Writing In Public

Hamilton Nolan’s stern post on Gawker, “Twitter is Public,” spoke the thoughts of many a journalist yesterday. Those who write for a living (and are therefore themselves occasionally trussed, spit and taken for a spin on the rotisserie of public opinion) can’t help but goggle in disbelief that the concept of “public” can be misunderstood. Journalists think about this all the time because the right to report and publicize has often been under attack, such as when the police try to stop someone recording or filming in the street, or when a celebrity or politician objects to the publication of public information, or when the government or police just feel like it. That is very shocking. And when people seem to believe that their published utterances on Twitter are protected by mysterious privacy rights, maybe something like those protecting the communications between psychoanalysts and their clients, that is shocking in much the same way. They’re not protected at all! (Ask Justine Sacco, or any of these people.) And it’s desperately important that they’re not, because that’s exactly how all of us ordinary people in a free society have a chance—have the right—to learn and know about and discuss what is really going on in the world, in our politics and businesses, in our churches and schools.

In Russia, the machinery of public discourse is being systematically dismantled this very minute, so we can understand what the cost is when the citizens of a country are not free to comment on public statements in any way they choose.

The hubbub on Twitter yesterday was to do with a distressing and important Twitter stream of people who’d been sexually assaulted. They posted whatever it was they’d been wearing at the time, in order to make the point that many people who are sexually assaulted are not wearing suggestive or provocative clothes. I read some of the stream on Wednesday night, and found it frightening, terrible and valuable to read. Then a BuzzFeed writer wrote a post about that Twitter stream the next day, and republished tweets from it. There was absolutely no requirement for this BuzzFeed writer to ask anyone whatsoever for permission to reproduce those tweets. She did ask for and receive permission for each individual tweet she posted, because she was concerned about the ethics of amplifying statements by assault survivors; the instigator of the tweets did not give permission to use her name or image, which caused more trouble.

That other side of this question is more interesting, and it’s to do with freedom, and with writing about people, about ourselves and about one another, on and off the Internet.

There were those who believe that it is wrong, or insensitive, to reproduce and broadcast the thoughts and identities of people who’ve been deeply harmed. Writers will always do well to consider the likely cost of their words to anyone whom they may be describing. But in this instance, the whole point of the original Twitter feed was to make it clear to as many as possible that people do not “invite” sexual assault with their clothes. You could be wearing a t-shirt and jeans and be assaulted, and everyone should know that; ideally, everyone in the whole world would know that. If millions came to learn what these Twitterers had to say, then that is all to the good. If the people who know about it don’t brave the danger, then the only people left talking about sexual assault are the ones who have the least business doing so. I thought about Anita Hill a lot yesterday because she is one of the bravest and best people that ever was, to walk into the maelstrom of public opprobrium that she did with her eyes open, armed with nothing but her own integrity. Things changed for the better for all the women of this country because she did that. The Twitter feed on Wednesday was the same.

To write in public is to court disaster, but it is also to invite the truth. I don’t know any better way of opening your heart to a deeper understanding of the world. If you have a Tumblr or Twitter account or mimeograph a zine or draw comics or write in a magazine or comment on a political blog or appear on TV, you are making yourself vulnerable to the judgments of others. And when I say “others,” I mean people whose worldview is utterly foreign to you and into which you have absolutely no insight. That can get scary or even threatening, but what it really is is a gift, a liberation. It means we’re alive together, we are free, we have brought our thoughts whole and real out onto the face of the world. So now, let’s talk.

If public discourse is to be completely honest, things can and will sometimes get hairy. It’s complicated, uncomfortable and painful to experience a clash of views. But for the most part, all that complication is good. Honest, civilized disagreement is the healthiest thing there is. It’s a point of departure toward better things—really the only one we’ve got. In a better world we will pay attention to the (honest, non-troll) people who disagree with us and not just be scared or give up, but try to take the next step together.

Max Read of Gawker once said, with respect to online disagreements,

If I were giving advice, to myself as well as anyone else, I’d say this: Don’t feel obligated to respond to every bit of criticism or disagreement, at all. Assess its quality. Make sure it’s in good faith. Think about the ultimate goals of your critic and yourself. Be honest with yourself about what you want out of the discussion.

Wherever possible, respond in private, over email. (This way you can take the fraught problems of the “attention economy” and public performance in front of judgmental peers out of it.)

Most importantly: sleep on it. Always. At the very least, take a walk.

It is best to air our disputes in public if we can, but carefully, thoughtfully. But sometimes Max is right, and it is better to conduct such an exchange in private. One thing is for sure, anyone who engages much at all in online disputation can tell you that even someone who’s been yelling at you like an angry bear will most often completely alter his tone the moment you respond. It’s easy to forget there are human beings behind the keyboards.

We’re all together, for just a little while, and this is public discourse. To submit to public judgment is valuable and worthwhile for everyone. We are so lucky to live in a place where we now have, for the moment, something approximating free speech. One of the most valuable and worthy contributions each of us can make to a free society is to share our thoughts and then not only to allow (because it’s their right) but to invite and to welcome the judgment and commentary of others, however strongly they may disagree. Let’s tell one another the truth as each of us understands it, and learn what we can.

Maria Bustillos is a writer and critic in Los Angeles. Photo of friends who don’t look like friends by Mohd Fahmi Mohd Azmi.