Last night a story broke about a Google employee circulating an email to his colleagues regarding the company’s diversity policies. From skimming it, the email seemed reasonable, i.e. it wasn’t deliberately offensive or insulting. However, some people are appalled that someone working in Google holds such opinions, let alone shares them, and are calling for him to be sacked. Others are urging people not to read the email, as if it were a gorgon’s head.
This is wholly unsurprising. The immediate response from many people when faced with opinions they don’t like is to try, using fair means or foul, to silence that person. This has been going on for years, and the latest weapon in the censors’ arsenal is to try to get the person sacked, and to deprive them of their livelihood.
This situation is likely a natural progression from what these people got used to on a personal basis. Some years ago, everybody moved their online presence from forums, blogs, and message boards to Facebook, and then Twitter. It’s taken me a while to realise this, but the shift was quite fundamental. When you read a blog or join a forum, you have no way of filtering out content you might not like. Similarly, there’s no way of restricting the audience of what gets published, aside from a requirement to register. Everything you write can be accessed by anyone, and there is no restriction on what you might read.
Facebook is quite different, and you can select what you see and who gets to read your posts. This is understandable because it initially started out as a social networking site, but quickly became a platform for (supposedly) public content: Facebook has been used for campaigning, promoting events and businesses, and politicking almost since the beginning. Then came Twitter, which was never about keeping friends and family updated on your life, it was always supposed to be a platform for sharing your views with the big wide world and connecting with like-minded people. Only they included an option to block people. Now I can perhaps see the value of being able to block people you don’t like from contacting you, but from seeing what you are writing? What’s the point of that, especially on Twitter? It’s like an author publishing a book and placing restrictions on who can buy it, or standing on a rooftop and yelling but asking half the people on the ground to cover their ears.
This makes no sense to me whatsoever. I’ve been blocked from reading Louise Mensch’s Twitter feed. If she doesn’t want people reading it, why the hell is she writing it? The answer is obvious: she only wants certain people to read what she’s writing. We used to call this “private correspondence”, but nowadays people try doing it on the most public, open forum the world has ever seen. In other words, they want the prestige and attention that comes with being a public voice, only keeping the benefits of private correspondence. For me, this is a cop out, and one of the reasons I don’t like the blocking functions on Twitter. When I write this blog I assume everyone who knows me, including friends, family, and employers, might read it. This sharpens the mind somewhat, and keeps me from writing bollocks I can’t defend. If your public thoughts need to be hidden from certain people, perhaps your thoughts are the problem, not them.
Hence we have the Twitter generation who, at the click of a button, can stop people communicating with them and stop them seeing their public pronouncements. Little wonder they think the entire world can be made to run like this as well, hence the calls for the Google employee to be sacked and Charles Murray to be denied a platform to speak at American universities.
And you see this spilling over into people’s personal lives. Like a public blog forces you to think about what you write, so interacting with people in the real world forces you to think about how you behave. Before online dating, you’d have to find a partner among your friends or social peers. Even if you met in a bar or club, chances are you’d be mixing in the same circles and not living too far apart. Whatever the case, you had to approach them (men), or wait for them to approach you (women). The way of filtering out the riff-raff was to mix in the sort of circles you’d want to find a partner in, i.e. if you’re a student you’d normally hang out with fellow students and go to student bars, not down in some biker bar the wrong side of the railway tracks. To stay in that social circle, you’d have to adopt acceptable behaviours. Those behaviours might seem pretty ugly, especially where students are concerned, but nevertheless you had to conform to some sort of socially acceptable behaviour when interacting with others. If you didn’t, you’d face a negative response, be it criticism, nasty remarks, ridicule, or rejection from those around you. In short, in the absence of a method to block all negative responses, you had to think a little about your behaviour.
Young men are often cads and young women are often loose, but one of the main things which modify such behaviours is the social opprobrium that follows. I know guys who went out of their way to dump a girl gently because they didn’t want a huge negative reaction from her and her friends which would leave him feeling like a heel. Ending a relationship is never nice or easy, but it’s part of life and – like so many other things – it’s something one must learn to do as an adult.
The mobile phone probably changed that, initially. If you had to finish with a partner, you’d normally have to do it face-to-face, therefore she would have the opportunity to respond. If you did it by rotary phone, she could call you back. If you did it by letter, she could write a response. Then mobile phones came along and you could block her number and any response, and with texting the whole process became much simpler and cleaner: “Were dun luv, lol xxx” followed by a block and that’s that. In the age of internet and fragmented communities, you’d probably not even see them again: gone are the days of dating a girl in the village.
I’ve had girls hurl abuse at me or cry down the phone or via text message or email when I’ve split up from them, and I’ve
probably done the same thing in return. Unless things start getting really psychotic, and they never have, I feel obliged to listen and soak it up. An emotional response is by definition irrational, and if one’s aim is to end up down the road with both parties reasonably happy and free of hated and humiliation and having kept face, then the emotional period must be dealt with properly.
A few years back I had a good friend come out of an appalling relationship, which she ended leaving the man (rather justifiably on some measures) absolutely livid. She had her reasons, but he had reason to feel rather aggrieved. He didn’t take it well, and she complained to me that he had sent her a flurry of nasty text messages when he was drunk a couple of weeks later. My response was something like this:
“Yes, he’s upset, understandably so. It’s not an excuse, but it’s a reason. What he’s said to you is awful, but there are reasons for it: he’s not saying it in isolation. My advice is to ignore it, because it’s angry correspondence. Respond to him when he’s nice, ignore him when he’s not, and be willing to communicate provided you remain firm that you’re not getting back together and he understands that. He needs to save face, and he needs time. If he’s still doing this in six months or a year, that’s a different matter. But right now…well, it’s to be expected.”
My friend took my advice and things became more civil. Eventually the guy moved on and she stopped hearing from him, both with their heads held (reasonably) high. Had she ignored him completely or responded in kind, things could have escalated. At best, he would have felt permanently aggrieved, and this is never a good thing. Of course, the modern advice is ignore, ignore, ignore – as if the whole thing happened in isolation. I suppose it depends on who you are, but I’m the sort of guy who thinks a woman who you’ve been in a relationship with deserves a period after the breakup of being pissed off, and she has a right to communicate with you. Guys who say “it’s best just to cut them off completely” are usually saying so for their own benefit (although they’ll say it’s for the girl’s) and it calls into question how serious the relationship was anyway. They’re hurting, and most of the time they want to save face, not get back together. If you won’t help them do that, then yes, the relationship should have ended – at her hand.
The Twitter generation are having none of it, though. These days I hear guys laughingly saying how they blocked some girl they recently dumped, because she kept texting him. What did they expect? I have seen women go running to the police complaining of harassment because some guy who they utterly humiliated had the temerity to let her know via email exactly what he thought of her. Unsurprisingly, Plod leaped into action and started issuing blanket threats of arrest and prosecution without even getting the guy’s name right, as is their wont. Modern men and women want to enter into something as complicated as a relationship but expect to be able to exit at the push of a button as if it never happened. I’ve seen women declaring love and talking earnestly with a man about long-term plans and then a few days later end the relationship by phone and block all communication saying “it’s best we both move on”, like some toad of a politician who’s been caught breaking the law. Men do the same thing, and it puts a serious question mark over anything which happened prior to that: if you’re prepared to pull the plug and run away like that, it was probably never serious in the first place – and he or she is certainly not ready for the give-and-take of a proper relationship. I’ve always seen a refusal to talk as simple cowardice.
Last year I wrote this:
Communication is everything in a relationship. When things are going well, communication tends to go well. But when things go wrong it often suffers, and you can quickly see who is in it for the partnership and who is in it for themselves.
Whatever the issue is, no matter how bad, keep the lines of communication open. Sure, take a ten minute break, or take a couple of hours to reply to a message. But tell the other person you’re doing that, and let them know when you’ll reply. The moment one party or the other decides they’re going to fall silent for a period of more than a few hours, or (worse) a few days, or (even worse) an indefinite period; or they’re going to completely ignore a message or an email; the relationship is over. Dead. It won’t recover.
Sure, I get people say nasty things, and if a situation breaks down into a slanging match of hate-filled invective and insults then it is wise to take a step back and have some time off. But the lines of communication must stay open: clearly say you’re having a break, and that you’ll be ready to talk again the next day at the latest. Get back to talking as soon as possible. Stomping off into indefinite silence and dragging it out over days will result in only one thing: a failed relationship. If one party doesn’t want to talk then better to just end the whole thing right there and then, because the outcome is inevitable.
The same is true at the end of a relationship:
Your partner might not be your greatest ever love, but if they’re your friend they’ll not fuck you over and will keep talking to you no matter what. If he or she stops communicating, they’re not your friend, they don’t have your interests at heart, and they’re in it for themselves: walk away.
The irony is that, in the age of unprecedented means of communication, many people have forgotten how to do it. It’s far easier to block, filter, ban, and silence than to talk, read, and listen as the latter requires effort on your part.
I don’t actually think it is iPhones and Twitter that have caused this: I think they’re merely responses to what people want. I have my opinions on why people have become like this, and I’ll write about them shortly. Doing so is likely to make me quite unpopular with some people, so I will have to tread carefully. No block function, see?