We need to talk!

I started writing this three weeks ago, and, ironically, a Twitter fall out silenced me. But I’m getting ahead of myself. So lets see if we can recover this story.

You ever get the feeling that life is directing you somewhere? When the events over a few days or weeks seem to be shoring up a concept or a thought process?

The day I started to write this, also happened to be Mental health awareness day, with the theme ‘Time to Talk’. It didn’t surprise me, as talking it out had felt like the theme of my life that week.

In the time since I started this piece that theme hasn’t changed, just grown. The past few weeks have seen Trump intent on disrupting media and the internet trolling Sweden for standing up for refugees. It seems that speaking out is ever more important and increasingly threatened.

Being able to speak and, more importantly, be heard is essential for our mental wellbeing. The silencing of whole sectors of society is depressingly common, but we at least recognise it as dictatorial behaviour. Oft quoted these days, George Orwell wrote ‘if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’

Speaking and listening are two essential skills for happy, healthy societies. We know this, yet we are so bad at both!

Many argue that we’re in the current political turmoil because neither side was listening to the other. Everybody was just shouting. The ‘winners’ are not necessarily those with the best arguments, but those who shouted the loudest. We thought we’d moved beyond this, but it increasingly feels that we haven’t. More on this shortly.

The week I started writing this post I took part in a legal mediation in the capacity of moral supporter.

It was mostly boring and, in the end, a monumental waste of time. But I couldn’t help but be reminded of the last time I was in mediation. The stakes were far higher then, my ex-husband and I were discussing how to proceed with our divorce and the residency of our daughter.

That also failed. But it wasn’t a failure.

Even though what little trust we built up during mediation was later eroded in the courts. Despite the permanent damage that the highly charged emotional experience did. I still believe that the process had value.

There’s power in talk, in communication. There’s restoration in being heard and in hearing. Sometimes we can’t meet in the middle, right the wrongs, heal the wounds, but saying our piece, expressing those feelings really can help.

I’ve caught two episodes of In Therapy on C5 (I usually avoid these shows like the plague, but bear with me!). In one Dr Claudia Bernat, observed the value of talk as a way to unpack all the emotions and then repack them better.

I’ve had counselling over the years and I’ve been a bit unsure about it. I’ve always had a nagging feeling that I’m doing it wrong (don’t worry, we’re working on that!). Watching this show made me realise that I’m not. That you don’t have to come out with a long To Do list of actions that will somehow magically change you to ‘fine/normal’. It doesn’t work that way. Sometimes simply saying your piece and being truly heard, is enough to move on.

I’d never fully appreciated the value of truth and reconciliation exercises. I’d always thought victims meeting with their assailant, or ‘having your day in court.’ was a way to punish the other side, not as a way to heal yourself.

Now I understand that I was completely missing that point on so many levels. You might never be able to agree, but you can at least hear the other side.

If we recognise the importance of communication for individual well-being, then we don’t have to extrapolate much to realise how essential it is for societal health and global relations. I already referred to the many arguments that Brexit and Trump are directly resulting from a failure to listen. Yet it feels that far from improving, we’re getting worse, sliding down that very slippery slope to who knows where.

This is why the rise of anti-media sentiment, the concept of ‘fake news’ and the longer term trend in how individuals who do speak out are treated on line is so worrying.

I was most of the way through writing this when I made a comment on a personal Twitter account. I thought it was relatively benign, I was wrong. I clearly hit a nerve, or perhaps I had just stumbled into a particularly nasty corner of Twitterdom.

My comment itself was not challenged, instead I was, in the most personal ways. My appearance and motivations became fair game, it fast became clear this was a brawl not a discussion. I am well versed in the manta of ‘Don’t feed the trolls’ so I muted the worst offenders and left the discussion.
I’m no newbie to trolls, I’m the generation who invented the term. I’ve been lucky in my experiences and I know that this was not even in the same ball park as a ‘bad’ twitter trolling. But, still, it silenced me.
My point was unheard, in fact it’s worse than that it was misunderstood and misrepresented and abandoned, deformed and irrelevant in the Twitter high street. I was unable to defend it or reshape it or even justify it, because the conversation wasn’t about my point. It was about how I looked and my right to have an opinion.

The comment I made had been hijacked because a group of men, in this case, didn’t like it. I was then harassed until I decided it wasn’t worth the trouble of continuing to make my point.

I was unheard.

I was silenced.

And not just on Twitter, I stopped writing this post and I backed off from social media for a few days. I licked my wounds and wondered about whether I can do this. Whether I can write in this environment, in these times. I marvelled at how others get up and brush themselves off, writing again and again and again. Bashing their heads against this wall of disgusting, hurtful, mean-hearted stupidity.

It wasn’t that this attack was particularly extreme. It was that I realised how hard it has become to speak and be heard these days. The internet, in which we had so much faith at the start, had turned into a quagmire of malicious and spiteful people. A space for the angry and mean to rip into strangers for no reason other than that they don’t 100% agree on a topic. I was, momentarily, floored by the awareness that in this time when it is more important than ever that we carry on adding our voice to the choir, it is harder than ever to be heard.

When it came down to it, however, I had to write this post, because of the week that inspired me to start writing it, and the events that silenced me, and the threats to free media.

Democracy allows people to stand up and challenge the status quo. It’s that key point that holds extremism at bay. It’s speaking out, and being heard, that requires a constant reassessment of where society is and where it is going. It’s what ensures our leaders, politicians, media and society are forced to justify, and therefore consider, their actions. It won’t always be challenged in a way that we might all agree with, but it is right that it is constantly challenged. I believe we need to use our democratic rights, or lose them.

I genuinely believe that if we can, respectfully, speak and be heard, we can find a way forward.

So I had to finish this post, because I can’t be silenced, not only for my own mental health, but for the health of the world.

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