With Rights come responsibilities. Obviously. Free speech is the free expression of thought, or repetition of another’s thoughts. But the right to speak freely is not cost-free. The right and responsibility of selective censorship belongs firmly with the speaker/writer, who must choose whether or not to risk the possible consequences of controversy. This does not mean you have no right to react, to be offended. Free speech means the right to speak freely, the right to offend and be offended. If you take offence it is up to you how you respond – the consequences of your response are your responsibility. The responsibility of choice – that’s what’s ‘free’ about free speech. To be grown up, responsible individuals, we would be greatly advantaged by freedom and accuracy of information from our politicians and mainstream media. But we aren’t. And Nature abhors a vacuum, right?
Twitter and other social media are proving a golem to the Powers that Be. Social media are gateways: publishing platforms, sources of factual and fictional information and currents through which the whole spectrum of discourse is electronically made manifest as a public performance. For some, its immediacy and potential reach means it’s perceived more as an online conversation: spontaneous, informal, reactive; for others, its textual permanence and reach understandably expects an equitable standard with traditional publishing. The trouble is, is that it’s neither and both.
Twitter reflects the physical, mental, emotional, multi-dimensional world. It is, therefore, bound to reflect the very best and the absolute worst of both information and humanity. Truth, illusion, kindness and cruelty are available in equal measure. We also live in uncertain times. Not a single aspect of Life is untouched by the precipice(s) on which we stand. Our Dear Leaders are proving themselves to be tyrannical incompetents; our institutions are in need of ethical audits; our mainstream media are all too often the mouthpiece of another’s agenda. We live through an age of shocked-but-not-surprised and it is increasingly possible, however sophisticated we think we are, to believe in anything and nothing - even momentarily. Sometimes it is only hindsight which distinguishes between an ignorant herd mentality born of rumour and the rapid acquirement of new and important information.
The global climate is highly strung, reactionary and poorly weighted. So are we, sometimes. For sure, some people go out of their way to be aggressive, intimidating and personal. This is a reflection of the real world, so we can expect this, unfortunately. But occasionally even the most temperate and secure among us might react impulsively and with questionable justification. We have all given and received undesirable attention, inadvertently or not. We also know that, however hard we try, someone, somewhere might be offended. Indeed, there are even a few who go out of their way to find offence, irrespective of the speaker’s intentions. In the physical world we are perfectly capable of reducing ourselves and others, so why on earth would it be different in the ether? We are learning the ways to handle it, much as we did when we were growing up in the ‘real’ world. I’m not condoning gratuitous expressions of personal hatred. Nor am I disputing a person’s right to pursue their offender. This right to respond is catered for through defamation in civil law: any immediate improvement should arguably be focused on ease of access and affordability for private individuals. It should not be within the direct reach of the Police and criminal courts and especially not through politicised Police and Crime Commissioners and careless or overly enthusiastic G4S employees. Laws already exist for those rare occasions when State-sanctioned enforcement is required. I am cautioning that knee-jerk law or policy and chaotic, generalised accusations from on high are likely to be far more detrimental than the current dilemma. We have enough evidence of divisive spin to recognise a threat to social fabric when we see it.
Social media are still rather recent phenomena and I suspect we need time for more unfolding; to trust and allow our peers to curb behaviour by approval, caution or condemnation; to match our electronic reputations to conscience and Will. We are learning to dance on yet another shifting carpet, so trying to define the warp and weft of this erratic picture is bound to produce a fragmented narrative. I’m not enthralled that any of us, be we a public or private figure, might suffer a potentially very public attack, especially if it’s unfounded. Nor is there comfort in such abuse being on permanent record, but the alternative right now is terrifying, as it will certainly result in the further encroachment of authoritarian ideology, whim and fear. That way lies a very policed state. We recognise the signs – Gods know there have been enough alarm bells.
We either have free speech or we don’t. Trying to shut us all up, whatever our opinions, good or bad, right or wrong, is not the mark of an evolved society. It is disconcerting to witness government and mainstream media panicking about everyone else’s morality and liability, threatening caveats which would turn the whole concept into an oxymoron. Freedoms of speech and expression are extensions of Free Will and Freedom of Thought, born of an influence (call it God, biology, I don’t care) greater than religion, government or society – despite an often relentless effort.
We lose these freedoms by sloth and oppression and at our peril.
We all have lessons to learn in discretion and discrimination. This one is for the collective. It will be enriched greatly and grasped more quickly if it is practised with much better example, by those with power, who claim to serve our interests. That would be a viable and welcome ‘trickle down’. We are all having to grow up again. Hopefully this will be led by a principled nature and the nurture of good conscience.
In the meantime, take heart that we are all not telepathic.
Apropos on anonymity: While it’s undoubtedly true that some hide their identity because they are up to no good, there are many, ordinary and decent internet users, who mask themselves for artistic reasons or because they are protective of their privacy and/or are suspicious of the surveillance state.
Related Think Left post: The Unfree flow of Information and Cyberspace.
Sign Stop The Net Grab petition at http://action.goingtowork.org.uk/page/s/stop-the-net-grab or http://www.change.org/petitions/stop-the-net-grab