A Liberal Requiem For Thatcher

On the one hand, people loved her.

But on the other, people hated her.

She was divisive. She divided people.

She divided Britain.

Did she save Britain?

Here’s a graph.

Tony Blair!

Mourn the ideology, not the person.

Don’t hate, donate.

Don’t demonise, organise.

Some sick people on the far-left give the rest of us a bad name.

Thatcherism is an ongoing catastrophe.

She was an old lady.

So grow up with your silly songs.

Was she a feminist?

Did people hate her because she was female?

Don’t mention the fact that she’s female if you hate her.

Oh the misogyny.

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

Can I have my cheque now?

A few thoughts on Paris Brown

Last year I wrote about the increasing authoritarianism which surrounds social media and has seen people arrested and even convicted for their words online. We’re seeing it again with  the current ‘storm’ around Paris Brown, which has gone viral on Twitter and has led to the great and the good of Twitter leaping to her defence. This intrigues me –  last year’s case of Azhar Ahmed, convicted for posting an ‘offensive’ message about British soldiers on Facebook, springs to mind as both are young and both landed in trouble due to ostensibly ‘private’ (ie they weren’t addressed to anyone in particular and weren’t ‘harassment’) messages they posted on social media.  Despite initially being charged over a year ago, a search on Ahmed’s name returns less than 1/9th of the Google results which a search on Brown’s does. Indeed, it’s safe to assume that most people will never even have heard of Ahmed and issues of race and the idiotic sanctification of the armed forces no doubt play a large part in that – many will be absolutely fine with him being arrested and convicted. Yet he was a private citizen making an ‘idiotic’ comment whereas Paris Brown came to our attention due to being the inaugural ‘Youth Crime Commissioner’, an odd job which apparently is intended “to reduce the gap between younger people and the authorities” and commands a salary of £15,000 a year. As someone who has actively applied for and obtained a public role (and the first such role in the country), it’s a no-brainer that she would attract scrutiny. So much so that it’s staggering that no-one seemed to consider that social media could have become an issue as some simple precautions (such as checking her tweets before appointment, making her account private or deleting it altogether) could probably have avoided this whole mess.

Does she deserve to be persecuted? Of course not. Nothing she wrote is anything more than idiotic. Yet I’d be very curious to see who leapt to her defence if her words were less banal brainfarts and more ‘offensive communications’ such as Ahmed’s. Cases such as the latter seem to arouse little ire when, to me, they are far more sinister than that of a newly-appointed public figure being found to have said some dumb things which relate to her new job.

Paris Brown seems an interesting choice for people like Owen Jones to be defending and it largely seems to be down to the fact that she has been ‘exposed’ by the Daily Mail – a point which most have fixated on. It’s a truism on Twitter that if you ‘offend’ a prominent left-leaning figure you are quickly deemed to be a ‘troll’ and you deserve everything you get; if it’s the Daily Mail (or The Telegraph and so on) who get up in arms, it’s absolutely fine. The eagerness to kick the Daily Mail seems to have led some to rather odd positions. Jones asserts that her future may be ruined due to her “behaving like a teenager” while Dorian Lynksey sums up her behaviour as “in short, she is a teenager”. Joanna Moorhead in The Guardian writes that she “did what every teenager in Britain does”. This is an absolutely bizarre argument, seeming to suggest that the Daily Mail took it upon themselves to comb Twitter for the ramblings of some random person rather than investigated someone who was suddenly (and voluntarily) very high-profile. Furthermore, the ‘they’re a teenager’ argument strikes me as ridiculously patronising. It’s been quite a while since I was a teenager but I’m fairly certain that most don’t refer to gay people as ‘faggots’ or assert that they become racist when they’re drunk. In fact most teens aren’t even on Twitter. Contrary to this ‘oh we’re all awful dickheads when we’re teenagers’ narrative, it would have been relatively easy for Kent to find a teenager without Brown’s baggage and while we can certainly understand the follies of youth, it’s absurd to imply that being a teenager necessarily means being homophobic or lacking self-awareness. Lynskey makes a comment, as I have before, that he’s glad Twitter wasn’t around when he was younger. Yet if I think back to when I was a teenager do I think I would have been tweeting heavily-loaded offensive terms? Would Lynskey have been? Do we think any of the journalists defending her would have been?

Funnily enough, last year one of those sympathetic to Brown had a very different take on a 17-year old tweeter. Graham Linehan noted in the case of “@Rileyy_69”, who was arrested for tweeting abuse (and a lame death threat) to Tom Daley:

As a symbol of free speech, Riley69 is not Lenny Bruce. He’s not even the EDL. He’s a teenager going through that thing a lot of teenagers go through where they seem unable to feel empathy. This kind of temporary sociopath can be very dangerous and using these new tools they can wreak havoc more efficiently than ever before.

He was all for Riley’s arrest – there was no ‘oh teenagers!’ on display here. Yet Riley69 wasn’t a public figure, just someone who had tweeted idiotic comments to a celebrity. If Tom Daley had quickly blocked him, almost no-one would have ever heard of him. Instead Daley alerted his followers and we ended up with people like Linehan defending Riley69’s arrest. The logic, then, that it’s simply awful to bring to light the casual homophobia/racism etc of a newly-pointed police figure but fine and dandy to arrest someone of the same age for their idiotic tweets seems rather…pained. It’s for this reason that I have zero doubt that, had Brown’s tweets not came to light via the Daily Mail but rather (say) through some left-wing blogger who presented them as highlighting her use of ‘faggots’, the response from many would be very different.

As I’ve made clear previously, I think the offence taken on Twitter tends to be overblown and nothing that blocking or a breather can’t fix. I think it should very rarely be an issue for the authorities. Sadly, the logic of people like Linehan and others who fixate on ‘trolls’ and use their profile to draw attention to people who offend them feeds directly into an atmosphere where everyone is ready to pounce on anyone who says the wrong thing. It’s really not that big of a leap from asserting that some rubbish insult is unacceptable and something must be done to the cases of Azhar Ahmed and Paris Brown. Everyone feels entitled to their outrage and this seems unlikely to change, requiring some self-awareness and caution when online. Unfortunately research is suggesting that we’re becoming less compassionate and empathetic and this is most pronounced in teenagers. We do, after all, live in an age of narcissism; of self-obsession; of reality tv and stars who are big on sassy put-downs and low on social engagement; of individual and ostentatious ‘creativity’ being seen as the highest goal to which we can aspire. Hell, perhaps a lot of this has to do with over 30 years of atomising neoliberalism and Paris Brown is neatly illustrating Thatcher’s Britain. Whatever the case, we should stop presenting it as inevitable that teens are going to embarrass themselves online and realise that it’s a tool which we all need the skills to use. We need to think about how and why we use social media. It’s certainly not only teenagers who use it to find, express and validate their identities and it can only be a good thing if we think more about who we are in a fundamental sense offline. In the meantime, things like this are only going to keep happening and things will never change unless we start wondering why.

Did the fact that Dobbs and McGlowan were speaking nonsense make any difference to the majority of those listening to them? Probably not. Their regular listeners may well be too ignorant to know that this surreal episode has no basis in reality. Their ignorance will cause them not to fact-check Dobbs’s and McGlowan’s remarks. They might very well rationalize away countervailing facts if they happen to come across them. And, by doing so, keep everything comfortably simple, which counts for more than the messy, often complicated truth.

Although written primarily about the United States, this piece does briefly touch on the pervasive myth that ‘Europeans’ are far more capable of critical thinking than their neighbours across the ocean. I’ve worked in enough offices and participated in enough knuckle-chewingly frustrating discussions about politics to think that it is indeed a myth. Overwhelmingly people seem to invest in popular and acceptable views – as Davidson notes:

The truth is that people who are consistently active as critical thinkers are not going to be popular, either with the government or their neighbors.

The piece struck for two reasons. The first was that I’d written the other day about the minor storm of outrage surrounding Jeremy Irons/gay marriage and how it seemed to suggest (once again) that self-righteous certitude was far more appealing and dominant than the urge to actually think about the issue. This is something which I’ve written about quite a lot, usually with the tag of ‘liberal identity’ because I come at it from my personal context. I recognise myself in many of these responses. I understand the potency of feeling that you are in the gang of goodies. I also understand how quickly that is removed if you start to ask awkward questions which threaten this sensibility, something Sara Ahmed wrote about as “The Politics of Good Feeling”. Of course it’s easy to replace this ‘liberal identity’ with an individual belief that you personally are one of the only ones who sees ‘the truth’ or whatever, which is only swapping one form of egotism for another. Critical thinking is difficult and uncomfortable largely because it requires accepting that you are wrong about a lot of things a lot of the time.

This takes me onto the second reason why this piece resonated with me this morning. Yesterday I had discussions, both on Twitter and IN REAL LIFE, inspired by this column about how assaulting goths and emos is a BAD THING (I’ll leave aside the ‘hate crime’ issue but you can read further thoughts on that here). I originally tweeted that I was amazed that anyone would think people needed a column to tell them that they shouldn’t assault others. The responses I received were interesting – especially as they were similar to responses I’ve had about a myriad of issues, from ‘It Gets Better’ to Johann Hari’s plagiarism. The argument rests on two pillars. The first typically involves an appeal to an imagined isolated person – usually young – who needs to be assured that they aren’t alone. The second appeals to an imagined perpetrator (here of assault) who needs to learn that what they do/think is unacceptable. 

I’ve heard this line of reasoning so many times now that every time it’s wheeled out it rings alarm bells in my head. It is of course ludicrous to suggest that someone is going to read a newspaper column and decide that they will stop assaulting people – this is usually met with agreement and the assertion that it’s the culture that is important. These columns play an important role in creating a culture where ‘negative’ behaviour is seen as unacceptable. Now, no-one would dispute that the media plays an important role in shaping culture. I would argue, however, that it’s the daily drip of ‘news’ stories, how they are presented, how they are framed, how they are chosen, which play a far more powerful role in shaping attitudes than the clearly demarcated opinion on display in comment pieces. It could even be argued that comment pieces without an accompanying urge (and ability) to think about the wider media are harmful – acting as a ‘pressure valve’, as Ulrike Meinhof put it.

We can follow that logic very well if we focus on the assault piece. It’s imagined that this will play a role in making assault ‘unacceptable’. Ultimately, this rests on the idea that the imagined assaulter needs to be educated out of his (it’s almost always his) behaviour, an idea that is woefully and offensively simplistic. People don’t wake up and decide that they are going to be the kind of person who attacks others on the street. We can’t and must not dispense with individual responsibility but that comes as part of a long, complex line of circumstances and influences which shape a person – what they consider to be acceptable, what they consider to be possible, what they consider to be normal. Anyone who has ever worked in social work will quickly appreciate how impossibly difficult it can seem to address violent and/or destructive behaviour – and will laugh with despair at the suggestion that columns are going to do anything whatsoever to address the problem.

If they did, of course, then that would be great. Yet the appeal is indeed invariably to other people and the effect that the column will have on them – it is never about ourselves. This is the crux of the matter – if we aren’t encouraged to think critically about society, about power, about ourselves, generally, we certainly aren’t inspired to do so in newspaper columns. They are overwhelmingly about parroting our own views back at us and (subtly) assuring us of our superiority over these imagined others – whether that be violent thugs for Guardian readers or welfare claimants for Daily Mail readers. This is why people were so protective of Johann Hari when his lies and slurs were exposed – he told them what they wanted to hear and they didn’t really care where it came from as a result. Columns appear to us as solutions to problems which we conjure after the fact (I’ve learned to substitute ‘Must read!’ with ‘This is what I also think!’ online).

We all do this and more and more, we feel that we’re accomplishing something by reading and sharing such pieces, even if we can’t remember the last time a column (or Question Time) actually caused us to pause and reflect on what we think and why we think it. Davidson touches on a fundamental explanation as to why so much of our time spent online is about perpetuating what we already think and flattering our own ego:

In effect, a closely adhered to ideology becomes a mental locality with limits and borders just as real as those of geography. In fact, if we consider nationalism a pervasive modern ideology, there is a direct connection between the boundaries induced in the mind and those on the ground. Furthermore, it does not matter if the ideology is politically left or right, or for that matter, whether it is secular or religious. One’s critical abilities will be suppressed in favor of standardized, formulaic answers provided by the ideology.

Just so work done within a bureaucratic setting. Bureaucracies position the worker within closely supervised departments where success equates with doing a specific job according to specific rules. Within this limited world one learns not to think outside the box, and so, except as applied to one’s task, critical thinking is discouraged and one’s worldview comes to conform to that of the bureaucracy. That is why bureaucrats are so often referred to as cogs in a machine.

Who could say that they don’t recognise this in their own lives? With regards to the first point, ideology, I could return to the issue of gay marriage and whether people actually devote any time to thinking about it rather than thinking ‘what should I as a liberal person think?’ Certain views and certain issues become identified with left/right stances and become totemic, used as standard bearers for your identity.

The second point is even more important. As Davidson argues, critical thinking is discouraged in our daily lives – I’d go further than just our workplaces though and argue that it is discouraged in most of our daily interactions and relationships. No-one likes to be challenged, especially not when the internet provides the means for 24/7 validation. I’m coming to think of this as being absolutely crucial to many of the issues we speak and write about. I’m coming to think that actually speaking to the people in your workplace is far more constructive, powerful and rewarding than 100 e-petitions. It’s certainly far more difficult – I’m sure many can identify with the clammy sense of dread which descends when your colleages, acquaintances, even friends start discussing something and sharing views which you think are ignorant and/or offensive. Whether we participate in these and put ourselves out there with our different views or whether we retreat to Twitter and write a pithy comment seems pretty instructive to me. It’s a microcosm of the assault issue, really – just as dealing with that requires complex, difficult and draining interaction between people, so does the process of learning and changing opinions (and if our thinking is to be truly ‘critical’, that must include our own).

The Decline of Critical Thinking

On commenting

Everyone has an opinion. There are countless aphorisms based on this, countless weary comments from people who despair of reading them. Writing a blog, of course, requires a large degree of narcissism – you think that you have something worth saying and think that people will be interested in it. It goes without saying that these beliefs are more often than not delusions. However, as self-satisfied as it sounds, the desire to write a blog and update it regularly has given me quite an insight into the media commentariat. That small group of people who basically give their opinion for a living, writing columns in newspapers, popping up on Sky News to ‘review the papers’ and being wheeled out on Newsnight when the booker has been particularly unimaginative. A cursory glance at our newspapers would tell you that many (most?) of these people haven’t reached their lofty status due to the novelty of their thought. Yet in having a weekly audience of at least hundreds of thousands of people, they clearly have a powerful platform.

So what insight do I speak of? Well, when you wish to regularly update a blog, sometimes a week or so goes past and you realise that you haven’t written anything. You realise that you don’t particularly have much to say at that particular point in time. Yet instead of thinking ‘oh well, I’ll write when I have something to say’, the strong temptation is to start scrambling around for things to write about. Things to have an opinion about. Given that the commentariat make their living by doing this, the need for them to invent opinions about topical issues is enormous. And so they do. This has never been more clear than with the Julian Assange affair in the past two weeks. Pretty much every newspaper columnist in the UK (and every second blogger) has given us their opinion about this. What’s been very clear, however, is that the vast majority of them have no particular insight into the situation. People have spent a couple of afternoons on Google, written a few hundred words and cashed their cheque. What is most noticeable, and most damning, is the certainty with which people write about a deeply complex situation. Everyone has suddenly become a lawyer, a politician, a jury, all because they’ve read some things online. This is the bread and butter of the commentariat. 

If you take a minute to think about these people who dominate our media, their positions are utterly ridiculous. It’s a matter of common sense that one individual is not going to be most informed and most interesting on subjects ranging from Syria to the Olympics to Assange. And yet this is exactly the premise which our media operates on – look no further than the quite hilarious range of subjects which Owen Jones is wheeled out to discuss. 

What is most sad about this is that the writers undoubtedly tend to buy into their own image. They become convinced of their right and, most worryingly, their superiority, in giving us their opinion on every subject which comes along. Almost without exception, they treat the internet as a personal fan club, basking in praise for their work and being remarkably patronising and intolerant when it comes to serious criticism. It’s a circle – they have a platform from which to give us their opinion and more often than not, this opinion is completely unchallenging and uninteresting. So many people praise it and wish to be associated with it, feeding the ego of the writer and making them convinced of their right to have the platform.

The Assange affair shows just how pernicious this circle is. If you had spent more than five minutes looking into the situation, it was very quickly obvious that most of the writers who knocked out columns about it, and spent days moralising about it on Twitter etc, had nothing to offer the discussion beyond a moderate skill with Google. And yet they not only felt entirely convinced of their invented opinion, they felt superior to everyone else. I’ve seen few things on Twitter more sickening than Owen Jones tweeting that women had had a bad week and imploring men to step up and help them with the hashtag #menagainstrape. Quite insanely patronising and nauseating, a glimpse of an ego out of control, and yet it did spread relatively far and wide. Because people become convinced of the superiority of the opinions of these people – usually because they are about flattering the egos of the readers rather than actually making them think about what they believe.

It’s for these reasons that I’ve avoided writing a blog about the Assange business. I don’t think that I have much to offer which hasn’t already been said. Yet I know that if I was paid to write blogs, I would definitely have written something about it. It would have been the easiest thing to do. And I’m pretty sure that I could have written something about definitions of rape, or the meaning of liberty, or the division of the left, which many people would have applauded. But what would it have added to the wider discussion beyond a further reason for some people to feel convinced of their own opinion? Absolutely nothing. It’s a problem which is constantly in my mind when writing a blog and I try to not write about a subject unless I feel I have something particularly novel to say. Of course, this is entirely subjective and undoubtedly I delude myself. I only wish that our media would exhibit the same concerns and begin to move away from the silly model of commentators being paid to give their opinions about our world.

The reason he’s never quite hit the mark since then is that he’s lost touch with failure and appears incapable of mocking his own success

At any rate success seems to have made Ricky Gervais the kind of character he used to mine for laughs, incapable of taking criticism or realising how he comes across.

If he were less powerful then somebody close to him might have felt able to gently suggest that the whole thing was self-regarding folly: the kind of sanctimonious guff which the younger, sharper Gervais might have poked fun at as a show-within-a-show on Extras.

But I can understand why Gervais and his ferociously loyal fans ( “fuck off you over analysing twat”, one told me on Twitter last night) think the advance criticism of Derek was overstated or misdirected

Dorian Lynskey seems to have inadvertently written a blog about the career trajectory of your typical broadsheet columnist.

http://33revolutionsperminute.wordpress.com/2012/04/13/the-magical-simpleton-and-the-problem-with-derek/

Authoritarianism and social media

I’ve observed the ‘storm’ over the proposed monitoring of e-mail and social media with a sense of bemusement. It’s difficult to know which authoritarian proposal or action is going to ignite moral outrage these days, because so many pass with little comment. The ‘Minority Report’ pre-emptive arrests on account of the Royal Wedding were reported but quickly forgotten (and, judging by conversations with my own peers, many people remain unaware they ever happened). The authoritarian clampdown around the Olympics has been more widely reported but, again, doesn’t seem to have ‘caught on’ as an issue. In fact, it has inspired barely concealed reactionary sympathy from cuddly liberal icons. I think it’s also safe to say that many of those expressing outrage over the government’s plans were far more equivocal about state monitoring of communications and, indeed, state crackdowns in general, during the English riots.

What I’ve found really interesting, however, is that there has been an almost kneejerk response to these proposals because they involve the government (and in some quarters, a Conservative/Lib Dem government – let’s not forget that Labour were plenty authoritarian during their time in office). Because we don’t really have to look very far to believe that the state in its broader sense can easily ‘monitor’ online communication and, further, get the populace to do it for them. We all know the story of the guy reported, arrested, charged and convicted over his tongue-in-cheek ‘threat’ to blow up an airport. We all know because it was one of those things which ‘caught on’. It was a liberal cause, with Stephen Fry leading the charge.

Fry has played a leading role in many ‘twitter storms’. When Jan Moir wrote her silly, awful column about Stephen Gately, he again led the charge. As with Paul Chambers, people reported Moir to the police.

Then, last week, you have the jailing of Liam Stacey for racist tweets he posted regarding Fabrice Muamba. Stacey had less than 300 followers on Twitter and his vile comments would clearly never have been seen by the target, or indeed anyone beyond his followers, had they not been seized on and swiftly shared/commented on by thousands of others. Clearly, he deserved to be challenged. Yet, once again, he was reported to the police. He was apparently convicted of “a racially-aggravated public order offence to incite violence”. Who exactly was in danger of being incited to violence isn’t exactly clear; the avalanche of condemnation was swift and explicit. Yet people wanted his head – so much so that, bizarrely, many started posting screencaps and Youtube videos of his comments in order to ‘preserve the evidence’. You can still easily find these, post-conviction. The comments were vile, certainly, but no-one who seriously believed that they could ‘incite’ anything would share them further and long after the event (one of the Youtube videos, consisting solely of his tweets, has 100,000 views).

Of course, there is absolutely no equivalance between what Paul Chambers tweeted and what Liam Stacey did. This was reflected in the response to the involvement of the state in both cases: while the former inspired outrage, the latter inspired celebration or pointed disinterest. No one could defend Liam Stacey’s utterings and that made any broader implications of his conviction moot.

Yet the implications (if they weren’t already clear) were hammered home soon after when people began to question why we should stop with Stacey. Demanding similar action against homophobic utterances on social media sounds almost reasonable. However, when Louise Mensch was desperately trying to ignite a twitter storm over a Labour councillor’s tweet gloating over the death of Thatcher, many supporters compared it to ‘hate speech’ and, with grim inevitability, a few people tweeted that they had reported it to the police. The Guardian has had an implicit campaign of late regarding the ‘online abuse’ of female writers, with several writers arguing that this also is ‘hate speech’ and should be punishable in law.

This is the path we’re on – one where thoughts, comments, words, ‘threats’, deemed unacceptable by different sections of society, are pounced on and reported to the authorities. It’s almost always done in the name of ‘other people’ – protecting ‘other people’ from offence, the threat that ‘other people’ may be inspired to do bad deeds, the belief that ‘other people’ lack the ability to read these things in the same way that we do. Criticism of it is dismissed glibly, as if its rightness is so evident that anyone questioning it is already beyond help.

It reminds me of the panopticon . I’ve shared that article before – it links the concept of the panopticon to social media in relation to marketing and ‘capitalist realism’ but its relevance to this discussion is clear:

…inmates had to presume guards might be watching them at any given moment, which meant, according to Bentham, that they would have to behave as if they were being watched all the time. In this way, the Panopticon, by its very structure, created the effect of total surveillance, while allowing for actual surveillance to be intermittent and even absent.

The government doesn’t have to legislate for constant monitoring of our online communications. It doesn’t have to because we do it ourselves and we are so very quick to run to the state we don’t wish to monitor us when we see things we don’t like. This will always be justified with an appeal to the most indefensible of communication and the weakest of minds reading it – in the exact same way that governments justify their authoritarianism. Censorship and state control can be (and is) far more sophisticated and subtle than we tend to believe. If we are outraged by state ‘intrusion’ into our communications, we should all think about the role we play in it.

All this in a city convulsed by massive welfare, housing benefit and legal aid cuts, spiralling unemployment and rising social protests. It is darkly ironic, indeed, that large swaths of London and the UK are being thrown into ever deeper insecurity while being asked to pay for a massive security operation, of unprecedented scale, largely to protect wealthy and powerful people and corporations.

That awful David Mitchell piece in The Observer last week, pushing the idea that criticism of the Olympics is spiteful grumbling for the sake of it, seems sadly typical of a wider attitude. If anyone tells you that something is ‘above politics’ they are either stupid or lying. Possibly both.

Olympics 2012 security: welcome to lockdown London