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Sometimes you do say it best... when you say nothing at all

Muhammad bin Muhammad bin al-Husayn al-Khatibi al-Balkhi al-Bakri was a 13th century Persian Afghan poet, philosopher, and Sufi mystic. He is more commonly known as Rumi. Rumi is credited with influencing the literature and culture of many countries and he is interestingly one of the most widely read poets in the United States. He is influential and popular, but it seems a pity his messages aren’t more high-profile. As we arrive at another, albeit rather odd, holiday period, where we are so often reminded of the importance of goodwill, I thought it might be worth reflecting on this particular quote a little more.

Is it true?

In the modern information-ecosystem it is often difficult to sort truth from falsehoods. Many people find themselves in a permanent state of uncertainty. This is understandable. We do, however, surely have an obligation to ourselves and society to check our views against valid, accurate and reliable sources before we share them as fact. People have always held opinions that they can’t rationally explain. Social media simply amplifies their outbursts and ensures that, rather than being a quirky neighbour, someone can infect hundreds, thousands, or even millions with their oddness. By way of example, I won’t link directly to Nicki Minaj’s bizarre tweet involving vaccines, Trinidadians and testicles, but whilst it is hilarious, it is also ever-so-slightly terrifying!

Is it necessary?

I have a good friend who is one of the most generous-spirited people I know. He cannot, however, resist being drawn into arguments with people who post controversial opinions on Twitter or Facebook. I share many of his viewpoints, however, I fail to see the point of online spats. At the very least they appear to raise the profile of the original post and at worst, I suspect the criticism serves to harden the original stance. It may be true, but is it necessary… or even effective?

Sometimes it seems we state the obvious just to make sure we are heard; to establish our own moral superiority or remind others of our status. I live in a pleasant, medium-sized, County Town. We have a not so pleasant, medium-sized multi-storey car park. There is a sign on the wall in the stairwell (I know. All a bit Led Zep!) which reminds residents ‘These premises are not a public convenience.’ I don’t know how many of these or similar signs our District Council have commissioned, but I know that whatever the cost, it serves no purpose but to remind us that ‘some people around here know how to behave’. I might be wrong, but I suspect not one single inebriated patron or homeless person has been about to relieve themselves and stopped mid-flow after being reminded of their civic duty. Of course it’s true but spending money on such a sign is surely not necessary.

Is it kind?

Okay. Anyone who has read any of my previous posts will know this is a bugbear for me. I know in some circles kindness is seen as twee, weak, and probably insincere. Jordan Peterson is a famous Canadian writer and philosopher. He believes that kindness is overrated. He makes clever and cogent arguments for his point of view. Of course he does; he’s clever and highly articulate. He’s also increasingly rich. His opinions have made him a successful author and he’s very popular as a pundit on television and at conferences… and with groups like the Proud Boys, who feed off hate and division. It is a clearly lot more profitable in our current age to be edgy and controversial than to give off a vibe like a John Lewis Christmas ad!

But is he right? I work with many young people. Engagement with social media is really important to many of them. I regularly hear of innocuous posts which have received deeply cruel comments, clearly aimed to hurt… and they do. Many of these are from people who don’t even know their victims. They have no personal animosity, but they clearly have animosity! Would it hurt them to be kind? I know to be cruel hurts others.

Once it has been established that kindness is not an expectation but a sign of weakness and over-indulgence, we open the floodgates for people to feel vindicated to lash out whenever they feel the need, unconcerned with the impact on others. This also happens when people (sadly mostly men) engage in ‘banter’ which is thinly disguised bullying. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard a comment such as ‘They need to grow a thicker skin and understand that I don’t mean any harm.’ Mmmm. Maybe you need to understand that it isn’t acceptable to laugh at rather than with someone. Maybe you need to take the responsibility to be kind?

Before you speak…

Rumi was writing about spoken interaction. It’s easy to get caught up in a moment and not think before making or replying to a comment. It seems to me that most of the problematic interactions in our modern world aren’t like this. Even for the most tech-savvy of us, there is a time lag between reading something, typing a reply and sending. This seems to be much underused. Having said that, I suspect most of us have used time to cool off before firing a reply that didn’t serve anyone well. I know I’m often confronted by an old, saved draft of which I thankfully thought better. It is clearly a good idea to take those few seconds, minutes - or longer – to reflect on the value of what we are about to say. This should, after all, be one of the advantages of written communication.

Is Rumi more relevant than ever?

The words of Rumi may be centuries old, but they feel ever more pertinent. Social media is awash with ill-thought-out bile and even people who pride themselves on kindness in their everyday lives are drawn into bitter conflict with those they have never met. All the while large corporations get increasingly wealthy off the proceeds of discord.

Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk are often called to account for the spread of misinformation and hate-speech on their platforms. The social media giants are reluctant to address the issue, saying they might be labelled as politically biased. In speeches and articles, however, Zuckerberg takes a much more libertarian stance. For him, it appears, freedom of speech is more important than the other foundations of society which are damaged by unbridled lies and hatred. In reality, not addressing poisonous social media posts is itself adopting a political position.

It strikes me that there is a big gap between an apparently benign ‘freedom to speak’ and what we seem to get, which is a ‘freedom to attack’. Rumi was writing hundreds of years before the internet, but it feels like his message would make a useful checklist for individuals, Moderators and the people who make unimaginable fortunes out of allowing hatred to take hold across society. Freedom of speech is undoubtedly important, but should there be an inalienable right to be a mean-spirited, dangerous kn*b? (See footnote)

‘Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?’ Seems like a really good basis for a New Year’s resolution. Over to you, Mr Zuckerberg!

Happy… whatever you are celebrating!

Footnote: Full disclosure…I once tried to boost a Facebook post and had my ability to ‘advertise’ blocked by Facebook moderators. It was, I believe, because I used the word ‘kn*b’ … without the asterisk. After careful consideration, the advertising moderators decided to take action against my unacceptable behaviour. This was in late December 2020. At the same time as I was blocked from advertising due to my inappropriate kn*b, much of the planning for the Capitol insurrection in Washington was being shared… on Facebook groups. For clarification, to the best of my knowledge, my kn*b caused no deaths in January or any other month of 2021.

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