Is there intelligent life?

2009-12-16 00:00

ONE of the joys (or perhaps disadvantages depending on how you view it) of the Internet is the facility for dialogue and the exchange of ideas that online threads offer.

As a writer of opinion, who began life in print where the intellectual current is a one-way street that left no room for potential discussion, I was, at first, mildly excited by the idea of readers engaging with the ideas or issues raised.

I believed that if there was one place we could learn to think and talk, it would be in the dynamic space we call the Internet, where anyone and everyone has the same opportunity to express their thoughts.

In many ways it is true, as someone once said, that the truth is reached through dispute.

For years South Africans were denied the right to free speech. As a young journalist I was prevented from writing about many things. About “banned people”, about what was happening in parts of the country and even ideas or concepts the state found threatening. We continued to try to do so, sometimes risking arrest­.

I stood with a placard as security police frogmarched my editor, Tony Heard, out of our offices for printing an interview with Oliver Tambo in the Cape Times where I worked.

So, free speech is not negotiable.

In a way, we as South Africans still need to learn to speak freely. We need to find our voices when it comes to debating ideas and philosophies and engaging others in a productive and meaningful fashion.

But it is clear that the Internet is not where it’s going to happen. Well, at least not in the public space as it currently exists. I am not the first local writer who has highlighted the shocking levels of abuse, threat and violence that pass for comment on local websites.

It seems as if the Internet is a magnet for the mad and the bad who feel safe in their anonymity. It is a haven for the intellectually impoverished who revel in attacking the writer rather than his or her ideas. These are often people who know no language except the metaphorical insult.

It is clear from many of the comments that have followed pieces I have written for this website this year that those who lash out seldom read what is

really being said.

Many of the responses offer an atavistic, visceral response to a perceived attack.

But the comforting thing perhaps is that this toxic online inclination appears to be a global phenomenon. Writers and bloggers in Europe, America, the United Kingdom and parts of Africa­ suffer the same virtual assaults.

There is much value in the public exchange of ideas. It is important that ordinary people — and not just intellectuals or experts — are given the space to ask questions or make a contribution to important debates.

Banning the bigots and idiots is not the solution. Forcing them to identify themselves and think properly might be. A society can only understand itself if its members learn to talk to and with each other.

Shutting down a point of view because you do not agree with it takes us right back to where we once were. I still hold out hope for the Internet as the equivalent of a citizen’s legkotla.

— Women24.

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