Policing, social media, and dialogue

Lately I’ve noticed I’m spending more time than usual on social media. And no, that’s not because I’ve been giving into procrastination or because we just finished reading week and there are lots of new vacation albums to peruse. Instead, I’m pretty sure it has something to do with the fact that I’ve stopped censoring myself quite so much when it comes to my online presence. And unfortunately, the more comfortable I grow voicing my opinions in a world that would rather devalue them (as a woman, a young person, and a person with mental illness and an ld), the more I get policed by others.

Anyone who follows me on social media knows by now I have few qualms about sharing my opinions, whether that be directly through tweets or statuses, or indirectly through the articles, images, and other artifacts I post. I would also hope that anyone who knows me also knows that I am always trying to learn, especially from others’ lived experience. I am not anti-dialogue, or debate, or conversation. I also recognize that while it’s important to be able to express and stand behind your opinions, it’s also important to be open to discussion, reconsideration, and reflection. As Freire would say, we are all student-teachers, and teacher-students. I know that I hold some pretty problematic opinions. And if I don’t share these opinions, I’ll never be able to address them, and learn why they are problematic. We have so much to learn from each other.

The problem is, it’s often the same people who partake in conversations and get invited to the proverbial table. And it’s also often the same people who get heard. In saying this, I acknowledge that I am one of those people. I am extremely privileged – I’m white, heterosexual, and able-bodied, my parents are both well-paid and highly educated professionals, I am a full-time student at a highly regarded university, I have the time to write this blog, and I have the confidence and self-value, as well as others’ past affirmations and support, to believe I have something worth saying. That said, even though my voice may be, at times, over-represented or expressed and there are many conversations in which I should not take part but instead listen, this does not mean I do not have things to contribute based on my lived experience and studies. And since stigma and discrimination – in my case abelism and sanism – are still very real things, I think it’s extra important that people with lived experience of different social identities contribute to these conversations (but only when they feel comfortable and safe doing so, of course. We also need to be careful and wary about tokenizing people). We need to call more people to the table who have lived experiences that we don’t (or just abolish the damn table. That would probably be best). Social media is one place where everyone gets a table of their own. And that’s pretty great.

You might want to respond by saying that in a democracy everyone has a right to freedom of speech, or that it’s reverse *insert form of discrimination* to exclude people from conversations (because obviously asking people to listen instead of talk is a form of exclusion and discrimination!), or that it’s discriminatory to put the onus of educating others entirely on the shoulders of various in-group members. To this I respond: we do all have freedom of speech, at least to an extent (personally I draw the line at hate speech, abuse, and harassment), and I totally agree that it is unreasonable to expect only in-group members to educate others about their experiences. But we also know that power is unequally distributed in society, and that, as I noted earlier, some people are heard much more often and much more loudly than others – for example, I’m sure many female readers have had the frustrating experience of having been mansplained.When we get really good at always listening to the same folks, we forget about/invisibilize/erase others. So while yes, you do have a right to jump into conversations, sometimes it’s best you don’t and instead invest your energy into listening and considering what others are saying and why. Sometimes it’s just not your table. (also reverse *insert form of discrimination* do not exist. You can read more about this here or here or here).

Getting back to social media – I am more left-wing than most. I am probably also more idealistic and pessimistic than most (and yes, I am aware that’s a contradiction, but it’s one I’d wager is familiar to many sociologists). I am also perfectly okay being a feminist killjoy. This means that the things I post often rub people the wrong way. The status quo is comfortable. For a lot of people, it’s what feels safest. When I am critical of things you hold dear or take for granted, it can feel scary and threatening. I get that. I’ve been there too. This would probably explain why people are so quick to disagree with me on social media. It’s instinctive. To take a closer look at how this often plays out, let’s unpack the sorts of things I am frequently told in relation to my online presence.

“You are wallowing in your mental illness.” No, actually I am using my lived experience, interest in, and passion about the matter to raise awareness about living with mental illness in abelist and sanist society and institutions. I think I am doing some work that is of value, and I fully intend to keep doing it. And no, thinking, writing, and talking about mental illness do not actually worsen my “symptoms.”

Related to the comment above: “You’re promoting mental illness.” Reading or writing about the effects of chemo does not cause cancer. Same thing applies to mental illness. I am, however, hopefully promoting awareness. I also think I am well positioned to promote awareness, in part because I actually live with mental illness, but also because I am in a fairly secure and privileged position and both am able to and enjoy writing.

“You aren’t being fair to *insert person/group/institution imbued with power and privilege*.” Just because you’re the big cheese does not actually make you exempt from criticism. In fact, you’d better prepare yourself for it because chances are you are representing something much bigger than yourself. And the rest of us get to hold you accountable and be critical and responsive to your actions and words because the power you wield and the decisions you make actually have very real effects on the rest of us.

“You’re posting ANOTHER article about mental illness?” “You’ve written ANOTHER article about mental illness?” Yup! You bet! It’s my passion, my interest, and my everyday life. It is totally cool (and arguably therapeutic) if you want your newsfeed to be filled with puppies and only puppies and ALL THE PUPPIES ALL THE TIME. If that is the case, please don’t follow me. Most students, and all academics, have specific fields of interest and expertise. Mine happens to be mental health and illness. It’s actually really important that I keep learning about it and writing about it for many reasons. Among them, if one day I’m going to become someone others look to for knowledge about this area, I need to know as much as possible about it. I will never be done learning. I will never know enough. I hope you feel the same about your area of interest too.

“You’re being a hysterical woman again!” Okay, fine, no one actually says that anymore. At least not to me. But what many people don’t realize is tone policing is actually a divisive, disrespectful, and diversionary tactic. By focusing on my tone – ie. “I can’t take you seriously when you’re so angry” or, “you’re going through a combative phase” or, “that’s your anxiety talking” – you are taking attention away from the thing I am talking about. Also I have every damn right to be angry about the issues that affect me. I’ve spent four years fighting to have access to adequate and accessible mental health services at my university, and spent four years dealing with the effects of not having these. So yes, I’ve earned the right to to be royally pissed, as long as it isn’t hurting anyone else. Also I think anger, in moderation, can be productive. I would be very scared of a world in which people never got angry.

“You give *insert group you are a part of* a bad rep.” Read up on respectability politics.

Related to the accusation above: “I also have *thing you talked about having* and I disagree with you. Therefore you are wrong.” Firstly, your experience doesn’t discount mine. Nor does mine discount yours. Just because I talk about having mental illness does not mean I believe I am the only person in the world with mental illness or the Definitive Voice of Mental Illness. I don’t believe my opinions represent those of anyone else.

“Every time you write about this, you are eliminating a potential job offer. Or a boyfriend.” You might be right. I am not so naive as to believe that stigma and discrimination no longer exist, or that employers get super enthused when they see that your reading speed is at the tenth percentile. But the kind of employment I plan to go into will hopefully be the kind that actually sees my disability and mental illness as assets, along with my related activism and advocacy. So long as I know I am helping give voice to mine and others’ experiences they are unable to share, and are thus helping to validate them, and/or helping to teach others about what it’s like to live with mental illness, I’m going to keep doing it. I am no expert on boys. I will not try to speak to this particular warning.

“I find what you post triggering.” This one’s tricky. It is impossible to apply trigger warnings to everything that might be triggering to someone because of the diversity of our backgrounds and experiences. However there are common themes survivors have pointed to as triggering, and I try to either employ trigger warnings when posting about these, or to make them accessible only by intention (ie. you have to click on a link to access the information I’m discussing). That said, there are some things that just don’t work with trigger warnings – things like pictures. I worry we sometimes slip into using trigger warnings as a way to police others, especially when it comes to things that we are unaccustomed to seeing or hearing about, because the Other is scary. Also at some point I think we need to be realistic about lived experiences. For me, that might mean talking about dermatillomania, or even posting pictures of it (though never with open wounds). I’m sure that no one logs onto Facebook to see my super scabbed face. But it’s validating and empowering for me to have you acknowledge that this is one of my every day struggles. And I am tired of having to make myself palatable because of your sensibility. If we dilute or whitewash things too much for the sake of protecting others, are we really protecting those who are most vulnerable? Or are we just protecting normativity and the status quo?

This was a very long-winded way of asking that next time, before you comment to disagree with someone’s post, ask yourself about your intentions. Are you genuinely curious about why they posted that article, or feel the way they do? Do you think you can add fodder to the conversation? Or do you just want to make sure that the opposite opinion (ie. yours) is pasted right next to theirs, lest someone agree with them? Do you feel threatened? (in my case, maybe because I am just a “crazy” girl who speaks her mind?).

We all use our social media differently. Personally, I like to use social media to curate and solidify my identity, to raise awareness about the issues I care about, and to ask us to be critical of dominant discourses (you bet I use my sociological imagination every day!). I cannot recall a time I have disagreed with someone else on their social media profile. I prefer conversations in person, and find that public online conversations get very loaded very fast, and of course, cannot express the nuance of face to face interaction. You don’t all have to use social media for the same reasons as me, or in the same ways as me. That’s the beauty of it.

But my space is my own. And as much as I am all for dialogue and learning from each other and our experiences, sometimes I just want my space to remain just that – mine. I already invest a lot of time into everyday activism, and am starting to find social media, which used to be a place for me to partake in communities who understand and accept me, to be taxing and exhausting. I am tired of being policed. You may have a very different use than me for social media, and that is okay, but I do ask that you respect my own. I am also not saying that everyone who disagrees with me does so in an attempt at policing. I am thankful that others have pointed out my taken for granted assumptions, and I have learned from their pointing out things I did not consider. These sorts of comments are different from the ones I have been writing about today.

I want to learn from you, but I want to do so when I have the time, and space, and concentration to give serious weight and consideration to what you are saying. And when I log onto Facebook to do a cursory glance at my friends’ updates or to take note of the articles and blogs I’d like to read for the day, I don’t intend to spend the next hour justifying myself to you. I spend enough time doing that already to society as a young woman with mental illness.

Have you been policed online? If so, how have you dealt with it? What kinds of things do you find get policed more than others? Do you think online conversations hold much potential for educating and consciousness raising? What is your take on social media debate? Comment below!




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