One of the rules I made when I started this blog was to avoid, if at all possible, ad hominem attacks. This is not just because they are illogical, but also because they are rude. Occasionally, someone in the public eye would drive me so nuts in the head that I could not refrain from a little dig, but even then I tried hard to stick to the rule of criticising the thing a person had said or done, rather than anything to do with their character or their appearance. I imagine if you dug back through the archives you would find times when I did not honour this rule, but it remains my serious aspiration, and the older I get the more I think it is important.
The press has always loved duffing up politicians and celebrities. There is the tall poppy syndrome, when someone once lauded becomes perceived as too swaggery for their shirt and must be cut down to size. There is also the odd phenomenon of herd mind, when every single pundit appears to pick on the same person at the same time.
The bashing of the public figure goes back to Hogarth and beyond, and in many ways has an honourable history. When Richard Nixon told reporters, ‘You won’t have Nixon to kick around any more,’ he did not get much sympathy, and nor did he deserve it. There was a president who possibly needed a bit more kicking around.
But now there is something which does feel new. It is the rise of the internet pundit and the Twitterers with the trigger fingers. Professional journalists aren’t perfect and do make grievous mistakes, but most of them have some sense of responsibility, to their paper, to their readership, even, if one can say this without everyone falling on the floor laughing, to the ethics of their profession. Despite Leveson, I think there is such a thing as the integrity of the press: not all journos are hackers and smearers. If you don’t believe me, read Jon Snow today on the intricacies and nuances and terrors of Syria, for a shining example of journalism at its crest and peak.
There is something about the new media which can turn otherwise perfectly civilised people into screamers and slashers. Some of the things written on the comment sections of even a publication as august as the Telegraph make me blanch and blush.
There are Facebook tantrums and Twitter firestorms and blog eruptions. It is so easy to type fast, as the red mist of rage descends, and press send; the distancing effect of the internet ether can make a civilised human seem to forget they are talking of another sentient human, with friends and family and feelings. This happens not just to the brigade with the pots of green ink; the unshackling power of social media may lead to respectable commentators hurling about insults that they would never commit to print.
The latest row, being reported with glee on the political blogs, blew up when a columnist dashed to her Twitter feed. She read that the Education Secretary had been seen with his daughter in a bookshop. She tweeted: ‘It never occurred to me that this man had had sex.’
The magnifying effect can be seen blatantly. I am certain that this writer would never have included such a remark in her column, in actual newsprint, in a serious broadsheet. There is something about Twitter which lets slip the dogs of war.
My main question is one of genuine enquiry: why would anyone say such a thing? As a general rule, I think it wise not write anything about a person that you are not willing to say to their face. For added validation: you might imagine their mother reading it. Hate a politician’s policies; argue their positions until your ears fall off; oppose their ideas with every ideological bone in your body; but don’t resort to playground taunts. Apart from anything else, it’s a bit like Godwin’s Law: first one to mention the Nazis has lost the argument. If you must go straight to fat or ugly or stupid jokes, the suspicion is that your intellectual cupboard is bare, even though the opposite might be true. It looks desperate and paltry, so that when you do say something serious people are less likely to listen.
It is also unkind. You will wound all those who love that person. You are not winning an argument; you are unleashing untrammelled meanness.
But the real problem with this kind of attack is that it has no utility. (Regular readers will know I am huge for utility.) The Education Secretary is highly unlikely to think: goodness, a person on Twitter thinks I am too hideous or unspeakable or otherwise vile to have had congress, therefore I must rethink my position on free schools at once.
No policy will be changed; no mind converted. All this kind of low barb achieves is an addition to the sum of human unhappiness.
I know all this sounds a bit joyless and po-faced. So much more fun to slash and burn rather than be reasoned and measured. Some people might even think it bloodless and mealy-mouthed. Self-censorship, they cry, their righteous flags of freedom of expression fluttering in the wind. But I stick with my mother, who advised me from a very young age to endeavour not to make personal remarks.
Private Eye, that most gleeful pricker of balloons, manages to have festivals of satirical fun without going for the straight mean. It will tease and mock; it is fierce in exposing acts of hypocrisy; it will squeeze the pompous and the foolish until the pips squeak. But it is much too clever to go for a low procreation slur. It wins arguments and casts light into shady corners precisely because it dances right up to the edge of the sharpest satire and the most antic lampoon, but rarely descends to pointless cruelty.
The unfenced prairies of the internet seem to invite odd levels of intemperance. Inhibitions are cast aside, consequences forgotten, lesser angels come out to dance. The problem is, once you are shouting madly like a saloon drunk, you convince no one of the brilliance of your insights, the rightness of your prescriptions, or the goodness of your heart. You are just shouting.
After all that seriousness, today’s pictures feature a lot of soothing moss:
Red the Mare:
(We had a lovely ride this morning, in the first of the serious autumn frosts, going easily in just a rope halter under the dazzling sun.)
Pigeon with her never-fails yearny face on:
Hill with sheep:
Of course there must be a PS. As my finger hovers over the publish button, I feel the caveats coming on. Whenever I write something like this I am left with about eight-seven huge buts, or on the other hands, or but perhaps I should have looked it at this ways. Nervously, I edge onto the safety of the middle ground, which is why I would be useless as a columnist. The good columnist will wave big fat red flags; I rush around taking mine down in case they are too scarlet and wavy.
My angst here is that in arguing against ad hominem, I have almost committed it. I am so pathetic that I even removed the name of the Twitter person, because in some ways my argument is not a personal one with her. It is the phenomenon of injudicious insult that I regret.
At one point, I almost chucked the whole thing and did a nice horse post instead. But sod that for a game of soldiers. I know it’s insanely old-fashioned, and there are people who shall mock and sneer, but I really do believe that a little good manners costs nothing. I stand by my argument, even if I have not phrased it as elegantly and pithily as I would have liked.
People are people. Even those who seem the most robust may have fragile hearts. Attention should be paid.
Oh, and one more idiot PS:
I love Twitter. It’s because I do love it that I grow restive when the shouting starts. It is a tremendous medium in so many ways, and I wish, romantically, unrealistically, perhaps naively, that everyone would use its power for good instead of ill.
And now I really, really am stopping.