When right becomes wrong

Being on social media nowadays, always makes me nostalgic.

I’m a child of the Mahathir era – he was the only Prime Minister I knew throughout my student days.

Back then, people shared or vented on political dissatisfaction (or other forms of polemics) in limited circles, with one’s friends and family, within an email group, or on a personal blog, and so on. It was safe and somewhat filtered, and the people commenting were usually known or quite familiar to you.

One of the first email groups I was in, called HappyHappy, had the late Tan Sri Ani Arope on it and the author, Dina Zaman too.

We debated politics, religion, economics, social prejudices and race issues back then and even though it was a diverse group, everyone was relatively polite and accepting of each other’s views or differences. It was very civil and the interaction usually involved a lot of humour. I still remember it fondly. It was a place where some enduring friendships were made — a world where good manners were still the rule of the day and positivity was in abundance.

Today’s social media, particularly on Facebook, looks very different. Everyone is at least, a mini-newspaper in social impact and reach. The power of sharing has multiplied.

We’ve gone from being digital neighbours with people we know or are more similar to us to being digital neighbours with complete strangers, from a different part of the world or strata of society, who we would probably never have bothered, to engage with in real life.

There used to be a time when not everyone was talking, now everyone is. Every moderate or fanatic in town, is talking. Everyone has a view, filtered or unfiltered, valid or complete rubbish. Everyone has the right to offend, like it’s their God-given birthright — in the name of democratic space and maturing as a society. We are louder now and we probably see more digital opinions on a daily basis than any other previous generation – but I’m convinced that we’re not the wiser for it, as a society.

Looking back, as a child of the Mahathir era – it was probably inevitable. My generation, the Gen X in Malaysia, once agitated for more space to speak up. And there was a time when a wrongly-positioned newspaper article could land one in hot soup, with the powers that be.

It felt stifling and if you were educated, the inability to question authority or the hidden abuse of power, felt like a shackle around your legs. But of course, we had the economic boom of the 1990s, to appease and distract us. And the previous generation’s reminder to not destroy everything that our forefathers had built. So, we watched what we said and strong opinions were only shared by a few, to a few, in measured doses — digitally or otherwise. We didn’t really know what was happening beyond our direct sphere. You could say ignorance of what the rest of the country looked like, was relatively blissful.

Looking at the situation today, one could understand the perfect storm that happened. The pent-up suppression of the young met the liberating doors of technologically powered social media.

When the opportunity presented itself, everyone spoke up — about anything and everything under the sun – and had those thoughts reaffirmed by others. Everyone picked up the courage, because it was neither wrong nor unfashionable to speak up, criticise and throw in a smattering of snide remarks and sarcasm everywhere — regardless of who we may offend, in the way we communicated it. Regardless of whether we understand why we’ve offended them or how. It didn’t matter — your right to say anything you want on this powerful media that is frequently more powerful and widespread than newspapers, validates it — and if the other person is offended by your racial or religious remarks — well, he’d just have to deal with it, in this brand new, noisy and free world.

And believe me, it’s stressful — and often times, disturbing. Flip on to social media today and you would probably get to see every silly quote by a ridiculed politician, blazing through a hundred likes or shares, within hours. Every offensive racial or religious remark, done either deliberately or inadvertently, scratching the screens of “the other” and the insults and the immature name-calling, peaking in supportive volume. Every demagogue or uninformed idiot, wants to have a say or be a supporter — and it’s usually something quite inane or sarcastic – to the point that you’re absolutely grateful when someone comes up with a balanced view, with manners all intact. That kind has become the exception to the rule.

Gandhi used to say that looking at rights, without looking at one’s obligations, is looking at the wrong end of the stick.

Your social media page and updates are frequently not private pages — they are mini-community pages, even if you only have 20 Facebook friends. All of us on social media are talking in public spaces, which carries with it, the responsibility of carrying yourself like you are in a public place.

If you would not insult someone to their face, there’s no reason why being on social media should make you more likely to insult another person. Anonymity or being out of reach, is not a licence to be rude or to care less, about how you may affect others.

You should respect people on social media, the way you would respect them in real life. If you would not engage them in aggression in real life, then you should not do it online, either. What we don’t realise is that the way we communicate, reflects our core values — and every day that we choose to be less caring about offending others or hurting their sensitivities unreasonably, is another day where we corrode our own values, for ourselves and our future generations. The values that we teach our children - that they wouldn’t see us reflecting on social media.

There was a time when many in my generation wished for our media to be more responsible and not mouth things which would divide this nation or give airtime to such fanatics. Today, I think the power to influence has shifted from the print media to the social media — and the majority of the irresponsible ones now that is corroding the peace and unity in this country. Social media is like a knife – it is a neutral thing in itself. The good or bad is derived from the user of the knife. The criminal may well be the man in the mirror.

And yes, I miss the quieter more contented days, somehow. Nowadays, social media makes it feel like I’ve got the whole of Malaysia’s problems, invited into my living room, via my laptop.

Technology will keep getting better and will accelerate and widen our sharing in manifold, in future. But for it to do more good than harm, perhaps we need to start tweaking the human being, to improve their manners in the way we communicate with others, too.

■ Nazrin Hassan is the CEO of Cradle Fund, a leading government agency which funds the majority of budding startups in the country. In his spare time, he likes to watch movies and predict football results for the English Premier League. He is also a diehard Arsenal fan.

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