On the last blog, a Dear Reader wrote:
‘How C21st - someone writing at length on the internet about why they haven't been on the internet for a bit. Something has gone seriously wrong. Whatever happened to the quiet, gentle, personal, unexpressed thought? Everything has to be "out there" including "not being out there"!
My brain hurts!’
Not that long ago, this kind of thing would have made me feel rather melancholy. I would have felt a doleful sense of reproof, convinced that I had got everything wrong, that all this stupid blogging was the worst form of navel-gazing, that the internet itself was in fact the spawn of Satan and that humans really should go back to pigeon post and quill and ink.
Now, I have butched up a bit. I’m going to stick up for myself.
This is not a terrible charge. I’ve had much worse. But for some reason it made me want to mount a spirited defence. Not of myself, so much, but of the expressing of thoughts.
The ‘quiet, gentle, personal, unexpressed thought’ sounds enchanting. I expect there have been some humans who have had quiet and gentle thoughts, unspoken and unwritten, but I would hazard that most humans, for most of history, have been expressing their thoughts like gangbusters. If you walk along any city street, or get on a bus, or travel the underground, or walk in the park or shop in a shop, there are people, expressing their thoughts.
Obviously, some people are more articulate than others, and some more reticent, and some more garrulous, and some more taciturn, but the expressing of thoughts is pretty much what humans do. There are the holy women who take vows of silence, and the monks who go and live on rocks, and the philosophers in their barrels, but they are a minority game.
The Reader has a point, in a sense. The expressing of thoughts may tumble into narcissism and bombast. As one grows up, one tries to understand that other people have thoughts too, which, crucially, may be different from one’s own, and that conversation should be more like a dancing game of ping pong rather than a shouty soapbox at Hyde Park Corner. One learns to listen, so that the button is not permanently on transmit. In writing too, which really is the most shamelessly self-indulgent of pursuits if one thinks about it for more than two minutes, there is an attempt to understand the world, rather than lecture it. Or at least, there should be.
The expressed thought should not need defending, but clearly it does. I agree that some of the thoughts daily expressed are crashingly dull or rude or bigoted or platitudinous or repetitive or vacuous or cruel or stupid or bland. Not every mind can, all the time, express thoughts which are beautiful and useful. But that is why all liberal societies believe in freedom of speech. In order for the lovely expressed thought to have its liberty, so must all the dross.
I admit that I could, if I chose, express an awful lot fewer thoughts, and perhaps I should. Actually, as I write that sentence, I realise it is a beastly passive-aggressive thing to say, to make me sound much more reasonable than I am. I love expressing thoughts. Expressing thoughts is possibly my second favourite thing after riding the red mare. I have so many damn thoughts, and they buzz around in my head like cross bluebottles, and if I did not express them I should go bonkers. I could choose not to, but I don’t.
I chose writing, because I love it and I have something to say. I chose blogging, because I love the open spaces of the internet, where I may talk nonsense and put pictures of the dog and the horse and the hill and find interesting people I would have never met in life. I chose to play in the splashing pool of social media, because I find Facebook and Twitter funny and interesting and quite often surprising and sometimes properly profound.
I write about the internet because the internet is huge. To watch an entire new medium arise in one’s own lifetime is extraordinary. Because so many parts of it are uninteresting or workaday or stupid or vicious, it’s easy to forget what a revolution contemporary humans are living through. It’s not quite as revolutionary as the printing press, but it is changing people’s lives, and, if some of the neurobiologists are to be believed, changing people’s brains. Your own neuronal pathways may be stretching and twanging even as you read this.
Why would one not write about such a galvanic change, if one is to write at all? Nobody yet knows the rules, an entire new etiquette is developing, a novel language has had to be invented out of whole cloth and is continuing to develop so that even the grand gents at the OED have had to sit up and take notice. Nobody has quite decided what the internet is for or how it should be best used or whether it should be policed, and that battle rages on.
In a wider sense, far beyond this particular criticism and this particular reader, there is a school of thought which does not like the internet in its current form, partly, I think, because of fear. The World Wide Web is truly democratic, and pretty much ungovernable. Throughout history, the people in power have tried to control the word. That was why the translating of the Bible out of its priestly Latin was such a terrifying twist of the wheel. It is why every single dictatorship ever invented exercised censorship, took over the radio stations and the television and the press, shut down dissent and debate at the point of a gun.
The general horrified shout that all these bloggers and twitterers and Facebookers have no reticence or edit button or even shame, that they insist on telling the world what they had for breakfast, covers a much deeper fright. When this old school talks of the universal ‘they’, it often means some traditionally powerless cohorts. The complaint is often really about the women, the young people, the geeks, the gays, the previously unheard. Until really quite recently, even in developed societies, the means of expression lay in the hands of the elite. There were gatekeepers everywhere. You had to have a level of grandeur to be asked on the news, on the radio, to write an article for the press, to give a speech, to publish a book, to have what you had to say considered important enough for broadcast. Not so many generations ago, Mary Ann Evans had to call herself George in order to get her novels into print.
Now, the gatekeepers may be side-stepped, as the ordinary people storm the citadel. Not any old person is going to get a job on The Guardian or be asked on Question Time, but any old person can write essays on the internet, and be heard. Those traditionally silenced voices can finally sing their song.
As with all great revolutions, there is a price to be paid for this. Some of the thoughts expressed will be ugly, banal or almost entirely pointless. But it seems to me that the expression, if not the sentiment, must be cherished. Every time you pick up a copy of Pride and Prejudice, open a political periodical, turn on Radio Four, settle down to the diaries of Chips Channon, read a poem by Yeats, remember why you love Dorothy Parker, see what your favourite columnist has to say, buy a broadsheet, you are voting in favour of the expressing of thoughts. The price paid exists in the fact that for every James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, every Nick Cohen, David Aaronovitch, Daniel Finkelstein, Matthew D’Ancona, Caitlin Moran, there is an equivalent of that cross reality television lady who makes inflammatory remarks about fat people. She is the price you pay, and, in this rushing age of new media, it is almost impossible to avoid those ugly voices. There was a prelapsarian age where nobody knew what a Kardashian was, and most people thought that shades of grey were something to do with paint colours. A certain amount of quiet has been lost, but then so has a certain amount of complacency.
I say: throw open the gates. Express those thoughts. Let others express theirs. Take the good with the bad, the smooth with the rough, the inspiring with the dispiriting. The key to the new age is navigation. It is discrimination and choice. Find the thoughts you love, or the thoughts which challenge your own, or the thoughts which startle you out of complacency, and leave the rest.
The Dear Reader must express his thought, and I shall express mine right back. No single human on the planet has to read a word I write, in print or online. There is no press-gang, no three-line-whip. I shall go on expressing my thoughts, because I like doing it, just as some people like gardening or pot-holing or building replicas of Notre Dame out of matchsticks. And the people who don’t like that kind of thing can go on not reading them. And that way, everyone is happy.
PS. After all this grand argument, I do have one faintly lowering notion. I wonder whether the Dear Reader was objecting not so much to the expressing of the thoughts, but to the fact that this particular blog post was slightly dull. And the awful truth is that it was, a little bit. I had been feeling rather cross and blah, and I think that infected the writing. For all that I will defend to the death people’s right to say what they wish, I do think that it is a matter of good manners to attempt, as much as possible, to avoid boring the poor readers to death. This cannot be achieved every day – I am a flawed human, and those flaws will sometimes show up in my prose - but the effort should be made. So, if that was the charge, I must hold my hands up.
I also feel a sense of gratitude, because that comment really did make me think. Unfortunately for the poor reader, it also drove me to express my thoughts, at some length. Still, nobody’s perfect.