People are silhouetted as they pose with mobile devices in front of a screen projected with a Facebook logo, in this picture illustration taken in Zenica October 29, 2014. Facebook Inc warned on Tuesday of a dramatic increase in spending in 2015 and projected a slowdown in revenue growth this quarter, slicing a tenth off its market value. Facebook shares fell 7.7 percent in premarket trading the day after the social network announced an increase in spending in 2015 and projected a slowdown in revenue growth this quarter. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic (BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA - Tags: BUSINESS SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY BUSINESS LOGO)

Cape Town - Last week, a friend dumped another friend on Facebook. It caused a bit of a stir.

The unfriended friend was hurt that after 20 years of friendship, her friend could switch her off like that. The friend who had unfriended the friend (just stay with me, it'll get easier) said she was offended that her friend had taken offence to what she thought was an inoffensive reference she had made to Beirut.

Phew.

The unfriending friend had likened the construction in her neighbourhood to living in Beirut.

Beirut is the capital of Lebanon that has weathered many wars and seen a lot of bloodshed.

Beirut is also the name of an American band which has nothing to do with Lebanon. In fact, when asked why the band was so named, frontman Zach Condon said: “One of the reasons I named the band after that city was the fact that it's seen a lot of conflict.” How charming. I've been looking for a name for my own band. I think I'll go with Palestine.

Because I like both of my friends, I will take the fifth amendment on the whole Beirut thing. In fact, when it comes to social media, I generally take the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth amendment on everything - even cat videos and family photographs of people wearing hats.

And I'm not alone. A recent study by the Pew Research Centre, an American think tank, found that rather than encouraging debate and diverse views, social media stifles discussion and encourages self-censorship. This phenomenon is called the “spiral of silence”, which is not the name of a Simon & Garfunkel song.

The researchers also found this extended to face-to-face interactions - people were less likely to discuss their opinions in real life with online friends who didn't share their point of view. Conversely, if people felt their Facebook friends would agree with them, they were 1.91 times more likely to join in a conversation about it.

Basically, social media has become a '70s potluck dinner where people nibble politely on terrible meatballs, swop niceties about one another's kak kaftans and then drive home bitching about the terrible meatballs and the kak kaftans.

What happened to us? As a species, we've come far. We no longer grunt in caves or burn witches at the stake and, thanks to Jamie, we now know the secret to good meatballs is nutmeg, sage and rosemary.

Democracy is not only another good name for a band, it's also a political system embraced by many countries, where freedom of expression is a key tenet. Yet, here we are, stuffing our faces with fear, feeding an ever-shallower status quo where social correctness kills the very diversity it pretends to promote.

I made the mistake recently of referring to a woman as a woman. I was walking with a young person who wore a skirt. “It's not so binary anymore,” the young person said. “It's no longer men and women; nowadays people have to self-identify as a gender. You can't just assign them a gender. You don't have that right.”

I asked her if there had been a winter special on the words “binary” and “fulcrum” because they seemed very popular these days. She then went on to inform me there are eight genders with which people identify. I suggested that having eight labels was, perhaps, a little octo-nary. She didn't think that was very funny.

On Facebook, I have patted the backs of so many opinions held by so many (fill in gender here) that I sometimes forget I have opinions of my own. And when I do remember my opinions, I usually don't know what to do with them.

Can I really share my belief that Fortuner drivers are the spawn of Satan? Or that compulsively posting pictures of restaurant food is crass in a country where people are hungry? Or that Zapiro might occasionally get it wrong? That we all get things wrong?

Is it okay to still use “for Africa” - as in, “there were shoes for Africa” - or is that now offensive? Can I say “for Pete's sake”, or will a horde of Petes take me to task for using their name in vain?

Or that soon after watching a movie about sweat shops in Bangladesh, I bought three T-shirts from H&M that had been made in Bangladesh, because I was having a horrible day and I thought buying something would make me feel better, and because I'm not perfect but I'm doing the best I can?

Somewhere in the binary (yes!) of acceptable and unacceptable, there is a vortex of unexpressed, minority thought. I imagine it would look something like the eye of a storm, moving at speed, its centre thickening. And when it finally makes landfall, it could go two ways: slow down and fizzle, stopping off for a last inspirational quote; or hit the ground with such force that the world shudders and implodes, leaving the landscape looking not in the slightest like Beirut.

Cape Argus

* Helen Walne is an award-winning columnist and writer based in Cape Town.