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Speak up in the face of social media thought police

In our free society, everyone should feel free to say what they think -- even if it makes you uncomfortable
Soviet Freedome [sic] March Dec. 1987 (Source: American Jewish Historical Society)
Soviet Freedome [sic] March Dec. 1987 (Source: American Jewish Historical Society)

Are you scared to say what you really think on social media?

In recent months, I have had one conversation too many about “the courage to speak up on social media.” And far too many people have shared that they are afraid to write what they think on Facebook.

It is horrible that we have reached a point where people living in a democracy are afraid to state their opinions. That you need “courage” to say what you think!

I was born in the former Soviet Union. Real courage is what my parents practiced when they brought me up from a very early age with the understanding that the benevolent grandfather-like rulers smiling at me from every street corner were, in reality, running a murderous totalitarian regime.

Real courage was when my parents inculcated me with the truth about the regime, so that I would not be poisoned and brainwashed by Soviet propaganda. And they did it with an unbelievable, uncanny trust in a little child, somehow knowing instinctively that I would not blurt something outside the house and endanger my entire family.

Real courage was when my stepfather, internationally acclaimed Russian poet Vladimir Druk, wrote and published freethinking poetry under the Soviet regime, paying a very hefty personal price.

My parents’ numerous friends and relatives practiced this courage in the face of danger when they would gather in small circles, share bits of suppressed news, and provide moral support for each other, despite the risk of KGB informants infiltrating these gathering.

My parents and their friends showed that courage again when in their mid-30s they picked up from an established life and immigrated to the West to start from scratch. With pennies in their pockets, scarce job prospects, and broken English. All in the name of living and raising their children in a free society, where we would not be afraid to say what we think.

Yet 30 years later, that “free society” has denigrated so much that people are no longer free to speak their mind.

But instead of a regime with prison cells and interrogation chambers, it is now ordinary people who serve as the thought police, sometimes without realizing it. And all too often it is the people who think they are acting in the name of liberty, freedom, and pluralism who crack down the hardest on opinions that make them uncomfortable.

It’s totally OK to disagree, to debate, to argue. That is how ideas form. Conflict is healthy, as long as it happens within boundaries of no-harm and mutual respect.

The only kinds of statements that should be cracked down upon are calls, praise, and justification of violence or crime, personal attacks, outright lies, and name-calling. Every other opinion has the right to be heard, even if it makes you uncomfortable. You can argue with it, but you cannot shame people or deny them the right to express it.

Anyone preventing debate is building an echo chamber. And civilizations die in echo chambers.

So this is how you can know if you are on the wrong side of the moral divide when it comes to free speech (with the above exceptions):

  • If you delete posts or comments that express an opinion you do not agree with.
  • If you exclude people from groups for their opinions
  • If you name call, shame, or guilt people for their opinions.
  • If you report people to Facebook for their opinions.

If you do any of the above, you are part of the thought police. You are an obstacle to free speech. Just know it.

Sometimes opinions trigger. We are all responsible for our own emotional well-being. If people feel triggered, they should state their opinions, PM to discuss, or stay away from the discussion. But one person’s trigger is no an excuse to shut another person up!

And to my friends who are afraid of speaking their mind, know this: there is nothing they can do to hurt you, without your consent to get hurt.

  • If they call you names, it is because you are right and they cannot deal with your argument. It’s their problem, not yours.
  • If they delete, block, or kick you out, it’s because their ego is too fragile to be able to deal with a thought different from their own. It’s their problem, not yours.
  • If they shame or guilt you for your opinions, they are projecting their own shame and guilt onto you. It’s their problem, not yours.
  • If they make fun of your spelling or grammar, that’s when you know they totally lost.

Almost 300 years ago, the great Hasidic master, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk, gave us an antidote to thought police in his classic book, Noam Elimelech. Take 40 days to do the opposite of what feels natural and when you feel scared or timid, find an opportunity to speak up every day for 40 days straight.

You don’t have to read the comments. But if you have an opinion, speak it. Respectfully, logically, caringly. But speak up! If you do it every day for 40 days, it will become second nature.

Yes, Facebook jail is not real jail. And yes, social media censorship is a far cry from KGB methods. But if we don’t speak up, we are bound to find ourselves in a real totalitarian regime one day, with actual thought police. And then we will really need the courage to speak up, the kind of courage my parents and their friends had to practice in Soviet Russia.

I promise you we don’t want to get there.

About the Author
Leah Aharoni is the Founder/CEO of SHEvuk, a business consulting firm, which helps companies grow by effectively marketing and selling great services to women. Drawing on her training in Organizational Psychology and extensive background in entrepreneurship, education, and international communications, she also channels her passion for women's empowerment into coaching women to succeed in business and personal goals. When not working or spending time with her feisty sabra kids, Leah enjoys learning and teaching self-development Torah, as brought down in chassidic sources. Find out more at www.SHEvuk.com.
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