Troublesome Twitter   Leave a comment

This week, a comment made on Twitter has yet again turned into a top news story.  This time the comment came from a Lib Dem Councillor for Cardiff, John Dixon, who on a trip to London ‘tweeted’:

“I didn’t know the Scientologists had a church in Tottenham Court Road.  Just hurried past in case the stupid rubs off.”

His comment has sparked a debate between the right to freedom of speech versus the right of others not to be discriminated against due to their beliefs.

Since this comment was first posted, a complaint has been made to the Ombudsman for Public Services in Wales and so the Cardiff City Council’s Standards and Ethics Committee is now investigating whether Dixon has broken his code of conduct.  Councillors are required to undertake their work whilst being mindful of providing equal opportunities for all, regardless of gender, race, and religious beliefs.

Not much to worry about for Dixon though, as he has suddenly achieved internet stardom!  Within hours of the news about the investigation breaking, the term “stupid Scientology” became a trending topic on Twitter.  Messages of support, ‘re-tweets’ of his original comment, and offers to help find lawyers on Dixon’s behalf came thick and fast – one ‘tweet’ read: “We’re all behind you mate, if any disciplinary action goes ahead it will be because the stupid rubbed off on someone.” One of the most amusing posts came from the comedian David Mitchell (of That Mitchell and Webb Look):

“It’s really not great for freedom of speech when someone is disciplined for expressing an opinion, a very restrained one, about a religion….  I might register my next TV show as a religion.  Then I can get people tribunalled if they slag it off.”

We could argue until the cows come home about whether Dixon’s right to freedom of speech permits him to post a comment such as that one, but it is actually the context in which he did it that makes it seem so much worse.  As the comment was posted on his account “CllrJohnDixon”, it appears to be more offensive as the account name gives an official ‘on-the-record’ status to it.  However, he claims that he only has the prefix “Cllr” on his account name because “JohnDixon” was already in use by someone else, and he was not speaking in an official capacity.  Dixon now appears to have become more cautious with his ‘tweets’ as he has now set up a second Twitter account, “JohnLDixon”, for his personal comments.

The biggest fault I can see with his defence that he didn’t realise what effect the ‘tweet’ would have is that he wouldn’t have dreamed of making such a comment after walking past a mosque, for example.  Dixon would know the uproar would have been huge and very damaging for him if it had been about any of the more established religious groups.  I’m not saying that Scientology should be given the same respect as, for example, Judaism; but if we ‘allow’ such comments to be made about Scientologists, then maybe we are taking the first steps on a journey to a place where everyone’s beliefs can be openly ridiculed.  That doesn’t sound like a harmonious and tolerant society to me.

Maybe it’s Twitter itself which is to blame.  Social networking sites now allow us to post any thought that pops into our heads at any given moment – and almost immediately (without any time for proper consideration of the consequences) through the usage of mobile phones with internet capabilities.  Is this a dangerous thing?  Should we be careful about what we say in case we get hunted down by the ‘moral police’?  Or should we think before we type?  I think that perhaps we should just remember to listen to that little voice in our heads which is there to warn us when we are about to do something stupid – especially if we are employed in an official capacity!  Can you imagine the national outcry that would have occurred if a member of the Cabinet (or Shadow Cabinet) had posted that comment, even if it was meant to be personal rather than professional?

Just in case this article has inspired you to get more out of Twitter – I have started an account for this blog!
Follow thinkmindy on Twitter


Posted 22/07/2010 by thinkmindy in Morality, Politics

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