Monday 23 May 2022

Want to stop hate culture? Stop spreading it

This article first appeared on Malta Today 

I am feeling rather wistful about that Twitter employee who, on the last day of his job, deactivated Donald Trump’s Twitter account in a last, final gesture of bravado and defiance. He has been hailed, as you probably know by now, as a true hero. Trump is one of the many people with a social media account (whether Twitter or Facebook) who really should have it forcibly removed from their hands because they have no idea how to use it properly.

By “properly” I mean, of course, not using it to spout drivel, attack the free press, incite hatred and violence or talk casually about foreign policy – not when you are the President of the United States. But let us leave the US to sort out its own problems, because Lord knows they have enough of their own.

The reason I’m wistful is that I wish this anonymous staff member could somehow find a way to become employed with FB and do us all an enormous favour, by deactivating a couple of FB accounts here. If I ever need to provide any examples of why I would take this drastic step, I never have to wait very long or look very far, for they are quick to present themselves with depressing regularity. Take the guy who this week wrote that he would be happy to see the protestors (who are advocating for the Police Commissioner and the AG to resign) being run over by a truck. A stupid, irresponsible and highly inflammatory remark if there ever was one, especially in the current climate.

People reported the comment to the Police, it was quickly deleted, and the last I checked this person’s account was no longer active, so it seems action was swift. When are FB users going to learn that this is not some corner bar when you can crack a few dark, black humour and downright distasteful jokes with your like-minded friends and get away with it? This is an extremely public platform, and sometimes I feel like I’m at a Christmas Panto where I went to shout out to the Baddie who is trying, but failing, to hide, “we can all see you!”

But there is another aspect to these people who use FB to stir up trouble with reckless comments which can potentially incite hatred, and in some cases, violence: why are those who are so upset by them determined to give them even more publicity by sharing them? The comment predictably went viral, and people took screenshots to make sure that they would continue to be able to share it, accompanied naturally, by equally abusive remarks of their own. It seems to me to be a contradiction that on the one hand you deplore such comments, and the next minute you are indirectly glorifying them by making sure they are seen by a wider audience, with the intention being to invite opprobrium to be hurled at the person who made the original remark. It is also pretty inconsistent to denounce hate speech only to hit back with more of your own, because we are trapping ourselves in a never-ending cycle.

There are those who argue that it is good that this spiteful malice (which is known by that very descriptive word, ħdura) is being exposed, but I do not agree. Please someone enlighten me as to what we have actually achieved by making it so easy to publicly read the innermost thoughts of those who think about others in this way. I wish someone would explain to me whether, by pouring the vitriol which some hold in their hearts against those they do not agree with politically, onto online fora, our uneasy existence with one another on this tiny rock has become better or worse. Over the last few weeks, the adjectives and insults hurled back and forth have made Facebook so toxic, the fumes practically emanate from the screen. Logging off and stepping away from the online community, you almost feel the need to take a shower and go outside for some fresh air where you can breathe.

Let me make it clear that I am no Santa Maria Goretti and I have never pretended to be. I am not saying I never think or even privately say things which would make your ears turn blue when someone or something pisses me off. But when I am online I restrain myself, and believe me sometimes it takes a huge amount of effort to do so, especially when I read things which are untrue, unfair and in some cases, so hypocritical that I would need quite a large number of buckets to contain the contents of my breakfast, lunch and dinner. But restrain myself I must, because otherwise I would just get sucked into the ugly vortex that I am determined to stay out of.

I. for one, have never shared anything hateful, no matter where it originated from, and I refuse to do so. I may refer to it when I write in order to make a point as I’m doing here, but by actually sharing it myself and giving it space and prominence on my timeline, I would simply be buying into what the person who wrote it most wants: to be talked about. Why do we insist on glorifying hatred while simultaneously claiming we are shocked by it? Why are we normalizing hate speech by constantly referring to it, making news stories out if it, taking screen shots to preserve it for eternity, to prove some kind of twisted point that the “others” are more hateful than we are? It seems to me that examples such as the one I quoted above are latched on to with a kind of triumphant glee, as if to “prove” how right one is in looking at disdain and sheer contempt at the people they don’t agree with.
It reaffirms their prejudice, it reassures them that they are in the right. But surely, if we want to clamp down on this kind of discourse, the last thing we should be doing is drawing more attention to it? Report it to the authorities, yes, definitely, where necessary, but magnifying it is certainly not helping for it to decrease.

There is also another point which must be made – none of this hatred is really new. It is simply more public. The mutual partisan hate has always been there, simmering just beneath the surface, sometimes lowered to a barely discernible flame, and sometimes ignited even further by those whose sole intent is to keep this nation divided in order to seize power. The only difference is that whereas before FB we may have suspected what other people may really think, now we know for sure, because they are busy and loudly telling us. The freedom which social media has given us to say whatever we like has been a double-edged sword, allowing us to connect with those “like us”, while at the same time giving us an often uncomfortable peek into the window of Malta’s various sub-cultures, revealing to us, warts and all how others “not like us” reason, think and feel.

It is for this reason that people prefer to stay within their safe social bubble (which is after all why FB was first created), settling happily into a nice comfort zone where everyone agrees. Until, that is, someone shares a screen shot of hate, and the aggression towards “the other” is stirred up all over again.

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