I love the convenience, I love that I am able to view amazing images of the Philae lander, for example, or read really inspiring work, or listen to people making music in their loungerooms. These are things I might otherwise never have seen, or if I had, only when the television showed them to me. The internet is truly wonderful.
But sometimes, I need a break from it, because in among all that wonderful knowledge, there is a whole lot of annoying stupidity.
And sure, I guess the internet has been a platform which is unedited and open to everyone with a connection, so there is going to be a range of views and opinions and perspectives with which I don’t agree. But I’m more concerned, not so much with those opinions with which I don’t agree, and more with those with which I normally would agree, but for the way in which they’re phrased.
Our day-to-day lives are enriched by other people’s experiences, whether that is online or in person, and through the internet, I’ve come into contact with many people whom I might otherwise never have met. This has meant I’ve learnt about all sorts of different issues which I don’t ever meet in my regular life. And that’s fantastic! I’m now much more educated about questions of sexuality, gender, racism, equality, privilege. I understand more about cultural issues in different parts of the world. I am happy to have learnt these things via the people on the internet.
And yet… now, I feel as though there is an insidiousness to internet culture that I didn’t always see, and it’s that which makes me sometimes stop and think, ‘Whoa. I might just withdraw into the real world for a while, here, because this is getting too weird.’
I was reading something the other day and someone said some disclaimer at the beginning of a comment about acknowledging white privilege. The commenter then went on to discuss racism, and I was left wondering, Why is it necessary to first acknowledge the white privilege? Is it so that the person who posted the comment could appear to be more enlightened? Quite possibly, the commenter was just trying to be polite, to acknowledge their own position. But I wondered why it’s now a necessity: You need to stand up and say, ‘Let’s first establish that I have it really good. OK, now I am allowed to make a comment about racism/sexism/poverty/gender issues/politics…’ WHY. Is the comment otherwise null and void? Do we really have to be that careful with our speech now?
I think for the same reason I find the ‘Check Your Privilege’ meme so irritating. Because I do understand that there is privilege, of course I do. Just the mere fact that I’m white and speak English fluently as a first language, those two things about which I had no choice and which open so many doors for me (and more importantly, don’t slam doors in my face) are a massive advantage in a world which values, very highly, whiteness, and fluency in English. And there are a whole lot of other areas where I know I have an advantage because of the way I am and the way the world is.
So to throw ‘Check Your Privilege’ around bothers me because it uses the same broad brushstrokes of assumption about people’s situations which is used to target people of colour or people on the QUILTBAG spectrum or people who are poor. The irony doesn’t escape my notice, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.
Check my privilege? I do. I am aware of my whiteness, of my place in a developed nation, of my education and my sexuality and my gender and my fertility and my able bodiedness. But as Ariel Meadow Stallings points out in the Guardian, simply using ‘check your privilege’ to shut down an argument is petty and ignores the real issues being debated. It seems to demonstrate, as she writes:
The need to process it all publicly (“Look at me look at me look at meeee! I am the very MOST aware of my privilege and am therefore the very BEST progressive on the entire internet!”)
It is as if many on the internet now see it as a kind of sport. They are expecting, even waiting, to be offended, and whether it’s due to the clickbait we’ve come to accept for news headlines, or whether because we have been driving that clickbait ourselves through our own behaviour, all of it simply makes for a nasty atmosphere. An atmosphere which appears to be one of tolerance and open-mindedness and with a desire to further social change, but underneath is still full of the bullying, righteousness and shaming which it purports to reject.
I read an article just yesterday about the impact of the internet and other computer technology on our children’s brain development. The researcher, Susan Greenfield, argues that the way which the world is presented to our children online is different from the physical world, and that our children, lacking the experience in the real world, do not make the same connections as previous generations might have.
“If you’re a very young person,” Greenfield says, “and you haven’t developed, let’s say, a robust sense of identity, you haven’t got interpersonal skills, then clearly we’re going to see changes that we might not see in someone who’s older.”
Of course, this is not new, but she added something which I thought was particularly important with regards to social media. Greenfield argues that connecting with friends and family around the world is a wonderful use of social media, however, when it’s with people we don’t really know in person, the connection is not one of friendship, but rather of an audience.
“You are out to entertain and seek their approval and the danger lies then in constructing an artificial identity that’s not really you at all. […] Everything you do is done for the approval and to impress this audience, who inevitably will be vicious and nasty because they’re not constrained by face-to-face communication.”
That’s the key, isn’t it? When we don’t know people, we can shame them, we can attack them, we can demonise them, with little impact on our own consciences. Even when those people might have otherwise agreed with us, we want to seem like we’re right, we want our audience to acknowledge us, to shower us with virtual praise, sometimes to the detriment of someone else.
And when I think that perhaps that’s happening a little too often, it’s time to disconnect, and spend time in the world, and realise that the internet is a wonderful tool, but it’s certainly no substitute for reality, or people, or face-to-face discussions.
Sometimes, it’s just time to take a step back and be authentic.