Monday, March 12, 2018

The Fall

"What the hell is happening to us?" asks Dan Hodges, "How have we managed to fall this far?"

Surprisingly, this isn't Dan wondering in the third person how he wound up working for the Mail, but is instead about the latest ineffectual shock-horror Labour Party story, which this time involves Jeremy Corbyn and a Facebook group partially populated by racists.

Dan is mystified - as far as he's concerned, he and his mates have put together an open-and-shut case.  So why does nobody seem to care?

Well, I can't speak for anyone else, but I can tell you why am not moved by it.  I can tell you how I react whenever a story like this crops up, and why.

I don't expect anyone will agree with it all, and I'm not really trying to convince you that I'm right about anything, but maybe a look at my response will help to enlighten other people about the psychology at work.

So, why am I unmoved by the Facebook group and the racists?  A few reasons, starting with

I have used the internet before. 

I've been bickering with people on the internet about politics and current affairs for years.  This means I've encountered Britain's small but very nasty and noisy hardcore of left-wing racists on numerous occasions, and I'm aware that they tend to show up in numbers on any sites that focus on war and politics generally, and the Israel/Palestine conflict in particular.

Numbers-wise, I'd estimate that there are a few hundred and many as maybe as a thousand of these bellends rattling around social media, stinking the place up with their wacky opinions and dark hints about Who Really Runs The Press and so on.

What they lack in numbers, they make up for in nastiness and I've had to block, delete and ban more than a few of them in my time.  I've been vocal about the need to keep these people out of forums where I contribute regularly, although I have to confess that I've seen them at work and done nothing about it on other forums where I was just passing through.

So it isn't a shocking revelation to me that internet forums dealing with politics tend to attract godawful shitheads with rank agendas.  Nor do I feel responsible for the behaviour of a few hundred idiots that I've never met, whose views I strongly disagree with.

I've had this debate before. 

Amazingly, this isn't the first time I've been told that because such people exist, then lots of other people who used the same forums are irreparably tainted by association.  It's not even the ten thousandth time!

I remember it from various internet booby-hatches back in the early Iraq War days, when everyone who thought the war was an insane idea was held to be irretrievably tarnished by these exact same zoomers, although I note that war proved to be a ridiculous, blood-soaked catastrophe regardless of who stood next to whom at which protest.

I remember it from the Libya War too, when commentators very much like Dan Hodges were extremely insistent that because the same small clique of weird left-wing racists exists, then only weird racists were against the war.  I remember having more than one heated argument on this topic and as it happened, that war also turned out to be a howling clusterfuck, regardless of who posted what on which Facebook feed.

It turns out that you can only answer the question "Do you think there are a few hundred weird left wing racists on the internet?" with the word "Yes" so many times, before you start to wonder why the matter is apparently relevant to everything. 

This means that I now don't hold other people responsible for the behaviour of weird racists they say they don't agree with, unless I have a strong reason to believe that they're lying.

So now, whenever I hear a claim that people with similar views to mine are tainted by association with exactly the same few hundred dickheads, I tend to assume the claim is probably bullshit.

Maybe that isn't fair!  Maybe I'm making a terrible mistake.  Perhaps in this instance, the claim is perfectly valid and the criticism deserved.  Nonetheless, because of my previous experience with the same arguments from many of the same people, I am not inclined to take it very seriously.

But what if we're talking about more than one Facebook group, or multiple forums?  In that case...

Repeating Yourself Isn't The Same As Winning 

Dan and many other pundits appear to believe that every time they find some major or minor Labour Party figure posting on a dodgy website or in close proximity to some nutter, then they are stacking up great mountains of evidence.  They think they're landing blow after blow on their beleaguered opponents and believe, apparently sincerely, that each instance will be the straw that will finally break the camel's back.

I, on the other hand, basically discounted the first story for the reasons laid out above.  That means that for me, every new story isn't new - it's the same story, repeated again and again and again.

I do try to treat each new event as a discrete matter in itself with individual merits, but this gets much harder with every repetition.  If that story didn't move me the first time, then the four hundredth iteration of it isn't likely to move me either. 

That means that when I read opinion columns like this one from Dan Hodges, my conclusion is less

"I can't believe a modern socialist party would tolerate this Facebook enormity"

than it is

"Congratulations Tiger, you have successfully detected some nutters on the internet". 

So that's the core of it.  Less importantly, but also relevant:

If you always shout, people will avoid you. 

Like the amplifiers in This Is Spinal Tap, if you've got your volume turned up to ten, then where are you going to go after that?  Nowhere.

If your silly-season stories about off-the-cuff remarks that you pretended not to understand were delivered at the same screeching, deafening red alert levels as the ones about issues that you think are particularly important, then all of it will get lost in feedback.

I was not born yesterday. 

I am aware that there have been platoons of paid researchers and volunteer weirdos combing through every social media platform for years, looking for any shred of evidence of Labour Party villainy.

If the sum total of that huge investment in time, money and manpower is a few random cranks and some dark hints about proximity to loonies, then that's unlikely to fundamentally alter my worldview.  Because it's the same story again that I thought was bullshit in the first place, see? 

Seriously, I Was Not Born Yesterday 

With the best will in the world, nobody is going to take you seriously if you express your deep concerns about indifference to racism in the Daily Mail.

And if you have no problem extrapolating blood-curdling racism from proximity in old Facebook forums, but are unable to detect it on the front page of the broadsheets, I am probably going to value your opinion a good bit less. 

That lower estimation also extends beyond this particular writer to innumerable politics pundits who are apparently completely oblivious to the behaviour of their colleagues and social media followers.

So anyway... 

I could go on, but I'll finish with a quick overview.  The short version is that there was a time when smart people at certain newspapers could ensure that some views were politically untouchable - in particular, the idea that war is usually very bad indeed, and that particular wars are particularly bad; that very wealthy people should pay more in tax; that employers have too much power and employees have nowhere near enough, and so on.

They did this by declaring in unison that particular people who held these views were crazy and threatening, or actually in league with dark forces out to destroy everything that their readers held dear.  They reinforced these messages in much the same way too - paying people to trawl through actual bins as well as digital ones, sniffing out dirt and blackening names wherever possible. 

And for a long time, this worked, and so the wars rumbled on and the cash kept flowing into all the right bank accounts and everyone was happy, or at least everyone who mattered was.

But that was before all the wars went horribly wrong and the markets crashed, and the very smart people turned out not to be so very smart after all.

Now, people have more important things to worry about than who said what to whom on Twitter in 2007, or who was photographed shaking which hands.  And so now, the papers find that they can't mould and direct the public's opinions in the way that they used to.

Dan and many other political commentators believe that this is because Britain has become a debased and immoral nation; that the world has turned upside down and most of us are now dangerously mental.

I'd suggest that there might be more simple reasons.