To speak or not to speak

Social media and the activism question

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Image credit: Mohammad Ibrahim, courtesy of Unsplash

LIKE MOST PEOPLE, after the terrible events of 7 October 2023 I’ve confronted some vexed questions about how I live in the world. One of the biggest conundrums I’ve faced is whether it is useful to speak publicly in online spaces against the bombardment of Gaza. It’s felt odious to contemplate such an abstract ethical and moral quandary as people are torn apart by bombs and succumb to starvation. Nevertheless, exploring questions like this has been an essential part of considering how I’ll show up and act for humanity in the world during this conflict, and the numerous other atrocities that characterise our current world.

It’s important to acknowledge at the outset that online activism is only one type of action. There are many other forms of engagement, such as attending rallies and protests, using non-violent civil measures like BDS (boycott, divest, sanction), writing to politicians, voting, and donating funds to organisations like Doctors Without Borders. Many people do not use social media, or may have small followings for private purposes, and prefer to engage in alternative forms of activism or to ‘speak up’ in face-to-face formats. These alternative forms of action are as essential as social media work. Nevertheless, those who have public social media profiles and have previously used them in the service of various causes have all wrestled with the question of speech or silence since 7 October.

When I did start speaking up about my staunch anti-war stance, many of my progressive peers wrote to me to say they shared my views and wanted to speak publicly but were afraid to do so. They feared backlash from people they knew and didn’t want to hurt Jewish friends, were nervous about consequences such as complaints to professional registration bodies, or felt like they didn’t know enough to make correct and informed statements, especially given the disinformation and propaganda that abounds. Jewish and Israeli people experienced similar distress as they wanted to speak in support of each other and about the harm caused to Jewish people worldwide but felt stifled by worries about repercussions. Those people who spoke supportively about a ceasefire were initially slammed for their views, and those who took a while to speak publicly or chose not to were accused of complicity with genocide. People demanded speech and silence in equal measure, and both approaches were met with opprobrium.

I’ve wrestled with this dilemma about our use of online platforms before and have usually settled on the simplistic response of ‘people should be free to use their social media in the manner they wish’. Before Israel and Palestine, I had not confronted the way this privileged individual comfort over collective action. Like most, I come from a world where individual needs and desires predominate, and the concept of basing our actions on the greater good is seen as leftist, woke nonsense.

I have no clear answer about the dissonance between our right to choose between silence or speech and the ethics and morals of living in the world as good universal citizens, except to acknowledge that this predicament requires deep ethical consideration and an exploration of the structural underpinnings of speech. While I explore this issue through the vector of Israel and Palestine, the questions raised and frameworks discussed can be used more broadly to guide our thinking about the way we use social media and the implications of our words.

EXPLORING THE CHOICE between speech and silence requires a careful balance, an evaluation of costs and gains, and an understanding of how and why many of us use social media as our primary means of transacting life and learning. This entire war has been live streamed by Palestinian citizen journalists such as Plestia Alaqad, Bisan Owda and Motaz Azaiza – ferociously courageous as they witness and transmit unremitting reel after reel of blackened and crumbled buildings, sepulchral faces covered in dust, and severed limbs. Social media is where we’ve catalogued the horrors of this military action.

The question many of us have wrestled with in different ways is whether it is appropriate or even beneficial to use our own public or private social media in the service of activism. For those who don’t have public-facing social media profiles this question is moot. For the rest of us, it’s useful to consider the reasons we might choose to desist from using public online channels to engage in activism. Are we choosing this because offline action aligns more with our values? Are we just scared? Saying something feels perilous, but the absence of speech is also dense with meaning. What does silence say about our views, the way we use our platforms, our moral capacities, our ethics, our willingness to be silenced or the (always unstated) pecuniary and reputational purposes for which many use public social media profiles? It’s also helpful to consider the implications of silence. What are the personal costs of silence? Who benefits most from our silence? If no one speaks, how will change ever occur?

On the surface, the choice between speech or silence may feel like it centres around sensitivity and complexity. If speaking in support of Palestine hurts members of certain communities, and if it is a complex historical and geopolitical issue, then perhaps silence is appropriate. We can sit with this supposition, until we realise that the subtext is ‘the comfort of some is more important than the lives of many’. The benefits of speaking up are often unclear. While one Instagram post will clearly make no difference to a child cradling their dead parent, or the many WCNSFs (wounded child, no surviving family – a new acronym originating in Gaza), enough posts, petitions and letters to politicians together may shake the presentiment of polling danger into those politicians, possibly galvanising them into action.

The decision-making process about addressing topical concerns publicly has felt much less fraught for other social issues – publicly pledging support for the Voice felt so obvious that it was a non-decision for most, even those who did not identify as activists, as was advocating for BLM or gay marriage during the 2017 referendum. But many important social issues are ignored on social media, and certain issues and forms of action (for example, the black square associated with BLM) appear to have become a fashionable marker of virtue rather than associated with meaningful action.

Confronting the reasons why this specific issue has felt both more urgent and more troubling to discuss online is an interesting exercise. While many people have said that the world’s focus on Gaza is because of latent antisemitism, for me speech has felt urgent because this is the first genocidal action I have witnessed in adulthood enacted by a democracy with the stated approval of other democracies. My speech is driven by the live-streamed horrors I have witnessed, and the decimation of the world order this military assault signifies.

Broadly, I consider social, health and humanitarian issues central to the world I inhabit as a mental-health professional and a non-fiction writer, and I’ve spoken about socially divisive subjects before: I agitate for rehabilitation not incarceration and hold a strong pro-vaccination stance. These views have many vociferous detractors and it’s likely that my words have made people uncomfortable. However, opposing voices are not often part of my immediate social circles and I can thus discount them, knowing that there will be no reputational damage caused by speaking up. When everyone you know agrees with you, speaking up does not require courage.

The Israel/Palestine conflict is different. There are people in my social circles and following me on social media who hold very different views to me, and for the first time I found myself scared of the consequences of sharing views that run counter to those of others. Would I offend someone? Would someone complain about me to the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency, as has happened to thirty-nine other medical professionals? Could I tolerate being disliked by someone I had previously been friendly with? It’s confronting but useful to be radically honest with oneself in these matters.

There were also other important questions to weigh up, such as whether speech in favour of Palestine would harm anyone, and deciding how to most sensitively communicate the exquisite nuance required (despite my best efforts, I have often failed to get this right). Holding some knowledge of the situation is important, and the Middle East has such a complex history that few people fully understand the context. Speaking up carries responsibility, and the costs of making immoderate, inflammatory or incorrect statements at times of war are high for everyone.

In a world where we have commodified ourselves for each other’s consumption and use social media as a tool to enhance and advertise our ‘brand’, what we say and the issues we engage with or ignore are complex decisions that require more exploration than a simple ‘Do I want to?’ Within the strictures of neoliberal capitalism, one of the few ways we can now relate to the old-fashioned concept of morality and being ‘a good person’ is through our brand and speech, where we spend our money, the businesses and causes we align with, and how we present ourselves to others. We don’t have commandments, only hashtags.

In this environment, some values are more popular than others. Lucinda Holdforth explores this in detail in her excellent book 21st-Century Virtues: How They Are Failing Our Democracy. She talks about the way traditional virtues, like duty and honesty, have been usurped by modern virtues, like authenticity and transparency. We tend to revere people who perform authenticity in their speech, so much so that it is now inauthentically tailored by those presenting themselves as a values-aligned brand. We touch on things that are thorny (but not too thorny). We posture and preen, feel like we are good when we speak up about those issues popularised by our social circles in a frenzied attempt to stage a public version of ourselves.

If we were being truly authentic, most of us would have to say something like, I present myself in a certain manner online so you like and trust me, or so I can sell you things, and I’m truly terrified of any backlash and will back-pedal and placate at the first murmurs of disruption. In this context, speech or silence are decisions that strike at the heart of our being.

In addition to considering whether the presence or absence of speech highlights something crucial about the ethics and values we hold, it is also essential to think about what the actions we engage in online say about our value systems. If our stated values centre around respect, but we resort to statements like ‘Go fuck yourself’ when someone disagrees with us, then our actions belie our words.

ALL THESE FACTORS make the decision between speech and silence an intricate one. Some universalist ethical principles might help. We have the right to speak or remain silent, but what we say may add significant pressure on our governments to act to stop carnage. Speech cannot be seen simply as virtue-signalling in this context – especially when there is a large pro-war lobby exerting pressure in the opposite direction. There are real human lives at stake, and when we are watching the destruction of a nation and a culture, to remain silent (including refusing to take relevant offline action) is to engage with the world via fear, rather than with courage and steadfastness. The potential costs of speaking up are real and the consequences can be far-reaching and career-ending.

Remaining silent is certainly easier, but may have impacts on our relationship with ourselves, and the ethical standards we have tacitly now accepted, and the world we have brought into being. More cynically, this may also have impacts on our personal brand, especially if we have positioned ourselves as people engaged in social justice, humanitarian causes, health and trauma. We’ll possibly hurt people if we speak up, and we may contribute to the ongoing harm of those we don’t know if we stay silent. Either way, we’ll take a hit. Which hit we choose will be decided by our values and the influence of those around us.

In the face of this complexity, we need to recognise that there is no single correct answer. The political dilemma before us tries to force us to buy into the polarisation that lies at the very heart of the current military conflict (that is, that there is a clear right and wrong). Instead, understanding and articulating a stance around speech on social media requires a deep dive into the ethical costs and benefits of the decision we make, our personal philosophy and our values. This form of deep thinking is alien to most of us, as we rely on religion, history, peer pressure, emotion and heuristics instead of a more considered stance.

But we can learn to create frameworks of ethical decision-making, and the question of speech on social media necessitates such a framework. It is most usefully created a priori instead of post-hoc, allowing us the certainty that our decisions are based on consistent and defined cool-headed ethical reasoning, not the whims or fears of the moment.

To create this framework, we can explore whether our actions will make the world a better place (ethical decision-making assumes that this is an important question and a key guiding principle for us all), consider the congruence between our actions and our values (are we turning our empathy on and off?), notice whether any ethical non-negotiables are at play (for example, supporting human rights, safety and equity is a non-negotiable for me), determine what might happen if everyone chose to act as we did (what would happen if the entire world turned away from thorny issues like Gaza in the pursuit of personal comfort?) and look at the impacts of our decision on our character (the standard we walk past is the standard we accept).

Imagining how we would feel if this was happening to us is another useful principle to consider, and a useful lesson in empathy. Using the sunlight test is also helpful, and involves asking ourselves if we would act the same way if our actions and reasoning were on the front page of the newspaper tomorrow. Would we be proud of who we were if light was cast on our decisions? Is this the standard we would set for our children? Would we encourage them to get stuck in the minutiae of who started a fight, or encourage them to find a way to rise above and non-violently resolve a conflict?

While none of these questions will give us a single defined answer, they will allow us to break free of some of the instinctive forces that bias our thinking (fear, defences, cognitive dissonance) and support us to articulate defined and consistent ethical stances.

Note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.

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About the author

Ahona Guha

Ahona Guha is the author of Reclaim: understanding complex trauma and those who abuse (2023) and Life Skills for a Broken World (2024), both...

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