As a human being, I believe in the equality of all people, regardless of sex, gender, race, creed and sexual orientation (among other factors). I don’t think that this is an outlandish or crazy assertion to make in this day and age. It also bears pointing out that as a global society, we have indeed come a long way in making conversations about equality a somewhat mainstream part of our lives. But, we still have a long way to go because the issues affecting equality in today’s world, with all of its technological advancements, increased communications, and relatively anonymous online interactions, are insidious and highly nuanced. Because of our progress, we are able to form virtual imagined communities to address our issues and discuss solutions to them. We are able to connect with like-minded people from practically all corners of the world, and we are able to interact with them in ways that would seem like “supernatural magic” to our ancestors.
Yet, in online forums and social media, the idea of equality seems to be still stuck as a somewhat abstract ideal to strive towards. People even comment that posts on topics such as equality, equal rights and mistreatments are nothing but a list of complaints. When it comes to tangible actions however, many of us don’t follow through on promoting equality. We think that taking action towards equality requires monumental effort; we think that we have to move mountains, and create marches and affect wide-sweeping policies to impact the movement towards equality. In many ways, this is true. It does take gargantuan collective effort to create sustainable change, especially in law and policy changes. When we look at equality as an individual-level effort to be implemented into our daily existences however, the practice and promotion of becomes much simpler, especially in online interactions.
In other words, when extremely large numbers of people do simple things in their own lives to promote equality, it amplifies into positive, collective group-level progress. In this post I want to talk about 4 simple ways in which all of us can promote equality in our lives and in our online communities. These techniques can be implemented behind the relative safety and security of our computer screens, and don’t take more than 2-3 minutes of our time, so they’re very easy to do. Of course, these are not the only ways in which we can continue to move toward egalitarianism, but I think if all of us collectively practiced these techniques, we might be able to make tangible progress in the larger conversations on equality in a very short span of time. I should also mention here that these techniques are specifically and only about promoting equality online. There are many types of other conversations in online communities where these techniques wouldn’t apply or might even backfire on us, but those conversations are not the subject of this post. So, what are the ways in which we can promote equality online?
1.) Stop hijacking conversations about equality with distractions
Last week, I wrote a post on the status of Indian-American women’s rights. I argued that Indian-American women are not as empowered as we could be, and I highlighted this with examples of real-life experiences from my life, and from the lives of other Indian-American women I know.
What I didn’t expect was the intensity of the blowback that I received from Indian-American men and women. People on online forums decided to attack me as a person. I got called a misogynist (yea, I am not sure about this one either), a parasite, a fake doctor, and many other demeaning and hurtful things. I am not relating this experience here to garner any sympathy. What I want to point out is that almost no one focused on the actual topic of the post – Indian American women’s rights. Instead, they nitpicked at a single sentence in my post about Sati, and hijacked the conversation by turning it into comments about men or attacks on me. What happened this past week, in my opinion, very simply and beautifully demonstrates how a large number of conversations about equality (especially about equality of minority populations) get stopped in their tracks because of “trolls”.
My experience is not the first or only instance of this. We see this kind of hijacking behavior happening with a countless number of other conversations on equality and equal rights. Many discussions in the Black Lives Matter movement, in talks of equality in marriage and gay rights, in dialogues about the rights of transgender individuals, in posts about the disproportionate impact of the proposed health care reforms on various populations in the United States and so on and so forth are inundated by those who want to take the focus away from the topics at hand. This hijacking is not a random happening. It is a systematic and strategic practice to divert conversations from their true purpose, to achieve an ego boost and have some amusement at someone else’s expense.
Bottomline: let us not be distractions to progress towards equality.
So, if we want to sincerely promote equality (whether that is for men, women, children, homosexuals, transgender people, or something else), we need to stop hijacking the conversations. We need to stick to the point. It is imperative that we stay focused on the things that are directly relevant to the discussions on equality. If we have nothing good to say about equality, that’s fine. But, our anonymity doesn’t give us the right to personally attack someone else by demeaning him or her. Why are we spending so much time demoralizing people? Spreading this kind of negativity is literally a war tactic. In its most vile form, it is intellectual terrorism. It benefits no one. A personal attack certainly doesn’t add any real value to a conversation on equality. It is simply a distraction that takes away from the effort being put forth into a sustainable dialogue, and it is a tactic that leads to the psychological marginalization of those who are fighting for equality.
2.) If you see an injustice happening to someone else, speak up for equality.
This story I am about to tell you happened it real life, but as you will see, it is something that occurs very often in online communities, because it is even easier for such an interaction to transpire online due to anonymity and deindividuation. A very dear friend of mine is a senior level IT manager at a major healthcare company. She is a woman. Over the weekend she called me to relate a recent experience she just had at her job. I won’t post all the details of her story, but in a nutshell, she was demeaned and talked about in many derogatory ways by a customer because she was a woman, simply because she didn’t agree with him on his opinion of a solution to a problem they were having. I should point out here that my friend is quite brilliant. She has successfully assembled, trained and managed 10-50 person teams for most of her career. She is a highly sought after expert in her field, and she has worked hard to build this stellar reputation for herself. Yet, in the span of just five minutes, this man vilified her in front of her colleagues and co-workers using the meanest words possible to rip her entire existence to shreds, simply because she didn’t agree with him and because she is a woman.
What did any of her colleagues do? Absolutely nothing. They didn’t stop this man from verbally attacking her. They did not say that this man’s line of thought was completely unnecessary. They certainly did not stand up against this harassment or show their support to my friend in any way other than to commiserate with her about the incident, long after the meeting was done and the customer had left. Why? Because they didn’t think it was their place to stop this bad behavior from occurring.
Most people in similar situations also don’t act for this very reason – it is not their place to say anything. Scientifically, we know this is the bystander effect. Most people don’t get involved in anything that doesn’t directly impact them because they think someone else will. At the end of the day, if everyone thinks that someone else will address the injustice, all we are left with are victims, silence and a lack of progress. But if people spoke up, then those who want to commit social transgressions such as verbal attacks do tend to back down to a certain extent.
We need to work on this as people, especially as autonomous entities on the Internet. If we see something wrong happening to our neighbors in our online communities, we need to speak up (within the limits of our physical and psychological safety of course). This doesn’t mean that we need to pick fights with everyone who disagrees with us. Many people are able to have perfectly civil disagreements, without any personal threats, attacks or abuse. Those are not the cases I am talking about.
In cases where there are blatant attacks or harassment however, we need to let the person being attacked know that we will stand up with him or her. And, we need to let the perpetrators of the attack know that their attacks are not going to be ignored. Speaking up for equality and equal treatment, especially in online communities, forces those who oppose these ideals to realize that there are witnesses, and that their mistreatment is being noted and documented. It is a compelling way to practice and promote equality in our lives.
3.) We need to increase positive support for equality so it can outweigh the negative.
What I found in my observations on various social media platforms was that most people tend to keep scrolling past the things that they like or agree with, and give more attention to the posts that they don’t agree with. They invest almost no energy into providing positive support to the conversations that do align with their thoughts; yet, spend a great deal of energy perpetuating negativity in their roles as keyboard warriors. From the relative comforts of their screens, they use their energy to denigrate a person or situation by putting a negative spin on it. No matter what type of post I see out there on social media, for every one person who likes something, there seem to be a dozen people who write essays on negative aspects. Why? Why does it have to be this way, especially with conversations on equality?
If we agree with a message of equality, let us show our support for it. It may take some time and courage on our parts to show this support, but the consequences of this positive support become tangible in three ways:
- It encourages those fighting for equality to keep going. It allows them the chance to realize that they are impacting people in positive ways. It gives them the strength to keep their momentum going. It allows them to see past the negativity that they get bombarded with.
- It increases public support for the message, and acts as a deterrent for those who simply want to troll. Of course, given the nature of trolls, they will probably still continue their negativity. But, showing our support for the messages we agree with provides the original poster, and the cause with a certain amount of defense against the trolls.
- Our positive support is the greatest affirmation we can give to someone who we believe has an equal voice in any conversation – especially about equality.
4.) If you are promoting a message of equality, don’t back down.
Finally, if you are the one who is brave enough to talk about equality in the face of all the dissent to be expected in the online world, don’t give up. This is a lesson that I had to personally learn and take to heart this past weekend. Being attacked online can have an almost immediate negative impact on people’s mental state, and it certainly took its toll on me for a little while. But, what I realized after a day or two of being scared and worried about my emotional health was that no part of my experience changed the fact that Indian-American women aren’t fully free or empowered. In fact, these people who came at me only proved my point that as an Indian-American woman, I wasn’t even given the chance to have an actual, attack-free conversation about the experiences of Indian-American women. Yes, some might say that this is to be expected in online interactions, and that I just need to develop a thick skin and not worry about what other people think. To some extent, they would be right.
For the most part, those of us who do choose to engage in potentially controversial discussions shouldn’t care about what other people think about us. But, we should care when our conversations get waylaid. We should care when our efforts are flung to the side as futile and unnecessary attempts of frivolity. And, we should definitely care when in the name of civil interactions we are denigrated by random strangers, and treated as someone who doesn’t deserve respect and dignity. When we are faced with negativity, we need to resist the temptation to get shut down by it. Instead, we should respond to it with even more powerfully resonating messages to promote our messages of equality.
So, by reducing the diversion of conversations about equality, by speaking out against injustices that we see being perpetuated, by increasing positive support for messages, and by not giving up in the face of negative responses, we can all promote equality in our online (and real-life) interactions. These techniques may seem clichéd, or rather obvious, but, I know I certainly needed a reminder, so other people may find this a useful read as well. Of course, all of this begs the question of why topics such as equality or equal rights are even controversial in the first place. They shouldn’t be, because after all, any student of human history has learned about a countless number of ways in which equality has been denied or suppressed in our societies throughout time. Yet, here we are, in a time and space where “egalitarianism” is a multi-syllable curse word for some and a vaunted, fantasy ideal for others. Why is that the case? What do you think are the reasons that equality is such a loaded word in modern societies? How do you think you can contribute value to the conversation on equality? I’d love to hear about this from you!