Freedom of speech? No so sure about that one anymore. I am finding Social Media increasingly threatening and unpleasant in that respect – and am sure I am not alone.
It has got to the stage where many writers are so scared of offending, or angering, someone inadvertently (the minefields become ever-wider-spread and more difficult to map) that they self-censor to such a ridiculous extent that they end up producing little more than anodyne pap.
Opinions are taken personally. Differences in lifestyle are seen as legitimate targets for cyber-bullying. A rant, fired off in the cannon of momentary passion, attracts vicious opprobrium.
We lament the state of the world – rightly – without seeing that each one of us makes up that planetary body; without acknowledging that each huge war starts with the kind of ‘taking it personally’ paranoia each one of us is more than capable of showing.
I have almost stopped making comments on Facebook, for example – other, that is, than cheery accounts of events – because I have to watch what I say so fucking carefully; I have to sieve each word through the Strainer of Political Correctness so bloody rigorously that the puree left at the end has little more depth and content than ‘Hello‘ magazine.
I have to make sure that NOTHING I say infringes anyone else’s rights, or wounds another human’s fragile ego. I have to be a combination of therapist, soothsayer and diplomat because, of course, I should know, in advance, exactly what another person’s vulnerable points are (through remote mind-reading skills, I assume); I should be grown-up enough to soothe the most savage beast (er, breast) after said tit (oops: That’ll create waves!) has been mortally offended by my use of four-letter words; I should weave a polite course between any strong opinions because I might piss someone else off…
I am not someone who enjoys causing pain; I see myself as reasonably thoughtful, tolerant, respectful and kind. But, honestly, things have gone too far the opposite way. Unintentional sparks are setting off vast conflagrations. Our lives are, increasingly – and, I think, rather worryingly – conducted in the emotional hothouse that is the world of Social Media: A planet in which we can pick a fight with a Tweet that rubs us up the wrong way; or, as has happened to me several times, lambaste a writer anonymously because said word-smith has had the almighty gall, the egregious effrontery, to push unseen and unknown buttons.
The immediacy and ease of it all is part of the problem, I feel: Protected by the absence of the person in the physical sense, and a screen which gives us a false sense of security, we can go en garde in seconds and be parrying and riposting to the death within a minute.
What is missing is that infinitesimal gap when we gather the reins of sense upon the neck of the wildly rearing stallion of personal affront and ask ourselves that one, oh so relevant, question: ‘Was this piece of writing actually composed with me in mind?’
And, its rider, ‘If not, why the hell am I getting in such a rage about it?’
I’ll give you the perfect – and horrible – example of this worrisome tendency. A year or so ago, I wrote a post in which I defended Jamie Oliver and his wife’s right to name their latest child whatever the hell they wanted, this after some truly poisonous comments from anonymous Tweeters.
This post was not directed at any one person. It was a plea for tolerance, I guess. Many people agreed with my stance. One ‘anonymous’ woman did not. Actually – and, in the interests of honesty – she was not anonymous, but I am not going to name her. She started in on me in the most terrifyingly aggressive way – on Facebook. Amongst other charming epithets, she referred to me as, ‘…you fucking bitch…’
Why? Because, not knowing the Oliver family personally, I had made the unforgivable mistake of calling Jamie’s wife by the wrong surname.
Seriously. This caused Ms.Ann Onimuss to get on her high horse (and, quite frankly, my goat!) within seconds. I dread to think what the response would have been if I had said something genuinely offensive: Equine head on the pillow, probably!
Look, I am all for tolerance and care for others; I defend anyone for their individual lifestyle choices and gender orientation; I salute difference. But things have come to a pretty pass when writers have to weigh up every word lest they drop a clanger!
I am buggered if I am going to start tiptoeing through the proverbial tulips, and avoiding the slugs of discontent, at my time of life. I am a writer. If I had wanted to join the Diplomatic Corps, I would have done so.
I think it behoves us all, especially in light of the current world climate, to look honestly at words, statements and beliefs that wind us up and to try and work out why and what tiny button is being pushed. I think it would help a great deal if we could take a breath, step back and think, ‘Is this word/phrase/comment maliciously designed to infuriate me?’ – and, as intimated previously, if we suspect it is not, try to calm down and to acknowledge that calling someone we do not know a fucking bitch is not going help either of us.
Not easy. I know this from personal experience. I am someone who is altogether too trigger-happy when it comes to taking something personally, and can sulk, ignore, snap and generally behave like a tantrum-torn toddler when I even suspect that a comment might be snidely directed at me!
Interestingly, this post was inspired by an article in this week’s Radio Times: By Emma Barnett, and entitled, ‘Say what you think: Fear of online attack is stifling freedom of speech,’ it really got me thinking and is well worth a read.
This fear has, thus far, caused me to delete, and obliterate, three blogs. This current one is my fourth attempt in five years. But why should I, or any writer, go into hiding because children hiding in adults’ bodies have hissy fits – or apparently uncontrollable sexual fantasies which they MUST share – online?
We live in a world governed by big, angry, dysfunctional, Narcissistic kids. I do not think we make things any better when we ape the characteristics of our Ungallant Leaders ourselves.
No one should have to live in fear of a backlash, be it physical or online. No writer should be afraid to create with words just in case one noun, one adjective is misconstrued by a reader.
Right: I’ll shut up and bugger off now!