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December 2014 Archives

Broadswords and Scalpels

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

Matthew 7:1-2

My Dad works in the construction industry. He witnesses a fair amount of injustice. A number of years ago, Dad finally understood what it meant for his son to be working on the Internet, and started ending his rants with “you should put this on the Internet and shame the guy!”

And that’s what the web has become for many of us — this large megaphone with which we blast away the evils we see around us, staunchly believing that they will be eradicated if we somehow generate a large enough sonic boom.

Only a few days ago, Tekko Koh posted about how some people were cheating at the Standard Chartered Marathon. His post was strident, and included photos of these individuals, with comments about how some of them could not possibly have run a marathon in those times given their fitness levels based on a quick visual scan. It later turned out that the marathon organisers had indeed allowed runners who didn’t make a cutoff time to take a shortcut to the finish line. Tekko published an honest apology right after, but like he said, the damage has already been done.

Just as his original post was shared so prevalently as people clamoured to shame those cheating runners, his apology met with equal enthusiasm from the same crowd, blind to the irony that the lesson here was to stop being so quick to judge others.

And today, everyone’s baying for the blood of the driver who blocked an ambulance rushing a woman to the hospital, posting the license plate number of the vehicle and asking for more info to be dug up on the driver.

Let us shame him. So say we all.

Let’s take a closer look at the nature of this beast, this machinery of shaming, that we choose to ride:

  1. It does not allow for anything other than full measures. We can’t shame people a little; the nature of social media is digital, 1s and 0s, all or nothing. Our attempts to shame these wrongdoers will either fade quickly into obscurity or get massive attention. The first outcome sputters with futility while the second rages, unbridled, until everything and everyone is consumed. Mob justice has an insatiable hunger for destruction.
  2. It changes who we are:
    • It makes us extremely critical of the actions of others, choosing to immediately assume the worst in others simply because social media requires us to post with speed in order to go viral. And going viral, in the absence of real outcomes, is often mistaken for a measure of success.
    • It makes us lazy. Real change often requires prolonged and intensive effort. It is easier to sit in the comfort of our homes, pull out whois requests and thanks to our governments’ efforts to put services online, find out the names and addresses of people. Cross-reference that with social media platforms like LinkedIn and Facebook and we have family members, embarassing photographs and career histories. It gives the adrenaline rush of being productive, without actually accomplishing anything at all.
    • It drives in us this fear — that what we do might eventually end up splashed on social media. Sure, it may deter some from committing antisocial acts, but it also inhibits us from other public acts. Acts of kindness or moments of spontaneity; because we have become afraid of being judged by the almighty invisible jury.

How then can we change this social tendency that has set in? Here are some tips:

  1. Use “we”, Not “they”; “us”, not “them”. One thing I’ve learned as I grow older is how susceptible I am to evil. When we were younger it was so easy to read the newspaper and go, “oh my goodness, what an evil person! How could anyone…”

    How, older and only slightly wiser, I see so much of it in me. How I could very possibly embezzle millions, or how a few wrong steps could have me turn into a murderer of children, or a torturer of innocent people. The awareness that I am not far from the “worst” keeps me from shooting my mouth off too quickly.

    Which brings me to the next point…

  2. Slow down. I know it’s an adrenaline high to watch your post go viral, but before you attempt to stir a social-media emo-tsunami, take a deep breath and count to ten. Ten minutes or ten hours, depending on how much damage you see your tsunami potentially creating if gone awry. You’ll get better with practice, and these cool down periods will get shorter as you become better at identifying your own state of mind, and when you shouldn’t be posting stuff.

    Know how I force myself to slow down? Every punctuation in this post is hand-typed to its proper HTML entity. It slows down my writing a lot, and I craft each post with web designer pride.

  3. Commit to real change. Don’t focus on the immediate incident, but look for the root causes. A case of road rage? Could it be that we’re living too stressful lives, or could we build more empathy into the transportation system through design thinking?

    Real change requires effort and time. If you care enough to put in both, then you’re better qualified to be talking about it. It is for this reason I respect The Online Citizen team even though we may disagree on how to tackle the issues that beset the country. And we collectively have less respect for The Real Singapore which plagiarises or sensationalises everything it posts. One is committed to real change; the other, hubris.

The Internet has given us a lot of power — power that only owners of printing presses once had; and before the age of literacy only the clergy. We are now able to transmit ideas to effect action on a global scale.

Let’s wield this carefully and wisely, shall we?

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