Saturday, February 04, 2012

The Importance of Using a Voice

These past few weeks, I have been increasingly getting more vocal regarding politics and economics online. Whether on Facebook or Twitter, I have started putting up more commentary around either economic or socio-political issues currently being faced across the world. Not unrelatedly, I've been posting a fair bit about my views on the current rounds of fiscal consolidation underway across Europe, the welfare state (and often its unsustainable structure) and these past two weeks, quite extensively about the current round of banker bashing underway in the UK, especially in relation to the Royal Bank of Scotland.

The past 24 hours, however, have been perplexing, to say the least. Most intriguingly, I have been stunned by reactions to updates on both websites. But what I have to say is that these past few hours have made me revisit my opinion of both networks.

Background: I posted updates relating to my views on (1) the welfare state, (2) the inherent hypocrisy of free tertiary education, and (3) the fact that I disagreed with the NHS fundamentally. And let's just say that both sites got a LOT of attention.

On Twitter, I was immediately attacked by various people that I've interacted with quite socially over a few months; perhaps the most memorable comments included being called "a fascist" as according to the commenter there is no difference between capitalism and fascism. Other terms used included "filthy posh Tory" and other such pleasantry. As a foreign national working in Finance in London, I also received a couple of typical "fuck off and go home, you evil banker" comments, which I politely blocked without dignifying with a response.

The reaction on Facebook was, however, quite different. My update precipitated a massive debate, with people weighing in on either side. There was some unpleasant sniping between some, but what I was most struck by was the otherwise generally mature and coherent level of debate. (One that is still currently underway, as the responses continue to pour in).

I don't mean to indicate that all Facebook interactions were positive, and all Twitter interactions negative. I received several supportive comments on Twitter, and not all Facebook responses were as positive as described above. My favourite Facebook-related point was being messaged privately by a friend with the eloquently phrased, "the shit you post is offensive".

Aside from the merits or demerits of my views, though, what I have to say these past few days have taught me is that I should remember that fundamental differences between Facebook & Twitter. As a lover of social media, and someone who has a fairly sophisticated online identity, I have over the past months been privileging Twitter over Facebook. I have met many people in real life that I first interacted with over Twitter, and some of them have become friends. Facebook, on the other hand, seemed to have begun to be reduced to inane updates from friends playing surreal online games like Farmville, and a simple way to share holiday photographs. 

But I have to say my views have shifted. Perhaps as a result of its' 140 character limit for each tweet, Twitter has shown itself to be a much shallower medium in many ways. The scope for opprobrium is incredible, and it is hard to make a point as eloquently as one would like; being succinct is not always enough. As sometimes it is difficult to say something without context. 

Compare that to Facebook, where I've seen incredibly articulate arguments presented both for and against my original update. There have been tangents, distractions and the odd bit of mudslinging, but in general I've been impressed by how generally well reasoned the responses have been. And has reminded me why I choose to be friends with the people on my Facebook.

So what is it that I have learnt from all this?

First: I will have to revisit my opinion of Facebook and not write it off as a has-been. Especially in the week that it announced its IPO, I have been reminded of why it is such a powerful tool, and why providing a forum to interact virtually with your friends is so valuable (especially in a global world where people live far away from each other). And clearly able to command a financial value for it.

Second: I will have to revisit my opinion of Twitter. Ultimately it is difficult to gauge, despite multiple interactions with someone, how they will react to something you say. And when they will descend into name calling and refusal to engage in debate.

Third: Some people are made very uncomfortable by political discussions. It can be challenging to see a full-on, intellectually rigorous but animated/heated discussion on something that is quite polarising, politics especially, where it is easy to inflame passions, and not stay on the sidelines.

Fourth: I cannot censor myself. When I was getting flamed online last night for stating my views, I could have shut up. But that would have meant suppressing my thoughts, my views and being silenced by those who use shrill hate rather than reasoned argument to win the debate.

Some people sent me private messages last night, saying that I was getting grief for stating a political opinion, and that it was best to not discuss politics online. But that to me was something I cannot fathom. What is the point of sharing waffly, inane, utterly idiotic updates on a permanent basis? Why not share an opinion, a thought, an argument? Why not use the brains we've got? Why not argue, debate, discuss, disagree? Even if the ultimate outcome is agreeing to disagree, why not just engage? Maybe I'm just the stereotypical "argumentative Indian" but if I am, why hide from it?

One final point. I am a strong (possibly die-hard believer) in the freedom of speech. That does not mean that I believe that freedom of speech means I believe in the right of someone to not be offended. People will find different things offensive. But if we try to avoid offending people, then we might as well stifle all debate. And then where would be? North Korea?

So here's to many more evenings of political updates, tweets, and opinions. Because it is my right - nay, my duty - to say what I think.

UPDATE: It has been brought to my attention that this post seems to justify my recognisably aggressive tweets regarding the NHS (amongst other topics). In the interests of full disclosure and transparency, here's a quick background check. I am not, I should stress, out to apologise for my behaviour. I am merely hoping to contextualise what might have been perceived as offensive.

Firstly, I should point out that I am a standard bearer of capitalism. That means that I wholeheartedly believe that free markets are the only way to spread wealth in a manner that is fair globally. Because true fairness implies people getting what they deserve, not a system based on entitlement & privilege dictated by the accidents of birth and global geopolitics. 

This support of a capitalist structure has over the years earned me much venom. I have been ruthlessly attacked in public and online by people who assume that because I believe in capitalism I've somehow sold my soul to the devil. When they'd rather have me sell it to Marx.

As a result, many people I interact with on Twitter only saw me go somewhat ballistic on Thursday night. I should clarify (as I've done in my comments below) that much of that was the culmination of a week of Twitter flaming. My tweets earlier in the week about the Stephen Hester bonus fiasco, the Fred Goodwin witch hunt, and the ongoing car crash that is the Eurozone had earned me a lot of venom, much of which I blocked. But by Thursday evening, when a fairly innocuous tweet got me two particularly unpleasant responses, the gloves were off.

Were my tweets well thought out, articulate, and reasoned? No. I recognise that. I also know that those were tweets of someone who was lashing out after being cornered and harangued for days. Which is why I will recognise that they were incendiary, provocative and potentially perceivable as quite abusive. But I will also not apologise for them. Because even though I know that it is the sign of being a better man to turn the other cheek, eventually even my patience snaps and then - to quote one of my own tweets - I dance the tandav. The dance that destroys the universe. 

So. If you're here reading this because you were witness or party to Thursday, I hope this provides you context. As I said, I will not apologise for my tweets. Because I did not start the fire. But I hope that this will help contextualise what happened. 

A final point. Freedom of speech is something I am very wedded to as a concept. I however completely recognise that there is no such right as the freedom to not be offended. Therefore I know that my right to say what I would like will offend several people. Does that mean I will stop saying what I believe? No (the only exception being if what I said was particularly bigoted, prejudiced or outright illegal). But I appreciate that if I am purposefully provocative, I may alienate many people. That is a risk I run, but I should stress it is one I run fully conscious of its presence.