Wednesday, 27 June 2012

A Contentious Theory and a Confession

This is my first blog post in a long time for all the usual reasons of having had some serious studying/actual real work to do. Nevertheless, without further ado, I'm jumping straight into this one. It's a long one but, I think, an important one. This is something that's been bothering me for a while now, as I prepare to re-enter the world of work.

Over the last few weeks I've become abnormally aware of the political bent of many of my online posts, especially on facebook. From Feminist Frequency videos to shares from the “We Don't Give A Shit About the London 2012 Olympics” page, even the most cursory glance across my wall (or “timeline”, as I still have to get used to calling it) would give any viewer a fairly good indication of the sort of person I am, where I stand on a number of significant issues, and which ones I think are most pressing. As such, I can easily see why a number of employers these days are keen to take sneaky looks at their potential employees' facebook profiles. Although I think I'm reasonably on top of my facebook privacy settings where strangers are concerned, I do still have ex-colleagues/bosses (who have offered to distribute my CV and help me look for work now) added as facebook friends, which means they can see everything I post.

How much this matters is questionable. Up until now, I've never really felt like I had anything to hide. But just the other day, a friend told me a story about one of his colleagues who's had half the senior management team on her back merely for posting a status about a decision taken by her boss. No negative comment was made, mind – as I understand it, she simply told some other people about a decision that everyone else was going to find out about shortly anyway. The boss didn't know this, of course, but the fact she assumed guilt as a default as soon as she heard about it is extremely troubling.

This paranoia, silly as it all is, is now starting to set in with me. While I stand by everything I've posted online, and will speak my mind honestly on any issue if questioned about it, I do wonder if some of the things I'm now fairly publicly associated with might throw my chances somewhat with certain employers. Lots of the things I've posted about wouldn't be a problem, I'm sure: nobody wants to see kids starving or being forced into wars, right? Others, meanwhile, might be seen as more controversial. The above-mentioned anti-Olympics protest pages are a case in point. After all, when jokes by ordinary mums or comments from elderly pensioners are leading to police warnings and even official visits to sheltered accommodation, who knows what might come of open protest by an idealistic, vocal and actually potentially threatening young student?

But it's not just my published thoughts on the nationwide panic and oppressive censorship accompanying a major global event like the Olympics that's bothering me. Even things that might, by comparison, be considered rather trivial (I'm now a “Top Commenter” on The Guardian on facebook, it seems), have in some cases provoked, or otherwise have the potential to provoke, angry and hostile responses from ordinary readers. My views on things like the feminism, trade laws and the capitalist system have met with a backlash even from some of the people I've considered friends. Still, I've always thought of such debate as healthy and constructive. Every now and then I need to be made to question myself because it helps me to formulate and express my own arguments more effectively, and to better understand what I actually believe in and why. So why the sudden change of tune?

Well, I'm increasingly beginning to wonder that if my thoughts and posts can incite such strong reactions in my contemporaries, classmates, and even in complete strangers, how much more so could they in people with real power and authority over me? How much more, for example, in prospective employers? Perhaps the fear is a little excessive, but given the circumstances, it's far from unfounded. Undeniably, it is becoming increasingly common practice to look people up online if you want to know more about them – so much so, that even if you didn't initially intend to find their personal blogs or social networking pages, chances are you'll stumble across them anyway.

What I'm finding more worrying than any particular thing that I've said, repeated or linked to, however, is the sheer volume of posts I make, both on facebook and elsewhere, of a political and/or philosophical nature. This, at least as much as the nature of any of the posts, gives a certain idea of me as a person. If you wanted to be kind, you might say that it seems that I care too much about too many things. If you wanted to be less kind, you might say that I come across as naïve and opinionated. There, you begin to understand my problem. It's not so much what I say, as how much and how strongly I say it.

After thinking on this for some time today, however, I came to a conclusion which I really, really hope is not too self-justificatory, which is that cynicism is something of a privilege. I can, I think, verify this outside of myself. It's a rather tired cliché we see in stories that those who have suffered become hardened, embittered and indifferent, but I've honestly yet to see any real evidence for this. What you often find in reality is that in damaged and impoverished communities, people are continually striving for better. Often, this means stronger communal ties, people working together and looking after each other because no one else will. It can also mean a political streak unusual for the general demographic that they ought to fit into. However misguided or well-thought out, however correct or incorrect in particular cases, those at the bottom of the heap tend to have the strongest sense of justice (so much so that they'll sometimes take it upon themselves to carry it out, though this I wouldn't generally advocate). The reason for this is that the urge for improvement is something they (we) simply can't afford not possess. We have to believe in whatever little power we might have to change things, precisely because we have so little of it. We need to believe that even if things don't work out for us, they can at least be better for our children.

One of the most political and idealistic places I know is the mining village that I grew up in. During the 80s, just before we moved in there, it saw some of the fiercest strike action of the era. So strong were people's opinions on the issue of the pit closure and the ensuing strike that, for years after the battle was lost, tensions continued to run high. Now, decades later, even as old wounds have healed, the place still has a thriving political life. If a politician comes to speak in the village community centre, people will not only go to listen, but they will bring an opinion with them. And, quite frankly, it has been fairly unusual for politicians to bother all that much round there, probably because they well know that it's somewhere where they can have little hope of shaking people's views. And this in a place where no one is wealthy, and almost no one has had the benefit of a university education.

Meanwhile, if you can afford to live comfortably, it's easy not to care as much. Or, to be more fair to people, it's easy to swallow the lie that you're powerless, that nothing that you do can make any difference. That is one kind of cynicism. The worse kind comes from a higher level where those with all the power and money, who know that they really can make a difference, are able to use the misconception of the middle classes as a weapon. Cynicism is, in short, the refuge of the upper echelons of society, a highly effective defence mechanism used to deflect the threat of idealism from lower down the hierarchy. If they tell us often enough that nothing can be done, then enough people will start to believe them for it to become true.

These days, when our minds are so incessantly and insidiously invaded through media rule, I think it's absolutely crucial that we try to remain critical of the things we're told. We have to make our own minds up, and be honest about what we think because, even if we're wrong, the very presence of an alternative opinion can enable others to think more freely and productively. And, for all its many and massive problems, the internet is a relatively democratic place: each dissenting voice has as much chance to count for something as every conformist one. The truth that no one wants you to know is that there is nothing either possible nor impossible but thinking makes it so, and if we all actually believed that, we'd recognise the importance of speaking out. Of course there are degrees of potential influence, but no one is completely powerless, which is precisely why I'm posting this, and why, whenever I think that it's necessary and appropriate, I will continue to speak (or, as the situation demands, type) my mind elsewhere, whatever the consequences of this are for me. And while I'm on the subject of speaking out, I'd like to give a shout out to Anita Sarkeesian, who recently inspired me by the way she handled a barrage of abuse, hurled at her purely for speaking her mind. Or rather, for threatening to. Numerous commenters launched their mindless personal attacks on her before she'd actually made her planned video series, and so before they could possibly know what it was that she planned to say. Far from being intimidated, however, it seems to have made her more determined. She's going ahead with the project, regardless, and has as a result gained massive support for her work.

But back to the topic at hand. Cynicism is a privilege that I can't afford, and one that many, many other people can afford even less. That's a contentious theory, perhaps, but maybe that's what makes it an important one. Which leads me to my confession. I am an idealist. I may even be opinionated (though, I hope, not in the ram-it-down-your-throat way). And I believe that's no bad thing. 

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