Tag Archives: politics

The lives of people on the Internet

* View this post in HD *

THE INTERNET: Feel free to be a jerk

Guest post by Tharuna Devchand

SO a little while ago the Mail & Guardian suspended a journalist intern for an anti-Semitic comment on Facebook that amounted to hate speech and was therefore in conflict with the South African Constitution. Without a warning, the kid’s career was ruined because of a social networking site where groups like “My name is Khan” (a group that disrespects Hinduism) and “F*** Islam” exist with thousands of followers who spread the hatred.

I’m not justifying what Ngoako Matsha said, nor am I implying that M&G was wrong in suspending him, but consider the medium in which he said it — cyberspace.

In cyberspace, every person should be seen as a figment of their own imagination­. Nothing is real. Nothing we say is a true reflection of who we are. On the Internet, we are all Tyler Durdens. There are no boundaries, no policies and rules to keep us neatly between the lines, no reputations to uphold or cultural conventions to keep us in place.

The Internet is like a global Fight Club. It’s where we can guiltlessly des­troy something beautiful and return to our lives feeling better about ourselves. It’s cathartic and, since we all can’t be Jackson Pollocks, it may sometimes be our only outlet.

I constantly hear people complaining about how perfect their Facebook friends’ lives are or what interesting lives other people on Twitter have. It’s not true. It’s just what people choose to show you on the website that makes it all seem perfect.

Social networking sites house a giant­ community of people all suffering from small-penis syndrome. There is a constant war to keep up with the cyber Joneses. Saying that people exaggerate on the Internet about their lives, their feelings, their opinions and how great their lovers are is an understatement. If peer pressure in real life can drive one to do things one normally wouldn’t do, the pressure to be infamous on the Inter­net can land one in a mental institution. Gosh knows what Anthony Weiner was thinking when he tweeted a photo of his, um … weiner­.

While it is never easy to work out the true nature of a person in real life, it is 1 000x harder in cyberspace. On the Net, you can be anything and anyone you want to be.

Those who aren’t that popular or who lack friends may upload albums of them being cool with photos of them sloshed with their heads in a toilet just to show that they can party with the best of them. People who are going through tough times may exaggerate all the positive things in their lives and leave out the hardships. And people who are quite restricted or oppressed in their real lives, may go cyber crazy, voicing outrageous opinions and desires on the Net — probably under a pseudonym. It’s a safe outlet that we believe has no consequences — until we lose our jobs for letting loose.

The problem is that there is no line that determines how far is too far until we cross it. We constantly push the boundaries of what is right and wrong just to see how far we can go, whether it’s driving at 129 km/h in a 120 km/h zone or voicing mad love for Adolf Hitler and his beliefs.

Contemporary society has become mostly unaffected by things that are shocking or at least used to be shocking a decade ago, and to deal with this, people try to raise the bar. Cartoonists, comedians and teachers are continually trying to shock people into thinking about things on a different level. Look at how far advertisements have gone to prevent people from drinking and smoking excessively, and to encourage people to abstain from sex, and you’ll see just how just how numb our society is.

Is it okay for me to call my black friend a k***** on her Facebook wall knowing that she won’t be offended? Is it okay to tweet angrily about how upset I am about something the DA said and in turn label it as racist, not because I think that they are racist, but because I just feel the need to put the party down? No, but it feels good.

The South African Constitution currently doesn’t apply to the Internet. Maybe it should, but I doubt that will stop people from saying things, uploading videos and creating images that are shocking. Every day there are more stories of people being judged by their online images. Employers hire people based on their tweets, courts implicate people because of Facebook profile photos, people are fired because of some YouTube video that shows them spray painting expletives on a wall. But it’s those things that make us cool on the Net, that get us hits, that make us believe that this could one day make us famous.

Debunking xenophobia

“Thieving blacks”, “kaffirs”, “intruders” and “aliens” are a few of the phrases you might find in South African discourse, or on the web, used to describe the influx of people who have moved into South Africa in desperation to escape an authoritarian government. Although such words are prohibited from use in the mainstream media, they are still deeply entrenched within several South African mind-sets when hearing or reading about the ‘xenophobia crisis’.

Research and ‘the other’:
According to a survey by the South African Migration Programme (conducted in 2000), South Africans display one of the highest levels of xenophobia in the world. Now surely we can be forgiven at some level considering that we are in one of the most racially diverse countries in the world and past policies such as those of Apartheid have helped to instill and reinforce an attitude of categorising and labeling ‘the other’. Surely?

In fact, the process of labeling others who are different has existed since the dawn of humankind and exemplified by the colonial era. The caveman Jones family, who settled in a territory they considered as their own, had to sum others up by appearance and character to ensure that they and their territory (including food & shelter) were not under threat. European colonialists found it necessary to distinguish between human “types” in order to further scientific understanding. Today, invisible yet powerful borders between countries make it easier for us to categorise people, and consequently, guard ourselves against them.

Putting people into boxes (to use a figure of speech) has become an almost natural human process where the socially constructed concept of ‘race’ plays a central role. Extensive research and theories of race are still being devised to try and find a way to work and think around issues of race. However, if there is one thing that I have learnt through my studies, it is that there is no way to think around race. We need to rather, as Ruth Frankenburg suggests, “think through race.”

We have to acknowledge ourselves and others as raced subjects operating within a racist discourse, we need to have images and real sentiments regarding xenophobia in our face, and most importantly we need to be a little understanding and compassionate by imagining what it might be like to be in the shoes of ‘the others’.

Burning Man:
The photograph of a burning man, which has been used extensively in the media, has raised some relevant issues. Like the photograph of the falling man taken during 9/11, a very thin and jaggered line is crossed by the way these images are used. It goes beyond simply being a photograph and lands in a thick gravy-pot of human ethics and understanding.

One could argue that the meaning of the image has shifted from being representative of a particular event at a particular time to an iconic representation standing for an entire category of people, or a national crisis. This is in the same vain as images of the holocaust being representative of the atrocities committed during WWII.

The media have a strict obligation to remain impartial and not to publish content that may be harmful to society in any way. The decision of some papers not to include the Burning Man on the front page of their publications due to its violent imagery is an example of this obligation being implemented. However, it’s not hard to find the photo if it wasn’t in your paper and everyone is talking about it – I’m certain it will soon leak all over the web. In fact you’re likely to find the image published on more blogs and websites than it has been in newspapers.

The print media vs. the web media:
With an increasing number of people (young and old) sourcing their ‘news’ online (where any gate-keeping process is at a minimum) there almost seems to be no point in resisting publishing such a photograph in print. However, “we must think about the children and protect them from such violence” – violence that they could otherwise watch on TV.

Personally I feel that images such as these should be in your face. I regard it as a representation of what some South Africans are doing to other human beings. Granted we need to watch our own backs and protect our jobs, yet there is always room for a little humanity in this world.

Flames of hatred
“Necklacing” is a form of execution whereby a tyre filled with petrol is lit and put around the victim’s neck

I have been labeled as a white middle-class male who happens to live in South Africa. I have a secure job and have not been directly affected in anyway by the ‘xenophobia crisis.’ You can call me indifferent, or a “privileged white”, but never associate me with South Africans that torture their fellow human being.

As hard as it is to do, we need to start thinking outside the boxes.

Related post:
Can Obama bring racial equality to the United States?