Monday, 24 July 2017

There is no middle ground online

This is the story of something that happened to me recently on Twitter that brought home to me the way that the public sphere has become radically polarised in the era of mass participation. It was a few days ago and I had seen someone in my stream retweet a comment about Clinton Pryor - the Aboriginal man who is walking across Australia to raise awareness of issues surrounding his community - and I replied saying that I thought it was a waste of time, the era of protest is over and other forms of communication are needed now. This is what I think. So we started to discuss the matter, the other party being a human rights lawyer, and because I felt that he was just rehashing old arguments I got a bit angry and told him to show more respect for my intelligence.

The thread started to gain attention and people began to attack me for questioning Pryor's undertaking. I had touched a nerve, and this is the way it is online with certain issues to do with identity politics. People take these things very personally and if you even cast doubt over a cherished belief you have to be prepared for a full-scale pile-on.

I stopped participating in the discussion eventually because it was all becoming a bit too hot. I tend to do this when I don't want to get involved in something. The same thing happened earlier this year with my involvement with a group of people promoting the public profile of the Myall Creek Memorial, which was set up in 2000 to commemorate the Myall Creek massacre that happened in 1838 in New England. I had gone along to a number of the annual gatherings outside Inverell - they're held on the Queen's Birthday weekend every year - and then I had started to go along to the meetings held in Sydney by supporters here. I'd offered to open a Twitter account and had started tweeting from it but I didn't know what to say most of the time so I started asking other group members for suggestions when we met in the CBD. One person responded but the rest of the group ignored my request.

This wasn't the only reason I stopped going to meetings, but it was a major deciding factor for me. I felt that the Twitter account should be a group effort, and that it was unreasonable to put the entire burden of running it on one person. But there were other things that bothered me about the push. One meeting of the group was held in Bingara, near the memorial site. Most of the Sydney group travelled there by car to participate in the meeting and everyone was hoping to meet up with people from the local area who are also involved. But none of those people turned up, even though it was only a short drive to Bingara from the other towns. I felt let down. Why had the Sydney friends put in so much effort and the local Aborigines hadn't even bothered to show up?

I stopped going to the meetings. I felt that people were being let down and that the civic responsibility of participants was not being adequately valued. It was easier for me to just stop going to meetings, rather than to kick up a fuss. So when I started being attacked on social media I did the same thing: I just shut up.

But this is the way things are online. Noone at the beginning of this phase of the social project could have imagined that debate would be dumbed down to this extent, once the great mass of people started to get involved online. But it's what has happened. Nuanced thinking and considered approaches are ignored or deliberately misconstrued. You are either with us or against us, they seem to be saying. It can be disheartening.


Matt said...

"People take these things very personally"

This is true. Twitter is a terrible medium for having nuanced discussions about anything. It's like being in a bar where everyone is really drunk - people get lit up about anything. Which I why I rarely use it for sensible discussions.

From what you've said, it sounds like you lost your rage a bit too (and this is not to invalidate either your own feelings or your opinions). If you could have that conversation again, what would you have done differently?

Now I happen to think there is still a place for symbolic protest such as Clinton Pryor's but such efforts do not always yield their intended outcome. There is room for debate here.

"Why had the Sydney friends put in so much effort and the local Aborigines hadn't even bothered to show up?"

That is a really interesting question that probably should be asked. It might be that they would rather focus on their current issues rather than commemorate the past. It might be that they don't care. It might be that they don't want to hang out with a bunch of blow-ins from Sydney. There are all kinds of answers.

"You are either with us or against us"

Now I am a greedy man - so the answer for me is always "both".

I intend to be the ultimate transgressive edgelord on Twitter - and start listening to other people. I am *such* a bad ass.

Matthew da Silva said...

The Aborigines around New England have been involved in the Myall Creek Memorial from before the commemorative stone was donated by Transfield and set up on the road to Bingara. Several of the local elders had been deeply involved in the site from the beginning therefore. So it wasn't that they didn't have an interest. I don't know what the problem was but it was very frustrating for me. I had driven all the way to New England from Sydney, and would drive back the same way on the return home. And booked overnight into a motel. Others did the same. I cannot see any reason why the locals couldn't spend half a day travelling from Moree or Glen Innes ...

Matt said...

This is obviously really bugging you. Drop them an email or give them a call & find out what's going. There might have been some Sorry Business or something.