Monday, 8 October 2012

Could everyone PLEASE stop shouting?

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:

8 Oct 1

8 Oct 2

8 Oct 3

8 Oct 4

Red’s View:

8 Oct 9

Red the Mare:

8 Oct 10

(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:

8 Oct 12

Hill with sheep:

8 Oct 20

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.

10 comments:

  1. I found the same thoughts when I discovered the questions to David Cameron of some of my friends. 140 characters is not a lot, but I wanted them to show more knowledge and verve and be less critical of the man and more of the policies he has enacted.

    Those who criticised him personally had already lost. I cannot imagine he cared for what they had to say. I then thought of the many things I would have liked to say, but then was glad I was instead out at the time enjoying the company of some very good friends.

    Having said all of that, I often want to rant, but now find I hover with my fingers on the key board and try to step away.

    This does not read as a rant or something mean, it reads like you wonder why it is done, but see it is easy to fall into and wish it was not.

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  2. Siobhan - I so agree. And there are some politicians and actors and other public people who make me want to set my hair on fire. But I do think the temperance rule is a good one, however hard it is. I think also some of this comes from frustration, particularly in politics. If someone is enacting a policy you really, really hate and even fear, and you feel powerless to stop it, it is tempting not to make a measured criticism of the thing itself, but to shout YOU ARE AN IDIOT. I just try to do this now in the privacy of my own boudoir. :)

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  3. I keep on an even keel about the rude state of some of the current population by believeing someday there will be an epiphany; some event, some thought will blind them and sink them to one or several knees, consumed by the shame of their stupidity. Yep, that's how it will be.

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    1. Joanne - that is a truly lovely thought.

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  4. This feels very pertinent to me at the moment. Not on quite the same scale as the incident you refer to but in my own little blog world it felt quite big. I did a very small post about Koo Stark's hair at the weekend, intending it to be a celebration of the lovely greyness with (what I thought) was just a light-hearted dig about the Sloane Ranger & the stolen painting. But a couple of people took offence and I felt very upset to have caused upset. Like yourself, I would never criticise someone's appearance. So lesson learned. Next time I'll not post stuff in a rush, properly think things through and try not to be trigger happy.

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    Replies
    1. That's Not My Age - so interesting. I upset someone quite unwittingly on the blog not that long ago; not trying to be rude at all, but simply by being a bit careless with words. I suppose it is the endless empathy dance: imagine if you were the person reading the thing. It is such a fine line between NOT self-censoring into bland oblivion, and being kind and sensitive.

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  5. I think Oscar Wilde would have loved Twitter...

    The cleverer the comment, the better! (I wish I could think that fast on my feet!) Sarcasm doesn't have to resort to trashing someone's appearance. (A friend just turned me on to a Twitter account @50ShedsofGrey by one Colin Grey, a very witty send up of the book of almost the same name...) Twitter has its twits & far more wits, or so it seems!

    PS The first three forest/ moss photos look like they're hiding all sorts of fantastic creatures -- gnomes, elves and fairies, something right out of Andrew Lang or the brothers Grimm.

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    1. Pat - so lovely that you think that about the wood. The great-nieces christened it The Unicorn Wood, and I think they may have a point. Quite agree about wits and Twits.

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  6. Tania I agree. I like this post and your views. Please continue to post such personal views, you make sense so there is no need for fence sitting but I appreciate your caution.

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  7. I do not think you are pathetic for keeping the name of the person on Twitter off your post. You are right, it is not really the person that matters, but the behaviour.

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