With social media, your ideas reach your audience.” About his next published novel, he said: “It was published on the Telegram Channel. You have to be creative to reach your audience.”

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The Turkish author and writer Evren steered the conversation to the impressive demolition culture. In today’s age of social media and access to technology, this culture is more pervasive than ever. Summarizing what it means to be canceled today, he said: “Cancellation culture is like the traditional way of being kicked out of your tribe. Not in a good way, in a way that’s very postmodern. It’s very silent.” He added, “We feel good when we cancel things.”

“Abandonment culture is censorship itself, embodied by a greater number of consensus,” commented Khalique.

“Social media gives you the power to say the sharpest things — especially TikTok. There is aggression on social media against creators, but they have persevered,” Hashmi said in reference to visual and performing arts. “I see strong courageous work in Pakistan today, despite what the despots say, even from places like Waziristan. Many artists work with visual and performing arts. They comment and they comment freely,” she said.

The debate about censorship and art is important. Censorship is difficult in the social media era and offers artists and their art a great opportunity to reach their audience directly. But another monster has already allied with censorship – Cancel Culture. Who is canceled and why? What are the parameters that define it? Is moral relativism acceptable? I leave you to think about it.