Pop Deserves the ‘Social Justice Warriors’

taylor-swift-shake-it-off-video-3-2014-billboard-650Don’t worry, I’m not really going to write about the racism/appropriation in the new Taylor Swift video. This widely shared post says most of what there is to say (and, importantly, what needed to be said). Instead I want to write briefly another aspect of this mini storm.

Being a Taylor Swift fan (maybe not for much longer considering how things are going) I actually watched her Yahoo live announcement thingy…live. It was painful. Jesus Christ it was painful. Taylor was doing her ‘I’m just a normal gal and we’re all hanging out!’ schtick in front of an audience seemingly made-up of people who had been pumped full of uppers prior to broadcast. Her every utterance was greeted with hysteria. I don’t cope well with over-the-top “I like this more than anyone else ever and I’m going to prove it by screaming the most” displays of fandom (watching the Doctor Who 50th special in the cinema last year was hellish for this very reason). It did not put me in a good place, people. Then she debuted the song and this also did not put me in a good place. It’s a very on-trend Max Martin number which you could easily imagine being released by Little Mix or Cheryl Cole or Cher Lloyd or countless other current pop stars. Sure, it’s efficient enough at what it does but I’m not sure anyone particularly needs it (and if it wasn’t by the already-massively popular Swift, I’m not sure many would particularly pay attention to it). Given the really rather interesting and even astonishing places Swift has been taking her music, it’s a crushing disappointment to see her cheerfully announcing that she’s gone ‘pop’ and offering up generic pop hit no. 5694. You were already pop, Taylor, and you were doing it in a way no other major pop artist was. There’s always the possibility that the album will be more interesting but given the apparent presence of Max Martin on most tracks, I’m not optimistic.

Anyway, back to the live thingy. After dancing around to her song and announcing details of her album (inspired by ‘late-80s pop’ apparently – hello Jive Bunny) she premiered the video. As soon as I saw the scenes from which the above cap comes from, my heart sank. I actually thought of this line. Why does this shit keep happening? Well, a big part of it is that most pop listeners just pretend it’s not, as we saw with the really-quite-obviously-racist Lily Allen video. In a pretty classic demonstration of the ‘Bad Feeling’ thesis (yeah, I keep returning to that because it’s so right) people see the problematic thing and, rather than thinking ‘oh dear, this is a bit bad’, try to anticipate and undermine the discussions labelling it as problematic. And so:

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Notice the references to the ‘social justice warriors of the internet’ and ‘blogs’. There are usually liberal references to Tumblr thrown in for good measure. It’s always those people on the internet who pick holes in this stuff, who can’t just enjoy it for what it is. That last tweet is actually from a Guardian writer who ‘writes about film, TV and music’. Yes, someone who writes about culture for a living throws out ‘fucking earnest columns’ as an insult. If such responses are woefully inevitable it’s because, as I’ve written about quite a few times before, pop criticism is in a really fucking terrible place. It’s dominated by the misguided idea that patronisingly faux-positive responses (I covered it with regards to One Direction but clearly Taylor also receives the same treatment) show you really get this stuff and are really open-minded and aren’t a snob and blah blah blah! There will be lots of barely-formed sneering at ‘authenticity’ and anything associated with it, even guitars (notice that Taylor’s cultural power has risen in tandem with her move away from country). Most importantly, everything must be FUN! and IRONIC! and SARCASTIC! and SILLY! and nothing is worth taking too seriously or thinking about too much. The Alex Niven quote I used when previously writing about this is worth wheeling out again:

Unfortunately the mainstream of music journalism right now appears to be dominated by a peculiarly virulent strain of braindead consumer hedonism, by people who simply don’t acknowledge that pop music can be debated about in politico-cultural terms. It would be (sort of) alright if these people were cognisant of their position, but depressingly I fear that they’re just moronic capitalistic yes-people for whom pop music is a leisure pursuit and nothing more. 

That brief paragraph perfectly captures where criticism and, unfortunately, much fandom is right now. It’s been that way for a while but the rise of link-bait is making it even worse. Which sites that profess to love pop music write about it with any insight or depth? They all instead seem terrified of being ‘fucking earnest’ and losing readers who they think mustn’t be challenged in any way. Just whack out another list, keep the press releases flowing and write some shite about what Madonna’s daughter might be doing and they’re sorted.

You’ll notice that the piece I linked to at the start is a personal blog. It’s an absolutely sublime bit of writing but it drives home just how rarely you read anything like that in mainstream journalism. Yet rather than being some poxy angry internet social justice warrior thing that can be easily dismissed, it’s gone viral, been picked up by Vice and Time, and (along with some high-profile Twitter criticism) inspired much critical coverage of the video on sites which would have otherwise have stayed well away from the subject. The do-it-yourself internet has led the way here, just as it did with the Lily Allen video and just as it does with the vast majority of pop criticism. DIY internet is where the best writing on pop is found these days, whether that be the fiercely intelligent analysis found in personal blogs like One Of Those Faces or the beguiling passion found in One Week One Band (overwhelmingly written, it should be noted, by people who blog and/or tweet rather than ‘professional’ writers). These people know that pop matters. They know that it not only deserves and is deserving of serious appraisal but that it requires it: it shapes culture and it shapes lives. They are ‘fucking earnest’ about it because they fucking care about it. The ones who roll their eyes at the ‘internet’ people who write about pop ‘in politico-cultural terms’ are, ironically, the ones who display their sheer contempt for pop in their ostentatious efforts to look like they respect it. To them, it’s just a silly Taylor Swift song and video that doesn’t mean anything and will be forgotten soon after they’ve made sure to loudly show their appreciation. It’s lazy, it’s cheap and it’s tired. Pop deserves better.

 

2013: The Year the Social Media Dam Broke

This article was sent to me by @wotyougot and feeds into some things I’d been mulling over re: social media and television/films for a while. It shouldn’t seem like a particular insight to say that social media is having a big effect on the way we watch things but, in this age of cultural poptimism, it’s a statement which many will take instant umbrage with. For these people social media can only be a force for good and the kids (ie us, vicariously) are alright. It’s surely difficult to argue, however, that the live-tweeting of a show like Question Time is about much more than affirming your self-image and chasing the buzz of a retweet. I speak as someone who used to do it and understands the pleasure of having a pithy comment about that week’s reactionary panel member shared far and wide. It’s a long way from actually being about politics.

This piece speaks about the ‘social media buzz’ behind many of the most popular current shows and I think a large part of what it’s getting at is that the impulses which drive #BBCQT live-tweeting are now to be fond across television. In short, we reward shows which affirm our self-image. If this doesn’t require much effort on our part and lends itself to pithy social media updates, all the better. Question Time’s facile presentation of politics clearly fits this criteria, as we already know what we think and what the ‘right’ things to say are in order to receive validation. ‘Reality tv’ in general fits the bill, whether that be The Voice, Celebrity Big Brother or Ru Paul’s Drag Race. These shows make no real demands on our attention or even our thinking: they offer quick reward for minimal engagement. It’s arguable that the next step beyond this is the recent trend for verisimilitude, the appearance of reality, in shows like Girls and Looking. These shows offer idyllic reflections of their target audiences – that’s you on screen but you’re funnier, more profound and more attractive. Even the conflict, breakdowns and drama in these shows is an Instagram-filtered gentle masochism which never threatens to disrupt our projections.

Looking is a step beyond even Girls in these regards – its sole creative impulse appears to be this reflection, whether that be gay men of a certain class or a liberal audience who implicitly feel that they deserve cookies for watching a show about gays. I thought that the latter was very evident in responses to Weekend, the previous film from Andrew Haigh (director of Looking), though viewing figures for Looking suggest that its efforts to replicate this on television are falling flat. It’s not surprising, really – having your liberal self-image confirmed in a 90 minute film is one thing but an eight-hour tv show has to offer you something more. Looking fails spectacularly in this regard, being almost entirely free of both straight characters and female characters. It’s notable, however, that its main character is a video game-playing geek, as perhaps the most obvious examples of the trends I’m speaking of are the shows aimed at self-identified ‘geeks’ (Sherlock, Game of Thrones, Doctor Who). Looking is actually being rather clever in drawing upon the increasing dominance of the ‘geek’ in gay culture but the portrayal is too particular to flatter a general audience.

We can similarly speculate as to whether a wide current audience would care to watch a long television series about slavery featuring a predominantly black cast. Would this offer the same convenient affirmations which people have been finding in 12 Years A Slave? Over the past few weeks I’ve noted that people feel compelled to take to social media and inform everyone of how affected they were by this film, more than any other I can previously recall. It doesn’t require much thought to see how this fits into the trends I’m discussing here. The Brad Pitt character is a personification of the film’s appeal for many ‘liberal’ viewers and the emotional affectation which has so often been following viewings is a performance of self-image. The film is instrumentalised to show how humane and liberal we are. Then it’s onto the next thing.

As the Flavorwire piece notes, if a show acquires a ‘buzz’ it can get away with being a bit slower and more interesting. There’s a clear lineage of shows like The Sopranos, The Wire and Breaking Bad which are too sprawling to be easily compartmentalised but which became totemic of being a certain kind of person (it’s no coincidence that The Guardian has been a vocal supporter of them). It’s easy, then, to congratulate ourselves for watching ‘difficult’ shows but it’s certainly more difficult for ones which don’t offer facile affirmation to garner wider attention. This occurred to me while watching Rectify over Christmas. While garnering massive critical acclaim, it’s a show which is still largely-unheard of and it’s easy to see why: it’s slow and virtually impenetrable for a ‘social media viewer’, offering almost zero hooks in that regard. All it can hope for in terms of achieving wider attention, then, is to reach a certain critical mass (pun intended) where viewing it becomes a potent signifier.

It’s worth briefly noting here that this trend doesn’t only work in terms of liking something. The ‘Twitter hateathon’ which accompanies Sherlock these days is emblematic of the process working in a different way, where despising a show confirms your self-image. This is not to say that Sherlock isn’t worthy of critique but that is something far-removed from deliberately tuning in to live-tweet 90 minutes of snark.

Social media hasn’t invented the impulses which lie behind all of this, of course. It has merely, as this piece notes, accelerated and cemented them, drawing them out of more and more of us. I noted at the end of my piece on Question Time that the “series of experiences and moments of rethinking and reflection” written about by Antony Lerman offered an inspiring riposte to the social media-isation of critical engagement. Clearly there is no small irony in writing about that on Tumblr, yet it remains something to heed. Television and film have a massive amount of value to offer us and, on the whole, that value is not GIF-able.

2013: The Year the Social Media Dam Broke

Jeremy Irons – Outrage!

Sigh. Another day, another outrage (yet another one inspired by gay marriage, at that). Somewhere, someone is starting an e-petition. Jeremy Irons has committed the almighty sin of speaking about gay marriage in terms beyond ‘IT’S GREAT!’ If only he’d kept quiet and waved an equal sign around, the delicate sensibilities of those forced to face the horrific fact that some people think things which they do not would have been spared.

You can watch Irons speaking here. You can see that he didn’t angrily denounce gay marriage or gay people. You can see that he in fact went out of his way to stress that he had no ‘strong feeling’ on the matter. He even states that he thinks anyone having someone to love is ‘fantastic’ and “what it’s called doesn’t matter at all”. What’s his great crime, then? Well…he thinks about the issue and its implications. That’s pretty much it. You can be certain that if he’d uttered a trite and banal ‘go gay marriage!’ that many now condemning him would have thought he was a right-on guy. Now the scent of homophobia will linger around him.

Yet the issues Irons discusses are very real. The problem is that many are unwilling to or incapable of thinking about them, despite the fact that you can’t hurl around platitudes about ‘equality’ and ‘consenting adults’ and then decide that these principles only apply up to the limit you decide on. As I’ve written previously, if you’re using arguments of equality and consent then you have an obligation to think about what these terms mean. The repeated outrage (such as this tweet from Stonewall re: polygamy) whenever anyone does this in public, however mildly, underlines that this consideration has not taken place in many cases. Instead it seems that the thinking behind the matter goes “Equality is good! Adults can do what they want!” and then everyone grabs an equal sign and feels great that they’re on the side of the angels.

As Irons states, though, the argument does indeed raise interesting questions. Where do we draw the line of the ‘equal right’ to marriage and why? Everyone has jumped onto his comments concerning a father and son as ‘comparing gay marriage to incest’. There are a couple of ripostes to this. Firstly, there is the question of incest itself and why we consider it to be wrong – so wrong that it overrides our modern obsession with the right of consenting adults to do as they please. This is hardly a question which is beyond the pale in polite company – The Guardian pondered its morality only last year. There are undoubtedly compelling arguments against incest (not least the issue of abuse) but actually thinking about what they are rather than rushing to self-righteous condemnation at its very mention is a GOOD THING. The second point is that Irons’ suggestion that a father and son may want to marry for inheritance tax reasons actually puts incest to one side. Indeed, when civil partnerships were introduced a high-profile case resulted where two sisters wanted the legal rights which such partnerships conferred. This was not a question of incest by any stretch of the imagination. It was instead one of the privileged legal status afforded to couples recognised by the state and why these should not be conferred more widely on any two people who desired them. In the instant outraged response to Irons, where is the consideration of this? Where is the evidence that these people have even spent a second thinking about what marriage actually means, both to themselves and to wider society? If it’s an issue of equality, I find it hard to argue why myself and my boyfriend should enjoy certain privileges over these two sisters merely because our relationship is ‘romantic’ (ie involves sex). If it’s an issue of consent I find it difficult to understand why this argument doesn’t apply just as equally to two, three, four adults who want to have their relationship recognised by the state.

Thinking about these issues necessarily involves thinking about the nature of marriage and, if you accept that marriage is overwhelmingly about equality and consent, you indeed open the door to changing what it is commonly held to represent currently. Whether that is a good or bad thing is another matter (plenty of ‘radicals’ would be perfectly happy if society moved away from privileging marriage) but to shout down such thought with accusations of bigotry demonstrates little more than hollow and unearned certitude. A certitude which has marked the debate in spades and can be seen in the pithy, self-congratulatory responses to Irons. This is not about thoughtful engagement – it’s about narcissism and it’s getting really exhausting. Jeremy Irons has done nothing more than think critically and lumping this in with homophobia demeans the term. More importantly, it discourages serious engagement in favour of self-flattering dogmatism (which tends to coincide with the sense of belonging to a larger ‘side’ existing in opposition to the ‘baddies’). As Stonewall might slap on buses in another universe: some people think differently, get over it!

Oh, for the inconsistency of respectability, that needs the marriage vow to turn something which is filthy into the purest and most sacred arrangement that none dare question or criticize. Yet that is exactly the attitude of the average upholder of marriage.

There is an irony of sorts in the fact that a woman born in 1869 is more radical in her feminism and understanding of equality than most of the vocal supporters of ‘equal marriage’ yesterday. Emma Goldman wrote the essay linked to above in 1911, referring to marriage as “that poor little State and Church-begotten weed” and comparing it to capitalism as something which:

…robs man of his birthright, stunts his growth, poisons his body, keeps him in ignorance, in poverty and dependence, and then institutes charities that thrive on the last vestige of man’s self-respect.

Goldman was openly hostile towards the state, viewing it as a violent and aggressive means of control, and argued that one of the primary means of freedom for women (and men) was to be found in “refusing to be a servant to God, the State, society, the husband, the family, etc.” She criticised the self-righteous and repressive morality which she believed lay behind marriage and was also an early supporter of “the various gradations and variations of gender and their great significance in life” – her belief in the “freedom to love” meant that she was an advocate for contraception, for ‘free love’ and for what we now call ‘gay rights’.

How dismayed Goldman would have been, then, to witness the gloopy sanctimony of yesterday’s ‘debate’, where people of the left continually pushed the notion that we are horribly oppressed if the state doesn’t recognise our partnerships as ‘marriage’. This was an odd notion of ‘freedom’ with many sincerely (and offensively) comparing this legal wrangling for state approval to slavery, apartheid and the fight for universal suffrage. Hilariously, some sought to affect some radicalism by declaring that they were against the institution of marriage but believed in ‘equality’, the same kind of logic which sees people cheer-leading for society to be granted fuller access to the military while loudly declaiming militarism.

By coincidence I had read New Left Project’s piece on Foucault only the day before which featured this illuminating exchange:

It’s a peculiar form of narcissism, whereby a component of the self that is identified as problematic or troubling is effectively quarantined and separated off from the self. To a certain extent it now has an independent existence and one effect of this is to preserve the narcissistic conviction that the ‘core’ self is still intact and untroubled. This independent component also has a quasi-legal, and frequently litigious, existence: whose responsibility is it to deal with the perceived problems and deficits caused by a particular pathology? We are now quite comfortable with the idea that institutions should make accommodations and adjustments when confronted with a whole variety of diagnoses. In some ways this is undeniably progressive development, but in other ways it’s problematic. For one thing, it locks individuals and institutions into endless litigious wrangling, and perhaps that is symptomatic of a wider crisis of legitimacy.

Litigious wrangling that winds up reinforcing the logic of the system as a whole?

Yes. Particularly in his earlier work Foucault suggested that labels and categories that appear to be liberating might actually draw us into new circuits of power. We should not, he suggests, be fooled into thinking that these labels always serve to emancipate us: in some ways they might be as coercive as what went before. 

It doesn’t take much elaboration to see how the idea of ‘litigious wrangling that winds up reinforcing the logic of the system as a whole’ could apply to ‘equal marriage’ and you don’t have to go as wide as the notion of state authority. This argument has reinforced the institution of marriage, the idea that certain relationships should be privileged over others. There are undoubtedly honest arguments to be made for this and many have been making them – the hilarity comes with the “narcissistic conviction that the ‘core’ self is still intact and untroubled” which was so evident yesterday from ‘radicals’ who found themselves puritanically attacking people for adultery, divorce, separation etc. Ostensibly these were attacks on the hypocrisy of people defending ‘traditional marriage’ yet they were so widespread and so vehement that they clearly drew on, and reinforced, very traditional and moralistic conceptions of relationships. Yet people were so convinced of their righteous superiority that they managed to push this judgmental morality while condemning others for their own variety of it – look no further than this simultaneously hilarious and depressing tweet from Stonewall which contrasted ‘loving, committed relationships’ with polygamy. This very obviously reinforces very traditional and very conservative ideas of what constitutes an ‘acceptable’ relationship and neatly encapsulates the dangers of tying your sense of ‘equality’ to state approval. As you can see from the responses beneath, some were rightly appalled by it and seemed to view equal marriage as a step towards exploding marriage itself open. An interesting idea, certainly, but it’s one which rather undermines the endless brickbats hurled at those who saw ‘equal marriage’ as a ‘slippery slope’ towards the dissolution of marriage itself and creates the odd position of two ‘groups’ of people arguing in favour of equal marriage while fundamentally disagreeing with what it means. This last point isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it highlights how concepts of relationships and morality cannot hope to be encapsulated in a single state institution and how marriage ‘equality’ can only ever be ‘equal’ for some.

While considering state authority it’s worth noting that this report was released yesterday highlighting the involvement of over a quarter of the world’s countries in torture and rendition. The report included a 5-page section detailing the United Kingdom’s own abhorrent involvement. This again rather underlines the problem of tying morality to the state (just as a myriad of other ‘policies’ do.) Yet the modern elevation of ‘identity politics’ above all else means that any wider (and more profound) sense of ‘equality’ and basic human rights is lost and we are even encouraged to reward the government for their ‘bravery’. Notice that this Telegraph piece once again treats politics as a check-list, with the author wearily and dismissively noting that equal marriage needs to be “weighed against the things that you don’t like” – the exact same argument which defenders of Obama use about drone attacks on children. I think this argument comes so easily as this approach is about how these things make you as an individual feel rather than any deeper reflection on what they actually mean (and an almost sociopathic inability to realise that real people are affected by them). This seemed very true yesterday where the worst aspects of our interaction with social media – “the desire to be right and the desire to be liked”, saw the ‘debate’ pursued with zero self-reflection and zero humility but instead an endless, loud stream of narcissism and mutual assurances of superiority. It became another thing to beat up ‘enemies’ with, another thing with which we could assure ourselves that we are that righteous person whom we think we ought to be. It’s difficult to see how anyone, at all, came out of it well.

I certainly don’t need the government to tell me that I’m ‘equal’. I absolutely don’t need a government which is furthering and cementing economic inequality, which is headed by a hereditary monarch, which can kidnap, torture, kill and wage war without consequence, which can cynically argue for an end to global hunger while actively exacerbating it, to tell me that I’m ‘equal’. So by all means support equal marriage, but let’s not pretend that it’s some ahistorical and self-evident right which has no wider meaning or implication, and let’s not pretend that it’s a step towards a substantive ‘equality’ which we should all be hysterically grateful for. As Goldman argued, our duty is surely “to plead for every victim, be it one of social wrong or of moral prejudice” and as Foucault warned, we must guard against that inside us which “causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.”

Marriage and Love – Emma Goldman

The “gay marriage debate” – made for (but ill-served by) social media

The gay marriage ‘debate’ is, in many ways, made for liberals on social media. It’s easy to slot it into the ‘barbarians at the gate’ narrative which writers like Charlie Brooker have made a career out of, flattering the egos of a self-identified ‘enlightened’ group by contrasting them with an oppressive, bigoted ‘other’. Related to this, it allows that smug, trite superiority which many non-believers feel over the religious, who have become the symbolic receptacle of any and all anti-marriage sentiment (which itself has become synonymous with homophobia.) The debate feeds the unpleasant self-victimisation which is clung to by many privileged (white, middle-class) gay people – witness, with tiresome inevitability, the speed with which these people have once again rushed to analogise their ‘plight’ to that of black people (apartheid! segregation!) More than anything, it facilitates the sense of certainty and being right which Twitter absolutely thrives on.

As a result, yesterday largely seemed to consist of shrieking slanging matches where many people were acting like they believed themselves to be the UK’s modern-day equivalents of Rosa Parks. Yet rather than fury resulting from an engagement (even in an unproductive way) with people who believed differently, this largely seemed to feed off another one of Twitter’s more dangerous traits – that of it serving as an echo chamber. I could find barely anyone who was making arguments against gay marriage – instead there were scores of people shouting ‘me too!’ while working themselves into a frenzy and almost competing to see who could be most outraged. This reached a bizarre peak with hysterically overblown attacks on Labour for apparently indicating that they would give their MPs a free vote on the issue. This was, it seemed, the worst thing that had ever happened to the labour movement. Never mind clause 4 or the Iraq war, tuition fees or complicity in torture, adoption of most of the worst excesses of Thatcherism or woeful acquiescence to the austerity agenda – it was this procedural issue (one which will surely not even be noticed by most people) which had people threatening to leave the party in droves. This was especially odd given that Labour’s record on gay rights isn’t exactly as straightforwardly glittering as we’re now led to believe. Even more so since we only have to look to recent history to find Labour members assuring us that many gay people didn’t want marriage and civil partnerships brought “joy and security”. Indeed, a search for ‘Labour’ and ‘gay marriage’ in the final year of the Labour government brings only 21,500 results – in the past year this returns 340,000 results. Gay marriage is an idea for which the time has come and it’s very obvious that even many of the most vocal supporters did not even think about it only 2 years ago, making the righteous fury seem very ill-fitting.

This seems to stem from the rise and rise of Labour as ‘the Tories but nicer’. Economic issues, once the raison d’etre of the party, have increasingly been hollowed out and replaced by liberal concerns. Make no mistake, Labour today is a liberal party rather than a socialist one. It was notable that yesterday’s chorus of opprobrium drowned out confirmation that Labour will oppose one of the most shameful and harmful aspects of Osborne’s Autumn statement. This is the direction many of us want Labour to go in and one which has potential to make a real difference to the lives of millions of people – yet only a week after a statement which found the government’s plan for the economy in tatters and them further heaping the worst of this failure onto the poorest in society, much of the left was tearing itself apart over the almost-entirely symbolic issue of gay marriage. Some canny observers noted the timing of the government’s gay marriage announcement with suspicion. Judging by yesterday’s response, it’s difficult not to believe that they were correct to do so.

This of course raises wider issues, not least the question of what ‘equality’ means. The gay marriage debate is concerned only with a very narrow legal equality (and perhaps in a wider sense with civil rights) and almost no-one who loudly bangs on about it seems to pause to think about ‘equality’ in any other way. Yet many who oppose gay marriage do so not because they are homophobic but because they believe that we should be pulling away from the state privileging certain relationships between consenting adults over others, not striving to cement it further. This is partly why some have readily agreed with David Cameron that gay marriage is an inherently conservative (and Conservative) idea, something which the angry righteousness of many supporters cannot possibly allow for. To go even wider, gay marriage is almost completely and utterly irrelevant to economic rights and economic equality, things which should be at the absolute core of any left-wing party. Yet we have the perverse spectacle of activists thanking a government, which is increasing inequality and poverty while dogmatically attacking those on benefits, for their stance on gay marriage. Do gay people exist outside of the economic sphere? Only the most sheltered and privileged of people could possibly expect a homeless gay person, a gay person whose benefits have been cut, a gay person who has been made unemployed, a gay person forced to use food banks, to be intrinsically grateful to the government because they will be able to call their partnership a ‘marriage’.

Inevitably, any move away from the state’s power to privilege certain relationships over others (‘marriage’) would upset some religious people. ‘Some’ being the important part of that sentence. The outpouring of hatred and contempt for the religious which many have engaged in as part of this ‘debate’ is horrific and certainly no better than the vile homophobia engaged in by some in the name of God. Opinion polls suggest that a majority of the British population has supported gay marriage since even before civil partnerships were introduced. Given that the latest census indicates that around 25% of the population is atheist, it surely follows that many religious people support gay marriage? Rather than devoting so much energy to the loud minority who espouse homophobic views it would perhaps be more productive to engage with the quiet majority who don’t. Having been raised Catholic, attending church regularly and going to a Catholic school, I tend to find the lazy superiority of many self-proclaiming atheists to be utterly repugnant. Being religious doesn’t mean you abandon your critical faculties and being atheist doesn’t mean that you are a brave champion of rationality. I still have many religious family members, friends, workmates and acquaintances and absolutely none of them, whether Christian or Muslim or Sikh, has ever had a problem with my sexuality. So as flattering to your ego as it is to celebrate your intellectual superiority over those who believe in ‘old men sitting on clouds in the sky’ (why is it always variations on that?!) I think debate and progression would be better served by getting off the war horse and realising that most folk are actually pretty decent (and indeed that not everyone opposed to gay marriage is religious or even homophobic.)

This applies generally and, of course, takes me back to the beginning because Twitter and the like are fundamentally based on self-validation and polarisation rather than deep engagement or self-reflection. The gay marriage question being played out on these forums has rendered it enormously tiresome and poisonous and we would do well to think about the nature of ‘equality’ and how our own treatment of others is inescapably part of that. Social media has ill-served this debate.

I’ve greatly enjoyed Twitter in the past 18 months or so. I’ve had many interesting discussions on there, ‘met’ plenty of interesting and entertaining people and been introduced to countless brilliant pieces of writing, music, television etc. Yet of late I’ve felt a fatigue about it and the linked piece above touches on some of the reasons why. The authoritarian aspect is something I’ve written about before and it certainly seems to only be getting worse. What’s most depressing is that you would probably expect the Left to be most vocal about the worrying criminalisation of the ‘wrong kind’ of speech/writing, yet few people seem to care. It’s understandable – who wants to be seen to be making common cause with such figures as have been jailed – yet the principles at stake are so enormous that the silence has still surprised me. Similarly yesterday I could only put the almost complete silence on George Galloway’s claims that he was targeted by a MET police infiltrator down to his being an undesirable point of origin for discussion of the issues raised.

It’s interesting to look at the issues which you think are potentially explosive and receive little or no reaction, given the ease with which Twitter seems to reach collective outrage. Now, I’m of course largely constrained on Twitter by whom I follow and what they share but nonetheless I find the article’s premise that ‘Twitterstorms’ are becoming more frequent to be quite compelling. Absolutely furious responses to something someone has said or written are commonplace to the extent where I increasingly find myself looking at the object of outrage and thinking ‘so what?’ A couple of years ago I might have joined in – now I wonder what is gained by more and more people repeating the same outrage at the same target in the same manner.

The worst Twitterstorms are reserved for the so-called ‘social issues‘ and it’s here more than anywhere else that Twitter’s position as an echo chamber is made clear. Most decent people would believe that they are not sexist, not racist, not homophobic. Further, they would probably believe that they would challenge these things when they encounter them. On Twitter, they do. Again and again and again. The problem is that there is only so much you can do with a tweet and so, inevitably, the responses blend together and become a homogeneous mass of self-righteous outrage. It’s not engaging or challenging, it’s just a turn-off. The ‘debate’ becomes two calcified ‘sides’ repeating their stances ad nauseam. I don’t believe for a second that anyone is made to think about their views by these responses.

You could argue that it’s the nature of Twitter. After all, few people would claim that they jump on bandwagons of responding to particular things and few would feel unjustified in challenging certain viewpoints. However I can’t help but think that this is largely missing the point, because I don’t think that most meaningful disagreements take place on social media. Instead they happen in our day-to-day lives with the people around us – our family, our friends, our co-workers. Unless I am enormously unrepresentative, I think most of us experience viewpoints which we find incorrect, absurd or even offensive from such people. Yet rather than berating them we are more likely to either ignore what they said, change the subject or explain why we think they’re wrong. Within the wider context of the relationship we see it as something we can chat about. It doesn’t become the whole person and, chances are, we actually think the person is pretty decent.

However if we think of times when we’ve been part of a group and have encountered people with whom we vehemently disagree, it’s probable that at some stage we’ve all engaged in the ‘us vs them’ mentality’. We have little interest in engaging – our ego and worth comes from the knowledge that we’re right and they’re not.

On Twitter we largely lack the context which would ever make us want to engage with someone we disagree with. We only see words and those words become the whole of the person behind them. It’s all too easy, then, to aggressively denounce them. It’s a satisfying anger – we feel right, especially if we are in agreement with many others. If we deliver a particularly pithy put-down we garner retweets and new followers. It feels good.

Twitter, then, seems geared towards flattering the worst aspects of our egos – namely the desire to be right and the desire to be liked. In the rote responses to the cyclical debates I increasingly see only hollow certainty, not the sense that people have seriously considered why they believe what they do and why they disagree with someone else. Often serious attempts to discuss these issues are shut down instantly, with disagreement being lumped in with the ever-tedious concept of ‘trolling’. Twitter does not lend itself to self-reflection, to put it mildly. Indeed, I’ve definitely experienced that peculiar sensation of arguing with someone and feeling a sense of panic when they make a very good point. Rather than reflecting on it the immediate urge is to attack, to undermine, to prove them wrong

I think this is particularly important because I have learned again and again the futility of attacking someone you disagree with and constantly struggle with it. It comes down to how I approach my values and my opinions – are they there to be repeatedly proved right, to make me feel good? Or do I actively want to learn, to be able to think in previously unimaginable ways?  This isn’t to say that strongly-held views are wrong – God forbid I become one of those people who fetishises ‘being reasonable’ – but there is undoubtedly cause for reflection at how easy it is to get swept along by Twitter and how difficult it is to question ourselves as we go. I think there is a lot to be said for acknowledging that many people are working through their thoughts on many different things – in fact, it could be said that it’s a good thing. After all, is it better for someone to disagree with us after careful consideration or to agree with us just…because? The former surely offers the far more rewarding position? Of course, there are those with whom we strongly disagree who display zero reflection and those who are just downright offensive – but when it’s clear people have no interest in engagement, what do we gain from attacking them other than a reinforcement of our own positions?

As I say, these are thoughts I frequently have to remind myself of and I can readily succumb to the appeal of certainty. Nonetheless, my increasing Twitter fatigue comes from the (increasing) recognition that I can be wrong – and there is little inherent value in merely feeling right.

Edit – It occurred to me this morning that what I’m really talking about is the dialectical method. The exact nature of this could no doubt fill a book but the basic premise of new thought arising from the reasoned (but still potentially forceful, passionate) exchange of views neatly summarises my thoughts above. Greater people than I have written reams about it. With regards to Twitter, the dialectical method is all but impossible. Many (most?) would claim that they have ‘debates’ online without realising just how accurate this description is, as the point of a debate is to win. In a circular fashion this both suits Twitter and is encouraged by it – it’s difficult for it to be about anything more than broadcasting.

‘Life After a Twitterstorm’

Why Twitter is not a street and we’re not shouting

“YOU WOULDN’T SHOUT THAT AT SOMEONE ON THE STREET” is a favoured observation of many on Twitter who obsess about ‘trolling’ and online anonymity. Read any discussion about the issue and it’s bound to appear at some point. Yet it’s a completely bollocks analogy. Here’s why:

          Twitter is a medium set-up to entirely encourage people to express their thoughts, opinions, activities. You wouldn’t walk down the street and shout to everyone ‘I AM GOING TO THE PUB’. You wouldn’t rush up to people and thrust an essay you had written on disability allowances in their face.

          The reality is that people do say things in ‘real life’ which offend others and do say things which could be conceived as threats. Who hasn’t said ‘I am going to kill….’ or ‘…. is a dick’? The context is key. In person people take more notice of the context – the person saying it, the way they say it, whether it’s meant seriously, whether it’s said in anger. On Twitter many make absolutely no effort to do this and make zero allowances for the fact that people sometimes say stupid things, silly things, sarcastic things, things they regret etc etc. Really, think about this for a moment – I’m not ‘defending death threats’, but if someone is actually going to kill you, they’re probably not going to announce it to you on Twitter.

          The analogy always suggests someone (usually a man) shouting at someone (usually a woman) who is passing by on the street. But it is frequently used against people who give criticism or insults to journalists, columnists, writers, directors etc in reaction to a piece of their work or something they’ve written online. These folk tend to have many more Twitter followers than most and receive copious praise for everything they put out. So, a more accurate (but still crap) street analogy would be someone walking along the street shouting ‘JENNIFER LOPEZ IS A BAD MOTHER’, with 100 people standing around them shouting ‘I AGREE’ and someone across the road shouting ‘YOU’RE A BLOODY IDIOT AND I HATE YOU’. Then the first speaker shouts ‘OMG YOU ARE SO RUDE’ and 20 of the hundred people start shouting ‘YOU ARE SO RUDE’ and the person across the road either shouts ‘I AM SO SORRY’ or ‘SHUT UP, I STILL HATE YOU’ until everyone gets bored and goes to the pub.

          Already touched on but the analogy is always presented with the sinister threat of intimidation and physical action, a threat which simply isn’t automatically there on twitter. Especially when it’s some random sending a stupid insult to someone with a massive platform. In society there are hierarchies of power. Someone with a column in a national newspaper has far more power than someone with 24 followers on twitter. This does not change merely because the latter is now able to directly write something to the former. It of course doesn’t mean that the latter can’t still be a complete idiot or should be able to do whatever the hell they want, but it certainly makes the relationship a lot more complex than the street analogy would suggest.

Sure, we could and should all try to be nicer to each other but that is a far wider issue than twitter. It also applies to the countless columnists/magazines/tv shows which rely on making fun of public figures,  making people embarrass themselves and/or ridiculing grotesque caricatures of people. There’s nothing wrong with the advice that you should take a breather and think about what you’re writing, especially if you’re irritated or angry. However this should also apply to the reaction – increasingly we all need to ask ourselves if we really are offended, if we really feel threatened, or if we just think that we should be or, worse, are trying to inflate something in order to drown out something we don’t like. It’s getting a bit silly when someone who writes a single crap joke at someone is labelled with the same term as someone who, say, obsessively harasses the family of a dead child for months on end. There is no ‘shouting on the street’ analogy for the latter and we can all unite against such behaviour – but only if we stop going crazy over some imaginary man calling us a cunt from the other side of the road.