Wise monkeys or vicious beasts? Abuse, cruelty and free speech

By Jill Segger
August 10, 2013

Our animal natures are in a constant state of tension between the personal and the communal. We have instincts which drive us to gratify ourselves, to dominate for food, status and mates. And then we have the pull towards the good of the tribe, pack or troop and the protection and support it offers.

This is not to place biological determinism ahead of the qualities of grace and civilisation which human kind has acquired over millennia of evolution. But it maybe does no harm to remind ourselves of our primate characteristics. Know your opponent is a wise strategy.

The news that another young teenager had taken their life after abuse and bullying on a social networking site this week should bring us up short. It is impossible to truly imagine the anguish of 14 year old Hannah Smith in the days that led up to her death, nor the pain of her family both now, and in the years to come.

It is a simple fact of biology that the human brain is not fully developed until the third decade of life. Adolescents do not make the same connections as adults, nor do they have the capacity to weigh, balance, discern and make the choices that are possible for the mature neural network. This is one of the reasons that they have a claim on our protection, forbearance and example.

The recent abuse and threats of violence visited on women commentators and campaigners via the medium of Twitter are the vicious outpourings of the immature and unregulated mind. Where they offer violence, they are criminal acts and must be dealt with accordingly. My wholehearted sympathies are with Caroline Criado Perez, Mary Beard and Stella Creasy. I received a couple of nasty comments last week but they consisted of puerile obscenities rather that threats of rape or murder. Unpleasant, but one blocks and moves on, grateful for the support of those who speak up in condemnation and defence.

But these are all acts on a spectrum of disorder and unkindness that should concern us all because they affect us all. They also have their roots in the kind of society we are willing to be. Speaking earlier this week on BBC Radio 4's Thought for the Day, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks spoke of what is known in Judaism as 'evil speech'. Its practice, he said, destroys the one who utters the words, the one who receives them, and those who listen in.

None of us are exempt from that last category. What are we willing to accept in our daily lives? How do we respond when we are frustrated or find ourselves in disagreement? Should we tut up our sleeves when we overhear cruel or intemperate words instead of challenging them? What will we permit to become the norm?

Free speech is not speech which costs nothing, the Chief Rabbi reminded us. There is a huge cost in cruelty and distress if we become too apathetic or too craven to stand up against the coarsening of our human and social grain.

It is not sufficient to leave all the responsibility with the social networking sites. They can do better, but so can we all. Our young people will model what they see and hear. Shall we be wise monkeys or vicious beasts?

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© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen

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