The Benefit Of The Doubt: Try It Some Time, My Fellow Facebookers

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Passion is a good thing. Flogging someone to death (virtually) online probably isn’t. Nelly Thomas wishes for a gentler conversation.

For those of you who are politically inclined (I’m looking at you New Matilda readers) passions run deep. Most of us actually do sincerely care about the issues we fight and agitate about, and for many of us, the issues are personal.

This is both an asset and strength.

If you don’t care about an issue, what’s the point – that’s just ego or grandstanding (and yes, we all know people for whom this is true).

If you do care, you’re likely easily “triggered” by the issues and passionate discussion can quickly lead to no discussion at all.

I had one of those experiences recently on Facebook where I was accused of a prejudice I don’t believe I hold. Nothing unusual there – I’ve only been on Facebook for about a month but I’ve been in public life for 15 years and know it’s par for the course to be misunderstood and/or misrepresented.

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And I can tell this is even more likely on Facebook where tone and nuance are lost and where there’s no conch to pass to piggy. No benefit of the doubt is given and there’s little room for good intentions or mistakes. But nonetheless, it made me think.

The world feels like it has gone mad.

I know every generation has said that, and I’ve always thought there were mostly wack-a-doodles running the joint, but at the moment I feel genuinely scared. We are facing deep and serious problems and the debate seems to be getting ever more polarised.

Lots of people are talking, not many seem to be listening.

And when I say listening, I mean being fully present with two ears open and one mouth closed. When I think of this particular moment in history, I think of children shouting into the wind.

A few things for us, as activists, to consider. One is that being an activist is bloody tiring. There’s the necessary thinking, reading, volunteer work and the like, but there’s also the energy it takes to live your principles day-to-day and, to remain civil in the face of what can feel like incomprehensible stupidity.

It also absolutely necessary.

Yes, there’s a time and place for fighting – extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, but this must be the last resort. Wherever possible, I do believe opposing points of view should be debated respectfully if we want a better world. In short, pick your battles – both for your own sake and for the sake of the cause.

By way of illustration, I’ll give you some examples.

Recently I was chatting to a man who referred to me as a “good girl”. I found this patronising and sexist. I responded by joking that I hadn’t been a girl since the 1980s.

He sheepishly apologised and henceforth called me “woman” – weird in it’s own way, but he was trying. And to me, that’s the point – he was trying. I don’t believe his intention was to demean, and that matters. Intention isn’t everything – nor is it fool-proofbut it matters. At least there’s hope with good intentions.

By contrast, I was dealing with a real estate agent last year who also called me a “good girl.” This guy was much more aggressive in style and loomed over me from the minute I met him. I once heard a man say in relation to OH&S that you know something is wrong when your arsehole twitches – mine was doing the Macarena.

In this case, I told the man I didn’t like being referred to as a “good girl” and that it wasn’t appropriate. He laughed (as bullies do when their power is called out) and made the equivalent of an eye roll. I asked to speak to his boss and withdrew my business.

On the surface, these events are the same but as activists who WANT CHANGE I think it’s critical we understand the difference. The second guy is a waste of time. I don’t believe there was any discussion we could have had that would have made him see my point of view or treat me with respect. There are two sides to every story, and his was wrong. Block. Mute. Make a funny meme about him. Move on.

But the first guy is of more interest. The first guy is the kind who would be shouted down on social media. He’s the guy who would be dismissed as a dinosaur or worse, a blatant and deliberate misogynist. He would be widely ridiculed. I firmly believe this is a mistake.

Not only is he not the enemy (at least not until he truly reveals himself as one) he may even be an ally. In my years working as an activist in the Family Violence space I’ve met many people who are ignorant or event resistant to the proven connection between Family Violence and gender equity, only to later become champions of change.

They are at a different point in their journey/understanding of the issues and frankly they get shit wrong. They might say things like, “Why doesn’t she just leave?” or “If only those men didn’t drink” or “That’s none of my business” and reveal a chronic misunderstanding of the issues. That doesn’t mean they’re a waste of time – and they’re certainly not alone in their ignorance. In fact, they could end up becoming a strong ally.

Is it tiring correcting these folks? Yes. Is it hard not to respond with anger and sarcasm? Fo Sho. Is it necessary? Afraid so. You simply can’t change the world on your own.

And here’s a clue: you’re probably getting shit wrong yourself!

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Able-bods will fuck up when talking about disability. Skips will fail to see their white privilege sometimes. Cis people will use gendered language. Straight folks will be distracted by their own sadness about marriage inequality when they should be focussed on what the LGBTIQ community are going through. Rich people will forget their cleaner works harder than they do.

By all means if you see prejudice, call it out. But can we at least try to do so as though that human was sitting in front of us? Real person. Real feelings. Different experiences of life.

For my part, I am going to continue to TRY to engage with all people respectfully until such time as they clearly don’t deserve it. This is hard and requires medication (I choose spaghetti bolognaise, you pick your own poison). There are literally dozens of times a day I am tempted to fire off a witty tweet or cut someone down and then I remember that in most cases, I have no idea who this person is, what privileges they do or don’t enjoy, how they handle and use that privilege (which really matters) and what their intention is.

I know for sure that yelling at them will feel good for a minute, but won’t do anything to bring us closer together.

We need to come closer together!

I need us to come closer together.

Those of us who care deeply can be vicious to our enemies and even more brutal to each other. On that front, I was reminded during my recent Facebook skirmish about one of Tim Minchin’s early songs. It was about Palestine and Israel and went something like,

You don’t eat pig

We don’t eat pig

Let’s not, not eat pig together.

You want equality and compassion.

I want equality and compassion.

Until we find common ground, we have no chance at either.

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Nelly Thomas

Nelly Thomas has been described as one of Australia’s most natural comedians. An award-winning performer, she was listed as one of Australia’s “most innovative thinkers” in The Age Newspaper’s, The Zone and was featured on the ABC’s Big Ideas: The Smartest Stuff on TV, Radio and Online. Nelly is a regular guest on ABC Radio and writes extensively in the print and online media. In 2012 she published her first book. Nelly has performed in over sixteen festivals and directed shows by the likes of Maria Bamford and Stella Young. She’s also grown two humans of her own.

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