This is a cautionary tale.
The poet Kenneth Koch once wrote a description of the pleasure of crushing a baby’s head. It was not that he would ever do this, but like all of us he occasionally had evil thoughts, and found a way to make this unacceptable thought digestible. According to Adam Phillips, he credited his poetic liberation to the Freudian legacy, and the way that it seemingly broadened the horizon of what it was possible to say. If you’re a Freudian, that is just what creative writing is for; making the unacceptable thought, not just acceptable, but also thrilling, haunting, moving, mysterious, or even amusing. But it’s also often what ordinary conversation is for, what dreaming is for, what jokes are about.
As if human beings are just poetic creatures, constantly striving to say the unsayable, and the truly unacceptable statement is just a form of failed poetry. As if a really bad Frankie Boyle joke is just one displaying insufficient virtuosity in the ars poetica. But it would make existence a lot of effort if we had to constantly disguise our thoughts or hedge them lest they be misunderstood, constantly safeguarding against the slippage of metaphors. So we also have our ‘safe spaces,’ friendship and familial circles, political comrades and allies, with whom we can sometimes decompress and indulge in the transgressive joke or figure of speech without carefully hedging or disguising the thought. In politics, too, we have allies and comrades, with whom we can speak in a particular idiom without the same safeguards.
This essay, then, is partly about where that space ends. It is about what happens when, in unguarded moments, you say things like “If Simon Weston knew anything, he’d still have his face”, in fleeting annoyance at his defence of the British claim to the Malvinas. Or, in a different mood, that a “journalist” calling for IDF repression in the West Bank should have his throat cut. I have left it a while before addressing this for a number of reasons. First of all, this story is in some ways a case study in how the first, heat-of-the-moment reaction is rarely the one you want to go with. Second, a quick reaction would probably have to be conducted on the terms of trolls and churnalists, and it would become an exercise in self-justification, as if justification was required. It would either be a “poor me” or a craven “mea culpa”, or both: self-lacerating apology as a form of self-pity and narcissism. There will be ample room for self-criticism here, but just not on those terms. And it must be obvious that any concession to that form of trolling, harassment and despondent churnalism would not be the last. There’s a reason why they say “don’t feed the trolls”. I want to engage, then, not your morbid fascination with public shaming rituals and the unpleasant little details they feast upon, but your interest in their conditions of possibility.
A few weeks ago, a journalist emailed to inquire about a comment apparently made on Facebook last year, attributed to me. Something about cutting someone’s throat? Did I remember making it? Did I have any comment? I wanted to reply, channelling Lisa Simpson: “do you remember when you lost your passion for this work?” A private Facebook comment, I thought. No, no, this is vitally important for the future of the nation – you must, intrepid reporter, do your duty by Queen and Country. And so they did. Headlines appeared not only in the alt-right silo, but also in The Guardian, The Independent and the Jewish News. Soon, someone from BBC Radio 4’s Today programme was in touch, on the same day that Guardian journalist Nicholas Lezard was being publicly shamed for a Facebook comment calling for the “crowd-funded assassination” of Jeremy Corbyn. As much as I dislike the sensationalism of such reporting, it occurred to me that there was a whole complex of issues tangled up in it that needed to be disentangled.
I like to think I am not naïve. I’m aware that we live in a time in which people are being pulled up all the time for unguarded comments on social media. I’m acutely aware that when Corbyn is being denounced for a perfectly unexceptionable tweet about the September 11th attacks, Emily Thornberry is still reviled for tweeting a photograph of a flag-bedraggled house, and ordinary Labour members are being accused of racism, sexism or bullying on often tendentious grounds, anything you say on social media can become a weapon. And yet, here we are. Two off-hand, off-colour comments of mine – because yes, in fact I did, casually and unguardedly, bang them out – one a joke about Simon Weston and the other a disgusted and furious expostulation about someone calling – with what struck me as staggering, swaggering colonial chauvinism – for IDF repression of Palestinians in the West Bank, have been weaponised. It turns out that I am more naïve than I would have thought.
I made a rookie error. My unconscious assumption, at odds with everything I already knew about the internet, was that I was talking to friends in a private context. Of course, we tend to agree that there are responsibilities attached to public discourse that don’t apply in the same way when speaking in private. And it is a common mistake to assume that Facebook threads, where you’re talking to ‘friends,’ are at least not entirely public. Even on Twitter, you can think, “but I’m not anyone important, no one is going to monitor the things I say,” until the Twitter-tsunami descends on you. But this is, to repeat, the mistake of an amateur. And it can work as an object-lesson in why you should never, ever use even the most seemingly intimate social media settings to say something that you would not say publicly, or at least be able to defend in public.
Because, Facebook is a marketing platform characterised by a spurious intimacy. You have access to people’s photographs, relationships, current moods, thoughts, career trajectories, sexual propensities, often their crises and breakdowns. And these are your ‘friends’. It is very easy, if foolish, to believe that you are in fact talking to friends when you make a comment on Facebook. Even if the person with whom you are dialoguing is a ‘real life’ friend – and the distinction between online and offline friends is obviously not straightforward – the potential audience for what you say, isn’t. The potential audience for anything posted on the internet, is the entire internet, plus the audience of any print or broadcast media that takes it up. The trappings of privacy settings and ‘friending’ and ‘unfriending’ and ‘blocking’ might make Facebook appear less of a public platform than, say, Twitter. But it only takes one person to screencap or save a comment thrown off in haste, and it can appear on any other platform within seconds. And to reiterate, the potential audience for anything you say on any internet platform, is the entire internet. The internet, which is filled with stalkers, provocateurs, and bored, aggressive, small-minded people looking for the next crusade.
So, with that said, let me come to the heart of the matter. The sorts of comments I am being asked to talk about were not intended for public consumption. So much so that my reflex is either to cringe even talking about them, precisely because you weren’t supposed to see them, or evince a kind of swaggering defensiveness. They were not, as I think you will already have intuited, intended to be taken literally. They were not attempts to use my public position to attack Simon Weston, or call for violence against a “journalist” (more on those scare quotes later). Nor did I seek out people who would take these things literally, or who would be hurt or offended, and display such thoughts to them.
Rather, I was doing what almost everyone does at some point, which was to dispose of a feeling of irritation or outrage by making a malicious, Mock The Week-style joke, or by exhaling the worst sentiment that I could think of. This practice is not only ubiquitous, but just part of what it is to be human. We all speak in different registers of seriousness and with varying nuances of meaning, and we all find ways to say the unsayable. And this means that there is a certain quantum of bullshit, priggishness and moralism in some of the easy and hasty outrage about such things. Even if you are not the sort of person who would watch a comedy roast and snigger at a completely unacceptable joke, download a Frankie Boyle gig, watch the The Aristocrats, or whatever, it is a racing certainty that you can call to mind remarks of yours that you would not dare publicise. You can be thankful that your friends or family or work colleagues took these remarks in the non-literal way intended. This is why it is fortunate that we have a space for ‘offensive’ humour in public (age restrictions, the television watershed, etc) and negotiations around specific questions of taste (‘too soon?’), just as it is useful that we have a role for ‘inflammatory’ political speech in the right context.
I am not, of course, to blame for the use that others made of my comments, or the fact that they sought to instrumentalise them to manipulate, hurt and anger people whom I wasn’t trying to reach. It strikes me as a particular irony that the people most outraged about my comments did most to ensure that people would be hurt by them, as if they didn’t see their own sadistic investment in doing so. The Weston joke was actually, to my mortification, put under the nose of Simon Weston to see if by wounding him he could be somehow conscripted into one of those little crusades that social media users are susceptible to. Strikingly, his dignified response, urging people to pay no attention to it, was ignored by his valiant defenders. Let me be clear. I have no idea whether Weston was bothered or hurt by what I said. There is a chance that he was, and I am sorry for that. Even if he was not, still I rue that a private joke was publicised in this way, with the obvious intention of causing hurt. It is also infuriating that the backwash of spite caused distress and inconvenience to people I do know, both colleagues and friends, who had nothing to do with it. And even if I’m not to blame for the specific instrumentalisation of that joke, the careless misjudgement of the terrain is my responsibility. To repeat and underline, I made a rookie error when I had reason to know better.
It remains to say something about how these comments were then used. In both cases, it only took someone petty and resentful enough to screencap them and circulate them to all and sundry, with the idea of creating a controversy. A right-wing blog was, however, the major vector through which they gained a widespread audience. There’s a small irony that Paul Staines, the libertarian-right proprietor of the tabloid site, ‘Guido Fawkes,’ has chosen to publish this stuff. I had only months earlier recorded a ‘media review’ segment broadcast on TeleSUR, which cheerfully described Staines as an amoral right-wing crackpot and cynic, and mocked his practice of smearing MPs and lefties and others he didn’t like by publishing rumours or tidbits from social media. For example, one of his stories concerned a minor local Green Party candidate who made a joke about Nigel Farage having only one ball, which was reported as “Green Party candidate in Sick Nazi Cancer Slur”. This was described in propagandistic tones as “the true face of the hard left” – as if the average Green is a class-struggle militant. As if Farage, a man who is happy to incite racist frenzy, defame entire nations of people, and make capital at the expense of the NHS over his lost testicle, can’t live with someone he has never heard of making a joke about same.
I find this sort of ‘news’ both laughable and sinister; laughable to the extent that you can’t take it seriously, sinister to that extent that some people actually do. In the segment, anyway, I traced the origin of this kind of hackneyed smear-job to his work alongside the shady right-wing operative David Hart when he was part of the anticommunist struggle in Angola and Central America, and with whom he co-produced a far-right smear sheet called British Briefing. The blog’s smears work in exactly the same way. They are supposed to ‘expose’ the ‘hard left’ as well as naïve liberals, but they basically work by trying to humiliate and destroy mainstream centrist or left-of-centre politicians and others, often in a personalised and vindictive way. You could look at the baseless attempt to slander the Liberal Democrat MP Mike Hancock as some sort of KGB agent. Or the publicising of an alleged extramarital affair on the part of John Prescott, and naming the woman involved. Or the joking insinuation that Liberal Democrat MP Mark Oaten was a paedophile, and then claiming ‘credit’ for the eventual revelation that Mark Oaten had slept with male sex workers – as if ‘paedophile’ and ‘gay’ were the same thing. This infantile pot-pourri of scurrilous nastiness feeds into a culture in the comments threads where commenters recommend stoning, circumcision or having their mouths sewn up for uppity women. Anyway, Staines seems to have viewed the segment, left a nondescript comment on my blog about it, and that was that. Or wasn’t.
For in the age of the internet, one doesn’t rifle through bins: one scours social media content. And using some basic techniques of persuasion well-known to tabloid editors, it is easy to make it look as though you’re bringing something important to light. It is often the headlines that do it: most of what people take from an article is shaped by the first line with the biggest font. But the images do important work too. Thus, when someone screencapped and circulated my Weston joke, the Guido Fawkes blog knew how to make it more interesting. They took a photo of myself from the internet, one where I’m looking perhaps especially arrogant and preening, and put it next to a picture of Weston, who has a well-known down-to-earth charisma. Between those two, who would you side with? Even before you had seen the headline, you would already know to hate the bearded poser. The headline then set up the argument: “Guardian Writer’s Vile Slur Against Falkland Hero”. I had officially stopped writing for The Guardian on contract in February 2014, well over a year before this story was written, but the point of including that reference was to inflate the importance of the story so that many people would assume that Weston had been publicly attacked, in The Guardian no less. Then they would read what I actually said. Blood would boil. “Who does he think he is? How dare he? How utterly typical of the ungrateful leftie whingers in this country!” And so on.
On the strength of this, the story was circulated on alt-right sites like Breitbart, as well as on a range of military fora. I know for a fact that many of the people who read it assumed that there had been a public, invidious attack on Weston published in a mainstream newspaper. I know this because, in the thousands and thousands of angry, unhinged and/or threatening messages I received as a result of the story and subsequent orchestrated harassment campaigns, many of them expressly complained about ‘an article’. I initially responded to most of the tweets and messages with contemptuous bravado. “Yes, of course I said it; I’ve said worse. Mind your own business. Fuck off.” Or, thinking of the late Bill Hicks, “I am also available for children’s parties.” That would have been the instinctive response even if they weren’t amped up on sanctimony and glory-hunting, because I thought and still think that the idea of writing to a complete stranger about a Facebook comment that you shouldn’t have seen, is utterly bizarre. But then I briefly tried to have it out with some of them. You realise, I pointed out, that you are writing to me, whom you don’t know, about a comment casually made on the Facebook thread of someone else, whom you also don’t know, on a wet afternoon some long time ago? A comment that you should never have seen? A comment that you would not have seen had not some idiot with a grudge screencapped it and shared it specifically to get people angry? A comment that a seasoned right-wing provocateur then sexed up and broadcast, just to give the red meat of red-hate to his audience? How would you react if something you had said in the moment in a low-key interaction with friends, were broadcast to the world, and complete strangers started to demand explanations and apologies? Might you not find something else to be outraged about?
Many of the people I tried to engage took the point and bowed out gracefully, suggesting that I take more care in who I’m friends with on Facebook – which is almost right – and also thinking, perhaps, “there but for the grace of god…”. The more diagnostically interesting cases were those who were positively buzzing with malicious glee, giddy with self-righteous spite, enjoying their fury immensely. There was certainly no talking to them, and not because they didn’t have their own disavowed “there but for the grace of god…” thought lurking. Rather because they were either too busy harassing people who knew me, professional contacts or employers, or because they were busy wishing me inventive physical harm, or because they were promising to inflict it themselves, or with stagey foreboding alluding to the gangs of men who would hunt me down and inflict it. Beyond the fantasists, some of these people were, or claimed to be, squaddies, and thus certainly credible in the could-kill-me stakes. But, apart from those psychotic and amoral enough to literally contemplate murder for the crime of a joke on a Facebook thread – “Behead Those Who Insult the War Hero” – perhaps most of them were just venting because they had been made to feel a particular way. And it was easy for me to dismiss this above as belligerent small-mindedness, but it is about a lot more than that.
The fact that these harassment campaigns were powerfully overdetermined can be inferred from the vast disproportion between action and consequence, between even what they believed had taken place and what they seem to have literally thought would be a fitting response. No one who is happy and well responds to an off-piste Facebook joke in this fashion. Most would respond, I suspect, as I would to a joke about someone I like: with a shrug, a snarl, a joke in kind, or just by shaking it off or ignoring it (as, indeed, Weston gracefully did in this case). We are talking about a generalised cultural and political depression. The kinds of people who would take this so thoroughly to heart are the kinds of people who are already keenly attuned to the prospect of humiliation.
You could say that humiliation is a way of constantly having your hopes raised and dashed. You can’t be humiliated if you don’t expect anything else. And many people are inhabiting an atmosphere of bathetic decline. They are being constantly reminded of the gap between what they have been told to value as sacred – let us say, national, familial or martial values – and the negligible store set in them not only by other people but by the authorities. And they resent the people who remind them of that, and of their humiliation. Insofar as they’re of the Right, they tend to think that the whole of society, or at least the liberal elites, the lefties, the feminists, the multiculturalists, the peaceniks, the scum, have been taking the piss for far too long. They tend to think that the Left is desecrating the values that we all supposedly respect, and the social bond these values are supposed to make possible. That the students and intellectuals are having fun at everyone else’s expense. That uppity minorities are enjoying life, by making the ‘silent majority’ miserable. Twitterstorms and harassment campaigns are displacement activities, conferring a temporary feeling of power – and one or two of the participants get so addicted to that feeling that they never seem to be able to let it go. Obviously I don’t enjoy being the target of these projections, but this attitude is dangerous for much broader reasons.
On the brighter side of this, you could say that a letter always arrives at its destination. One woman sent me a genuinely angry tirade, which I didn’t respond to. A few weeks later, she sent another message responding to her own initial tirade, which she had rediscovered and, in a muddle, read as to, not from, her. She demanded to know who the bloody hell I was, what I was on about, and why I was bothering her? I modestly said, “you do know you’re responding to your own message?” She, to her credit, was embarrassed. Alas, not everyone gets the revelation of seeing their own spite or swaggering bravado reflected back at them as she had (and as, in a different way, I had too), and most of those who have joined the harassment are probably still convinced of their rectitude.
The second story was presented more insidiously. Rather than lead with “Guardian Writer,” the Guido Fawkes blog managed to make it a story about Jeremy Corbyn. Noticing that I would be speaking at the large, five-day The World Transformed conference about my book on Corbyn, and that Corbyn would also be at the conference, speaking at a different meeting, the Fawkes blog wrote: “Corbyn To Attend Momentum Event With Vile Internet Troll”. The image juxtaposed myself, in a differently bearded pose, alongside Corbyn and a Soviet flag, with a colourful extract from my Facebook comment in block capitals: “Fuck him, they should cut his throat”. Oddly, the swear-word was asterisked out, as if the angry older men who frequent that blog and fill its threads with rape threats, death threats and racist exhortation, among other things, can’t bear to be exposed to the full force of the word ‘fuck’. Again, basic techniques of persuasion were at work here. Calling me a “troll” and a “keyboard warrior” this time, rather than a “Guardian writer,” tapped into a shopworn cliche about Corbyn’s supporters. It also misleadingly made it appear that I'd deliberately sought out attention for my comment, to inflame and incite. They repeated the words “Jewish journalist” twice, without explaining why they thought this was relevant, because the mere insinuation, the mere tantalising possibility that this was a motivation is confirmation enough for some people – ‘he’s a loony leftie, and we know how they think’.
Of course, I gave them the opportunity to make that vile insinuation. But in the interests of not letting this bullshit fly, let us just unpack the argument here. I had been asked by a friend to comment on a video recording of someone with an American accent based in the colonies of the West Bank, who was complaining about the insufficient presence of IDF troops to keep the Palestinians in line. Very few words could really articulate the pellets of fury that exploded in my chest watching that, and thinking about the smarmy auto-victimisation of the coloniser, and the sadism, supremacism, and bloody repression that it implied. When he complained about “Arabs” bearing cinder blocks, I was reminded of Albert Memmi, who pointed out that the coloniser has his arsenals, but the discovery of even one rusty weapon among the colonised is a scandal. Even the way that he casually referred to “the Arabs” in the video description illustrated the racism involved.
Nor, of course, is this an isolated instance. The culture of racist repression, often to the point of exterminatory violence, is so pervasive in Israel and particularly in the colonies, that it is no surprise when the defence minister promises a ‘Shoah’ against the Palestinians, or when Michael Ben-Ari stands in front of crowds demanding that the army be allowed to “exterminate,” or when Moishe Feiglin calls for the annexation of Gaza and the construction of concentration camps. Even in this country, the pro-Israel Jewish Chronicle doesn’t hesitate to publish Geoffrey Alderman exulting in the murder of the Palestine solidarity activist Victor Arrigoni, simpering that “few events ... have caused me greater pleasure in recent weeks than news of the death” of Arrigoni, someone he spuriously and foully claimed was a “Jew-hater,” “like Adolf Hitler” because he was trying to break Israel’s death-dealing blockade of Gaza.
Now, the “journalist” in question is not someone I had ever heard of when I viewed the video. He turns out to be a settler and hasbara activist, who runs an American-Israeli PR firm, and whose work is self-consciously an effort to support and justify Israeli expansionism. But as I saw it, viewing the video, he was simply the bearer of a murderous ideology posing as victimhood, and I wanted to spit righteous venom at it; to speak, one might say, with Holy Ghost language. Instead what came out was surprisingly and childishly incoherent in its helpless rage: “He makes me sick. He’s a piece of shit. He’s standing there complaining that the army isn’t helping the colonists keep the Palestinians in their place. Fuck him, they should cut his throat.” The problem is not that they don’t metaphorise. ‘Cut his throat’ is a metaphor or substitution short-cutting through a complex of conflicting thoughts and responses. But while my friend would have got that, not everyone else would have, and ‘everyone else’ was exactly who could end up seeing the comment. However, even inferring the worst from it, the groundless insinuation of antisemitism is just that. It is an insinuation because it has no basis in evidence. But, again, not to give smears their breeding ground in the first place, it is always best to count to ten, and not to respond even to that which is truly sickening in its cruelty, by spitting out the worst thing that one can momentarily think of.
Still, the Fawkes story was a very effective montage, which – however threadbare in its substance – pushed all the right media buttons. There is a strong demand in certain newspapers for stories incriminating Corbyn by association with trolls, extremism, and antisemitism, and the story was duly taken up by The Guardian and The Independent, among others. Most of the journalists who regurgitated the Fawkes story simply engaged in churnalism, accepting the blog's talking points and rewriting them in their own language. One of them went so far as to claim that I had “threatened” the ‘journalist’ in question, a distortion that even the inventive Fawkes team didn’t think of. The Guardian was a slight exception, in that the journalist emailed me for comment (I didn’t reply), and then wrote an article weirdly linking the reported comments to my last article for the paper calling for the Greens to discover their ‘dark side’. As if, perhaps, to say: “this must be what he means by a ‘dark side’”. For the record, and because we lamentably appear to need this clarification, it really isn't.
This, in all fairness, had little to do with me, and everything to do with throwing one more thing at the leader of the official opposition. I was just what they threw. As if the coup wasn't quite enough, but this scandal of guilt-by-association-through-shared-conference-attendance-with-author-who-said-a-bad-thing-on-social-media might finally finish him off. There is something quite deranged about this state of affairs. I am not just talking about the famous anti-Corbyn ‘bias,’ which is rather like describing white sharks as biased against sea lions. I mean more particularly the idea that casual conversation can be reported as news on a par with public statements and interventions, and invoked as evidence of someone’s, let us say, agenda. As if one might report as news something that a tipsy Polly Toynbee said at a Scrabble evening, and use that to damn Tom Watson. Yes, of course, part of the point of this post is that whatever its intimacies, Facebook has to be treated as public. But even so, it is still journalistically degraded to report cribbed extracts from casual Facebook exchanges for the purposes of guilt-by-association in this way. It says something about the truly lamentable state of British journalism, so much of it done quickly and on the cheap, that it can even happen.
This is a cautionary tale. Two comments, each fired off in less than half a minute, intemperately, in pique or fury, to a small audience of friends, neither of them intended for public consumption, neither intended – any more than are the performances of Frankie Boyle or that thing you said to your friends yesterday – in the strict and literal way taken, have been used to goad thousands of people into harassing me and people who know me, lobbying employers, and sending me threats of injury and death. They have been used to attack the leader of the opposition and generate a spurious, fleeting controversy around an important left-wing event. And this stuff is toxic. It makes real conversation, real debate, impossible. It injects a malicious lack of rigour or care into every discussion, a jouissance-laden unseriousness that sends ethics, particularly journalistic or political ethics, packing. It seeps into everything. Certainly, there are grey areas: there just are occasions where people plead ‘privacy’ to cover legitimately awful behaviour: bullying, harassment, domestic abuse, and so on. There are also occasions where the private ‘tasteless’ remark actually does merit wider attention, regardless of whom it was intended for. Just because Ron Atkinson didn’t mean his racist remark to be caught by the microphone doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth commenting on. And yet, we have to be able to make room for that and for the fact that there is bad-faith vendetta-mongering and lousy, sensationalist churnalism.
There are, at any rate, only so many times that one can make this type of error without getting the point, and there are several points to get here. First of all, whatever these comments were supposed to do, they certainly weren’t worth the trouble incurred for people who didn’t make them. The way in which the comments were used to entice and incite outrage and hurt, and the way the malevolent backlash then affected friends and colleagues, was possible because my initial misjudgement gave the creeps an opportunity. That is on me.
Secondly, it is not just that social media is not private. Increasingly we find that there is no real ‘private sphere,’ or never really was. People finding their Tinder messages reproduced on Facebook, sexts and photographs posted on porn sites, messages screencapped and memed, know this intimately. Or, to put it like this, if there is an operative private sphere, it is a tentatively negotiated space with trusted people, guarded as well as possible by enclosed spaces, good firewalls and anti-surveillance software. It is an artifice and one that is, of course, historically far from innocent in the ways it has helped divvy up power to the advantage of white bourgeois males and the disempowerment of all others. But if privacy has a constructive purpose, it is fragile: and anything you say, do, or write down, can be recorded in one way or other, and become part of a public conversation.
‘This is all just common sense, surely,’ some might object. But what we acknowledge as ‘common sense’ is not at all the same as the assumptions and axioms guiding what we actually do. ‘Common sense’ is both something we know, and somehow don’t know. The fact that social media is based on an addictive property, the regular hit of narcissistic supply – ‘likes’ for our thoughts, photographs, and so on – means that we get drawn into a kind of bad faith deal with ourselves to treat it as if it were private enough for us to be comfortable with the things we end up saying on it. What’s more, the incentive of a reward means that there is an imperative not to wait before writing, but to write quickly, concisely, memorably if possible. To peacock and swagger. And that is a trap. And if you’re political and loquacious, it is likely that there is some enemy somewhere hunting for the means by which to hurt you. Whatever is uncovered, thanks to your making it easy for them by posting it on social media, its political substance will be distorted or invented, because that’s a price that those seeking the gratification of a malicious take-down are willing to pay. And there are always plenty of others willing to vicariously participate in and extend the take-down, if they can.
Finally, journalism is only infrequently a field where the truth matters, at all. Its degradation, driven by the traditional news media’s economic crises, is part of its growing articulation with the most sensationalist and linkbaity forms of online writing. You even see this on the left, with various alt-media news sites producing continents of utter garbage either because they’re desperate for traffic or because their writers are paid ‘per click’. Of course, pay-per-click at least sounds vaguely meritocratic compared to the quasi-feudal league of pampered journalists whom people stopped reading long ago, but its effects are likely to be ruinous. Worse still, since those very same writers largely aspire to write under newspaper mastheads and eventually graduate to aforesaid quasi-feudal league of pampered journalists, there will surely be a fusion of the two tendencies. So if the potential audience for anything you say on the internet, or elsewhere, is the entire internet plus the audience of the news media that re-broadcast it, and if even nice young anti-war activists are going to be defamed on that terrain, then you can’t expect a fair and nuanced appreciation of the different registers in which everyone speaks when they say bad things. It is vile, it is toxic, but it just is the media we have.
I don’t want it to appear that I’m recommending a self-denying ordinance. People do get something out of social media beyond the addictive hit, and not everyone needs the kind of morality tale I am offering. And I certainly don’t think anyone should internalise the forces of priggish and moralistic repression, as if most of the big guns weren’t on that side already. Half of political wisdom and almost all culture depends upon what one must never say. But if there is an art to saying the unsayable and making it acceptable without just insulting or hurting people, the negotiations around doing so are terribly fraught. And if there are spaces in which we can decompress, the safeguards of privacy are not terribly secure. And if we mean to use the public property of language to be vocal and politically committed, then our ‘private’ uses of it are too easily drawn into the frame, and too readily susceptible to distortion and innuendo. And this is just an argument for resisting the celerity of the internet. For pausing, for waiting. It is also an argument for creative sublimation, which is where the essay began. And it is to that extent a case for one more revision, one more edit, one more interpretation, one more qualification, before pressing ‘send’.