Writer and teacher of writers Michelle Fincke takes on the dangerous downside of internet culture and the impact it has on less-enfranchised creatives.
Keyboard Warriors are Silencing Voices that Need to Be Heard
Look at them: smart, engaged, thoughtful. Loads of life experience. A room full of students, motivated and ready to write. I love this class.
But then I say we’re going to work on writing compelling opinion pieces for publication, and a sudden chill descends. A dozen sets of toes curl in discomfort.
I’m surprised. More than most I’ve been in, this classroom is bristling with opinion and, I’m so happy to say, a slightly old-school respect for the responsibility of publication. Strong views and the preparedness to defend them.
Why so queasy, then?
Jake articulated the reason, and there was ferocious agreement. We’re not authorities! We’re not experts! We’re worried we don’t know enough to deserve or convey a public opinion! How can I possibly know enough to have my say?
Sure, perhaps we can’t comment, with authority, on the detailed contents of the Panama Papers. We’re not across the finer science of climate change, the economics of unfettered acceptance of refugees or the prospects for a successful Brexit.
I love a whiteboard, and together we scrawled a list of what we can comment on: higher education as a student, public transport as a user, casual employment as a casual employee. In this room are parents – including adoptive parents – and children, full-time and part-time workers, consumers, cyclists, party-goers. People who live with parents, are in relationships or are single, have had tough times, are passionate about LGBTQ issues, who love to write and those who aren’t yet sure what they want to do with their working lives.
They are young, less young, technology users, online news consumers, self-funded retirees, book lovers, recipients of welfare payments and student support, gamers, unpaid interns, creatives, vegans, fashionistas, devotees of music and movies, children of immigrants, smokers, non-smokers, coffee drinkers, carers… We’re out of whiteboard space in sixty seconds.
Skin in the game? It’s like a skin Olympics here and in every classroom.
An example. In similar classes, I’ve heard stories of VCE disappointment that have affected me deeply. Of students with parents unable to support them during their studies and of families that fractured just as the academic pressure peaked, or who realised, too late, that they hadn’t worked hard enough. Some were swamped by anxiety and, in the end, scared and disappointed, wondering how to pick up the pieces of their ambitions. Education policy makers and readers need to hear these illuminating voices.
We’re all experts in something. We can bring additional information and research to our views. We are articulate. So far, so good.
But it’s soon apparent that there’s more to the toe curling. It’s a response to something else, to an Indiana Jones-style pit of vipers below. And I’m not quite sure how to say this without causing offence but … you could be the viper. You, or me, I’m sorry to say. Or any of us who has typed an insult in an online comment.
Image credit: geralt
I’m talking about the level of online discourse that discourages the timid, the more vulnerable, and those just finding their voices from having their say. I’m not talking about trolls and trolling; who even knows what that kind of vicious, pointless, linguistically violent behaviour is about?
No. I’m talking about something we hardly notice any more, the casual abuse that has become the online norm. The name calling (moron!) and judgement (private-school educated bitch!) once safely confined to the interior of our cars after we’ve been cut off or someone’s run a red light.
I’m talking about invective that has slithered into discussion and risks nullifying, if it hasn’t already, the worthwhile things we learn from respectful comments. These can enlighten and challenge. We can fortify our arguments, better know the enemy and, perhaps, be less surprised to learn that the view of our Facebook friends is not the only world view.
Many pundits have lamented the ‘coarsening’ of politics in this US election campaign (nasty woman!), but it seems something of the logical, demoralising endpoint of the journey we’re on. That we should all toughen the f*** up.
I know, I know. If you’re not robust enough, don’t join the conversation. Can’t stand the heat? Stay out of the kitchen. (PC whinger.)
But why not just turn down the gas? (You’re pathetic.) Reduce the heat a little. (Pissweak!) Stop throwing knives around. I have enormous respect for those Teflon writers and commentary warriors who thrive in this environment, who rise above the level of discourse and forge on, offering a view and stoically encouraging discussion.
I want to hear from them, but not just them. I want to hear from others too, who are building confidence, reluctant to enter that incendiary kitchen but who have interesting, worthwhile things to say. Bring your robust, respectful argument, but not the invective that is so discouraging but that we all resort to, sometimes, out of frustration, annoyance or thoughtlessness.
I want to hear the many funny, serious, challenging opinions of students in my writing class.
You should hear from them, too.
First published in the Huffington Post, October 2016.
Michelle Fincke has worked for The Herald, The Sun and the ABC, was the Melbourne editor of The Australian Women’s Weekly, and wrote for The Age. Michelle currently teaches non-fiction writing at Victoria Polytechnic.