Another 'feminism'-inspired social media debate is brewing at my university and, once again, you'll find me with my head in my hands. I didn't participate in the previous debate and I don't plan to change my ways in the new one. It's quite likely that this week's new debate will resemble last term's debate, in both nature and in quality.
For anyone unaware of the previous debate to which I am referring, I shall do my best to explain briefly and without bias.
The University of York planned to celebrate International Men's Day, but a petition of a few hundred signatures against it prompted the university to cancel the day. A counter-petition of a few thousand signatures failed to convince the university administration to take back its decision to cancel the day. Someone went to the national papers and alerted them to what was happening on the campus, resulting in national coverage and some comments in the House of Commons from Members of Parliament.
Those are the bare facts. Meanwhile, across social media, hundreds of individuals were posting, sharing and commenting, messaging each other and Tweeting, in a mixture of reasoned discussion and deliberate malicious abuse. There were people blaming feminists for supposedly showing that women mattered more to the university than men; there were people saying that feminists were men-hating free-speech-destroying nutcases; there were people saying that International Men's Day was an opportunity for misogynists to run riot...
...and there were some of us who just sat and watched with no interest in getting involved in the wash of polluted and half-baked rubbish that had come out of a legitimate, formal challenge to a university-sponsored event.
As a keen student journalist I would happily facilitate a proper medium on which a debate could be held, but I don't really want to get involved in any of the fighting myself. It's not cowardice - I do have opinions on the matters at hand - but I refuse to get involved in any arguments on Facebook and other social media sites.
Facebook commentaries are regularly misunderstood, misrepresented and taken out of context; they (and their responses) are also frequently hindered by poor spelling and grammar, or are, quite simply, bad. We come to university to learn and also to challenge our own beliefs and thoughts through our exposure to new texts and ideas; Facebook is not the means by which we should express them. You won't find professionals working in the academic departments attaching smileys and Emoticons to badly-worded, jumbled, nonsensical balderdash, written in a rush to reply to a criticism; nor will they present a hundred biased definitions of feminism, or whatever topic of discussion is on the table, that, by ensuring that no one is singing from the same hymn sheet, spoil the entire conversation.
I have written comments on some friends' posts in the past, but luckily my friends have been smart enough to suggest we settle a matter of contention over emails or even through Skype. Unfortunately it seems that some other people can't help themselves. One user has kindly written an "open letter" to the newly-elected Women's Officers of the student union, calling one of their ideas "deluded" and another "demeaning and patronising." Comments from other users on his lengthy post include, "You're an idiot," "I read the first sentence and that was all I needed to know what was to follow," and "This is so bad I can't even formulate a response right now". As usual, what followed was a stream of comments from multiple users, all responding to different people, some throwing in the odd insult here and there.
Elsewhere, the mockery of a transgender student, newly elected as a union LGBTQ officer, was rife across anonymous social media. The student tried to read out some of the abuse as she ascended to the stage on the results night, but was quickly cut off by one of the hosts, eager to snatch his microphone back to keep the peace. "I've seen starving Ethiopian children who look less miserable than [her]," read one comment. Reading both instances, I recalled exactly the things that occurred when International Men's Day was cancelled.
As I wrote earlier, I don't want much part in this. I'm not going to lay any blame on any 'factions', be they the so-called social justice warriors, liberals, conservatives, fascists, 'raging atheists', feminists and Feminazis, meninists, bigots, 'haters' and so on who supposedly roam the Internet in packs and with whom they cannot be reasoned; there is no single group that is responsible for so much rubbish, and anyone who tells you that there is such a group would be exposing his own allegiance to another position. I don't align myself to any group, nor do I want to be, nor do I wish to lay the blame on one of them.
If you want to challenge someone, challenge them on their ideas and challenge them formally. Write for the campus paper (preferably mine, if that's all right?) and set out your ideas as you would in an essay; book a room in the university and host a formal debate to examine ideas, policies and movements, not sexualities and appearances.
When all is said and done, an individual's Facebook post and a TED Talk are not the same thing. If you really want to make a difference, get off social media.