Wednesday, 14 January 2015

respect and the ‘right’ to speak

Lately events in my small universe and the world at large have prompted me to question the value of our much lauded democratic right to ‘say what we fucking like’. Years ago I would have defended that right to the death. Now I wouldn’t. Simply because, as a child of a democracy, I must defend everyone’s rights equally, and not every opinion is equal in its worth.

Facebook has been the catalyst. In its anonymity and remoteness from real world consequence it is a mecca for the opinionated and disrespectful. As a result I have recently withdrawn from several conversations, pages and a group.

The first incident was brought about by a comment I made regarding the acknowledgement of an artist’s work on a UK digital magazine’s FB page. I guess I could have been a bit less confrontational, but this magazine purported to be a ‘professional’ organisation and, as an artist, intellectual property infringements make my blood boil. The conversation went as follows:

Michelle Frantom: I think your magazine is awesome, but it seems as though this article has work in it that belongs to someone else (see Bert Schipper's comment). If that's the case, you really need to get your act together re referencing and copyright issues. There is way too much of this sort of thing going on on the internet. Please make sure you reference a designer's or artist's work - it's in everyone's interests.

Magazine: Michelle, can you clarify what you are referring to here? And where is Bert Schipper's comment?

The conversation got waylaid after that – the page regulator clearly missed the point I was trying to make and I just got frustrated.

I got no further response on FB but I did get, almost immediately, a dodgy e-mail with no text and a link via my website contact page. Call me paranoid, but I didn’t click on it because I was in no doubt who it was from and that its intention was malicious and viral. I Googled the magazine and discovered they were quite dodgy – they had appropriated their name from a reputable design organisation in the US to begin with.

Since then I have been more careful about making comments on FB, yet I was still attacked as a right winger for commenting on the issue of population growth and parental responsibility. I withdrew my comment and myself from that conversation too.

Today I got embroiled in an art page conversation after I made a comment supporting a post by someone who was making a point about professional integrity. When things got personal again, I messaged the page manager to thank her and opted out of the group.

Free speech is one thing, but real dialogue and the constructive exchange of ideas is being shouted down by: 

1. political correctness and 

2. self-obsessed and opinionated egoists.

In the democratic West we feel we have a God-given right to speak, even an obligation, to share our superior knowledge. Except that we are very often ill-informed and dissent is not even a possibility. I do not condone the shootings at Charlie Hebdo headquarters, but I can understand why it happened. How has satirising the iconic figures of some very dysfunctional politico-religious groups so soon after the shootings assisted in getting those disengaged people to the discussion table? It hasn’t – it has alienated them even more. Of course they are radicals, but the West needs to take responsibility for the fact that it has inflamed the situation by being so damned sure it was right in the first place.

I can’t remember if it was Plato or Socrates who wrote about the ‘rule of the shouting masses’, but it seems to me that this is what we have descended into. I have joined a political group called the Australian Progressives. I will probably vote Green as I usually do, but I support passionate dialogue so I signed up as a founding member so they could get started. So far this group has been having some really civilised, sensible and socially responsible discussions about what sort of country we want to live in as they develop their policies. But even here, individuals get shouted down if what they say does not fit the politically correct cultural canon which implies:

You can’t suggest people have less children, you must support all asylum seekers and refugees and you aren’t allowed to raise concerns about cultural incompatibilites. You have to support the current health system, even if you think the country can’t afford it and many people are clogging up doctor’s surgeries when they don’t really need to be there (cue personal health responsibility lecture). As an Aussie, you must love the flag and not criticise the rednecks who have several streaming from their car windows on Australia Day (my least favourite public holiday) I could go on – but these are the sorts of issues that get hijacked and shut down when someone tries to have a sensible conversation.

Currently in the West there is a ridiculous dichotomy – you are entitled to say what you think, give your often uneducated opinion on every bloody issue even if you are a moron BUT, God help you if you cross the line. You will be called a racist, a xenophobe, a feminist, a misogynist, a communist, a barren bitch or a homophobic.

On radio national the other day someone said something about the right to free speech, about how maybe we should question whether what we are about to say is going to actually contribute anything to the conversation. Of course disagreement can be useful, because conflict and debate are important and should eventually lead to compromise. Instead, there are so many shouting voices, so many ill-informed, ego-driven individuals with their own agenda that dissenting yet wise voices are not being heard.

At the basis of it all is a fundamental lack of respect for others. The West’s disrespect for anything that isn’t democracy is naturally opposed by those who’s alternatives are not even considered worthy enough to talk about. I don’t support oppression or dictators, but when my friends tell me that capitalism is the best of a bad bunch - I can’t agree with them. Capitalism encourages and justifies exploitation. And that’s the other significant point I want to make here – Capitalism and Democracy have become so inextricably entwined it is difficult to evaluate them independently. Capitalism is not Democracy and vice versa. Democracy serves capitalism but it is not a reciprocal relationship.

Do we have a right to speak out? Even if it hurts someone’s feelings, or contributes to terrorism and war? Ideologically yes, everyone has a right to speak, but mindless, uninformed babble without some kind of constructive social or philosophical agenda does not serve the world. When in doubt, I try to think like a Buddhist: what is the intention?



  1. There is always the 'Unlike' button. I'm not on FB but I just noticed one on your image above. Not before time!

    Perhaps going back to narrative and story telling is the answer. Getting shouty on the internet does little but harden up others' opposition. A story usually works better to change hearts and minds.

  2. That's true Sarah. Facebook is fraught, but blogs are a bit of a one way conversation.

  3. Joan Campbell commented via e-mail:

    You make some very cogent points in your willingness to question everything. They will find like minds out there in the bloggosphere, wherever that is.

  4. Thanks Joan. It's tempting to stay out of the fray sometimes, but hiding out isn't going to change anything either. What to do....

  5. I'd like to be more committed to argument but it drains me. I've got into so much trouble on internet discussion forums over the years, the problem being the other arguers out there who are either better at it or simply more committed. It's hard not to sound aggressive when you need to be assertive and I think that's what wore me down. In the end I backed away thinking the world was full enough without my ten cents worth.

    Still, if I think something isn't right I'll make my point. Just won't argue it beyond a few words.

    I think Sarah's point about story telling is useful, but then she's gotten pretty good at it over the years. And I do agree, blogging is very much a one-way conversation, for the vast majority anyway.

    Ultimately, perhaps, it's just another part of the need for an audience, the desire for all concerned to be seen or heard. Your overly defensive magazine editor there unable to digest a minor criticism, so painful is it to be shot at when you've dared peer over the parapet in the first place.

  6. I agree Ciaran, argument is draining and I often think to myself: why do I bother?

    I have 2 responses to this type of thing: 1. a passionate commitment to change the world by engaging in debate and 2. taking the 'wise sage' position, retreating and leaving it to destiny/fate/karma.... Except that if I am part of the race, how can I not play? I figure that as long as someone is engaged, even if it is a bit tense, some form of communication is happening. The extreme alternative is that people stop engaging with those they disagree with, take a position 10 metres away and shoot. No chance for reconciliation there.

    Communicating online is fraught as you say, because assertive can be interpreted as aggressive. I am very careful with e-mails.

    Maybe one day I willl give up the fight.

  7. I'm not saying give-up. I'm just a whole lot more picky about the fights I get into and never stay long enough anymore for anyone to think I'm all hot-headed. Which, unfortunately, I can be.

    E-mails are also difficult and it's useful to have people at the other end who don't take offence so easily.

    Anyway, you're right. You have to engage, it's vital.

  8. I've tried Facebook, Twitter & G+, but couldn't stick with any of them. There was just so much ... crap.

    I don't have a passionate commitment to change the world through debate. I'm not even sure that's possible. I'm more interested in finding people who can poke logical/factual holes in my ideas. I know there must be things I'm wrong about, I just don't know what those things are. And that drives me crazy if I think about it enough.

    Blogs don't have to be one-sided. The first one I ever read, the posts served as discussion starters, generating 100 comment debates, a few of which really changed my views. Of course, that change didn't come without some to & fro, and I often fear the discussion style I've cultivated is too aggressive (& the humour probably comes off as sarcastic and condescending). I guess what I'm doing is picking fights to see if anyone can knock me down. Quite self-serving when I think of it. And speaking of ...

    Currently in the West there is a ridiculous dichotomy – you are entitled to say what you think, [...] BUT, God help you if you cross the line. You will be called a racist, a xenophobe, a feminist [...]

    I don't think it's a dichotomy. Calling someone names is PART of being entitled to say whatever you want. And when people do it, they're not silencing you. Not unless you let them push you into shutting up. Presumably, those reading can still see what you write and make up their own minds. I understand that it can be discouraging or impede the type of conversation you want to have; but really, that's when you need a space with decent moderation tools and a like-minded moderator who's not afraid to use them. And if such a thing doesn't exist, you might just have to create it. Having said that, I have noticed a vibe coming from certain social-commentators and younger relatives, that if you can't find a receptive audience/peer-group on Twitter & Facebook, then you've effectively been "silenced" and "disenfranchised". Given the potential of the net, if those two things are now the totality of "free-speech", it's pretty sad.

    And I'm not sure I blame anonymity and lack of real-world consequences. When I think of the real world, it's full of people I can't stand or don't want to listen to. People I avoid talking with. I limit my interactions to those whom I at least find tolerable, forming a bubble of people whose opinions are not THAT different, or at least argue in a way I can deal with. Don't most people do this? I know people who've left organisations/clubs/jobs because they couldn't get on with others. At larger family gatherings, I see people break off into groups. They seek out those they know they can get along with and avoid those they can't. Often, if those people do rub up against each other, things get hostile. Name calling, people LITERALLY shout each other down, sometimes even fisticuffs. So to me, the world online is a pretty good reflection of the one outside.

    When social media started taking off, you couldn't swing a cat without hitting a techno-utopian-visionary who thought it was going to facilitate a global exchange of ideas that would solve the world's problems. But by and large, I don't think people are interested in others' ideas. They want others to tell them THEIR ideas are correct. Usually, the only time they take notice of a contrary position is if it comes from someone they subconsciously recognise as an authority-figure or herd-leader. So, if you're trying to change the world in a practical way, I have to question if debate is even an effective strategy. You're probably better off focusing on building up a community of devoted followers.

    There's a lot more in your post I would comment on, but I don't know how keen you are to go into it all.

  9. Thanks for your comments Alex - you raise some good points.

    The dichotomy for me is that we have a right to speak but that right is often not respected i.e. I can handle someone disagreeing with me, but there still needs to be respect. Labelling, name-calling and verbal abuse deny me my right to speak if I don't want to play the same game as the abuser. Any possible exchange of ideas is not possible when people are shouting or dismissing someone else's input. I know, because that is my habit - I grew up in that kind of household - and it has been very difficult for me to change that behaviour. If someone is abusive, my view is undermined by this person from the start because they have obviously dismissed it as being unworthy of consideration. That's how I read it anyway.

    Why bother? Why not just find people you agree with? Well, that is sensible but maybe a cop-out and yes, at times I retreat to that position too because I am fed up. Or better still, I just shut the fuck up altogether and don't bother talking to anyone - life is peaceful and I can float happily in the sea of my own delusions. This is another of my natural habits (believe it or not) My old 'guru' used to say: 'you can't be enlightened until everyone else is'. While there is conflict within me towards/with any other person it reveals something about me - other people are our reflection. So if I have problem with something or someone, it is encumbent on me to look to myself.

    Having a set of devoted followers doesn't interest or satisfy me - it's not about being admired, in fact, I don't like a lot of the attention. Artists are by nature mostly introverts (visual artists) I am embarassed by my own public reptuation - my reputation is just an unavoidable result of doing what I do reasonably well.

    You are right - maybe I should just give up on Facebook!

  10. I'm nobody special, and I'll let you know if I ever get that blog thing properly sorted out.

    I believe I understand what you're saying in your first paragraph, but I still see things a little differently. You have certain expectations about how you want to interact with other people, and that's fine, so do I. But I've also spent time hanging out on 4chan, which is a community that prides itself on having no rules and no respect for anything, and I think that's fine too. However, I agree there would be a problem if I and everyone else were FORCED to go to 4chan and abide by their way of doing things. I guess the issue here is that the big social networks are trying to be everything to everyone; and if they aren't providing tools that allow people to form "walled" groups with specific rules of engagement (and the ability to exclude people who break those rules) -- if instead, their vision is some techno-hipster bollocks about shoehorning EVERYONE into a single big conversation and letting different conversational styles compete with each other -- then I can't see them amounting to anything more than a massive clusterfuck. Now, since I don't use any of these networks, I can't say whether this is the case or not, but if it is, then it may very well be time to look around for alternatives.

    As for building up a following vs engaging in debate, I meant specifically from the view of trying to effect some sort of positive change in the world. If that's really a serious goal of yours, you might need to do things that are neither interesting nor satisfying. Besides, if the power goes to your head, you might find you quite enjoy it, eh?


    Also, I would like to know more about your thoughts on capitalism vs other economic models.

    1. Yes, I do have certain expectations about how I would like to interact with people. But I get the gloves off approach and think it's fine if adults agree on a 'no rules' policy and engage on that level. Just as I am not a swinger, but can't see a problem with couples who are, and a lot of other human activities. If people aren't being exploited, animals hurt or large amounts of resources needlessly wasted - anything goes really.

      If the big social networks are trying to be everything to everyone, then perhaps that is because they have a superficial commercial agenda, not because they are promoting a shared ideology about how the world might progress. I don't think they give a fuck about that.

      I have been in positions where I have had power - I don't actually like it because I don't necessarily want to feel responsible for what others think. I do want to put ideas out there and let them make up their own minds - I want to make them think about things because I believe consciousness evolves, if they don't think and take responsibility for what they think, we/they, the world will not be able to move forward. My favourite analogy is Plato's Cave.

      Re different economic models: I don't know much about it really, except what I see and think personally. The capitalist global economy model sucks because it isn't a level playing field. Which means where possible I support a 'village' economy where travel miles are few and there are less non-productive middlemen to make goods more costly for the privilege of storing and handling them. I try to shop local where I can, but I want to be able to have a computer and a car and the occasional esoteric book etc, so I am not doing it properly. I also think there can be fairness in pricing and that we need to pay the real cost i.e. the damage done to the environment during its production, use and unused waste. I have engaged in a bit of swapping services/paintings for stuff and really like that idea - of course it is not practical a lot of the time. Basically I detest the growth model because it is very destructive and I cheer every time the stock market falls.

  11. I agree that there's a lot of superficial commercial agendas going on with these big tech companies. However, on top of that, the guys who head these things are often riding a single massive success they've had in uni; they're not grounded in anything, and seem to think they're going to remake the world with their visionary genius.

    Whether that's more or less scary than being simply motivated by profit, I dunno.

    I wish you luck in getting your ideas out there, and getting people to be responsible and think for themselves. Even if I also think that such a task is probably more analogous to the tale of Sisyphus.

    I don't disagree with your general assessment of capitalism, but when you said you didn't agree with it being the best of a bad lot, I thought you might have had a solid idea for an alternative. At this point, I do support capitalism, but not the version seemingly espoused by both neo-conservatives and neo-liberals alike, that everything needs to be privatised and deregulated, and that government must never interfere or compete in the marketplace. I am not a supporter of the current model of globalised free-trade.

    I've become very interested in economics over the last couple of years, but still consider myself a novice.

    1. I reckon we affect each other all the time - we change opinions and get influenced by those we cross paths with. I accept that any changes I have made have been infinitesimal, but my partner hs this thing about 'sphere of influence'. I focus on that - one tiny step at a time. I've faciliated art workshops and guided people in art for decades. I know it changes lives. That's my gift - that's what I feel compelled to do. I visit a couple of my university students in a maximum security prison. 99% of the time I make little difference. But when I do - it's significant for me and for them. Doesn't mean they will ever integrate into society that well,'s about souls, not statistics. Helps to believe in reincarnation (as I do) if you intend following this line of thinking.

  12. I agree about the sphere of influence. You really can make a positive difference in the lives of people when they respect your opinions and think of you as having some sort of authority (ie: that you know what you're talking about).

    But that goes back to what I was getting at before. If you want to effect greater positive change, you might have better luck doing it by actively expanding that sphere of influence -- building up that number of people who respect you enough to listen -- rather than going out and hitting your head against a wall by challenging people who have no compulsion to even listen.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is that, I think unless we're making some sort of special effort, we're more likely to listen to people than we are to ideas. If a friend tells me something, I'm more likely to give it serious consideration than if some hawker yells the same thing at me on the street. Which makes me think the trick to getting a message out is to win the respect of people (ie: increase that sphere of influence).

    1. I agree re your comment about authority. I find I have to earn the respect of my students every time I get a new class (which is every 6 months) - it gets really tiring. By the end of the semester they accept that I do know something after all.

      And you are also right about hitting your head against a wall. Maybe I like the challenge, but I always find I am working with people who are quite resistant. Having a following is kind of preaching to the converted. Often I spend a lot of time and effort trying to turn around individuals who others have given up on. I'm not interested in a political party type scenario - I tend to work with individuals. I guess I am not really trying to change the world, just individuals, so they can make changes to their own lives and then the world. It works best like that for me anyway.

    2. BTW, I checked out 4chan. Interesting concept. And some great artwork there.

  13. I see. I am also not trying to change the world. Although, sometimes I do feel guilty about that. That I'm not doing something I should be. Especially whenever I'm confronted with examples of things getting worse.

    Also, as a teacher, I imagine it must be frustrating to only get through to someone right before your time with them ends.


    I haven't been to 4chan in a while, so things might have changed, but it used to represent a sort of best-and-worst of the internet. Amazing humour, insights, and creativity, coupled with gross-out pictures of car-accidents, scat-porn, and an incredibly casual use of the word "nigger".

    Definitely not a place for the easily offended.

    1. Yeah, it does get a bit frustrating, but we have a great time in my classes - mostly teenagers and this old chook. We talk about all sorts of issues, often nothing to do with what the class is supposed to be about, but I figure I am concerned about the whole person - not just whether I can teach them to draw or not.

      I'm not easily offended or shocked. But I am discerning about what I expose myself to because some things are just so distressing. I didn't look at anything I though might be along those lines - there's enough in the world to be upset about already.