Don’t feed the trolls
As ARC prepares to launch its own website in 2016, Helen Baird-Parker tackles the diversity issues raised by the HMRC Intranet comments section.
A boiling magma pit of bad opinions, poorly articulated philosophy and chronic contrarians…. The comments section. …the last time somebody suggested you read a comments section, it wasn’t because they expected you to find anything enlightening, enriching or fun in there.
– Popbitch Magazine,“Trash Talk”, September 2015
HMRC recently took the decision to introduce a comments section on news articles on the HMRC Intranet. Many have been surprised by the tone of the comments, and the strength of feeling expressed. But should we be? Isn’t this just how the internet works? How do we navigate the perils, pitfalls, and genuine benefits of enabling free dialogue in a work environment when people are used to expressing themselves in a particular polemical fashion in comment sections on the internet? ARC has had the Forum for years, and members will be aware that it has, on occasion, been a high heat environment where we debate controversial topics passionately. The downside can be, I’m afraid, that some people would rather not contribute because they fear the type of response they may get. ARC has always valued the tool though as enabling free flowing debate between members across our whole organisation.
You may or may not be aware that ARC members are now increasingly called upon by HMRC to wade into sometimes vitriolic debates on the Intranet to try to maintain the balance and put the HMRC point across. There can be a strong steer as to what it might be helpful to put there. It can be an uncomfortable place to be, but this is considered part of our role as senior leaders in the organisation.
Is it reasonable to say whatever we like on the Intranet in the name of freedom of speech, or should we also be free not to speak because we don’t like being attacked on the Intranet? Is this a faux-democracy of those that shout the loudest? ARC is looking to introduce a similar feature on our own website which is under development, so now feels like a good time to talk about this issue. My firm view is that we all need to think carefully about how we come across to others when we’re posting at work.If you say anything about feminism in particular, you can expect to cop a lot of flak. It can be nasty, it can be ignorant, but most of all it’s just really wearing.
As ARC’s Diversity Officer, I’ve been particularly interested, and sometimes dismayed, by the reaction to certain diversity themes which have been promoted on the Intranet. A case in point was the October article on the Embrace programme, which generated seven pages of comments, not all of which were terribly edifying. In my personal life, posting to my friends and family on Facebook, and to the world at large on Twitter, I’ve noticed that diversity themes attract more than the usual share of internet ire. If you say anything about feminism in particular, or anything perceived as supportive of “positive discrimination” in general, you can expect to cop a lot of flak. It can be nasty, it can be ignorant, but most of all it’s just really wearing. It can feel as though the intention is just to pick a fight, to deliberately upset you, but mainly just to shout you down, drown you out, or get you to shut up because some people don’t like what you are saying. That doesn’t feel like freedom of speech to me.
And so I’ve been thinking about why certain people, often the ostensibly privileged majority, feel that they are being disadvantaged by diversity and feel that it’s OK to go on the offensive to explain this online. Do they realise how they come across to others? Often on the internet you’ll hear people ask you to “check your privilege”. What they mean is that you might not realise just how advantaged you are in life – it might not feel like you are – but there are often other people experiencing other things that you don’t have to. We all have some privilege in life, to a greater or lesser degree.
Here’s a quick privilege check. Can you see plenty of people with your characteristics (your gender, ethnicity, sexuality, ability or disability, age, or religion) represented in all aspects of life around you? For example, do you see people with your characteristics:
- In positions of political power, here and around the world?
- Represented in popular sport?
- In senior positions in public life – on boards of companies, religious institutions or running the Civil Service?
- In certain types of profession or job – from banker to checkout assistant?
- In the media, on TV, in film, in popular music?
- In educational establishments and universities?
- In the criminal justice system – sitting in judgement or on the receiving end of it?
Does it make the news, or has it made the news in recent years the first time someone with your characteristics did one of these things? What about people who are not like you – do you see plenty of them too? Where do you see them?
Now, think about the relative power or lack of power each of those things might give in life. Even if you feel that personally you’re not very privileged, if you’re seeing a lot of people with characteristics like yours in positions of relative power all around you, then you’re benefitting indirectly by having the status of someone who is relatively powerful in society – even if you don’t feel like it, or if there are lots of other things about you that people can’t see. For example, I am personally quite privileged. I’m a London lawyer with a double-barrelled name. You probably don’t know that I left school at age 16 and worked in a shop, and that I didn’t acquire my status until later in life. But that doesn’t matter when it comes down to brass tacks, because when I did come to apply for university I knew how to do it. My familiarity with how our society works, and my English name, definitely made it much easier for me than it has been, for example, for one of my close friends whose family emigrated from Pakistan in the 1970s and whose parents don’t speak English. Doors open for me a little bit more easily – even if it hasn’t always felt like it personally. I have benefited from the privilege of my personal characteristics.
Being asked to share those benefits more equally doesn’t mean that I am being disadvantaged – it is just attempting to give us all access to societal benefits, which some people already have more automatically than others. Some people would need a bit of a leg up to access some of the benefits I accessed in my life with relative ease. Not giving me an extra leg up isn’t discriminating against me – I already had a head start.
So, when someone posts on the internet about how efforts to close some of the gaps between the privileged and the less privileged in society are unfair and discriminatory towards them, a person who ostensibly already has all of that privilege, depending upon how they choose to express themselves, it can sometimes come across as ignorant and unpleasant. Let’s all think before we type. It might be OK to pour out your strongest feelings unchecked in the comments section of a newspaper, but maybe in the workplace we need to think a bit more carefully about what we are saying, and how it might affect our colleagues. It’s OK to have a view and to express your opinion, but we should think about how we do it in a properly professional, respectful way in a work environment, and how other people may interpret our comments.