Rewriting the rules of engagement online and offline

ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Like so many things I sample from my social media newsfeed, the student protests against racism on various campuses in the United States didn't have much to do with me.

They were occurring in places I didn't know, and revolved around life experiences I could not identify with.

And yet, I felt no compunction about posting and commenting on situations that were really none of my business.

For instance, I shared a story about University of Missouri mass media assistant professor, Melissa Click, who had grabbed a reporter covering the student protests on her campus and hollered for "muscle" to come remove him.

I suppose it was obvious why I felt aggrieved. After all, he was a journalist being manhandled by a faculty member who should have known better. I posted that my sympathy for the students' cause - to have greater understanding and acceptance of minorities on campus - had dived.

And yet, who was this woman to me that she should colour my perception of an entire group?

How casually we pillory and vilify innocent individuals who act out because of a moment of poor judgment. For me, it will always be to our lasting shame as a nation that we can actually lay claim to having hounded a few people out of Singapore because of our unseemly rush to condemnation.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

But with Facebook a round-the-clock borderless community on tap, the hunter can become the hunted. What you say to an audience is fair game for a reaction. Stick your neck out and you'd better have a thick hide.

This is particularly true if you bring politics into it, because someone somewhere is going to troll you. Or you may be fortunate and instead catch the attention of those who truly want to engage.

"I don't know about the journalism limits but in this instance limiting journalism access seems a lesser issue than the persistent mistreatment of people," posted a new Facebook friend, a recently elected public official whom, to be honest, I had not even met. "To your point, we should also consider how the historic treatment of some by journalists might lead to this behaviour."

Another friend (a bona fide one) pointed out that the students' desire to share their traumatic experiences in a safe and protected space was understandable, though, since they had chosen a public commons, so was the media's right to report on it. We can have both, he said. Just like we need the energy and passion of youth and the wisdom of experience. Respect must flow in all directions.

Their thoughtful responses to the shortcomings of my own made me see what friends can do for one another to prompt serious self-examination.

Just like that, those posts re-opened my mind to the students in Missouri and Yale, and the sprinkling of other campuses where protests were taking place, triggered by different incidents, but all around the same flashpoint of race relations.

On reflection, I saw they were not completely unconnected to me, since my actions in their own small way had an impact on what they fought for.

I too have children of around the same age who are no strangers to issues of ethnicity, living as they do in a diverse community. In fact, you could say they are far more attuned to biases against race, gender and sexual orientation than I ever was at their age.

As for me, if ever I have judged someone simply because of who he was, thought an ugly thought as the result of an untested assumption, I have been part of the problem. And if I start to change my modes of thinking, because others took the time to point out healthier attitudes, then I can start to be part of the solution.

As for those students rebelling against racial biases on campus, even if they don't fight the fight well, even if I still want to shake them for being so sure of themselves, I can empathise with their just cause.

Though their methods are combative, their desire is ultimately also to connect and belong, find understanding and acceptance.

Maybe one day, I'll convince someone it is reciprocal respect and goodwill that is the better way.

On social media where many of us spend a good deal of time, the rules for engagement - from the facile or abusive to the affirmative - are still being written. It's almost like playing with fire.

But in a world constantly divided by battle lines, it may actually provide us a means to reach out to one another in ways that are unexpected and supportive.

Just let us not be too quick to rush to judgment.

When over-exposure is the new normal, when we are constantly in one another's business, that's the least we can do for each other, if you ask me.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 15, 2015, with the headline 'Rewriting the rules of engagement online and offline'. Print Edition | Subscribe