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Those whom the Gods would destroy, they first make mad (or, Who let the dogs out?)

September 9, 2018

I guess we’re still living in a democracy of sorts. But I sometimes wonder when I watch it all happening on Twitter.

A short clip from Iran’s Press TV showing a bunch of people in a room dancing and hugging each other. Why? Some sporting victory perhaps. The fall of another Indian wicket at the Oval? No. A member of the British Parliament is given a vote of no-confidence by her constituency association.

An interminable thread sparked off by a chap called Owen Jones, who does a bit of writing for the Guardian when he’s not campaigning for Not New Labour (also known as Jeremy Corbyn, his ancient class warriors and their youthful helpers who have seized control of the Labour Party) also comes to mind.

Jones kicked off the thread by saying that Chuka Umunna, a Labour MP who doesn’t entirely buy into his party’s new dawn of ideological purity, is insulting hard-working Labour members by calling on Jeremy Corbyn to “call off the dogs”. The dogs Umunna refers to are people who pour threats and insults upon duly elected MPs who refuse to get on the Momentum bus, and particularly those who object to anti-Semitism within the party.

There followed an interminable succession of emotional and downright childish posts, interspersed with a few plaintive observations that Umunna was using a figure of speech, and that Jones was whipping up outrage on false pretences.

My view? I thought there were laws against hate speech in the United Kingdom. I don’t quite know why they are not being enforced in some of the extreme cases reported by MPs, especially those who, because they happen to be Jewish, have born the brunt of the vitriol. Do the police equate this stuff with a domestic dispute?

Meanwhile, on the other side of British politics, Boris Johnson has once again sparked howls of outrage. No female letterboxes this time. Now he’s accusing Theresa May of wrapping the country in a suicide belt through her Brexit negotiating stance. Not quite as elegant as Rivers of Blood, but his metaphor served its purpose, which I imagine was to boost Johnson’s standing among Conservatives who might be thinking of supporting his upcoming leadership bid. More effective than classical references to satyrs and old goats, to be sure, and a useful distraction from his recently-revealed marital problems.

Over the pond, away from the Shining City on the Hill, a 17-year-old college student won plenty of attention by standing behind Donald Trump at a rally in Billings, Montana, and making funny faces at some of the president’s utterances. He was told he must smile and clap, and when he failed to do so he was whisked away by the Secret Service, detained for questioning in a room for ten minutes, and sent on his way. His place was taken by a Trump loyalist who duly smiled and clapped.

Back in the Shining City, a seemingly mild-mannered judge was given a grilling by senators determined to stop his nomination to the Supreme Court by exposing him as a liar and an extremist. Trump’s nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, parried some of the more pointed questions by claiming memory failure. Valid though the questioning appeared, one got the impression that some of the questioners had half an eye on boosting their own presidential prospects in the process.

While all this was going on, Alex Jones, the owner of an extremist right-wing website called InfoWars, barged into an interview with Marco Rubio, a leading Republican senator who, exasperated by the constant interruptions, threatened to deal with him if he wasn’t taken away. All on prime-time TV, of course.

Onlookers in Washington are also much entertained by Donald Trump’s wild fulminations over the anonymous op-ed in the New York Times, and the harrumphing denials of his “senior officials” that they had anything to do with the exquisite poison pen letter.

What next? Will Trump introduce ducking stools for witches? Will he summon Robert de Niro’s character in Meet the Fokkers to carry out the lie detector tests on all his distinguished appointees that one senator recommended? One thing’s for sure. If J Edgar Hoover was still at the FBI, he would have figured out who was behind the op-ed in an instant. In fact he would have had wire-taps on them, which would have enabled Trump to winkle out his unreliable servants before they even had disloyal thoughts. Trouble is, the president would have run out of servants in double time.

As the resistance to Trump gathers strength, Barack Obama re-enters the fray to campaign on behalf of Democrat candidates in the upcoming mid-term congressional elections. And Sebastian Gorka, who has made a handy career out of his microsecond as a Trump White House national security adviser, appears on TV claiming that Obama’s first campaign speech was all about “me, me, me”. Whoever said that Americans don’t get irony?

If you rely only on the social media, especially Twitter, for your view of the world, you could be forgiven for thinking that the devil is working a hostile takeover.

As Jamie Bartlett says in The People vs Tech, his excellent primer on the threat to democracy by technology:

… the internet is primarily an emotional medium, which is something that many technologists fail to grasp. Speed and emotion are related, of course, because both are means by which our finite brain handles information overload and total connectivity. It is obviously true that citizens need information to form opinions and make judgements, and there are many benefits to a more democratic form of media. But the modern citizen is expected to sift through an insane torrent of competing facts, networks, friend requests, claims, blogs, data, propaganda, misinformation, investigative journalism, charts, different charts, commentary and reportage. This is confusing and stressful, and we lean on easy and simple heuristics to make sense of the noise. As has been well documented, we rely on ‘confirmation bias – reading things we already agree with, surrounding ourselves with like-minded people and avoiding information that does not conform to our pre-existing view of the world. Similarly, because there is so much noise out there, studies repeatedly find that emotional content is more likely to get traction online – shares, retweets etc – than serious and thoughtful comment and stories.

He also cites Daniel Kahneman’s theory laid out in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Fast thinking, or System One thinking as Kahneman calls it, is instant reaction, gut feeling, emotional response. Whereas slow thinking, System Two, is based on reflection, reason and logic. Kahneman’s ideas (and yes, I’ve read the book) make a lot of sense to me, and I agree with Bartlett that much of the sound and fury in the social media is the result of System One thinking. In fact, without the howling, squealing and rage, as well as the me, me, me self-promotion, platforms like Twitter and Facebook would be unsustainable. Emotion is interesting. Reason is boring.

So it’s in the interest of these platforms to promote and rejoice in emotion. But emotion is exhausting, isn’t it? And I wonder how much longer we can take this endless venting before our hearts start failing and our rising blood pressure creates aneurysms ready to pop. At which point we slump into mindless apathy while the madness continues to swirl around us.

Time perhaps to take a break from the social media? Well, perhaps for a day or two every week to give our tortured nervous systems a chance to recuperate. That’s what weekends used to be for, right?

But then we wouldn’t want to miss out on Trump’s latest idiocy, Johnson’s next metaphor and news of the next Labour MP to be hung, drawn and quartered, would we?

So what’s to be done? Get a prescription of opiates, perhaps, or start taking to the bottle. Get a comfort dog, or maybe a couple of cuddly rabbits.

Alternatively, we could do one simple thing before we tweet, post or explode with anger in response to some rabble-rousing Russian bot. Nothing. Just sit down, and for half an hour try and remember what it was like before we had someone else to do our thinking for us.

If we never before had the time or inclination to think for ourselves, we should start now. Question everything, where it comes from, who’s behind it, what their motivation might be.

The process is called critical thinking.

Oh oh, better post this quickly, before everything I’ve written about is superseded by even more ridiculous stuff….

From → Books, Politics, Social, UK, USA

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