Three lines that you might hear if you tell someone that they are being homophobic/sexist/racist online:
‘If you take offence to something I say, it’s your problem, not mine.’
‘It’s called free speech.’
‘Stop being so politically correct.’
Each has been taken from my feed. None were provoked by me. These, for the most part, are not shameful things to say. They are lines designed to make the opponent feel like a petty aggressor suppressing an individual’s entitlement to an opinion. Each is a symptom of anti-intellectualism. They are the defensive slurs of the stupid. And social media is making it worse.
Chances are that if you’ve been a student in the last forty years you’ve read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, a dystopian masterwork which considers the possibility that through surveillance and politics we will become slaves. It’s a stern warning against totalitarianism and the oppression of the individual. We fear this future, so much so that a word has entered the public sphere: Orwellian. The result? A culture governed by the acute desire for individuality.
Cue social media. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter: each allows the user to be the petty tyrant of their own kingdoms of friends and followers. Every day 500 million ideas are tweeted into the twittersphere. With every ‘retweet’ and ‘like’ the person posting is granted a sense of gratification. There’s no ‘dislike’ button to challenge an idea. Comments, for the most part, can go unread. Consequently, social media has created a space where our opinions are caressed into confident beliefs, no matter how moronic or poorly thought out they may be.
Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a Professor of Business Psychology at University College London, contends ‘lower self-confidence makes you pay attention to negative feedback and be self-critical.’ Conversely, confident people will be less receptive to ideas that challenge them. From experience this is true; the more likes, the more intense the vitriol when somebody is critiqued. This by-the-numbers confidence is problematic as it validates shallow ideas without any real considered arguments to back a thought up.
In Australia we live in a fiercely anti-intellectual culture. In the words of Alecia Simmonds, ‘We prefer home-spun wisdom to years of research.’ ‘Any idea that takes longer than a nano-second to understand is howled down.’ Hence, when accosted by complex ideas—like feminism or analysing social problems through the lens of economics and social conditions—people are dismissive. By reducing our access to ideas to 140 characters or similar we limit our capacity to engage with intelligent thoughts or ideas. It feeds into a culture of simplistic understandings. It evokes Orwell’s theory of Newspeak; with fewer words our ability for thought diminishes. But worst of all it means that bigoted, poorly considered opinions are left unchallenged; complex ideas need more words—and sometimes a hyperlink just doesn’t cut it.
I’m not saying social media is all bad: on a whole its effects socially and politically have been tremendously positive. I have opinions. Most of them will change, because I’m young, ill-informed and there’s still so much to know. I think this is important: staying open to the notion that you could always be wrong. If someone likes your post, don’t let it go to your head. If someone challenges you: give it a thought. Chances are you might learn something, even if it’s that you were right all along.
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