Lee Suckling explains why while all voices matter, not all should be considered equal.
We can all go online and smash our keyboards, so everybody has a voice these days. Gay teenagers in Russia can talk about their nation's LGBT injustices. Emma Watson can involve males in the feminist movement by creating the hashtag #HeForShe. Sharon from accounting can make her dog famous on Instagram.
Equally, Donald Trump can tweet false claims about Muslims cheering on rooftops during 9/11, anti-vaxxers can tell other parents not to get kids vaccinated against measles because it purports to "cause autism", and your uncle John can go on a Facebook rant about how a pregnant prime minister did it all for the PR.
In an essay by screenwriter David Hare, who wrote the film Denial – a true story of an academic's legal battle with a renowned Holocaust denier to prove the Holocaust actually happened – he writes:
"In an internet age it is, at first glance, democratic to say that everyone is entitled to their own opinion. That is surely true. It is, however, a fatal step to then claim that all opinions are equal. Some are backed by fact. Others are not. And those which are not backed by fact are worth considerably less than those which are".
I've been thinking about this genius little nugget because I have been off social media completely for a while now . One key thing I've been noticing in my less-connected life is whose voices I now pay attention to, and whose I am oblivious to.
Let's use anti-vaxxers as an example. I know they exist because I understand there's a documentary out there somewhere that makes a "compelling" case that doctors are paid to poison kids. And I read news stories about dramatic measles outbreaks in Brooklyn, New York. But do I have any idea what the actual arguments anti-vaxxers make are? No. Would I seek out a blog espousing their discredited science or engage in debate about a supposed conspiracy by Big Pharma to sell us useless drugs? Never. Those opinions are not backed by fact, so to me, they are less worthy.
This brings up a fraught issue around fairness because, as a journalist, I'm supposed to be all about both sides of every story. I've been indoctrinated to believe that all voices matter and the voice of a stay-at-home parent is just as legitimate as that of a politician. Which it is, if they're both telling the truth using fact-based arguments. Equally, both opinions can be complete lies and should be thrown out with the trash.
The reality is that not every story has two sides. Some only have one: the climate IS changing; the earth IS round; the Holocaust DID happen. Others might have five sides: the idea of collusion when it comes to the Robert Mueller investigation still can't be pinned down; Captain Marvel may or may not be a feminist movie, and nobody is sure whether or not Zac Efron looks cuter with bleached hair.
Abandoning social media has helped in my quest to understand which voices I should listen to. I have to hear about events in full, with sources, not in sound bites and memes. I can't surround myself only with people who think exactly like me and echo chamber their ideals. If I want to learn about an issue – be it a scandal with the Kentucky Derby or a celebrity death – I can choose to get my information only from trusted outlets which have won awards for their objectivity.
I wrestle with this 21st Century notion that every voice is equal. If you've got something to say, does it necessarily count?
The answer to that question, as I've explained, is "it depends". An opinion "mattering" and an opinion being "equal" is not the same thing. An anti-vaxxer's opinion does matter because it puts others' lives in danger. Such an opinion isn't equal to the universal scientific agreement that vaccinations are a vital aspect of human health, however.
Thus, my last dilemma: If all voices aren't equal but every one of them one does matter, who do we listen to and who do we ignore? I have an idea: make everybody cite their sources.
When somebody throws a convincing statistic at you about cows' impact on the planet, ask what source they got it from. When someone goes on a tirade about female protagonists dominating the superhero universe, make them back up their statement with facts. If you hear someone discuss what is causing – or not causing – this measles outbreak, ask them to prove it.
Only when everyone begins to challenge each other for facts, not just emotional opinions, can all voices really be considered the same.