What I Learned Reading “7 Things I Learned During My Year Without Alcohol”

Certain kinds of puritanism are widely mocked these days. You’re unlikely to be taken seriously if you believe that not owning a TV lends you a moral superiority over the sheeple who watch Game of Thrones, for example, while Gary Turk’s cloying video decrying social media went viral precisely because of people finding it insufferably smug. Such judgments on how people spend their time are deeply unfashionable and invite almost instant opprobrium. It’s been fascinating, then, to see this piece being widely and approvingly shared. Written by a woman who has spent the past year sober, it presents alcohol as a damaging force and has an overwhelming air of self-congratulation about it. Many of the people sharing it seem to be ruefully agreeing that alcohol has held them back in life while the comments are full of praise for the writer’s bravery and determination.

Is it ‘brave’ not to drink? Certainly we live in an alcohol-oriented culture so it feels instinctively right to say that it takes character to be tee-total. Then again, if we accept that then we could also say that it takes character to avoid the internet, something far fewer people would be eager to celebrate. It surely isn’t a weakness to drink alcohol – most people who do so have no particular issues with it. Why, then, is it such an easy proxy for a sense of personal failure?

When you closely read Kelly Fitzgerald’s piece it’s clear that she had a problem with alcohol. She writes that she was ‘tired of disappointing and embarrassing my friends and loved ones” and unable to “drink in moderation”. She writes of the ‘stupid, embarrassing things’ she did while drinking. She writes of ‘trying and failing for years to regulate’ her drinking and of ‘bad things’ happening when she drank. Rather than being the words of a social drinker who gave up and felt better as a result, these are the words of an addict who is still coming to terms with her addiction. It’s quite incredible that the words ‘alcoholic’ or ‘addiction’ aren’t used once in the piece – yet if they were it would clearly resonate with fewer people.

If you read Kelly’s words as being those of an addict this becomes a very different piece.

My emotions are crazy, sometimes I think this is what it must feel like to be pregnant. I cry at the drop of a hat, I’m offended easily and sometimes I am so happy I feel like I’m going to burst. I actually care what people think about me.

Perhaps I’m completely crazy but to me this emotional imbalance doesn’t sound like a great thing. Yet mood swings which as described sound almost bipolar are described as ‘heightened senses’. Uh huh. Alarm bells are already ringing over unresolved issues here. They becoming deafening with the second ‘lesson’, that Kelly is ‘just beginning to understand’ who she ‘really’ is. She presents some authentic, ‘real’ her that was hidden by ‘constant alcohol blackouts’. Seriously – this is way beyond drinking a bit too much and regretting a hangover. This is an addict with deep emotional problems whose drug of ‘choice’ was alcohol. I think we can safely say that most people who drink alcohol do not need to have some dramatic revelation to understand that they are ‘real’ people.

It goes on – her life is now ‘manageable’, she is ‘worthy of love’, she has removed ‘toxic people’. How you can reach the end without realising that this is a piece about addiction rather than alcohol is beyond me. There are even a couple of mentions of ‘drugs’ but this is never elaborated on.

Of course it’s great that someone with an addiction has been able to regain control of their life but the speed with which this piece went viral raises interesting questions about why it’s resonated with so many. Do they think they have problems with alcohol, even to an extent where they don’t feel like ‘real’ people? It can hardly be a bad thing to examine our own behaviour and think about our relationship with things like alcohol (or indeed the internet or whatever other bogeyman is thrown our way). Yet I don’t believe that most of the people sharing it believe themselves to be addicts (or are addicts). They are rather, like many of us, people who probably drink a bit too much and feel the need to self-flagellate about it to the extent of convincing themselves that they would be different people if it wasn’t for alcohol. This difference almost always seems to involve being more ‘successful’ and ‘sorted’, because that’s what we’re encouraged to focus on isn’t it? The Big Picture. The Bottom Line. The little everyday things – the time we spend with our friends and family, our undramatic jobs, our quotidian engagement with the world – we’re told this stuff is unimportant and that we must achieve in a very particular way. If we haven’t done this, the problem lies within ourselves – we spend too long on the internet, we watch too much TV, we drink too much! Internalise, internalise.

It’s impossible not to comment on the class aspect of this. The public narrative of ‘problem drinking’ and ‘destructive alcohol’ almost entirely focuses on the rampaging working-class hordes who descend on pubs and clubs of a weekend. The debates over issues like licensing hours and minimum alcohol pricing are never conducted with ‘targets’ like the permanently-sozzled posh couple from Gogglebox in mind. No-one ever ponders the drinking habits of George Osborne or Rebecca Brooks. They are ‘successful’ and so have the right to do what they want. The working-class, on the other hand, will have their behaviour morally policed while being told it’s their own fault that it happens. It’s not that we live in a system which ensures and requires that a minority hold most of the wealth while the wages and working-conditions of the masses are depressed as far as possible; no, the problem is that the proles drink too much and ruin it for themselves.

This is the kind of nasty puritanism which Kelly’s piece is feeding into and why it’s so easy to present it as a morality tale about alcohol rather than a pragmatic description of addiction. If you think you drink too much and want to drink less – drink less. If you want to drink less but feel you are unable to – speak to someone (while accepting that it’s difficult to get to this stage of even asking for help). If, however, you’re one of millions who enjoy drinking alcohol don’t buy into this idea that you would be (or even should be) a high-flying millionaire if you would only put down the beer. It’s a pernicious lie and there’s no inherent moral superiority in not drinking alcohol. Thinking there is buys into the pathologising of ‘failure’, the same absurd reduction of our society to the level of the individual which lies behind so many damaging attitudes towards welfare, employment and, as @thisisapollo pointed out on Twitter, mental health. We are never the products of individual effort and we do not stand alone.

The REAL reasons why Generation Y might be unhappy

Last night my boyfriend alerted me to this article which he said was being shared a lot online: Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy. Notably, it’s being shared a lot by the people it’s ostensibly talking about. It’s really nothing new, attributing a generational ennui (we’re not actually presented with any evidence of this, or shown that if it exists it’s a new thing, or even given an articulation of what it actually means) to defects in people’s attitudes. In contrast to their parents whom were raised to believe that “years of hard work” were the way to happiness and prosperity, generation Y are apparently ‘delusional’, think they’re ‘special’ and have unrealistic expectations of swift success. What dicks!

Now, I’m not one to dismiss such talk out of hand. I don’t think there’s any harm in discussing societal trends and have been a big advocate of research into the effects of social media (not just on ‘young people’ but on all of us who use it). I’ve also written a few times about the fetishising of ‘creativity’. The problem is that here we have the umpteenth piece which complains about how shit young people are in some ahistorical, apolitical self-help drivel-talk which presents next to no evidence, context or reflection beyond ‘buck up your ideas’. Even on a cursory reading there are some glaring holes in the article’s thesis (since it’s an American site I’ll use American stats):

Productivity (“the real value of output produced by a unit of labour”) is far higher now than it was in the years when our parents apparently believed in ‘hard work’;

GDP is also higher than in those halcyon days;

There is nothing particularly striking about modern unemployment rates;

What *is* noticeable (you may have noticed this in one of the first graphs) is that income and wages completely decoupled from productivity in the 1970s;

Furthermore, the benefits of productivity and GDP have increasingly gone to the wealthiest in society: inequality has soared and the bulk of the wealth of the top 1% comes from capital, not wages – in other words, they’re not ‘working hard’ to make more money than everyone else;

House prices have soared;

As has student debt and credit market debt;

Manufacturing jobs have declined massively;

Part-time employment for economic reasons (ie because of wider economic reasons and not because of actively chosen hours) has increased massively;

The cost of living has increased massively;

Poverty has increasingly hit the youngest;

Social mobility has declined massively and your future earnings are intrinsically tied to your background.

The article’s ‘Lucy’ is graduating into a world which is hugely different from the one her parents lived in: a world where she can be expected to earn less, be saddled with greater debt before even entering the job market, face greater job insecurity, struggle to buy a house, face higher costs generally and be at greater risk of falling into poverty. All of this while watching the wealthiest in society become even wealthier – Lucy won’t need ‘Facebook Image Crafting’ to see that. She’ll graduate into a world where her parents’ generation have pulled the ladder up behind them and those at the top have become hugely wealthy while wrecking the economy and displacing the debt onto everyone else. She’ll do this while facing an economy where ‘traditional’ jobs are being shipped around the world and being replaced by precarious jobs where you’re increasingly judged not on concrete outcomes but on your ’emotional labour – having the right attitude when serving at Pret A Manger or being willing to do lots of unpaid overtime at your graphic design job (because hey, trade unions have declined too!) She’ll struggle to match the living standards of her parents.

Lucy will then read pieces like this one which tell her that the problem is her own attitude, that she’s a spoiled brat who wants everything now and with minimal effort.

Is it any wonder she might feel “kind of unhappy”?

‘Internet Trolls’ and the gatekeepers

Louise Mensch’s harassment by Frank Zimmerman has inspired a plethora of commentary on ‘internet trolls’, most of it wholeheartedly jumping on board the bandwagon which has been trundling with ever increasing velocity for the past year or so. This bandwagon conflates any and all disagreement/abuse/opposition to or criticism of someone/something online under the title of ‘troll’. It should seem obvious to any sensible person that Zimmerman’s campaign, which apparently originated with online insults but led to a sustained period of threats including phone calls to her home, is not remotely comparable to the traditional idea of an ‘internet troll’. As a few writers have pointed out today, this term was previously widely used to refer to subpar shit-stirrers who love to wind people up. No more, no less. Harassment is harassment and abuse is abuse – labelling them with a term which has been more associated with petty (but often witty) arguments on internet forums lessens their gravity.

Now, these distinctions seem quite clear to me. Reading the pieces today, however, it’s obvious that the wider (almost incoherent) use of ‘troll’ is the one which is taking hold in the media and so, by extension, in wider usage (particularly in readers not particularly well-versed in the online world). This perhaps doesn’t seem like a big deal – who cares what troublemakers are called, right? However I think this raises wider issues about the media. Two excerpts from two different columns about ‘trolls’ struck me today. The first was from Zoe Williams’ piece in The Guardian:

Of course it’s possible to troll at a much less violent level, simply by stalking through internet communities where people might be expected to think in a particular way, and saying things that will wind them up. If you would like to try this sort of trolling to see what the appeal is, I suggest you go on to the Comment is Free section of the Guardian’s website and post something like, “People shouldn’t have kids if they can’t afford to pay for them. End of.” Or: “men like skinny women, which is why you won’t be able to find me a banker with a fat wife. WILL YOU?” Or: “Men like sex. Women like cuddles. GET OVER IT.” Or: “Nobody even knows what’s in a greenhouse gas. How can I take ‘climate change’ seriously when nobody knows anything about it?” Amusingly, I am getting quite wound up by these remarks, even though it was me who made them.

I’ve quoted this paragraph at length as I find it quite illuminating. I’m sure Zoe is referring to people who deliberately try and cause arguments and will say whatever is most likely to cause this in any given context.  However in choosing to illustrate this with stereotypically ‘reactionary right-wing’ comments on The Guardian, Zoe inadvertently highlights one of the major problems with the current usage of ‘troll’ – namely, that it is increasingly used to refer to anyone who challenges what is seen as a consensus view, especially if they do so in an inarticulate way. Read the first sentence again. If you were to visit The Guardian’s website, read an article which you think is terrible and then see 100 comments underneath praising it, it’s fair to assume that posting a critical comment would ‘wind them up’. Yet considering something and coming to a different conclusion from others is not ‘trolling’ in any sense. Unfortunately, this is one way in which the term is increasingly being used – as an instant claim to the higher ground and attempt to shut down debate. Interestingly, Zoe later explicitly says that trolls are fearful of putting forward an argument which is “more robust or far-reaching” than ‘first principles’, putting the onus on those who think differently to carefully articulate their thoughts. There is no room here for the responsibility of the reader to consider different viewpoints and especially pay attention to those who perhaps cannot express themselves as articulately as they would like. Working on differences is a two-way process and increasingly the urge for those with certain commonly held views is to instantly label those who disagree as ‘trolls’ and move on. No-one learns from this and the dismissal is as damaging and unproductive as a true ‘troll’ who really is just there to wind up.

The second excerpt builds on this. It’s from Laurie Penny’s column in The Independent:

Ten years ago, politicians, journalists and celebrities might have anticipated the occasional angry letter from a reader, sometimes even a scary letter. Now anyone with a public platform can expect to face constant harassment in comment threads, via email and on Twitter, especially if they’re a woman or a member of an ethnic minority.

For me, this goes to the absolute crux of what I’m talking about. Throughout the column, Laurie paints ‘trolls’ as hateful, bigoted figures who harass minorities (I’m not going into the ‘straight white men harass others, especially women’ narrative here, though clearly it’s hugely problematic). In this paragraph, however, she goes further and thinks wistfully of a time when writers could only expect ‘the occasional angry letter’. Aside from again conflating Zimmerman’s stalking with something infinitely less sinister, Laurie is inadvertently pining for a time when ‘politicians, journalists and celebrities’ were ‘protected’ from the views of the public; when they could enjoy their positions of privilege without challenge. I think this is hugely important, as it is very much ‘politicians, journalists and celebrities’ who have led the charge of labelling even relatively mild criticism as ‘trolling’. The landscape is changing and they are scrambling to protect their positions.

Much has been written in the past 10 years about how the internet has altered the music industry. Record labels, long seen as the gatekeepers to success in the music industry, have been ravaged by illegal downloads. However there are undeniable opportunities in this, for those who understand the changed (and changing) landscape. It is more possible than ever for an artist to control their own work and careers: the internet offers many ways of reaching an audience while making it much more difficult to have a traditional career as a ‘star’ in the music industry. Generally, record labels have been slow to respond to this and have sought to protect their positions, initially with lawsuits, increasingly with attempts at legislation, half-heartedly with co-operation for new models such as Spotify.

I think there are many analogies to be drawn with the media here. Traditionally, newspapers and the wider media have acted as gatekeepers to opinion and ‘success’ in that industry. Politicians, celebrities and columnists have had a hugely privileged position in holding access to those platforms (and this isn’t to ignore the hard work that many have put it to obtain that access). Again, however, the internet has changed everything. It has never been easier to put your work out there, never been easier to share your thoughts and opinions. The readership of traditional newspapers is in terminal decline. The ‘troll’ phenomenon of the past year, then, strikes me as largely a response to this. The mindset that holds sway is still one which values traditional media over the public – the temptation, then, is to dismiss the latter as forcefully intruding on the territory of the former. Some have commented that Louise Mensch could be labelled a ‘troll’ herself, such is her tendency to hold forcefully contrary views. The same is true of many columnists who make a living criticising politicians, television shows, celebrities – often in a rather brutal manner. Yet all of these people are lended respectability by their traditional positions in the system, despite said system having changed massively.

As with the music industry, the media is trying to adapt to the changing landscape. The Huffington Post is an obvious example, bolting the ‘new media’ work of the ‘public’ to a traditional media model where it profits those who act as gatekeepers. The Guardian’s modern fixation on ‘open journalism’ is a similar attempt to marry the two worlds. Because the mindset of the traditional media still holds sway, this notion of the troll as forceful usurper of the natural order gains hold. This has the effect of making writers want the legitimacy offered by traditional media, leading them to give their work away for free to something like the Huffington Post just as an artist will go on ‘X Factor’ in the hope that it will give them exposure and lead to a record deal. Ultimately, however, both Huffington Post and ‘X Factor’ are seeking ways to profit from the new landscape.

There have never been more opportunities to control our work and its dissemination. The conflation of threatening, criminal behaviour with criticism (carefully packaged as ‘the wrong sort’) is arguably another way for those in positions of privilege already to attempt to control this. This isn’t to say that record labels and traditional media aren’t still very important – but whereas even 15 years ago, they were the only game in town, in 2012 they are but part of the landscape. A landscape which will continue to change and, despite the moral panic over ‘trolls’, I think it will be a change for the better.

The Guardian’s whole ‘open journalism’ narrative seems to be pushing the potentially quite insidious idea of readers contributing more and more unpaid work to the ‘brand’. You get the sense that The Guardian looks enviously at the Huffington Post, where the unpaid efforts of countless bloggers has turned a nice profit for Ms Huffington. Yet if you spend any length of time looking at Huffington Post articles, the sub-editing is generally appalling and there is a very real sense of a giant echo chamber where pieces are published largely in order to appeal to self-identifying liberal clicktivists. There are arguments that The Guardian has already gone far down this route (most notably in ‘Comment is Free’), but this piece floats the idea that:

…eventually the “Guardian reader” is going to turn into a “Guardian member”. Call it what you like – a community, club or network. Not only will they sign up for the paper or the app, they could contribute directly to content creation. One speculative idea floated by the editor, Alan Rusbridger, was that volunteers might come in to the newsroom to help moderate reader comments on the Comment is free section of the website. Someone in that session immediately offered his services.

This is a masterclass in PR, floating the exciting idea that you too could be fortunate enough to be involved in the creation of The Guardian. Behind the fluffy, friendly prose however, this is surely suggesting that the Guardian work towards the creation of an unpaid army of workers? Given that the appeal is presumably the status and experience, this doesn’t sound particularly different to the unpaid internships which (rightly) so horrify your average Guardian reader. There are very real implications for paid journalists and broader employees of print media which are completely nudged out of the picture. There are also very real implications for quality and breadth, as it seems reasonable to believe that ‘volunteers’ for these roles would be a very self-selecting group (of the kind who attend a Guardian Open Weekend, in fact).

It seems bizarre to me that the response to the changing media landscape would be for a long-established newspaper to attempt moves toward a blogging model. This seems doomed to fail as The Guardian could only ever compete uneasily in this field. The obvious response here would be to speak of the expertise, authority and talent which people expect and respect in ‘traditional’ media. However, Harigate and the fall-out suggests that this is much overstated and there is a large, willing audience out there for people repeating their prejudices back to them. Indeed, this is something we’re all good at spotting in the right-wing press. So perhaps moves in this direction would be fruitful, attracting traffic while driving down costs.

One thing which I found amusing in this piece is the inclusion of ‘smug’ in the list of terms used to describe The Guardian. Amusing because I have absolutely no doubt that if people used this term about individual pieces/writers, there would be a large body of opinion that instantly dismissed them as ‘a troll’. If ‘Open Journalism’ is to mean anything then The Guardian has to get a lot better at engaging with fierce critics. At the moment it is very much a closed shop, where columnists can pour vitriol freely (as long as it’s at an acceptable target) while affecting mock outrage whenever one of their own is challenged. The self-regarding dialogue between many of these writers is something to behold and it’s completely antithetical to the idea that ‘Guardian members’ could ever possibly be serious contributers. Because, just as it skates over the negative implications of ‘Open Journalism’, this piece pretends that The Guardian is not part of a hierarchy and seeks to negate the privileged position enjoyed by its writers. The line:

One woman emphasised how she really liked the angry and fractious debates in the readers’ comments on Comment is free. The last thing she wanted was Guardian journalists interfering to tone down a good online scrap.

is remarkable because the comments below Comment is Free are clearly held in much contempt by many at The Guardian. Indeed, it’s a regular feature of following a few of them that they will mockingly link to comments.

The sense that ‘Open Journalism’ would, in reality, mean cheap/free labour by those who “toe the line” dictated by the paid writers is overwhelming.

In the digital future, the Guardian must turn its readers into a resource