A Question of Morals

“Morality, too, is a question of time.” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Libya’s civil society has never been popular. Since its prominent emergence in 2011, it has been one battle for survival after another. From government institutions accusing activists of fueling instability, to religious extremists targeting CSOs for “importing anti-Islamic ideals”, to average citizens decrying civil society as an unwanted byproduct of the February 17 revolution and subsequent collapse.

And yet, despite the obstacles and the threats, civil society has persisted in trying to make a difference, particularly in areas where no other formal institutions can operate. While the common notion is that of civic activists as privileged youth looking for a photo opportunity, it’s a mostly thankless job that requires an endless supply of patience as you navigate through the countless security procedures and arrangements to implement any kind of project. But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to implement anything openly these days without facing a torrent of hate, criticism and downright violence reactions.

I’ve chronicled the difficulties of being a civil society activist in Benghazi over the past few years, from the hope and invincibility we felt after the revolution to the crippling fear in the face of extremist groups. As Benghazi began to heal from the latest war, we felt again that glimmer of hope, only to have it extinguished just as brutally as last time. It seems that the pattern continues; no matter the ruler or dominant ideology, civil society is detested.

And what is it that civil society does that could warrant such repulsion? Last year, a group of grassroots organizations decided to hold a community get-together under the theme “Tea and Milk Unites Us.” Tea and milk is a common breakfast drink in Libya (with well-boiled black tea and condensed milk if you’re a purist like me), and the idea was to unite a society fragmented by war through a symbol enjoyed by everyone.

The backlash was swift; “Men are dying on the field while you hold these useless events!” “You have no respect for the war waging near you!” etc. etc. The general objection was that of holding any kind of event during a time of war, despite the fact that these events tried to help the general population heal and forget for a moment the trauma of war.

During the last Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, an art gallery was held, again in the Children’s Theater (we don’t have many venues because, again, war). And once again, the online reaction was saturated with vitriol. “Talking about violence against women while violence against our troops goes on?” “Look at these girls/how they’re dressed/outside their homes/etc.” The general rule seems to be that the more women appear in these kinds of events, the worse the reaction will be. Here we began to see the accusations of “immorality”. The objection became less about the war and more about what’s considered decent in our “conservative Muslim society.”

Cue yesterday’s Earth Hour celebration in Benghazi yesterday.  Held on the campus of the Faculty of Medicine, the event consisted of candles that filled the quad, the traditional one hour lights-off, and a concert. This time, the criticism was almost entirely focused on the offense to our cultural decency and morality as Libyans.

On the internet, it’s advised to never read the comments. Unfortunately, when it comes to Libya, I do read the comments. People will express things online that they’d never say in person, and it’s interesting to know what the general attitudes shaping public opinion are in a city like Benghazi. For this event, it appears that increasing conservatism is sweeping through society. Here the reactions ranged from, “pop songs have nothing to do with Earth Hour awareness” to “Look at these devil worshipers!”

It went one step further, with demands that those who organized the event should be arrested, a move reminiscent of the days when Ansar Shariah were targeting activists. These calls, along with recent orders restricting CSO activity in the East, is a worrying sign that once again, civil society isn’t safe.

But is civil society immoral? A concert, particularly one in which both men and women are on stage and singing English-language songs, isn’t entirely natural in Libya, but not entirely uncommon either. If we’re speaking of customs and traditions in Libya, conservatism is a relatively new concept. But if the issue is of what’s acceptable today, it becomes a more complicated discussion. Benghazi and the East opposed extremist ideology because of how violent it was, and more importantly, how foreign it seemed. And yet, people are quick to vilify these events as being against public decency, deaf to the fact that they sound very like the ideology they fought so vehemently against.

It’s a tricky issue, one that is being used by various groups to sway public opinion to the point where the definition of Libyan morality is being molded before our eyes (if we assume morality is subjective and not universal). And the victim in the middle, as usual, is civil society.

And Now, The News

If your driving skills have yet to scare the general public, then at least once in your life you’ve had to a write a ‘bio’ somewhere on the internet. An easy enough task, but also a daunting one. You want people similar to yourself to discover you, but you don’t want to distill the very essence of your being and splash it across the internet.

So you probably do what many others have done, type out a few of your interests and the labels you identify with, and let them speak for themselves. (I actually forgot what I wrote in my bio on this blog, and I’m too afraid to check for fear that I’m just another sheep)

The phrases that people use to describe themselves reveal much more about the person than I think they intended. If you’re a “freelance blogger and self-published author on (insert political stance here)” I’m going to assume you sit at home most of the time with your laptop perched atop your slowly expanding gut, probably eating Cheetos. (No disrespect to Cheetos). If you mention the name of the sports team that you love in your bio, you’re basically telling the world that you have no redeemable interests and are a major bore. And I don’t think I need to describe the type of people who’s existence is defined by what fandom they belong to.

But there is one phrase that I find confusing. “News and Media Junkie”. What does that mean?

The use of a rather questionable noun like “junkie” to denote what is supposedly a high-brow activity is itself not new on the internet. It’s the 21st century, and “taking back” those oppressive terms that intend to shame those who revolt against society’s definition of morality is all the rage. (Okay, I’ll stop now)

So before the internet, did news junkies exist? Were they the people who watched a lot of evening news channels and discussed current events? No, I’m pretty sure we called those people ‘adults’. (hahaha, okay, now I’ll stop)

Okay, how about media junkie? Were they the people who read those trashy celebrity magazines? Come to think of it, what’s the difference between news and media?

In a nutshell, news is the thing. Media is the way to spread the thing. Fun fact: Media is the plural of medium. Which makes the term media-junkie even more perplexing.

Unless of course, and here we reach the crux of my rambling, they refer to social media, and the consumption of whatever their media feed regurgitates. A news/media junkie is someone who reads the news that appears in social media. A person who uses the term “news/media junkie” to describe themselves is that guy/gal that’s always starting flame wars in the comment section of articles, providing hours of entertainment for people like me.

(And who am I? I am the invisible fly on the wall, the spectator that does not bring attention to my presence. I am the comments junkie)

The intended aim of this post was to question the quality of news we’re exposed to online. Okay, so not everyone’s interested in the complex and confusing political issues that plague the Middle East (pfft, losers). Some people enjoy heart-warming stories of cats being rescued from trees and the success of the local charity drive, hurray for humanity and the good of man-kind!

But of course, cats don’t always get stuck in trees, and the charity drive doesn’t always succeed. So in the absence of feel-good stories, we search for the least mind-straining entertainment to while away our empty hours. Back before the internet, different media was targeted for different segments. If you liked celebrity gossip, you’d head for the magazine rack near the cashier. If you liked depressing news headlines, you’d pick up a copy of the Wall Street Journal.

But the internet has more or less killed the press. Why would I pay for a magazine when I can get my news for free online? (ignoring the fact that I’m technically paying for my internet connection) And so news outlets have become jack-of-all-trades, providing serious news stories next to an article about 6 Things You Didn’t Know About Dunkin’ Donuts (they offer flavour swirls for their coffee!), to reel in as many viewers as possible.

The problem as I see it is that the line between news and social media is beginning to blur. The other day I read about a mother who’s fitness program outraged people. It turned out that the whole story was that she got some negative comments and feedback on FACEBOOK.

Facebook drama is not newsworthy. Neither is a Twitter fire-storm. I don’t want to have to churn through article after list-based article to find genuinely interesting news. What’s more worrisome is that I find myself absent-mindedly clicking on these links, because they are worded in a moderately intriguing way. And there’s so many of them. Articles that explain why the internet is making us dumber. Articles detailing why the internet is making us smarter. I feel like my brain is beginning to melt under all the yellow journalism and opinions-disguised-as-facts-disguised-as-articles, all emanating from my laptop screen in that blue-tinged glow. Close the multiple tabs you have open right now and save yourself!

But of course you didn’t. You’re probably browsing Buzzfeed after clicking on the hyperlink in the last paragraph. Which means it’s too late. Just relax, and settle into that information-high. It’s not like there’s anything else you could be doing.