Fine Lines, Freedom and Responsibility

I’ve been attending sessions at the Newcastle Writers Festival all weekend. I purchased tickets to a number of sessions, and had a great time. Garth Nix reaffirmed for me that you don’t necessarily have to outline your stories to write a good one. I generally know where I’m starting, know where I’m finishing, and a few things that need to happen along the way. Then I start writing – with all of that sitting in my head.

I heard some great short stories from the inaugural Novascapes anthology – a Hunter Region speculative fiction anthology. I read a small excerpt from one of my works in progress, at the WIP session, and had a great time listening to stories from  ABC Open.

I also attended a couple of extremely thought provoking sessions – one of Australia’s attitude towards asylum seekers, and finished off the festival with a panel discussion about the fine lines between hate speech and free speech.

That got me thinking again. I spend a fair amount of time on the internet. I tweet intermittently, Facebook, read, comment and campaign – usually about feminist or health issues. I like to think that I have a social conscience and opinions that are valid.

I was thinking about a number of things, but particularly about accountability. When people are online, rather than face to face, it can be almost as if they change their personas, and spew forth things they’d otherwise not say. I often see thoughtless posts or comments, dashed off without consideration for the feelings of others. I see ‘likes’ and ‘shares,’ retweets and re-blogs, often only partially read, and sometimes even completely misunderstood.

Of course there are wonderful things shared, appreciated and commented upon, and there are cats – many cats. None of these things are bad.

What concerns me most, is that the fine line is often crossed. By the fine line, I mean the tiny gap between valid opinion and outright bigotry. Sometimes racism is hidden behind a thin veneer of ‘concern,’ or fear mongering is used to promote financial gain.

In my own time campaigning on the internet, I’ve had my Facebook photograph stolen and attached to a page that a troll used to abuse others, including my real profile. I’ve been abused and misrepresented. That was all pretty minor compared to some of the abuse others have suffered. That kind of stuff really makes me wonder – what is it that these people are looking for? Why do they troll in such an abusive fashion?

Here in Australia, we have many rights. We can express ourselves freely, and we can believe as we wish, follow our own faith, and access information on just about anything.

But that freedom can be abused. It can be used to denigrate, demean and misinform. Often those in power – and by ‘in power’ I mean those with an audience – seem to become intoxicated by their own selves, to the extent that they believe in the validity of their own opinions, whether those opinions are founded in good information or not. Some even go past opinion, and into the realm of almost cult like behaviour, dishing out posts, blog articles and tweets to their adoring followers, who then repost, retweet and reblog, never giving much thought to the content.

With an increased profile, comes increased responsibility, in my opinion. An increased responsibility to ensure that what you say is true, helpful, and ethical. Does it mean that we should shy away from difficult topics? Or topics where disagreement abounds? Of course not, but those topics should be addressed with civility and respect. Where misinformation is touted as fact, it needs to be countered – using evidence. There’s a nice piece on The Conversation website, which talks about opinion and fact. It’s titled, ‘No, you’re not entitled to your opinion.’ It’s an excellent piece, and it should be more widely read in my opinion. (Which you are, of course, entitled to ignore!)

When I see people deliberately spread hate, or argue without reason, I wonder why. Is it bloody minded stubbornness? Or is it because they just can’t let go of something? Or is it because they’ve never looked beyond the one thought. When I see them argue furiously, but without reason, or an attempt to understand the other person’s position, ignoring all evidence that suggests their stance has issues, I wonder whether they’ve ever learnt to think.

I suppose that I’m arguing myself into a corner here a bit, but my comments really come down to one simple thing. We can choose to behave with respect and responsibility, or we can choose not to. We can play nice, or we can play selfishly, as if the internet sandpit belongs only to ourselves and our opinions. We can choose to hide behind facades, or we can be who we actually are. It doesn’t mean we’ll always agree, but we can choose to conduct our discussions with integrity and thoughtfulness. Those discussions can be robust, but they don’t have to be abusive.

Time to hop off the soapbox.

I also

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