Monday, December 3, 2018

Free Speech is Costly

A few years ago, I was an active commenter on a blog.  For a while, it was a terrific place for me to frequent.  I admired the author’s writings a lot.  There were several commenters whom I enjoyed interacting with.  But something happened over time.  I started witnessing several negative, hurtful, sometimes distasteful comments.  There were a handful of people who abused the comforts that anonymity afforded them.  A subset of these comments was directed at me – I had clearly set up myself for this.  In my comments, I would come across as righteous, indignant and, worst of all, sensitive.  I thought that I was doing the right thing in standing up for fellow commenters, spouting philosophies on what I believed the rules of the online universe must be.  After a while, I decided that I would not be part of that blog anymore.  And I signed off with a rather dramatic, longwinded comment.  My experience on that blog was an unforgettable one.  And as is the case with key experiences in life, the exam came first, the lessons later. 

I thought of my experiences on that blog and what happened later while reading Mark Manson’s rather deceptively titled book, “The subtle art of not giving a f*ck.”  The book is a lot more profound than the seemingly flippant title suggests.  And one of the most thought provoking lines in the book flips the famous Spidey line.  Before I get to that, let’s start with the Spidey line – “With great power comes great responsibility.”  If my memory serves me right, I actually quoted Spidey in one of the several holier-than-thou comments that I had posted on that blog!  But let me hasten to add that I do not regret the fact that I said that.  Far from it.  I am glad that I voiced my opinion that the internet affords people the kind of freedom and liberation that can easily be misused.  People can be brutally honest, hurtfully blunt or tastelessly vulgar all without a care in the world.  Well, maybe not completely.  Cyber crime is serious business and people do get caught for serious crimes.  But what about the comments that are not a crime in the legal sense of the word?  Nobody is going to be charged with “verbal assault aided and abetted by sarcasm!”  I digress.  My comments on that blog were many a time a plea for decorum and civility.  The responses that I got were varied.

A number of people could sense that the pain I expressed was genuine – some of them are my great friends today.  Others – including the author of the blog – displayed tough love by saying that I was doing myself a disservice by coming across as touchy.  That I had to accept the fact that the online sphere was going to always have people that would misuse the freedom and prey on folks that are openly expressing the remnant scars left by prickly words - well-meaning advice for sure.  A small set of people gleefully enjoyed the anonymity and subject me to verbal volleys which now seem funny when I think of them but no, I wasn’t laughing then!  After a while, as I said earlier, I quit.  I was steadfast in my refusal to veer away from my beliefs.  In the past 2 ½ years, I have been writing a lot more regularly for my own blog than was the case before.  I still do follow the author’s writings but of course, have not left a single comment on his blog, the comments section of which, I am happy to say, has become a lot more civil over time.  So yes, all is well now.

But at the time I ‘quit’ the blog, I definitely felt hurt and downbeat.  I had done one thing that Manson wrote about in his book even before I read it.  But I wish I had done one other thing that he so passionately describes in his book.  The thing that I did followed one of Manson’s deeply affecting lines – “Negative emotions are a call to action.”  Very soon after my rather dramatic final comment on that blog, I decided that I would revitalize my own blog and use it as an avenue of honest expression, be it on films or people that have made a difference in my life.  That part worked out well.  So, what did I not do?

What I didn’t do is summarized by a sentiment expressed in Manson's book in lines of differing lengths but of similar depth.  One is the aforementioned flipping of the Spidey line.  Manson writes, “With great responsibility, comes great power.”  The other line that expresses a similar sentiment is, “We get to control what our problems mean based on how we choose to think about them, the standard by which we choose to measure them.”  While I was a part of that blog, I didn’t exert full control of myself.  While I was responsible as a commenter, I was not taking responsibility for my reactions towards the reactions that resulted from my actions.  I depended on people’s good graces and expected people to interpret my words with the intent that was behind them.  I did not say to myself, “Okay, if I sound earnest and directly, even if civilly, call people out, some are bound to retaliate.”  I worried as much about people’s perceptions of me as I did of what I wanted to express honestly.  In Manson’s words, I did not have the “control” to define what the problem meant to me.  I have made this mistake in some relationships too, not being content with my authentic expressions of affection but also in craving relevance in the way I define it.  There, right there, I lose “control” when I shift my gaze away from an inward focus.  But owing to thoughtful well-wishers and insightful books, I sincerely feel like I know what I must continue to work on, in order to silently experience the power and lightness that comes from taking full ownership of actions and a level-headed awareness of varied reactions that can result. 

In the recent past, I witnessed two unrelated instances - actor Prasanna and singer and MeToo activist Chinmayi – of celebrities being subject to vile comments on Twitter.  Both responded with guts, gumption and grace.  Instead of stooping to the lows plumbed by the originator of the abhorrent comments, they displayed the kind of “control” that Manson describes.  Of course, the comments would have caused them pain.  But their responses showed that they were willing to face the unfortunate realities of the online world.  I can only hope that the voices, also anonymous in their own way, that came out in support of them must have warmed their hearts at least a little. 

Until the day comes when people realize that abusing free speech is bound to have costly implications for others, I can only hope that we all empower ourselves with the priceless riches of self-control, self-preservation, an unwavering focus on our own values and genuine ways of expressing those values.  That way, even if we don’t ace every one of life’s exams, we can at least be well-prepared to get through them relatively unscathed! 


Anu Warrier said...

I think one of the mistakes you make is to conflate free speech with civility - online or in real life. Because 'free speech' is the same for you as for the other person. Free speech doesn't mean that someone can't disagree with you, for instance, or call you out on what you said. If you have the right to ask for civility (or whatever), the other person has the right to respond rudely or otherwise. Whether you want to continue to respond or not has nothing to do with free speech per se.

Online rules of civility is an oxymoron. People feel emboldened to be rude because, so often, they hide behind anonymity. They will say things they would not have the guts to say openy to someone's face.

A lot of the flak you got was because of the perception of you policing a space that was not yours. Of course, it all went haywire from then on, and I don't blame you for getting out. The level of sycophancy sometimes sickens me.

Right now, I think I'm everyone's favourite punching bag. :)

Ram Murali said...

Anu, thank you for your prompt, thoughtful response. You raise several valid points. I'll just react to a couple of your points:

"If you have the right to ask for civility (or whatever), the other person has the right to respond rudely or otherwise."
--> Fair enough. I just feel that free speech, as the term suggests, gives one 'freedom' to talk or write the way they want. I honestly think that asking for civility is not the same expression of that freedom as responding rudely - one is attacking a problem, the other is attacking the person. But I TOTALLY agree with your point that one will lead to the other. That's what I confessed to, in my write-up, not having prepared myself adequately for when I was active on that blog.

"Online rules of civility is an oxymoron."
--> My refusal to accept that is what led to my eventual exit from that blog. Now I know better. Even if my beliefs haven't changed, I feel more confident in taking responsibility for handling reactions that stem from any comments that I might make. You should see some of the comments that Chinmayi gets on Twitter. She handles it with tremendous guts. I feel that as much as the urge to fight/resist tasteless comments will have to come from within for the attacked people to feel truly empowered, it is equally my responsibility to voice my support for the ones that are attacked unfairly. If it means my being targeted even if in a small way, that's okay. People I support are subject to a lot more tasteless / hurtful comments.

"Right now, I think I'm everyone's favourite punching bag. :)"
--> LOL! :) But jokes apart, I hope that you don't stop commenting on that blog - you are one of the star commenters there.

Anonymous said...

I honestly think that asking for civility is not the same expression of that freedom as responding rudely

It isn't. But civility and incivility both come under 'free speech'. Secondly, there's a huge issue about free speech that no one really seems to understand. 'Free Speech' and the right to the same is only enshrined in the US Constitution. For much of the rest of the world, we believe that 'free speech' is a definitive part of democracy. So, 'free speech' really only means that democratic governments cannot stop their citizens from voicing an opinion. That *governments* cannot take legal action against citizens for speaking up against them.

It does NOT mean that anyone can say anything anywhere. For instance, on my blog, I can shut down someone who speaks in a rude or profane manner. You can shut me down if you don't agree with something I say - I can scream bloody murder about 'free speech' but I cannot issue a legal challenge against you.

it is equally my responsibility to voice my support for the ones that are attacked unfairly.

Yes, it is. It should be. Rahini called that out the last time, interestingly in a comment against MANK, where she reminded people that when a poster named anon something-or-the-other trolled her outright, none of the men had stood up for her. I'm usually left alone to fight my battles as well. And some of the attacks against me have been personal and vicious. My only defence is to reiterate facts and respond in a civil manner.

I don't understand that mentality myself - of keeping quiet. If someone is being unfairly attacked, speak up. You don't have to be rude yourself, and many a time the attacked people are capable of handling things on their own, but that support is very welcome. It makes you feel you are not alone. Madan, Siva, and Srinivas have been pretty stellar in that respect.

Ram Murali said...

Anonymous - fantastic points on democracy and the difference between the US vs. the rest of the world. That was a nuance that I hadn't quite grasped. Thank you for elaborating on that.

Baradwaj Rangan said...

Thank you for sending me this link, Ram.

As the owner/moderator of a blog with increasingly less time on my hands, I feel like a kindergarten teacher overseeing a bunch of boisterous kids. I cannot see why people can't be civil when addressing others -- but that is a larger argument, not just about one blog but about the world.

I've often debated whether to shut down the comments space or to leave it open in the hope that some kind of self-moderation will happen. It's inevitable that some people get hurt.

It's good that you have risen from the ashes, so to speak. I had my trial by fire too, and I am a stronger person for it. Strength isn't always built in the gym, I guess :-)

Best wishes.

Zola said...

(Paula Pokrifki ): “And what do you do Mayo the Wop ?”

(Zack Mayo) : “In 13 weeks I’ll learn to fly jets. And what do YOU do Paula the Polack ?”

(Paula Pokrifki) : “I’m saving up money to travel around the world….IMPROVE myself…”

(Zack Mayo) : “Improve yourself ?.....then read thinkinggotloud.blogspot instead “

Ram Murali said...

Mr. Rangan - thank you so much for your kind words. I really appreciate it.

Zola - :))

Zola said...

Astounding comments here !

I don't think I'll ever be able to achieve this level of critical thought or articulation. Way to go !