Our Stream-of-consciousness is not Harmless

A number of times this year one person’s thoughtless tweet has triggered a twitterstorm. Often, but by no means always, the person meant no offense or meant one kind of (socially-endorsed) offence like “I’m a curmudgeon, fear my tongue”, but ended up with a social-death type label like homophobe or racist or misogynist. The most notorious might be Justine Sacco.

I’m going to take a leap and assume that all people find themselves at one time or another thinking unkind, unwise, or even prejudice-type thoughts. The decent folk then feel disgust and drive said thoughts out of their own minds. Other folk may chose not to, but do not act on the thoughts or say anything.

Take person A, B and C.

All of them get cut off in traffic by a Volvo with a black person at the wheel.

Person A thinks ‘black people always do this’, but realizes the nature of that thought and says nothing to A’s spouse when arriving home.

Person B thinks ‘black people always do this’, realizes the nature of that thought, but does not care, and relates the story to B’s spouse, saying the exact sentiment verbally.

Person C does the same as B, except he tweets the event along with the line on his Twitter account.

Twitter outrage against C ensues because C’s tweet is seen as racist. A and B (using their online personae) even contribute to the firestorm since they are protected from similar accusations by having kept the same thought in their head (A) or in the family (B).

My point is perhaps the problem is the nature of Twitter which tempts us to publish thoughts as they form. Maybe it’s not such a good idea to broadcast every single notion that comes into your head. Perhaps there’s a reason that telepaths do not naturally occur, and that our thoughts are private until we choose to share them (at least for now). Perhaps it’s not such a good idea to have access to Twitter on your desktop, laptop, tablet and smartphone so you can share any random mental ejaculation. Perhaps it’s the Law of Averages, and if you keep saying exactly what’s in your mind sooner or later you’ll offend someone.

Our stream-of-consciousness is not harmless and does not belong on Twitter or any other social media (medium, actually). It belongs in our heads where it should be worked on by our prefrontal cortex before becoming an expressed verbal or written thought. To deny the natural editing process is to risk being labelled as something we are not, or to hurt people we have no intention of hurting, or to come across as ignorant when we are not.

On the other hand (says my prefrontal cortex) perhaps it is a good idea for one to test thoughts out this way. Perhaps a notion I had was racist/homophobic/misogynistic/ablist etc, and by airing it I would become aware. Sure, I might lose my job and all my friends and get death threats, but I would have learnt a valuable lesson in social dynamics, the kind of lesson you can’t buy with money.

And of course there are people who mean the offence they are accused of, to which I can only respond with a bovine grunt as I do not understand such people.

As Tyler Durden says, “But that’s me, and I could be wrong.”


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