Jay Talking

Look on the light side

ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

If you write something someone somewhere finds offensive, be prepared to be lynched

I have a confession to make. I think I might be racist.

And it's not just that, I suspect that I might also be a pervert, a xenophobe and a bigoted, sexist, elitist, hateful radical. These are just guesses though, I'm not sure.

There is also a chance that I might be nice.

After all, I do like puppies. And what kind of evil person likes puppies, am I right?

But that's not the point. The point is, I could be a racist, perverted xenophobe or I could be a puppy-loving pillar of society. I don't know which.

And the reason I don't know is because of the Internet.

It seems barely a month goes by these days without someone or other getting his comeuppance on the Internet for some boneheaded thing he said.

The flavour of this month is British physicist Tim Hunt who did an admittedly stupid thing of making sexist remarks to a group of women scientists and promptly found himself out of a job.

The Internet casts its judgment quickly - there's no messy appeals process.

Now, I'm not saying he didn't do anything wrong. I think he did. I also think he deserved to lose his job.

It's just that I can't be sure. I don't know him, I wasn't there and have only second-hand knowledge of what he said.

Actually, sorry, those are rubbish reasons.

The real reason I'm unwilling to stick a fork in Tim Hunt is that I dread that one day, the same thing could happen to me.

Over the course of the past few years, I have often encountered stories of people getting mercilessly hammered online for saying things that - to be honest - I don't find that outrageous.

Every once in a while, I'll read one of these offensive statements and think to myself: "That's what he said? That is a terrible, horrible, disgusting and offensive thing that sort of sounds just like something I would say. In fact, I may have said that to a friend just last week."

You see, I happen to be in possession of a very loose mouth and an off-brand sense of humour. This is not a good combination. This is a combination that produces a high volume of stupid statements.

I like to think all these stupid things coming out of my mouth are harmless, meaningless jokes, but who am I kidding? I mean, there's just so much of it, it's impossible to keep track of all of it. Also, almost every time someone triggers an online lynch mob, he'll inevitably say that the idiotic statement that caused the whole mess was meant as a harmless, meaningless joke.

As a general safety precaution against sudden Internet-shame-driven unemployment, I decided some time ago to say nearly nothing online.

I think I've posted a grand total of four or five personal thoughts on Facebook in the past five years. My paranoia is so bad that I even censor what my parents post.

You may call it extreme paranoia, but for me - okay, I also call it extreme paranoia. Still, better safe than sorry, am I right? It's all fun and games until someone loses an eye or gets hounded out of the country.

And I'm not the only one. I actually know a lot of people who have retreated from Facebook and Twitter out of fear that they may end up writing something that someone somewhere finds deeply offensive.

Contrary to popular belief, the Internet today is rarely a place for a free, open exchange of views.

It is more a place for like-minded people to agree with one another and for them to then gang up and crack down on those they disagree with.

People online always say: "If you don't like it, just don't read it."

But why? Isn't the whole idea of the platform so we can have a conversation about it? Why do you want me to go away?

I have also often wondered about the mechanics of a proper international Internet lynch mob.

Why is it that someone who knows nothing about me and living hundreds or thousands of kilometres away can get upset enough with something I said that he would want to see me come to some real world harm?

For sure, these things also tend to correct themselves. The Internet shame spiral requires a pushback to the pushback. However, the defence tends to come too late, after the victim has already high-tailed it to Perth.

Now I know I am going to sound like an old fogey saying this, but I believe a big part of the problem is that the Internet rarely begets deep, meaningful relationships. Facebook and Twitter throw the thoughts of hundreds of people at us in short bursts.

We don't really know these people, although we don't realise we don't know these people. Our brains happen to be really good at filling in the blanks with our own prejudices.

When confronted with a potentially offensive tweet coming from someone you know well, you can place the remark in context.

For instance, consider the phrase: "Chihuahua puppies suck."

If you knew me, you might think: "Typical Jeremy. Always saying this sort of crap trying to get cheap laughs. I've seen him pet a Chihuahua puppy."

If you are a stranger, it is possible that your brain paints an entirely different picture, one involving me being an evil, dyed-in-the-wool puppy racist.

In my experience, humans are pretty bad at giving one another the benefit of the doubt.

What I'm ultimately trying to get at today - and, in fact, what I've been trying to get at through most of this Jaytalking series - is that people really need to start giving one another a break.

The Internet is meant to open up the world, not make giving one another grief more efficient.

So lighten up a little. Life is not meant to be taken too seriously.

jeremyau@sph.com.sg

This is the last Jay Talking column.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 29, 2015, with the headline 'Look on the light side'. Print Edition | Subscribe