Sooooo I had a slightly weird conversation with someone I hardly know on Facebook this morning, prompted by this article about Oxford Union using gender-neutral rather than gendered pronouns (as it happens, this is untrue anyway). Details unimportant, but can be found below.* Anyway, the person concerned eventually responded in a mildly bizarre series of assertions which I found interesting enough to write a blogpost about, because they ran so counter to my own concepts and experiences of social media. These were, namely, a) Facebook wasn’t the place to discuss things b) they respected other people’s opinions c) they could say what they liked on their own Facebook because d) I had no right to argue. And it started me thinking about the ways in which we use social media, particularly in the current political climate, and because clearly the ON FIRE TO DO LIST was somehow less important, I wrote this list of social media functions in terms of post-cultural social and political discourse:
1) Social media matters. Many people form their political opinions via their social media newsfeeds. The place for discussion of socio-political ideas absolutely is Facebook, because for better or worse it is where many people explore, discuss and shape their political views. Or, y’know, thoughtlessly propagate them without exploration, discussion or consideration, but we’re aiming high here.
2) Social media, like any social space, is by definition a) social and b) full of disparate individuals who may or may not agree with you about any particular topic. It’s not actually reasonable to expect no dissension whatsoever regardless of the nature of your posts. Although I actively maintain a respectful, progressive social media bubble, that doesn’t mean I expect everyone to agree with me about everything all the time. Just that we share certain fundamental values – universal human rights, genocide being bad, that sort of thing. Everyone gets boundaries, and you’re certainly entitled to request that your newsfeed remains free of hate speech, insults and trolling, but expecting that nobody ever thinks differently to you – or expresses it if they do – is a pretty problematic way of interacting with the world. I even have the odd token Tory friend! Imagine. (We mostly agree on stuff like human rights though, because baselines.)
3) Sometimes discussion changes minds, and is important. To pick a non-political example: I posted excitedly about a bunny café a year or so ago, and a friend with rabbits pointed out that such an environment would be really stressful and potentially fatal for the rabbits. She knew much more about rabbit psychology than I did, and I …recognised this, and changed my opinion! I changed the post to reflect this, and thanked her! And this happens a fair bit. Often my friends know more about particular topics than me, and I welcome the opportunity to learn from them. It seems only sensible to do so. I know much more about the situation in Syria and Aleppo because of Ella’s posts about it, for example. Sharing knowledge isn’t the only thing Facebook does, but it’s a pretty positive one amid the general awfulness.
4) The ‘I respect other people’s opinions (as long as they don’t express them) thing is problematic. Partly because actions vs words – posting specifically to denigrate the apparent opinion of a university union from a university you never attended for events you will never attend seems like a fair extreme example of *not* respecting Oxford Union’s opinion – but mostly because, actually, I don’t respect some opinions. I think some opinions, mostly the bigoted ones, aren’t worthy of respect, and this is rarely more obvious than it is on social media. Whilst I respect everyone’s right to form and hold their own opinions, not all opinions are created equal (see discussion here), and some of them are just plain wrong. Holocaust deniers. The KKK. People who believe in gay cure therapy. Racists and bigots are ‘entitled to their opinions’ and all, right up until the point their opinion starts to belittle, invade and damage other people’s human rights or freedoms, whereupon they are still entitled to hold said opinion but the rest of us don’t have to respect, listen to, appreciate or value it, and may in fact argue with it and refuse to act on it. ‘I respect others’ opinions’ (especially whilst silencing dissent) seems an uncomfortable position to take, compared to ‘I respect everyone’s right to form an opinion but some opinions hurt people and I don’t have to respect that’ or even ‘I respect everyone’s right to form their own opinion but I will challenge said opinions when they’re bigoted and question them if they disrespect others’, both of which lead to public discussion (and potentially education) rather than pockets of internal consistency. Dialogue is healthy, if it avoids hate speech, insults and microaggressions (and doesn’t involve asking oppressed people to do the emotional labour of demonstrating their own oppression.)
5) If a topic is sensitive and you want to avoid triggers, don’t welcome disagreement for personal reasons, or don’t want to fall down a particular argumentative rabbit hole, you can say so in the initial post. But to expect the silent unspoken caveat of NEVER VOICE DISAGREEMENT to attach itself to everything you say ever is fucked up. I expect a fair bit of discussion and dissension to arise from this post, which is healthy. Anyone insulting me or being unwarrantedly unpleasant or aggressive will be shut down, but if you think I’m wrong, then I am interested in hearing why. Because:
6) Most things I post I have thought through enough that I can counter most of the obvious objections to them. There’s the occasional exception, but if I get called out for not having considered something my response isn’t to silence the person doing the calling out, it’s to apologise and reconsider. My views are sufficiently thoughtful and coherent that they can bear mild dissension without leaping for the impulse to silence. Yes, I tend to shut down misogyny, transphobia, homophobia etc, but see 2) – hate speech and dissension are not the same thing. Polite disagreement =/ denying someone’s human rights.
7) Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from accountability. Yes, you can say what you like on your Facebook page, but that doesn’t mean that nobody has the right to suggest you might have got things wrong/be being an asshole. That’s how social interaction of all kinds works, on or offline.
8) There are inappropriate things to say in particular social contexts, online and off. Speaking ill of the dead to their loved ones. Mocking people without consent. Shaming. But that’s dependent on context. I don’t think discussions of any kind are inappropriate on social media simply because they’re taking place on social media. Our lives are sufficiently integrated these days that social interaction online has (or should have, if you’re not a troll) basically the same appropriateness etiquette as meatspace. Am I missing anything here?
9) Freedom of speech certainly doesn’t mean anybody has to listen to you – god knows I’ve hidden enough people’s Facebook feeds for body shaming/racism/transphobia/rightwingery – but it also doesn’t mean that nobody’s allowed to argue. I usually make some attempt at discussing the issue before unfollowing somebody, although that’s not universal. Because see 1), social media is an important arena for both political discussion and social experience, and public discussion reaches more people than the one person you’re disagreeing with. Not everyone has the spoons to do this, certainly not all the time, but if you do, it’s worth trying.
10) Actions need to match words. Claiming you respect the opinions of others whilst insulting them and silencing dissent is perilously akin to the kind of doublethink that assumes prefacing racist bullshit with ‘I’m not racist, but….’ excuses the racism that follows. It’s the white middle-class version, but it’s still pretty fucked up.
11) Social media is especially important in the current political climate. It’s where we build solidarity and resistance, share stories, change minds. It’s where we go for courage and encouragement and reassurance. To suggest social media should of necessity either be homogenous or silenced is both dysfunctional and a betrayal of the social contract. Because the social contract, in these troubled times, covers the internet as well as meatspace.