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Observations, Social Media, Twitter Tales

Fair comment and its consequences

Comments have been all the rage lately – whether it’s the lack of them on Andrew Bolt’s blog, or the thousands that have been prompted by Australia’s asylum seeker debate. And then there’s Piers Morgan, who tried and failed to turn a rude remark into a publicity opportunity.

The consequences of comments – and the lack of them – have dominated my timeline lately.

It started with a shutdown of comments on Andrew Bolt’s blog, announced as follows on 2 July:

“Apologies. Staff cuts mean fewer comments will be moderated (which is why some threads have none showing). There will be no moderating of comments submitted after 5pm.

Some readers have asked why we don’t just put up all comments, or allow a report-abuse system of control. Blame the restrictions on free speech in this country and the lawfare conducted against this blog. The legal risks are far too high. Result: less free speech for fear of being punished for “bad speech”.

Press Council take note.”

That assault on Free Speech was followed by an excellent analysis of the ‘free speech’ defence by Gary Younge on The Guardian’s Comment is free.

Who thinks about the consequences of online racism?

Younge’s focus was racism but his remarks apply equally well to any other –ism of abuse.

Just because comment is free doesn’t make bigotry permissable he writes, in a timely reminder that what we write has an effect.

“If you write something racially offensive then those you have offended will be less likely to participate. The hostile environment to which you have contributed will also become, by definition, a limited and limiting one. What you end up with is a community where people are excluded because of who they are that then shrinks to a foetid ecosystem including only people who are just like you.”

Is that really what we want?

The first defence of those who cause offence is often to attack the offended for attacking Free Speech.

Younge points out that the right to offend is a two-way street which means nothing if it’s not accompanied by the right to be offended.

“Those who believe racism is fair game should at the very least understand that calling them on their racism is no less so. You don’t have to accept the accusation but if you want to be taken seriously then you have to take the accusation seriously and engage with it. To hide behind your right to free speech is little short of pathetic.”

But he also points out that over-sensitivity is a barrier too. He says it’s up to all of us to help create the safe spaces we want on the net, to engage in an honest and open manner and refrain ourselves from being over-sensitive to slights and criticisms.

As if to back up Younge’s argument, it was a week of vigorous commentary on a subject which never fails to scratch the Australian underbelly – the continuing tragedy of refugees seeking asylum with us, their right and our responsibility under international law to provide.

There were 1050 comments on this one piece alone by Julian Burnside at The Drum, plenty of room to range across the breadth and depth of feeling on this emotive issue.

Boat people unChristian? Wrong Mr Abbott

Over at The Hoopla, Corinne Grant also called Tony Abbott on his ‘unChristian’ remarks with

Tony’s backdoor bandits.

Enjoy a funny, well-written read and stay for the comments – here’s that community Younge talked about, taking responsibility for creating a safe space below the line.

It starts when a commenter called Mez provides a unique insight into her thoughts after reading the article.

The tone of responses to Mez largely stayed within the social bounds of civilised conversation and when they did cross the line there were other commenters calling fault. You may have a different view, and I’d take that as fair comment, with all its consequences.

That’s because ridicule is a particularly difficult balancing act and it’s too easy in a frontier town to think the social norms no longer apply. I defend Mez’ right to be offended, just as I defend her original right to attempt to offend and the right to call and be called on it.

I think.

The foetid ecosystem of Twitter shrank a little this week when a young woman fled in a virtual hailstorm of ridicule after she asked if Wimbledon was always held in London.

Among those chucking their brand of fun at Georgia Ford was the charmless Piers Morgan. He was one among thousands but, being Piers, tried to turn the situation to his advantage.

If you want to see him in all his glory, go to Twitchy and read his attempts to turn the resulting frown upside down by bullying her into going on the radio with him:

Piers Morgan: ‘I don’t feel bad’ for hounding a 21-year-old woman off Twitter

Her response is his just desserts and our delight.So is the spectacular backfiring of his efforts. Fair to say it’s Piers who ends up wearing the custard.

© Sally Baxter 2012
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About Sally Baxter

Once I was a girl reporter. Now I'm an interested observer covering the past, present and future of journalism and whatever else takes my fancy. All views my own.

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