Karen Hua: The negative that prevails

By Karen Hua, Columnist
Published February 23, 2015

The First Amendment has offered us many liberties to express our voices without hindrance. However, with such a broad freedom, we cannot expect that everyone will always use this privilege in the wisest way. There are instances each day when we may — purposely or unintentionally — abuse our free speech rights for ill over advantage.

Our words are precise, and they have power to inflict pain. However, this isn’t something wrong with the amendment or wrong with free presses that do not censor voices. Rather, the culprit lies in the individuals who present the harmful or offensive perspectives.

Especially with the onset of the digital age, the reader experience has extended to deeper dimensions. Though we’re separated by individual screens, the Internet has created an expansive community of consumers. Before online commenting culture, article authors and media creators remained elusive and aloof from us as consumers. Now, we’re able to interact directly with content producers and share our thoughts with fellow viewers — and more than ever before, we have a larger, diversified platform to megaphone our pedestrian ideas. Our voices are louder and more free than ever.

As a result, “new media” has emerged, where we can respond to articles and share our thoughts through personal channels, like blogs or “vlogs” (video-logs). The boundaries between content creator and consumer have blurred — anyone, regardless of education or other demographics, can add input. The inclusion of more voices may illuminate some especially important insight from common citizens, but it also comes with the potential for creators to offend parties and receive harsh opposition. In fact, when our bodies are physically hidden behind a screen and our identities can be obscured by an online pseudonym, we may feel more audacious and sound more brash than we would in real life.

This all being said, as both content creator and consumer now, we have developed a natural tendency to focus on the negative. In the vast body of opinions on the World Wide Web, in the wealth of knowledge on the online abyss — we somehow manage to selectively identify the offensive and the harmful — and focus our energies there.

On the one hand, from the content creator lens — personally, as both a student journalist and artist — upon initial reaction, one negative comment on my work overshadows the array of other comments I may receive.

On the other hand, as a member of the Internet consumer community, when I scroll through social media feeds or skim newspaper front pages, I subconsciously click on headlines of devastation or revulsion first. I’m subconsciously drawn to stories of turmoil and corruption, or opinions that strike a chord of alarm or even disgust. Articles are stories: to us as readers, they are nothing important or interesting if not defined by conflict. We grow too quickly bored by a lack of disruption in the news.

The media represents our best understanding of the norm — and because the news more often than not reports the negative, our understanding of “normal” has skewed toward pejorative. In the most prominent examples: from an out-of-state perspective, Detroit is often portrayed in terms of crime and economic deterioration; to westerners uninformed on the Middle East, the area as a whole is generalized with strife and turmoil; the prevalence of female victimization stories have elevated male perpetrator statistics to feel higher than they actually are.

In these instances, when a marginal representation of the whole picture dominates our understandings, we fail to see the nuanced dimensions behind each subject. We fail to see the improving parts of Detroit vibrant with history and culture; we may categorize one race or religion hatefully based on atrocities committed by a fraction of them; we may oversimplify a gender based on exaggerated fears of all men. When we are immersed in news of global warfare and national corruption — with news of mundane communal peace or human righteousness rarely mentioned on national scales — we become accustomed to remembering and paying attention to the negative most.

In some inexplicably wicked way, we are excited by the negative (widespread danger, the ignorance or deviance of others) gives us emotional stimulation to incite discussion and collective effect. However, we have to remember that they’re not representative of the whole. Personally, as a writer, it’s important to remember that one piece of negativity isn’t representative of all the consumers of my content.

We need to stop allowing the negative to prevail, or else we will only impart this affinity for negativity onto others, ingraining it deeper into our peers and our future generations just as it has been instilled in us. We’re a new media culture with a vast interactive community. It has become our duty to do more than consume idly now that we have the ability to both create and comment. We’ve been granted immense liberties to speak as freely as we wish. So in return, we must use our free speech privileges to share articles of positivity and poignancy just as much as articles we comment hate upon.

To form a complete and balanced view of any subject, the negative information presented must be coupled with the good. We must read enlightening responses along with the articles we spite. Along with disagreement we input on articles we dislike, we must also respond with positive comments on opinions we find insightful.

Karen Hua can be reached at khua@umich.edu.