I saw the best and the worst of social media this weekend. The best in the form of how it enables people to rally around a common cause and act as a catalyst for good. The worst in the actions of a small minority who chose the path of negativity over action.
Let me talk about the positives first. By now I’m sure everyone knows about the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Syria and the images that have provoked both people and politicians into action.
There is an obvious and natural affinity between the parent blogging community and the plight of Syria’s children, which led a group of mums setting up a campaign to support Save the Children‘s fund-raising efforts by posting black-and-white images featuring children holding up placards saying ‘It could have been me/us’ and encouraging others to pledge £5 via SMS.
It was an idea intended to be impactful but simple. All weekend, bloggers have been writing posts, putting up photos and promoting the campaign across social media. It was the top-trending topic on Twitter in the UK for much of Saturday. It had an impact – a big one.
I chose not to involve my children directly, instead posting a photo with a superimposed message as a halfway house. As the promotional push gathered pace on Saturday, I felt a genuine sense of pride at the way this virtual community had come together to give a real boost to the charity’s efforts. It even spread beyond the community, with some bloggers’ non-blogging friends also joining in.
When social media is used like this, I find it incredibly empowering and an antidote for all the selfish things that we humans do with regularity.
The bad and the ugly
Of course, social media being what it is, it didn’t take long for the negativity to start. Much of it was small murmurings of discontent and disagreement. Was it right to co-opt our children into promoting a message? Why only Syria? Why only children? Why should we be helping foreign refugees when there is so much suffering on our own doorstep?
The dissenting voices were in the minority, but they were certainly numerous. In many cases they have valid concerns and they were raised without animosity.
I don’t agree with them personally but that’s a matter of personal choice and values. Just because I disagree with someone doesn’t make their opinion less valid, and I like to think I am always happy to debate the issue with someone to explain my side and understand theirs better, and simply agree to disagree. It’s what we do in a civilised society: it’s called freedom of speech.
In some cases, however, dissension came with a healthy dollop of criticism and holier-than-thou superiority.
I had ‘discussions’ with a few people on Twitter – never the best medium for complex discourse, but it is what it is – where it became immediately clear that some were happy to pass judgement on others based on a single 140-character tweet which, when you think about it, makes judging the proverbial book by its cover look like reasoned and careful consideration.
Here were six of the arguments I came up against and the gist of my responses.
1. You should worry more about problems in the UK. Charity begins at home
I do worry about UK issues. In fact, I make monthly donations to four UK-focussed charities. Why assume that the fact that some people are supporting one campaign means they don’t also support others?
2. The situation in Syria is of their making, so it’s not our problem
There are plenty of arguments to support the view that the foreign policy of Britain and its allies has had an influence on the situation. And even if it is not our responsibility, isn’t that the point of charity, to willingly offer assistance to those who need it, regardless of whose ‘fault’ it is?
3. We have no obligation to help, so why should we?
It’s not about obligation, it’s about compassion. Britain has no obligation to offer free public healthcare to all via the NHS, or commercial-free programming via the BBC, or a whole host of social and other benefits. But we have these because it is considered the right thing to do.
4. Why don’t you get other countries who aren’t pulling their weight to do so instead?
That’s the job of politicians, not individuals. And why should we base a decision to offer humanitarian help on whether other countries are doing so? Does that make it any more or less right?
5. Why don’t you do something about [insert alternative issue] instead?
Why don’t you? If you feel that strongly about something, why not do something about it yourself? I can’t support everything, so I focus on a few.
6. You bleeding hearts should do [insert alternative charitable action] instead of donating to refugees
Thanks, but it’s my money and I’ll do what I please with it. And I’m happy to be called a ‘bleeding heart’ because at least it proves I have one.
The one thing all these arguments had in common was that the other person was determined to sit in judgement and demonstrate that their viewpoint was ‘right’ and mine was ‘wrong’, rather than just being opposing views. They sought to personalise an argument to which there is no easy black-and-white solution.
What I believe
I’m not by nature a confrontational person but I will stick up for what I believe in and I try (I don’t always succeed!) to enter arguments seeking to understand the other person’s point of view first rather than tear them down. After all, everyone has their beliefs for a reason, whether it is due to inheriting parental values, a personal experience, a lack of understanding or simple ignorance.
That’s certainly true in my case. The charities I am associated with are all personal to me: in fact, my donation profile is like an extension of my own experiences and DNA. But fundamentally everything comes back to the same core set of beliefs.
So here’s what I believe.
1. I believe that compassion should be boundaryless. Who I care about does not depend on your passport, your race, your religion, your social background or anything else. I care about people.
2. I believe that I am fortunate to live in a society where my family can enjoy a comfortable life which gives us many choices. Some of that is down to my own hard work, yes, but some is also a function of circumstances beyond my control.
3. I believe that those of us who are fortunate have a duty of care to help those who aren’t. Some of that is already accounted for in the taxes I pay but I also have a choice to support causes I believe are important. I choose to exercise that right.
4. I believe that everyone has the right to their own opinion – even if it is opposed to my own – without being harassed by small-minded bullies who gain a perverse satisfaction from belittling others. There’s nowt so queer as folk.
5. I believe it is pointless to criticise people who are only trying to make a positive contribution to a cause. By all means disagree, but why criticise someone for trying to make a difference?
6. Finally, I also believe that people who don’t take action themselves morally forfeit the right to point fingers at others. Anyone can nit-pick from behind a keyboard but it takes a good person to actually give up some of their time and/or money to try to make a difference.
Everyone has the right to free speech and I will defend anyone’s right to it. But how some choose to exercise that right occasionally beggars belief. Nonetheless, I’ll put up with the 1% of social media that is bad and ugly if it means there is the opportunity for the other 99% to do good.
Whether you donate to the Syria appeals or to any other charitable cause – please just give and support rather than criticise others who do the same.
You can donate £5 by texting SYRIA to 70008 or directly via the websites of Save the Children or numerous other charities. You can also sign the Government petition and find out more ways in which you can help.