Is ‘checking your privilege’ a necessity when expressing an opinion on something? Particularly when that something is a something other people feel very strongly about: an issue of gender, race or best film in the world (The Princess Bride). Do we need Privilege Police telling us who can and can’t have their say (“I’m sorry, ma’am, you’re under arrest, only white males are allowed to talk The Economy…”)? Or do we accept free speech as supreme, and let anyone have their say on any topic? After all, with all the social media at our fingertips, having our say is easier than ever before.
What is an opinion? The OED defines it as ‘1. A view or judgment formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge.’ And as with most things in the English language, it manages to be more complex than one definition. It can also gives ‘2. A statement of advice by an expert on a professional matter.’ One must presume the expert’s opinion be necessarily based on fact or knowledge. It can also be used to indicate the ‘beliefs or views of a group,’ (for instance, “it is our opinion Miley Cyrus twerked the shit out of the VMAs.”), or ‘an estimation of the quality of worth of someone or something,’ (“I had a higher opinion of my ability to twerk than it deserved.”) So an opinion is many things, but above all, I think, it is not necessarily based on fact or knowledge. This is why opinions can be so damaging.
Facebook, in my opinion, can be place where people do Dictionary Definition 1 as if they are doing Dictionary Definition 2. It’s interesting in terms of human dynamics: If someone expresses an opinion outside of the beliefs or views of a group they are often either the victim in a virtual feeding frenzy, or conversation-fodder for real life interactions. The Internet is transforming our social landscape, and no-one knows how it’s going to turn out. All I know is I get a kick out of reading arguments on Facebook, and it’s thrilling getting involved with a trademark pithy comment. It boosts the heart rate. It’s been suggested that getting ‘likes’ on Facebook releases the same brain-chemicals as getting a hug. That seems dangerous. This same chemical promotes social bonding, which in turn leads to excluding anyone who doesn’t fit the cause of this burst of Oxcytocin. This could go some way to accounting for why Facebook arguments get so vitriolic and are seemingly so partisan. Furthermore, a wall of text is almost completely devoid of context. What may be intended to be laced with irony comes across as a steaming rant. It is worth remembering that your Facebook friends are people whose ‘friendship’ you have actively sought out or accepted. With your brain trying to process all this contextless text from people we recognise as friends, with no human face as a reference point, it’s no wonder we get so caught up in the politics of Facebook, and what should be an open discussion becomes a personal attack.
So when you add opinions (which don’t necessarily need fact or knowledge to be expressed) to Facebook you get a perfect storm of social and chemical interaction – “They think what??” – which led me, a Facebook argument voyeur, to the question “Whose right is it to say who’s wrong?”
Since this is a magazine built around feminist principles and since I’m writing this post let’s take me as an example. I believe feminism is good. I think equality is something we ought to be striving for at all costs. Life may not be fair, but that doesn’t make unfairness right. Now, just because I agree with the principles of feminism do I, as a man, have a right to have an opinion on it? Do I have more or less of a right than a man who thinks feminism is bullshit? How about a woman who thinks it’s bullshit? It’s a complex issue. Free speech is a good thing, but it’s all too often an easy defence for impolite behaviour. It’s all too often a defence for statements based on no fact or knowledge. But if we restrict the right to have an opinion to just those people who agree with the principle we just end up with mass mutual masturbation, which is fun for a while but doesn’t really get you anywhere. Arguments are important, arguments drive change. I’m sure we can all agree on that. There’s a reason conflict is the basis of drama. It’s human nature to argue and find interest in the argument. That’s what the best articles do, provoke debate and discussion.
If it’s human nature to argue, does that make it right or fair to do so on issues that don’t directly influence you? Someone might think feminism is bullshit because they’ve never found it a struggle to get their voice heard, or never been subjected to rape threats, because they’ve never found discrepancies in pay an issue, because they’ve never found it an issue that half the population until very recently didn’t have a say in the political landscape, and are still barred from positions of power. We have still never had a female President of the USA, we have had only one female Prime Minister of the UK – issues which I covered here. I may never have felt threatened on the streets because of men leering at me, but I know people who have and I find it repulsive that after all this time and all this knowledge and all this potential we as a species possess that women are still judged for their looks, rather than their ability.
Opinions, debate and discussion are important, vital even, if we are to progress as a species. And it’s important to relish the thrill of these arguments, but not for the thrill itself. Not to simply get the same chemical release we could from a hug.
So, no, it’s not necessary to always ‘check your privilege’ before wading in on a debate, but it is necessary to consider the implications of what you’re going to say. As Shirdi Sai Baba puts it; “Before you speak ask yourself: Is it kind, is it necessary, it is true, does it improve upon the silence?”
A proposal: let’s take it upon ourselves to make the world a nicer place to be, let’s police ourselves and try to be as constructive as possible when engaging in an argument. Let’s enjoy the thrill, the friction and the dopamine hit, but let’s try and get somewhere with it. Let’s find the joy in arguing and in having your mind opened to other possibilities. And let’s make sure we check our facts first.
What do you think?