No one has a right to say whatever they want without facing accountability. We live in a community. The more power and influence we have, the more accountable I am morally. The issue is that provocation, abuse and harassment are often mistaken for freedom of speech when really it is only abuse. When I then call the abuser to account, they whine about me impinging on their freedom of speech. No, that is not what I’m doing. You have a right to express your ideas without abuse. If I don’t agree, I have a right to propose a counter-argument. The issue is that abusers don’t want that. The aim is not a coherent discourse on an issue; abuse is to intimidate, silence, dominate and control. So, we have values and principles that guide social relationships, many of which are legal enshrined. Break those, and you will be held accountable.
As a part of my interview series about the things we can each do to make social media and the internet a kinder and more tolerant place, I had the pleasure to interview Gunter Swoboda. Gunter is a psychologist on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. Working almost exclusively with boys and men. He is also the founder of the ‘Making Good Men Great’ movement and an active speaker, author, mentor and facilitator. ‘Making Good Men Great’ helps men rethink masculinity, participate in a curriculum of change and become an inspiration to others. His thinking is captured in the book, Making Good Men Great: Surfing a New Masculinity. He also has a fiction novel coming out from his publisher Winterwolf Press”Mountains of the Sea”. Swoboda was also a creator and producer on the Amazon Documentary directed by Miranda Spigener-Sapon — Masculinity That Inspires Change that is streaming now on Amazon Prime. Swoboda can be heard on iHeartRadio as the host of the broadcast series Inspire Change with Gunter. He also frequently speaks for TED and TEDx Talks.
Thank you so much for joining us Gunter. Can you share the most exciting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I guess the most interesting story has to do when I chose to enter my own therapy. My initial premise was that if I was going to be a good therapist, then I needed to experience therapy myself. I carefully chose my therapist and presented it to my first session with a righteous attitude. Within twenty minutes, my therapist stopped me and asked why I was here. I was surprised because I thought I was pretty clear at this stage. What do you mean, I wondered? He replied, saying simply that I should stop, go away and figure out why I had come and why he is now finishing the session. Now I was shocked and starting to feel angry. He had closed the session twenty minutes in. How could that be? I sat there for a moment, puzzled. Surely this is some test that I needed to work out before we would go on. As I began to speak, he held up his hand and said, come back when you are really ready to do the work.
It took me a few weeks to get to the point of what he was teaching me. Being a therapist meant being humble and truly self-aware, not righteous. And it meant that I needed to begin to delve into my own inner world emotionally and cognitively. Three weeks later, I started my real journey into working on myself.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
About four years ago or so, I decided that there was a need to move away from dealing with men as deficient and to begin to develop a process that begins to deconstruct the ideology that we, men, have been socialized with. In other words, men needed to take ownership of deconstructing Patriarchy, an insidious ideology, to begin a journey of healing and reconstruction that allowed for a diversity of masculinities. This required a curriculum of change and the need for a network of men that are far enough in their recovery to begin to work with others, formally and informally.
Until recently and I’m talking less than ten years, most of the conversations about Patriarchy have taken place within the feminist academia. In most part, they are fine critical analyses but generally only offer narrow and superficial pathways to change. Most of this is resisted by men. Hence the title of my program is Making Good Men Great.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. Have you ever been publicly shamed or embarrassed on social media? Can you share with our readers what that experience felt like?
The simple answer to this is that people have tried to shame me or to make me feel embarrassed about some of my postings, especially in the area of masculinity. But one of the benefits of having worked in my own issues in therapy was the experience that I can only be shamed and embarrassed if I give others permission to do that to me. If I am aligned with my core values, which are about encompassing myself and others to do no harm, then there exists no place for shame or embarrassment.
What did you do to shake off that negative feeling?
I simply let the abuse go. I didn’t defend myself as there was nothing to defend. And I knew why the other person was doing what they were doing, and although I do not agree with them, I have compassion for them because they lead a troubled life.
Have you ever posted a comment on social media that you regretted because you felt it was too harsh or mean?
No. My posts are based on core values. I do get critical of people because sometimes we need to agitate to get change. As a therapist, one of the most challenging aspects of our work is that art of therapeutic confrontation. This leads to a healthy therapeutic relationship with healing.
When one reads the comments on Youtube or Instagram, or the trending topics on Twitter, a great percentage of them are critical, harsh, and hurtful. The people writing the comments may feel like they are simply tapping buttons on a keyboard, but to the one on the receiving end of the comment, it is very different. This may be intuitive, but I feel that it will be instructive to spell it out. Can you help illustrate to our readers what the recipient of a public online critique might be feeling?
I think this is quite a complex issue. Firstly, we need to differentiate between an individual, a public figure, a leader or professed leader and systems. With an individual, we need to exercise empathy as most times we do not know their circumstances. However, public figures, leaders or professed leaders and systems are in my view open to constructive criticism, humor and satire, especially if they are acting against moral and humanistic/existential values. I have no hesitation in being critical of a political party when they do things that are against the common good.
Do you think an online verbal attacks feels worse or less than a verbal argument in “real life”? How are the two different?
I think this depends on an individual’s personality. For some online is less a problem because there is no real on-going relationship.
What long term effects can happen to someone who was shamed online?
One of the consequences of online trolling/ harassment and bullying is that if the person doesn’t terminate the connection, then they can experience intense negative emotional states. This, in many instances, will need the support of a professional.
Many people who troll others online, or who leave harsh comments, can likely be kind and sweet people in “real life”. These people would likely never publicly shout at someone in a room filled with 100 people. Yet, on social media, when you embarrass someone, you are doing it in front of thousands of even millions of people, and it is out there forever.
Can you give 3 or 4 reasons why social media tends to bring out the worst in people; why people are meaner online than they are in person?
Firstly, I think the anonymity factor is big. There is little accountability in this sphere of communication. If I’m face to face with someone then the playing field changes. With men, physical size matters in that. I’ll give you an example. I was cut off by a truck driver. I honked my horn to let him know. He immediately flew into a rage pulled up and climbed out of his car, all the while abusing me and threatening violence. Now I’m not advocating my actions here, and I should have really stayed in my car for my own safety, but I chose to get out. Here’s the thing, I’m six foot three and two hundred odd pounds give or take. He, on the other hand, was five foot five or six and about half my weight. Needless to say, he immediately became less aggressive towards me. Online he would have probably kept up the abuse.
Secondly, online people who behave badly will immediately attract supporters. This is, in fact, one of the issues behind radicalization and the growth of extremist groups. The evidence of this is the explosive growth of nationalism, populism and bigotry. They have an audience and from there a ‘mutual admiration society’ emerges that normalizes and amplifies immoral and perverse ideologies and their incumbent behavior. When this is then supported directly or indirectly by the community and political leaders, we have an extremely volatile social problem.
Freedom of speech prohibits censorship in the public square. Do you think that applies to social media? Do American citizens have a right to say whatever they want within the confines of a social media platform owned by a private enterprise?
No one has a right to say whatever they want without facing accountability. We live in a community. The more power and influence we have, the more accountable I am morally. The issue is that provocation, abuse and harassment are often mistaken for freedom of speech when really it is only abuse. When I then call the abuser to account, they whine about me impinging on their freedom of speech. No, that is not what I’m doing. You have a right to express your ideas without abuse. If I don’t agree, I have a right to propose a counter-argument. The issue is that abusers don’t want that. The aim is not a coherent discourse on an issue; abuse is to intimidate, silence, dominate and control.
So, we have values and principles that guide social relationships, many of which are legal enshrined. Break those, and you will be held accountable.
If you had full control over Facebook or Twitter, which specific changes would you make to limit harmful or hurtful attacks?
I thought about this for a while. I actually think that we can use social media to assist people in learning how to deal with abuse personally. I used to teach assertiveness in the health system. This is an approach that could be useful. I don’t like to suppress extremist views because they are better out in the open than hidden way.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
– Martin Luther King, Jr.
I love this quote and am frequently reminded of the depth of it. We need to see ourselves not from the shallow sense of individuality but from our existence as part of the whole. It is both freedom and accountability as one. It is what I call an and/or proposition.
If you had the power to influence thousands of people about how-to best comment and interact online, what would you suggest to them? What are your “5 things we should each do to help make social media and the internet, a kinder and more tolerant place”? Can you give a story or an example for each?
- Establish your values for engaging in the social media sphere. For example: when someone disagrees with me in a respectful way, I have no issue with that. However, if they attack me personally, I make it very clear to the person that we can have a meaningful dialogue if they stay on pint with reason and logic and not abuse. If they continue, I disengage.
- Comment on negative things with reasoned, rational comments that can be positively framed. For instance, when someone presents lies as fact, do not argue the lie. Present the truth. Be prepared however, that this will not necessarily change their mind. Do not attack, retaliate or shame the other person.
- Be honest. We need to be open to change our minds as much as we want others to change theirs.
- Be tolerant. People have emotional needs and desires that at times make them vulnerable to extreme believes and behaviors. Attacking them will only reinforce their prejudices. Daryl Davis is a blues musician, but he also has what some might call an interesting hobby. For the past 30 years, Davis, a black man, has spent time befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan. Once the friendship blossomed, the Klansmen realized that their hate was misguided. Since then Davis says 200 Klansmen have given up their robes.
- Take a leadership perspective. The social media space is a community with all the diversity of communities in life. Create a vision for how you would like it to be, work on establishing relationships, communicate aspirations and values.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
Can I invite 5? This is really difficult. There are two people. Barack Obama and/or Megan Rapinoe. In fact, let me stipulate that given the opportunity I want to sit down with a man and woman to begin a meaningful conversation about the need to shift our social, political and organizational frameworks from a patriarchal foundation to a humanistic one.
Carl Jung said: Wholeness is not achieved by cutting off a portion of one’s being, but by the integration of the contraries. I think that it is always useful to keep this in mind.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!