Freedom: the front for exceptionalism

Twelve people were shot dead in France. That is indisputably a tragedy. France is mourning, as any nation would when their people are attacked and killed for doing what they believed in. It is an outrageous attack. Yet, I have some discomfort in the reference to these deaths as heroic. As if somehow there was a looming struggle that threatened to destroy any sense of freedom in the Western world, and those who were killed won the fight for our freedom. I imagine that to their family and friends the victims are actually heroes. I just don’t see how they are somehow more heroic than peoples fighting oppressive, violent and militant regimes. I may (probably will) be accused of insensitivity, and I get that. I really do. But hang on, isn’t this freedom of expression? Isn’t this an example of the‘No-one has the right not to be offended?’ argument, the right that all major media outlets and those hashtagging #JeSuisCharlie are claiming as an absolute and inviolable freedom?

Lets look around the world and at some recent events. On 7 January 2015,  37 people were killed and 66 injured in a bomb blast in Yemen.  The previous weekend, Boko Haram fighters are reported to have killed hundreds of people in Nigeria. Mexico, September 2014, 43 college students went missing in and are feared dead. On New Year’s Eve, a stampede in Shanghai killed 36 people.  All over the world, people are killed by crazed gunmen, or by militant or corrupt regimes while fighting for freedom from oppression. But their deaths are not commiserated with anywhere near the publicity we are experiencing with the Paris shootings, or even the Sydney Cafe shootings. And to be frank, the 12 victims of the Charlie Hebdo shootings were not victims of oppression, and they were not heroes that gifted the world free speech (a little bit more on that below).

In countries such as West Papua, Palestine, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Mexico, Venezuela, Egypt, and many other countries (as alluded to above) hundreds of thousands of people have and continue to die fighting oppressive regimes – for their right to freedom. Yet, in the same Western media outlets that are proclaiming the inviolability of free speech and the heroism of their peers, the deaths of these freedom fighters and victims of oppression remain largely invisible. They are the nameless, the faceless, the unidentified bodies. They are dehumanised. There is no soft piece about their life, family, friends and work. They are the ‘other’. They are ‘collateral damage’. Just imagine if the victims in Paris were reported on as ‘collateral damage’. It would cause a Westwide shitstorm. Despite the fact that Charlie Hebdo already wear their freedom on the front cover of their own publication, these deaths are amplified as some kind of heroic act in the fight for freedom of speech. And it’s rubbish. They were bearers of that right and they knew it. This is not about free speech. This is about setting a pretext. This is Western Exceptionalism. And our media are complicit in it.



Twitter. It can be rough.

I’m relatively new to Twitter. Well, not really, but I say relatively since I joined in 2012, Twitter launched in 2006 and I follow many people who have been on there since 2009. Engaging with people you don’t know can be a frightening experience. It definitely was for me. As someone who is  stupidly shy in real life, learning to talk online with people I didn’t know was (and still is) incredibly intimidating. Usually interactions are pleasant or at worst they are respectful disagreements. However, I have observed more recently hostility on the rise. Sometimes it seems it is a result of over familiarity such that a comment or remark sparks some people call a pile on (see below) as the comment/remark fails to meet what a persons followers have come to expect from their interactions. At other times it’s a lack of familiarity where sarcasm is misconstrued as actual belief. And of course, there are times where some people are just vile and ignorant.

I want to explain some of these terms for new, infrequent or non-Twitter users.  I’m not here proclaiming to be the Twitter police or any kind of authority on Twitter or dictating how people should behave online. I just thought I’d share my experience and understanding (please correct where I have misunderstood or where you disagree!). I don’t even know what I’m trying to achieve by doing so. It just feels like something I should do. Especially given events of late.

With pile-ons there are occasions where solidarity is the right response. For example, where minorities come under attack from majorities or where individuals are singled out for the purpose of breaking their spirit i.e.supporting someone who is being bullied. There are also occasions where solidarity goes beyond being about justice, fairness, or truth and devolves into pack mentality creating an unsafe online space. One key problem for me is that sometimes it’s hard to decipher if what is happening is solidarity or the pack. This is particularly difficult when I am unfamiliar with a particular issue. A lot of feelings emerge when these situations arise. Fear is a big one. Often I stay silent because I am too scared of the repercussions. When I do muster up the courage to speak, I meet my friend doubt. Will they turn on me if I offer an opposing or critical view? Alternatively, am I part of a pack or is this solidarity? Do I have enough knowledge to add anything constructive? Am I overshadowing rather than amplifying the voices of those affected? How will I cope if people are outright mean, nasty, rude to me?  And yes – to be perfectly clear, I have had hurt feelings online. I have felt isolated and even ridiculed by people I respect. But I have come to accept that this is part of having an online life.

What is a subtweet? In short, referencing an individual through some form of identifier (i.e. twitter name, online persona, initials, pronoun, comment made by that person etc) without mentioning their twitter handle in the subtweet.

The issue of subtweets also has positive and negative attributes. For example, wanting to criticise an argument or article without drawing the author into it, seems a perfectly legitimate reason to subtweet. Especially if the author has a propensity to notch up the volatility. But to cast aspersions or criticisms about a person and/or their actions/decisions? In my personal view, it’s perfectly fine when it’s a public figure. But I’m not comfortable when it’s a private individual. Of course there are no hard and fast rules, and I’m mindful that there will always be exceptions to any rule or norm.

Another common term used is ‘calling out’. This is where a person reprimands another user or users who have behaved or commented in manner that is, for example, bigoted or bullyish, often followed by a bit of education on why the behaviour, comment etc was not ok.  Sometimes this can lead to a pile on, and in fact, is usually the catalyst. Moreover, calling out can itself can instigate a pile on where the particular issue is incredibly contentious. Some people believe they have a duty to call out others on everything, while others consider calling out to be unproductive in most cases. I have no settled position. I think in many cases it’s perfectly justified (especially racism, discrimination, prejudice) and in other cases it can be more damaging than helpful, in particular, where the point is to vilify not to educate.

Lately, there has been some talk about safety on Twitter. It is incredibly important. Why? Because Twitter is an inherently unsafe place.There are of course ways to minimise harmful or triggering interactions, but there is no foolproof fix. Aside from the technical side – using a protected account,  blocking harmful accounts, and setting other security features, we need to also look at ourselves and how we behave. Because only we are in control of that. One way to do this is to take accountability for our actions and words, take the time to understand the other, apologise when in the wrong and forgive. This is the approach I intend to take going forward. The last one is the hardest.  But probably the most important. I leave you with an unattributed quote [if interested, click the link to see the contention around its origins]

Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.