You never know who’s in the au­di­ence

The Southern Gazette - - Editorial - Rus­sell Wanger­sky Rus­sell Wanger­sky’s col­umn ap­pears in 39 SaltWire news­pa­pers and web­sites in At­lantic Canada. He can be reached at rus­sell.wanger­[email protected]­gram.com — Twit­ter: @wanger­sky.

I won­der some­times: is it you? Are you the one I have to watch out for?

Or are you re­ally just ask­ing a sim­ple, hon­est ques­tion?

Years ago, when I worked for CBC as a re­porter, I used to hate get­ting asked ques­tions at so­cial events by peo­ple I didn’t know well. “What do you think of the gov­ern­ment?” they’d ask, and I’d pre­var­i­cate, know­ing that, as part of my job, I was sup­posed to be as im­par­tial as pos­si­ble. Just the facts, and no hint of opin­ion.

(It was — and is — im­pos­si­ble. No one is truly im­par­tial. Ev­ery­one has opin­ions or bi­ases — the best thing any­one can do is to try and rec­og­nize what those bi­ases might be, and try to mit­i­gate them.)

Then, as the edi­tor of the St. John’s Tele­gram, I watched my words a dif­fer­ent way, be­cause I of­ten spoke for the pa­per as well as for my­self.

For years, though, I’ve been in the opin­ion colum­nist busi­ness, able to take the stands I be­lieved in, and ar­gue for them. I used to say that, com­pared to the stric­tures of re­port­ing, opin­ion writ­ing was bliss be­cause it was so free­ing; ask me what I think, and I can tell you. Any­time, any­where.

But it’s not what it was, even a few years ago.

Be­cause the thought po­lice truly are all around us now, and with the in­ter­net, they have the means to spread per­ma­nent dam­age in sec­onds.

I mean, it’s one thing if some­one calls you up — as some­one once did to me — to ad­vise me that soon, all of the me­dia would be lined up against a wall and shot. You know where that per­son stands pretty clearly, and can be glad that the own­er­ship of weapons isn’t a con­sti­tu­tional right in this coun­try.

It’s some­thing else again when you’re deal­ing with some­one, and you don’t know where they stand. Also, when you don’t know how will­ing they are to weaponize public com­ment through so­cial me­dia.

At least in the States, when it’s some­one with a “con­cealed carry” li­cence, you get a hint of a hol­ster on the hip or a strange shape to the an­kle that could be ei­ther a gun or a prison elec­tronic mon­i­tor­ing an­klet.

It means los­ing trust in your fel­low ci­ti­zens; there’s al­ways been gossip, but now it doesn’t spread ear-to-ear — it spreads net­work-to-net­work.

With some­one pack­ing prej­u­dice or an at­ti­tude, there’s noth­ing to give you any warn­ing.

Peo­ple com­plain about “gotcha” jour­nal­ism, and they have a point.

But “gotcha” ex­ists far more broadly now, and that means any­one with an iota of a public pres­ence has to be think­ing all the time. They have to stop and think about ev­ery word, and how that word might be used or mis­used; ev­ery­thing’s be­come an in­ter­view.

Ev­ery­thing is fod­der to be im­plic­itly or ex­plic­itly outed on so­cial me­dia, sim­ply so some­one can score a few of those much­needed “likes” or “fol­lows.”

It means los­ing trust in your fel­low ci­ti­zens; there’s al­ways been gossip, but now it doesn’t spread ear-to-ear — it spreads net­work-to-net­work.

You may not even re­al­ize the ex­tent to which you’ve lost that abil­ity to trust, how ham­strung you ac­tu­ally are, un­til you’re lucky enough to sit down some night with friends you can talk to, de­bate points you don’t agree on, and yet be able to leave at the end of the night with­out a grudge.

Sec­ond-guess­ing ev­ery­thing and ev­ery­one is no fun. But ca­reers have come to de­pend on it.

Think the best of peo­ple, my mother used to say. I can’t.

I see the worst of peo­ple far too of­ten.

I still say what I mean, loud and clear, when I say it. But more of­ten all the time, away from my job, I see plenty of rea­sons to say noth­ing at all.

That, my friends, is what the begin­ning of the death of free speech looks like.

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