When Anonymity Becomes Personal: Thoughts of Mean Tweets About the Homeless in Canada

The-Homeless-Read-Mean-TweetsIn January, Raising the Roof — a Canadian organization dedicated to providing “national leadership on long-term solutions to homelessness through partnership and collaboration with diverse stakeholders, investment in local communities, and public education.” (from the website) — released their video “The Homeless Read Mean Tweets“. Since the winter, it’s been viewed 1,337,759 times. Listen to CBC’s The Current with Anna Maria Tramonti‘s episode, interviewing some of the people from the video as they go into some more depth about their feelings and reactions towards the tweets.

Homeless people have always been targets for abuse in many cultures throughout history. In Canada, they are seen as lazy, dirty, stinky, useless, manipulative, dangerous, and selfish; they are often assumed to be child predators, drunkards, addicts, mentally ill in dangerous ways, thieves, leeches on the system, ingrates, and beggars. In town, some of our homeless and houseless population have been caught on camera  passed out in alleyways (without their permission), have had their faces posted online with horrible comments attached, have had people yell at them to get jobs, stop drinking, and the usual vitriol that we fall back on, thinking it will somehow make a difference. Really, these actions are only to get them out of our faces.

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Social media has created a universe where we now can be fully anonymous, speak whatever we wish, and take no responsibility for it.

Some self help advice would spell out how we, as humans, need not take anything personally (see The Four Agreements). Any negativity or malice coming from others has nothing to do with us, so we need not feel bad or upset or offended. While I agree there are certainly times and places when this advice is keen, I hesitate when it begins to become a standard for all situations at all times.

This would be one.

This would be one such situation.

How are real-life, flesh and blood people — currently homeless or who have been homeless — to feel when folks they have never met, who may have not provided their real names (rather Twitter handles) spew out vile insults and cruel remarks? Who are we to judge how they SHOULD feel? When homelessness is such a degraded position by the rest of us, can we imagine how hard it would be to simply shake it off?

In our world when we abuse or insult someone online and s/he takes offense, we often rely on the bully’s classic fall back: “JK! JK! Can’t you take a joke?” (“JK” = “just kidding”). When we get caught actually hurting someone else, rather than taking responsibility for our words and actions (because posting something online deliberately IS an action) we put the blame back on the person we’ve hurt. It’s their fault they’ve taken offence; it’s their fault they’re hurt; it’s their fault they can’t laugh it off.

And let’s face it: some people love to be trolls. They couldn’t care less who they hurt or why. It’s a fun game to post awful things about other human beings and get away with it. Who has the time for such behaviour, I can’t begin to imagine. But here we are.

When social media lets us get away with comments we would never make to people face-to-face, isn’t it time for us to pause and step back? When our racism, our prejudice, our classism, our sexism, our most evil thoughts can be spewed out without fear of reprisal, is this not a warning sign that we’re dangerously close to becoming physical extensions of our digital selves?

When we hone in on an already vulnerable population and call names, wish for evil to come upon them, curse them, and in many ways hate them, using social media to do it anonymously, does it speak more to the homeless? Or to us?

Cry “freedom of speech!” all we like. The truth is: we’re condemning people using social media anonymity and enjoying it.

To be fair, many are using social media to present truthful, powerful and life-affirming messages as well. Yet the loudest and most influential voices seem to be the ones who sneer, mock, condemn and hate.

Beyond policing the internet for haters, how can we now — as human beings — reflect on our online habits and begin changing ourselves from within in the present moment. People are taking our comments and opinions personally, whether we believe they should or not, and these comments and opinions can be hurtful and life destroying.

Another aspect to this conversation is: “I only post positive things”. Another conversation for another day is the shallowness that the Positivity Movement seems to be creating. As long as I only post trite (but positive) Facebook memes, I’m a good person. I’m radiating positive energy.

Well… maybe. Likely not. It’s a meme. No context or depth.

Back to the anonymity of the internet: it is personal to people. We are a personable and personal people. We were created to be so! Shrugging off horrid tweets maybe fine for people who live in the Twitter-verse, but for most of us, well… we still engage social media as we would physical people sitting in front of us. The worlds collide and our feelings are hurt, our souls are squelched, and we have no “person” in front of us to confront, make amends with, or take responsibility for.

How then do we live?

For another great resource explaining how to engage homeless people, check out Tim Huff’s “The Cardboard Shack Beneath the Bridge“. It’s written for parents and young children, but I believe we can all learn a good deal from it. It’s beautifully illustrated by the author, and contains wisdom we can all absorb and learn from.

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May we become more fully aware of our words and actions online. We have the power to accuse and affirm; uplift and undermine; create and destroy; and make things personal even when we aren’t acting personally on the interwebs.

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