De Barra: Hey trolls, man up or shut up

22:54, Feb 27 2014
SOCHI: This year's Winter Olympics were a surprise source of controversy in New Zealand.

Everyone is entitled to their view, especially when it comes to sport. But if you ain't willing to put your name to it, don't speak.

It might sound controversial but it's true, sometimes freedom of speech really sucks. 

You're right; it sounds horribly conservative, bigoted and outdated. It's certainly something I'd never have imagined myself saying a few years back but maybe it's true - the older you get, the crankier you become. Or maybe I'm still the same person, there are just more reasons to be cranky.

Let's get one thing straight before the knives come out; I am not a Nazi. I don't hate "the gays" and I certainly don't need a good night of sexual intercourse to bring my thinking in line with certain elements of the Twitter-sphere. Call me Joe Average if you want, that's pretty much my lot and it does me for now.

I, like most of this website's readership, was lucky enough to be born in a westernised society where freedom of speech had been a given for almost half a century. In the 31 years since my arrival on earth that freedom has been further enhanced, but not always for the better. 

Social media has its uses. It's great to be able to keep in contact with family on the other side of the world. Hi Mom... smiley face.  

On a more global scale it's aided, not created I hasten to add, nationalistic revolt.  For some reason Twitter and Facebook arrogantly pat themselves on the back in the aftermath of an uprising in the Arab world. They, apparently, are vehicles of change. I don't think Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey have ever seen frontline action in Tripoli, however. 

Online anonymity in recent decades has been key to numerous uprisings that will, in time hopefully, make the world a better place. It will, and always should, have a place on the internet but only when those who speak up are actually putting themselves in harm's way by doing so. I'd imagine being open and honest about the regimes of countries such as North Korea, China and Russia is hardly likely to improve your life insurance premium. Not if you're fighting the system from within, anyways. 

New Zealand is no such country. Sure, it has its problems. Every nation in the world has crook cops, politicians and social injustices but as far as freedom goes you're living on another planet if you think the land of the long white cloud is anything but top tier.

The online reaction to Dana Johannsen's opinion piece in the New Zealand Herald last week about Kiwi Olympians enjoying an "expensive holiday" in Sochi was a prime example of how freedom of speech can really suck at times. 

Now, I don't know enough about (or have enough interest in) winter sports to comment on the alleged inaccuracies of Johannsen's original piece but she seemed to allude to general impression I got from my brief encounters with the Sochi Games - it was all a bit of fun. Win or lose, the athletes were having a good time. Nothing wrong with that in my book but I can understand how such an attitude would rankle with athletes who failed to secure taxpayer funding. 

What did shock me was the despicable and cowardly abuse Johannsen got in the aftermath of publication. I mean who'd have thought our loveable, happy-go-lucky Winter Olympians had some (and I stress some) closet psychopaths as fans. 

One online commenter said Johannsen should be used as a target for shooting practice to which one Kiwi Olympian replied: "LEGEND". On a tangent, that simply showed how lacking in basic cop-on the particluar athlete is and how shambolic the New Zealand team's media management in Sochi was. 

I have no problem with people (anonymous or otherwise) voicing a well-constructed riposte to an article they find offensive or simply disagree with. It's what freedom of speech was invented for. There was a time when letters to newspapers allowed for such debate. Back then any broadsheet worth its salt published opinions that differed to its own. Society basically stipulated they had to.

Johannsen probably thought she'd ruffle a few feathers when she took to her keyboard. That she ended up kicking a hornet's nest says a lot more about some so-called Kiwi sports fans than it ever could about her. Johannsen, at least, had the guts to give her opinion and put her name to it. 

Don't get me wrong, it's a wonderful thing to live in a society where everyone has a right to their own opinion. And everyone, no matter how out of touch some may seem, has the right to that. It's a pity, however, that faceless trolls don't have the backbone to put their names to bigoted postings. Come on guys, exercise your right to free speech. This is New Zealand after all, not China.  

Perhaps it's time for major publications to make commenters post under their real names. The actions of a few have ruined anonymous commentary for the masses by blighting it with their own nastly little agendas. We're too far down the garden path now to simply ignore them.

It's time for change. Perhaps if they're made to man up, they'll shut up.


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