Is knowledge too powerful?

When I was 14, my parents – usually individually – and I often read together, and one particular book I remember reading with Mum was If Cats Could Fly. In hindsight, it sounds like a disaster waiting to happen – do we really want cats to be able to reach the top shelf of the fridge effortlessly? – but it actually had quite a profound theme.

Picture it: a couple of aliens who have just crash landed on Earth grant two cats the ability to fly. The cats have a heck of a time at first, but because they can go wherever they want now, it’s not long before they are exposed to harsh realities of the world such as factory farming and destruction of the environment. Not surprisingly, they quickly succumb to despair at knowing so much and being powerless to change anything.

What got me thinking about this was my participation in a toxic habit that is all too common in millenials: scrolling through Facebook. I was seeing all these posts and articles that seemed to serve no purpose but to stir up hate towards people of opposing views. Statements about what God apparently wants to happen regarding Brexit. Warnings against getting too friendly with LGBT people. Prejudice towards vegans. You get the picture.

We have more access to knowledge now than ever before. Thanks to the internet, it’s so much easier to spread awareness of issues that, up until now, people have been ignoring. We can make our voices heard, and get closer glimpses of other ways of thinking and living.

But of course, there are two sides to every coin. Now we are more vulnerable. Now it’s easier to tear each other apart over a simple disagreement about a trending topic. We can so easily become both perpetrators and victims of misinformation, because now, stories don’t have to be authentic to be made public. We read things that are toxic to our emotional wellbeing – from prejudiced articles on why people like me are sick to posts saying people in (insert minority) should just deal with it – and then we keep coming back for more.

Well, I do. No, I’m not proud of it.

Do you see the connection? Easy access to knowledge can be a great thing in many ways, but does it also expose us to the darker side of people and the world we live in? People complain that we have less freedom of speech than before, but I think the opposite is true. We have more means of expressing ourselves, and at a time when more people are being given a chance to be heard. And that’s where divisions arise.

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Is freedom of speech really free?

This was a popular topic of debate in my journalism lectures at uni. In fact, some people got so wound up in their freedom of speech that the rest of us would spend the best part of these lectures sitting back and watching, as at least two people passionately argued their stance on free speech, or politics, or whatever. I don’t know if the best part was when someone would still be sulking after the lecture about not getting the last word, or when comments beginning “Your mum” were thrown around. Either way, quality entertainment.

What does freedom of speech really mean anyway? I like to think there’s more to it than simply being able to say what you like, but honestly, that is how most people seem to take it. I was musing on this the other day when I read a Facebook post that was nostalgically remembering the good old days when one could make a joke without having to worry about insulting women, racial minorities, LGBT people, etc. Really, it’s so tough being in a generation where everyone has a voice, not just heterosexual white men…

When people make statements online – for whatever cause – conflict in the comments section will inevitably ensue. And you can bet at least one person will defend their viewpoint by using the “free speech, free country” card. But people who try to be “PC” in their use of speech are stigmatised and mocked. Apparently casual racism, or sexism, or whatever, is fine, but trying to show respect and compassion towards other people makes you subject to ridicule.

And none of this answers my question.

The way I see it is this. Freedom in any form isn’t as simple as being able to do whatever you want, with no regards to the consequences. Think about growing up. You spend your childhood being heavily dependent on your parents, then your teen years testing their boundaries and your own limits. You take matters into your own hands, and when you fail, you get angry when your parents still make sure you get your comeuppance just when you thought you were entitled to more privileges.

But your parents don’t give you more freedom because they stop caring what you do. Rather, they do so because they are trying to trust you to make your own decisions without having to be told. At any stage in our lives, we will inevitably abuse our privileges, and the consequences will be no less real.

Make sense? We are free to voice our opinions, but that doesn’t make it any more ok to attack others. No-one is always fully right or fully wrong. Conflict may be unavoidable, but if you manage it by defending your side without tearing down someone else’s, you’re making a step in the right direction.

The digital age – smarter, better, faster, stronger

Does such easy access to technology make us smarter? This was a long-car-journey-thought of mine ages ago. People believe we’re cleverer than ever before. There’s more knowledge and news circulating, and doing so more easily than even a generation ago. So there’s definitely some truth in that.

I don’t think it started in this generation, either. The main reason TV, radio, and the telephone took off so quickly was because people were gaining access to news. Since then, inventions like that have been upgraded over and over, with new inventions being added to the mix. Now we can scroll through Facebook like our own self-updating newspaper, only better, because it (mostly) caters to our interests, and includes friends’ news, as well as general headlines. Phones aren’t just communication devices – you can take pictures with them, count your steps with them, beat them at checkers even on the hardest level, hehe… You really have to marvel at the brains behind technology.

A common complaint about so much digital entertainment, social media, etc. is that we are forgetting how to use our brains. I can believe that; kids these days are given iPads, phones, computers to play with, when the whole point of toys and pretend games are to help them develop their brains.

And it doesn’t stop there. If I’m bored, it’s tempting to see what’s available on YouTube or Netflix, especially if I’m supposed to be doing something else. We can spend so much time procrastinating online, that we have less time for reading, hobbies, or going out. And, more worryingly, achieving our goals.

There’s no harm in having fun with our devices. But they don’t have to stop you from having a mind of your own, and a productive life. And, for many people, they don’t. Ironically, I’m hoping I’m one of them, while sitting behind a computer trying not to get sidetracked by Facebook.

Being able to communicate so freely is a double edged sword. I’ll start with what I do like about it. For a start, staying in touch is easier than ever. If I want to catch up with someone, or even just ask how they are, I only have to whip out my phone. It’s not the same as actually seeing them – I mean, you can’t hug them (!!!) – but if one of you needs emotional support, the other person is only a few clicks away.

Not forgetting how quickly you can make yourself, and your work, known. As if to prove this point, I am currently writing this blog post about it, which I plan on sharing to my millions thousands hundreds 150 or so page fans.

One thing that scares me about the internet is just how easily people tear each other down. There’s always been too much negativity flying around. Now we can hide behind a screen and a profile picture, and say what we like about that trashy celebrity, or that guy who disagreed with a comment we made. Something YouTubers like to do is find an entertaining way to show off all the hate comments they get, and I envy their ability to laugh it off. But why do people get such a kick out of spreading hate so freely?

When communicating publicly online, perhaps the trick is to ask ourselves if what we are saying is in any way kind or helpful. If not, then is it really necessary?

Us versus them – which is which?

You know what they’re talking about on the news at the moment? You can bet it includes people, politics, and prejudice, no matter when you’re reading this post. On Facebook these days I see about a gazillion hot topics trending. I don’t know if Facebook has become more news-y or if I’m just better at noticing these things, but I’m going to talk about one particular controversy: people’s attitudes towards race and religion.

Yes, you heard me. If you see another blog post from me, you’ll know I didn’t commit social suicide today after all.

As a student living in today’s society, I have seen more online articles and videos than I care to count. Am I alone in that? Somehow I don’t think so. Looking through comments sections following numerous topics of discussion sometimes makes me feel like losing faith in humanity. People often seem to hype up hate towards Christians, Muslims, refugees, anyone who falls under a social category that may have caused problems for other people in the past. But to me, they’re missing the point. It isn’t having beliefs that’s wrong, and it certainly isn’t heritage. It’s cruelty. Which anyone is capable of and anyone can choose not to commit.

As for ‘we should help our own people first’: why do we prioritise people based on race and not on how much they actually need help? We are all people; there should be no ‘our own vs others’.

One thing I have learnt in recent years is this: we live in a society where too many people think that the way they see the world is the way it works. As a Christian, I don’t know whether to be more saddened by the fact that Christians get labelled as prejudiced, bible-bashing bigots or by certain individuals who do nothing to kill that stereotype. Is Christianity meant to show people how best to live, love and learn? Absolutely. Does it make a believer any more or less of a person? I don’t think so.

Atheists who freely post on the internet that all Christians are indeed prejudiced, bible-bashing bigots are being no better than the people they are accusing, in my opinion. Why should it be right for some social groups to shove certain people into a box but not others? Sadly it’s not just religion versus atheism wars where this is apparent. Cats versus dogs, introverts versus extroverts, Harry Potter versus Twilight? You name it.

I mean, just look at the conflicts that arise as a result, and you will see where I’m coming from. I could think of a million and one comments to add to such things, but am no more likely to do so than a football fan turn off the TV to drive all the way to Manchester so they can shout insults at the losing team. In other words, my stance on topics like that are for me, myself and I. And my blog, occasionally.

One of my principles in life is that the world is too big and complicated for us to ever understand it. I have my beliefs and am always trying to improve my understanding of God, faith, and the world in general. If any belief or opinion of mine is right or wrong, it will be one small thing compared with everything else I am right or wrong about. In short, no one on this earth has all the answers.

So with this principle, what morals do I go by? Keep an eye on your own thoughts and feelings. Accept you won’t always be right, and try to understand where other opinions come from. Above all, treat others with the same care and respect you expect to be treated with; at the end of the day, they are your equal.

 

What the media told me…

That my beliefs have to fit one category exactly,
As if a square peg can never fit
Into a round hole.

That the value of day-to-day goods:
Music, clothes, technology,
Is measured according with
Today’s idea of fashionable.

That people in a minority would,
To other people, be
2 dimensional enough to fit
The criteria for a character role
In a book.

That all animals have as much to the eye as we
Can see; in our minds, on the internet.
Dogs are dopey, cats disloyal,
Looking funny, bizarre or cute
In photos only a few clicks away
On the internet.

That labels, reputations, what we observe
Should not be taken
At face value.

As you can probably see, I am experimenting with a different approach to this post. For those of you who don’t know what a free verse poem is, this is (see above). A very clear and helpful definition, in my opinion, but if that wasn’t clear and helpful enough, a free verse poem doesn’t follow the rules of other “strict forms” of poetry. Rather, it allows you to a) decide that structure and rhyming patterns are for people who follow rules or b) experiment freely (the clue’s in the name) with your own structure and rhymes. Which I have done.

Now I’ve never been a fan of blindly agreeing with convention without good reason. Somehow this manifested itself when asked to write a free verse poem called “What…..told me”. Some people chose “my parents”, some chose “the church” and one person chose “the giant purple gecko” (genius). Being both autistic and likely to pull my hair out if faced with the “cat v dog” argument one more time, I’d been trying to decide between special needs and cats for my next poem. So this activity gave me the scope to attempt creativity and combine both and more. Voila, a free verse poem.

I like to think that I am learning a lot about creative writing. It may seem that way because the DMU newspaper “The Demon” crew asked me to write them an article which will hopefully be published on Monday. It may be because I got fifty-something marks for my first assignment. Or it may simply be because I’ve been told that staring at a page for hours before adding one word then removing it is perfectly normal for a writer after all. Well, according to Oscar Wilde it is, anyway.

As a sort of post script, can I just say that any constructive feedback on the poem, or just general opinions on the theme, will be very welcome. I may try this again with future posts – hope you enjoy!