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Blog // Thoughts
June 19, 2016

This Week I Quit Discussing Identity On Social Media

This week I quit discussing identity on social media. Somewhere between the current, vicious election cycles in Australia, the UK and the US and the incessant bickering about the place of “foreigners” in Asia, I’ve felt overwhelmed by the tone and intensity of online identity debates. So, I’ve decided to quit discussing identity on social […]

This week I quit discussing identity on social media. Somewhere between the current, vicious election cycles in Australia, the UK and the US and the incessant bickering about the place of “foreigners” in Asia, I’ve felt overwhelmed by the tone and intensity of online identity debates. So, I’ve decided to quit discussing identity on social media.

Not For Lack Of Caring

When I say identity, I mean those issues in culture and politics, like ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and social class. When we think of the old adage about not discussing politics in polite company, it’s probably these topics we’re being warned about. Questions of identity are some of the most important, fascinating challenges we face, but conversations about them can quickly degenerate into heated conflicts. And these days the online arguments seem never-ending.

Over the past year I’ve noticed how much attention is given to identify on Twitter and other platforms. Although I segment social media to highlight other topics (photography, art, music, travel), everyday I’ve felt pulled into angst-filled discussions about identity. This was having an effect on my frame of mind, haunting the rest of my day. It took me a while to identify the problem.

I wasn’t angry. I was exhausted.

What Identity Means To Me

I care deeply about identity. Growing up in Australia, racism was a daily struggle. I was an immigrant, constantly reminded by other kids, teachers, employers, even church leaders, that any small difference from the cultural norm, like using my full name, or growing out my curly hair, could be a mark against me.

You probably won’t be surprised to know I rebelled against all of it. I wish I could say I made some kind of noble stand that everyone noticed. But, my rebellion was a slow evolution. I read Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. & Malcolm X but it took a long time for those messages to take shape in my soul.

Eventually I started to see a thread connecting some of the struggles I had with racism and the challenges my friends faced with feminism, indigenous reconciliation, LGBT rights, and class struggles. During my years in academia these questions were always top of mind, I wrote articles and papers about them. Even after I left the academy, I tried to keep identity at the centre of my work, showing the beauty and dignity of different cultures in my photographs, incorporating global influences in my music, and writing not just about racism, but also being an expatriate and the various terms used to describe foreigners in Asia (Gweilo in Hong Kong, Ang Moh in Singapore and Gaijin in Japan).

The Poisoned Megaphone

So, what’s the problem with discussing identity on social media? If I care so much then why not express myself there as well?

Social media feels like broadcasting, like we are sending a message out to the world, largely because it doesn’t cost us anything and the numbers of people online are so huge. But, if we start to analyse things more closely, the actual numbers can be a lot smaller.

Since I helped start @BeingTokyo (a rotation-curation account for Tokyoites), the few heated debates have always about identity issues; what it means to be a foreigner in Japan. While the account now has over 2,000 followers, the identity conflicts usually draw the same small number of respondents. I don’t have a lot of time for Twitter in my day, so if I devote that time to the same debates amongst the same small number of people what do I have left to say to the other 13,000 or so people who follow me on that platform?

A Question Of Focus

James Victore has a great answer to question of what to do with the frustrations, anxieties and concerns that artists and creatives have – “put it in the work.”

Living in Singapore I met a lot of very talented musicians and artists who had strong, complex feelings about the changing face of their society, the impact of globalisation on their lives and the overall political situation in their country. But, so many of them didn’t put it into their work. Time and again, I kept wondering, what if you put all that pain, all that angst, all that concern, all that heartfelt emotion about your situation into your work?

But, I am all too often just as guilty of the same thing. I read an article about racism in Australia, or I see a rant about foreignness in Japan, and I vent on social media. After all, it’s easier to write a tweet than write a song, it’s easier to put my feelings about living in Japan into 140 characters than spend days out on the street creating a photo essay that documents those feelings.

I have to put it in the work too.

Hold Your Fire And Make It Count

I’m fascinated by historical dramas, when armies are using early versions of guns or cannons and they have to wait until the enemy are close enough and within reach of their crude weapons. How frightening it must have been to wait and watch your opposition come closer. How tempting to fire too early, just to release the tension, to feel like you were doing something.

By not discussing identity on social media anymore I’m trying to be little like those anxious soldiers, committing myself to act at the right time, in the best way I can, with the best tools at my disposal. If I can do something that moves hearts and minds, it won’t be through a soon-forgotten online squabble, but by taking considered aim at a bigger problem, through writing, through creativity, through art.

This Week I Quit is a weekly series where I try, in a personal way, to address the habit of overcommitment. Each week I quit something, it could be an app, a habit, a possession, a word, anything that had a hold on my attention. I explain why I made the choice to quit and what it was like. Last week I Quit asking “What’s The Matter” and you can read all the posts in this series here.

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