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Bertha HarianBertha Harian

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Keeping the “civil” in civil society

Reading the comments that appear on my Facebook wall or in response to this blog, I think there are only two kinds of people on the internet: the cynical and the defensive.

Each group tries to drive the other out of the space, which is why in some forums, you have only a certain sort of like-minded people gathered. It is an echo chamber. What cynics say about G committees and conversations applies to them too, that they are talking only to themselves. That has never seemed to me to be an intelligent way to conduct a conversation.

From what I can see, there are more anti-G than pro-G elements in cyberspace. I pity the pro-G forces who are left in some corners of the space and who quietly watch from the sidelines at the vitriol being poured on them. How can it be that civil discourse on the Internet is so polarised?

There are too many who will die, die not give the G the benefit of the doubt, much less praise of any kind. And those who do, get tarred with some bad names including those that can’t be printed. I’ve been a target myself when I presume to say that the G is right. I have always thought I have a pretty thick hide, but the comments are so downright wicked and scurrilous that I blanch when I read them. (Note: I did NOT cry). I still care enough about my ex-colleagues (a prime target) to send them consoling messages when they are trolled. And I am always grateful to those who care enough about me or think I have been unjustly vilified, to stick their own necks out.

Last month at a talk in a junior college, a student asked how the level of vitriol, on racism and xenophobia, for example, can be tamped down. I replied that people have simply got to speak up against it. Sure, you’ll be whacked but if you have the courage of your convictions, you stand by them, I said.

Too many people say “What for? Waste time only’’ when they complain about the nastiness. They say that speaking up will only bring about a backlash and various CSI activities that might hurt not just themselves, but their family. And how they themselves are not nasty enough to do the same to the perpetrators of calumnies.

Evil triumphs when good people do nothing, it is said. I agree.

I don’t think I have that much guts by the way. I get asked very often about whether I’m afraid that what I write will bring the G down on me. Truth is, I am actually less afraid of the G (actually not at all!) than online venom.

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I was flummoxed when an FB fan asked me (very politely) if I was trying to “fit in’’ because she said that some of my comments were dripping with sarcasm directed at the G. It is sad that “fitting in’’ means having to be anti-Establishment, but it got me thinking that perhaps I WAS trying to fit in. Not in the rude name-calling manner, but in a wise-ass kind of way that the online community likes (I think).

But when it comes to certain matters, I don’t think fudging it or cloaking it in wit or satire or sarcasm does me or readers any favours. So I think the antics of Anonymous with the videos etc were plain bad; that PM is right to sue Roy Ngerng and the anti-Pilipino independence day crowd was being silly. Some things should be said plainly.

I’m going to use the word of week: cynicism. There’s too much of it going around such that everything bad is laid at the G’s door and any attempt by the G to do anything is viewed with suspicion. Past mistakes are not forgiven, even if amends are being made.

There is a tendency to “mis-read’’ stuff, especially complicated stuff. The MSM isn’t doing a good enough job of making it easy – and I acknowledge that this is hard to do. Then there are people who will wilfully mis-read whether out of mischief or because they are so blinded by prejudice that they can’t see beyond it. And of course, people who wilfully disseminate the wrong stuff. I use this word “wilfully’’ deliberately. I think a lot of so-called misinformation out there is not deliberate, but more out of an incomplete understanding of the facts. Of these people, I say we should be tolerant. And it behoves those who DO know the facts and understand the subject to speak up.

Of course, they would be misconstrued as “lackeys’’ and so forth but there would be those who welcome fuller participation (and these people too should speak up too!)

I actually think the so-called PAP Internet Brigade, whoever they are, are brave people.  It is a tough job engaging opposing voices. (Oops! I think the phrase should be “shouting matches’’ with the so-called oppies or those who want a “change’’ come 2016. )

I know the responses I will get from both sides who read this post:

  1. Blame the G lah. They started it, always knocking down opponents.
  2. Why can’t I demand more from our very well-paid politicians and civil servants?
  3. Why can’t these people just be grateful for what we have now?
  4. These people who complain, can they do any better?
  5. It’s freedom of speech; you can’t control the Internet.

Thing is, we do not need a society of “closed minds’’, of painting things in black or white. Or resorting to ad hominem statements. When we do so, we risk alienating a broad middle band or the chance to bring the extremes closer together. We can start by being civil and engaging mind (and heart) before engaging mouse. We can, for example, suspend judgment for a while when confronted with things we don’t understand instead of delivering an instant verdict. We can wait to see how things pan out. We can ask questions. We must remember the “civil’’ in civil discourse and civil society.

Sure, we are entitled to have an opinion, however ill-informed, because we live here and we love this place.   

But for our opinions to matter, it must be READ by a wide range of people, and not just the like-minded.  

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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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