October 3, 2010 by Rhi
Freedom of speech is a right which we in “The West” are mostly fortunate enough to be able to take for granted, (we’ll leave debates over current libel laws aside for the moment). But most people temper this right with a sense of conscience. The same sense that stops us insulting people to their faces, unless they know us well enough to take a joke. Most decent (British) people go out of their way to avoid confrontation for the sake of social harmony. But every so often someone says something (in my case, usually my Gran whilst reading the Daily Fail) that you feel compelled to disagree with. Sometimes, with some opinions, it falls on people of the “opposite side” to call people to account. Especially when the opinions being expressed denigrate other people who aren’t there to answer for themselves.
The written word is a different case however. Often, it’s the very act of committing things to print which makes them take on a whole new reality. Jan Moir, for example, could have said her comments about Stephen Gately at a dinner party, where they would no doubt have elicited a sharp intake of breath, a few embarrassed looks, and the host muttering “More tiramasu, anyone?” in an attempt to cover up a very embarrassing faux pas. However, by committing them to print (in a national newspaper, no less), her comments took on a more sinister tone. Perhaps its a naive assumption that, when writing something down, there is more opportunity to consider your own opinions. And when something is in print – whether than be actual or electronic – it is preserved for posterity. The written word is a powerful tool which has shaped civilisations. People SAY all sorts of things in the heat of the moment. And spoken opinions can be denied at a later date. But putting it out there, in black and white, for anyone to read, says a lot more. It’s an irrefutable attempt to document your own take on a subject. Whether it be for posterity (for example, a diary documenting an actual event) or for discussion. Once it’s there, in glorious 12pt Times New Roman, there’s very little opportunity to go back and say “Ah, actually, that’s not what I meant at all…”
Blogging is a bit of a grey area, however. For example, in these pitiful ramblings, I have a mix of personal experience, opinion, and ranting. It’s just a place for me to get things off my chest. I enjoy the fact that my words are here, for anyone to read, at any time (not that they do…). I might not re-think every phrase, but before committing type to screen, I do have a strong idea of what I’m going to say. It’s important – the comments section at the bottom is not just there for people to say hello. If someone disagrees with my opinion, they can tell me so. Comments have to be moderated on WordPress – but I would never not accept a comment merely because it disagreed with my own. And I certainly wouldn’t take offence if someone did disagree with me. Because one of the key things about putting things out into the blogosphere, is that anyone can read it. Once it’s out there, you lose the right to privacy. I am a great believer that, if you only want to hear nice things about yourself, don’t ask for other people’s opinions.
It’s a bit like getting upset after asking “Does my bum look big in this?” and the entire changing room replying “FUCK! IT’S A TALKING WHALE!!!”
Of course, not everyone has to be as open as I am. Some people take these things to heart. But I do question the motives of someone who would write about personal situations and feelings, and then attempt to cherry pick only those opinions which suit their argument. Provided comments are on topic, and don’t resort to personal insults, why would someone not have the courage of their convictions to let it stand? Why would you blog on a controversial subject, only to remove comments which disagree with your point of view? And why invite comments in the first place, if you are certain you will hear something you’d rather you didn’t?
This, of course, is only my view. I find it incredibly frustrating when I read something which casts a large part of our society in a bad light – the rantings of a religious fanatic, for example. Or some strange person who thinks the moon landings never happened – and when I attempt to hold their opinions to account with fact, my words are censored at source. Why HAVE an opinion if not to encourage debate? My ideas and opinions are honed and strengthened through questioning and considering the counter argument as much as my own take on things. If I believe strongly in something, it’s because I have debated it thoroughly with others of differing views. Otherwise, it’s like saying “I don’t like mushrooms” when you’ve never tasted one. Without considering the other side of the argument, how can you be so sure you’re in the right? Without having answers to the counterarguments, how can you be convinced that your way is the right way? And how can you think that, by doing the written equivalent on sticking your fingers in your ears, you are somehow protecting yourself from the nasty people across the river?
Not everyone is as thick skinned as I am, nor as happy to be questioned in their deeply held beliefs. Others will probably see their output as something altogether more sacred. Something they use for cathartic expression, and who hold the view that putting their thoughts in the public domain does not mean they are duty bound to accept others criticism of their opinion. In which case, I would suggest to them that content is paramount. Don’t try to hold yourself in such high esteem, by calling into question the conduct and morals of others, without being willing to quantify those opinions with some form of debate. Your opinions, combined with your unwillingness to allow them to be questioned (especially when some of those opinions are considered reprehensible and beyond reproach to a large number of people in society) will result in a fairly damning judgement against you. And if you are happy with that – if you exist in such a happy little bubble that your opinions are not even worthy of defending – then stick to writing a diary in private. The rest of us have enough shit to sort out, without reading your crap.
Comments are, of course, welcome below.