A curious piece in the Observer yesterday from Peter Beaumont, who complains about the ‘fiercely polarised debate’ of recent weeks, and discourse that has been ‘widespread, fragmented and bitter.’ He says: ‘public conversation in western countries is already in the process of becoming more extreme and angry’ and speculates that ‘old unwritten rules have come to be influenced by exposure to the more brawling style of the US’. It is all the internet’s fault, apparently, and Beaumont quotes a string of writers and theorists who explain how the web has destroyed English manners. Author Patrick Ness told an Edinburgh conference that ‘instead of bringing us all together in an omnipresent, multifaceted discussion, the internet instead has made sectarianism an almost default position’. Academic Cass Susskind has said the web enables people ‘to isolate themselves from competing views… [creating a] breeding ground for polarisation, potentially dangerous for both democracy and social peace.’ The net, Beaumont argues, ‘makes us confuse emotion for rational thought.’
Beaumont strikes a chord. The writer Zoe Lambert summed up to me the dissatisfaction with online conflict: ‘Half the internet gets involved in pointless arguments. The other half posts pictures of cats. I prefer cats.’ I’m realistic about the limitations of the blog medium – it’s never going to replace actual journalism – but, come on: the rancourous condition of public discourse isn’t just a problem generated by online writers. As Chris Dillow has pointed out, blog writing has become more restrained and nuanced whereas print opinion has fallen off a cliff. Fleet Street is full of journalists who write stupid, ill-informed and offensive copy with no clear motive other than to generate reaction.
A recent example of the top of my head: the Daily Mail‘s comment writer Dominique Jackson’s piece on workfare, in which she argued that ‘The German slogan ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ is somewhat tainted by its connection with Nazi concentration camps, but its essential message, ‘work sets you free’ still has something serious to commend it.’ After Twitter got hold of this, the Mail revised its article: Alex Hern notes that ‘Hilariously, at least at the time of writing, the piece was so hastily edited that the font size in the new paragraphs is noticeably different from the old.’
You wonder why they bothered. Jackson, on her personal blog (subseqently deleted) described herself as ‘a kind of human sausage machine, sucking up the subject, cooking up 400-800 words of hopefully coherent comment and opinion and, within an hour or so, pressing send to shoot it off into the ether for an eventual slot on the website… Nobody needs to read it and I suspect that hardly anyone, apart from a few of my old school friends, even bothers.’ But newspaper websites have an interest in printing this stuff because clicks generate ad revenue at a time when newspapers are in a general decline. Private Eye ran a rumour that the Telegraph Blogs site ranks its contributors by the amount of hits they generate, with potential dismissal for writers in the lower percentiles. (The Eye’s source claimed that climate change nut James Delingpole consistently comes top in these rankings because ‘he really is batshit crazy.’)
So, blogging ain’t perfect, but neither is mainstream comment. Blogging gives you the space to be serious. There’s no deadline, no pressure to get attention. There are bloggers like Norman Geras who write measured, reflective pieces backed up by years of scholarship; others, like Jeremy Duns and David Allen Green, undertake serious investigative work that many newspapers don’t have the resources or inclination to pursue. These guys are worth a thousand Brendan O’Neills.
My second point is that comment should not always be measured. The British are obsessed with tone at the expense of content. Beaumont cites the Assange case when he speaks of ‘fiercely polarised debate’ and ‘widespread, fragmented and bitter’ arguments.
Let’s take a step back. This is a guy who has built a Che Guevara activist cult around himself through his courageous work in recklessly endangering the lives of Afghan and Belarussian dissidents. The Swedes are trying to extradite him for several counts of rape and molestation, alleged to have been committed by Assange in August 2010. He’s a guy who doesn’t want to answer some hard questions, and has parlayed this reluctance into a gigantic US conspiracy against him. The Wikileaks freedom of information organisation has become personalised around Assange’s persecution fantasies with an increasingly dramatic and surreal Twitter feed, rumoured to be written entirely by Assange himself. It comes to this: the digital revolution against state secrecy and war crimes ends with a man tapping furiously on a smartphone in an Ecuador embassy cupboard.
Here’s what makes people angry. Liberals spent decades trying to convince police and courts that complainants of rape should be taken seriously. Rape suspects should enjoy the presumption of innocence like any other defendant, but like any other defendant they have certain obligations, not least of which is to turn up and face the music. That’s all Assange’s critics are asking for. But this is a struggle against imperialism and there’s no time for petty bourgeois frivolities like due process and women’s rights. These women aren’t real rape victims. They’re CIA honeytraps. So it’s okay for us to name them and slut-shame them. And, come on, let’s not be politically correct about this. You know what women are like. And what is ‘rape’ anyway? Galloway, Pilger, Benn, Milne, all the old men of the authoritarian left have basically said to women: shut up, and know your place.
The mainstream media’s record on this case is not good. Comment is Free published a bullshit piece by Seumas Milne, which repeated the conspiracy theory; then a piece by a far left rape activism group in an attempt to give feminist legitimacy to what was by then becoming a pretty nasty campaign. Silliest of all was a long piece by Assange apologist Glenn Greenwald devoted to proving that the Swedish government could make a guarantee against US extradition. This matters because the far left case is that of course Julian would go to Sweden if its government would guarantee not to then send him to the US – as if the Swedes could offer any guarantees that would be believed by Assange and his paranoid acolytes, and as if a fugitive and suspected sex offender should be allowed to dictate the terms of due process. Greenwald’s article relied heavily on an analysis from Mark Klamberg, a professor of international law at Stockholm, who then pointed out that Greenwald had distorted his conclusion. Klamberg wrote: ‘my conclusion is that a guarantee for non-extradition from Sweden not possible, i.e opposite to what
@ggreenwald is arguing’. This is a national newspaper, here.
Meanwhile the real work on the case has been done by legal and feminist bloggers who can see a fraud at twenty paces.
I’m reading Robert Hughes’s The Shock of the New, and there’s a striking similarity between what people were saying about the internet in the 2000s, and what people were saying about architecture at the beginning of the last century. Compare China Mieville’s recent aspiration to abolish piracy laws and have all novels ‘remixed’ on the internet with 1910s German architect Paul Scheerbart’s assertion that all buildings should be made out of glass. The digital world has suffered from wild-eyed futurism and Beaumont’s article is part of the backlash.
And yes, by all means, let’s be civilised, and reasonable. But emotion and anger are sometimes justified, too. And how these arguments happen is less important than the fact that they take place.