I left the room burning with shame and went to the bar.
What the fuck did she mean ‘it could be perceived as racist’?
How could what I’d written be taken to mean the opposite of the way I felt?
That’s not what I intended at all.
I felt awful.
Sick to the stomach at what this could mean about me, my mind searching for all the times I’d called out racism, stood up for equality, desperate to find as many examples in my defence.
I got drunk.
And buried it.
This is the first time I’ve admitted it to anyone but myself that, when I was at university doing a research project on Islamophobia in French society in 2004, something I wrote was turned on its head an highlighted by my tutor as potentially racist if looked at in a certain way.
I was mortified at the time.
Yet now when I revisit it, I see how helpful that scenario has been in shaping my views on carefree-yet-conscious interactions online.
In the interim decade, I’ve had email arguments and Facebook rants, I’ve been witness to trolls, violence and abuse on the internet. And it’s like this episode at university has been waiting in the wings, waiting for this time, so I can recall it and use it.
That experience where my tutor gave me shocking feedback taught me about how the intention of your writing can be one thing, but the interpretation by the reader can be something else entirely. Based on their knowledge, experiences and perspective.
Does this mean I advocate for trying to please everyone? No.
Will I be accused of political correctness gone mad? Probably. Those people can fuck off. I’m not here to pander to those who think that freedom of expression extends to outright harm. That’s not what freedom is about.
Whatever you write, you will always find someone who’s ready to disagree. There’s always potential to offend someone.
It’s noisy out there and people are poised, ready to pounce at a second’s notice on posts and articles with which they disagree. Noisy. No barriers to publishing. No protection from incessant online opinion. Comment after vile comment. Argument after nasty argument. Debate after exhausting debate. Noisy and violating, even maybe unintentionally, even maybe with the opposite of intentions, but still somehow hurtful to someone.
We can aim to do better.
And still heard.
Heard because of the stark contrast of tone. Heard because of softness and grace.
So, what am I suggesting?
I suggest writing from a place of unedited uncensored unrestricted freedom. Voice your voice. Tell your truth. Share what’s on your heart.
Then check in with how acceptable this is to the audience. Sending is only half of the communication equation. The other half is receiving. Consider the audience.
Remember that the audience means the people who are in the space where you’re interacting. If that’s your website, your FB profile, your email, then that’s your audience. But if that’s someone else’s community, their social media page, their website, that’s their audience. Theirs.
And then run it through a filter.
- Filter first for privilege. Be mindful of your assumptions. Look at the isms. Does what I’ve said apply to people of different race, of different gender, of different sexual identity, of different ages, of different beliefs than myself?
- Filter next for forcefulness. Language goes up a scale of strength from hinting, through suggestion, to assertions, then commands. How strongly are you proposing your idea?
- Filter for what the law says. Stay abreast as best you can of what freedom of speech actually means. And never hide behind it. Aim for more conscious language in this crazy noisy environment.
And last of all, take care to not tell others what they should and should not say – even if your job involves language – even if your business deals in advice. It’s still not your job to tell others how to express themselves. We are not the tone police.
“We need to be able to argue beyond the threat of privilege […] We should be able to say ‘this is my truth’ and have that truth stand without 100 clamouring voices shouting giving the impression that multiple truths cannot coexist” ~ Roxane Gay
Be mindful of the space you’re in. And understand people’s sovereignty in their space versus an invitation to engage in healthy debate.
Think: their house, their rules.
Definition of ‘house’:
Their actual brick and mortar home, their office, their cubicle, their website, their social media pages, their social media groups, their online community spaces and programs, their proximity.
Now once you have reflected, written with abandon, edited mindfully, now publish publish publish away.