Decency, expertise and shouting matches.

Amidst all the chaos and uncertainty surrounding Coronavirus, lets show a bit of solidarity. That's where I better direct my attention this coming week. Not get into useless shouting matches.

None of us like to be out-matched

There have been a few occasions where I’ve succumbed. I’ve fallen into the trap of offering political views on Twitter. Yes, I agree, what a big mistake!

I’ve defended the BBC, for instance. It’s finding itself attacked by people of all political stripes. I’ve challenged Labour’s (remarkably late, but still questionable) decision to suspend former Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Trevor Phillips. I’ve questioned many things the Tories have done. Where can one start? Well, their years of under-funding social care is as good a place as many. Er, Brexit?

I’ve questioned both elements of the Left and the Right. As a social democrat – a Blairite, if you like – I have much to rail against.

I’ve questioned UK Home Secretary Priti Patel’s policies. And faced consternation from those on the centre-right, and dare I say it, even the hard-right. I’ve defended her against personal attacks and tactics to essentially ‘other’ her, as Steve Bell did in the Guardian. And then, like day follows night, faced insults from the hard-left. And my lesson following all this keyboard acton? It’s better not to bother. Willy Wonka

You simply can’t win. Winning arguments is quite important to me, a personal flaw I suppose. I used to love debating at school. But in a forum where everyone’s opinion is equally weighted, regardless of the research they’ve undertaken to mount their argument, only ignorance and hyperbole – sometimes even only hatred – can win.

There’s no real meaning to the word ‘win’ here. And in any case, what’s so important about ‘winning’? Whining, I get, but winning what exactly?

Sometimes, when I’ve felt I’ve had a strong moral case (for example by stating the Home Office is wrong to deport people to countries they have no roots in), I’ve been “out-matched”. Even though I’ve disagreed with people for being rude or having a different worldview, I’ve had to concede they did have a point – they at least got some of their facts right. And maybe I didn’t!

A thin skin

I have a thin skin. I end up thinking ‘what the bloody point was any of that online spat?’ Its time to avoid Twitter arguments. It truly serves no purpose, and only has the effect of raising one’s blood pressure. Hardly, the “coach-state” I hope to practise and ultimately promote!

But this has got me thinking more broadly about human behaviour. We’ve all heard about how we live in a ‘post-truth’ world. Matthew d’Ancona and many other commentators can attest to what’s gone wrong much more convincingly than I ever can.

But since when did irrationality and ignorance so badly trump reason and fact? Twitter gets blamed for an awful lot, but is it merely symbolic of what’s been going wrong elsewhere – more broadly across society – and over a longer period? Since when did so many of us seem to get so damn uncivil and defensive, or worse, aggressive? To strangers? That’s the bit that gets me, when people hide behind masks and throw out all sorts of shade they’d never dare to in ‘real life’. Calling each other names.

When it gets personal

I’m all for freedom of expression, but it seems to come at such a cost these days. You get shouted down, which would be fine if your views were being challenged on factual grounds or with the weapon of expertise.

Often, they’re not. People who never venture to say anything at all wait for others to take a platform and then sit in their armchairs only offering abuse.

I recently posted an article on a popular news and opinion website. I’m not looking for everyone to agree with me about politics, but this time I’d written my first person account of what it was like to live life as a gay man. The challenges I received! Even from gay people. Gosh, where’s the solidarity people?

I do feel sorry for politicians and political commentators in at least one respect. They at least try to shape political debate and achieve (what they consider to be) improved societal outcomes, and what danger they put themselves in for doing this.

Elsewhere freedom of expression itself seems increasingly under threat. People are being ‘no platformed’ with increasing regularity, like Selina Todd at an International Women’s event at the University of Oxford. Various societies at Oxford seem to be developing a real habit of no platforming females with strong opinions – see the recent example of this happening to Amber Rudd.

We might not like people with different opinions to us; one might argue, ‘wasn’t it ever thus?’ But there’s never been such asymmetry in terms of who gets challenged for what. Call me elitist, (I accept the charge), but shouldn’t – just sometimes – keyboard warriors be a bit more humble and accept they don’t have all the facts or research to spout stuff?

Can’t they accept those they don’t like, including in positions of authority, might have something valuable and expert to say? I’m sure I’m as guilty as others and don’t always practise what I preach here. But please bear with me one more minute.

I’m all for democratising public and political debate, but lets do it in the common good. Can we at least trust when someone else expresses an opinion, they’re doing it with what they believe to be honourable intentions (unless its really obvious they’re not, like inciting violence)?

I’ve never known such toxic levels of distrust. It doesn’t mirror how humans appear to behave when they meet in person. We all seem to have avatar personalities acting on our behalf when we get within two inches of a laptop or a smartphone.

Human and inhuman – a spectrum

I say that, but at the cinema the other week a woman next to me talked (yes, talked, not whispered) to her friend throughout the screening of ‘Parasites‘. I gave her a few gentle opportunities to stop by looking ever so subtly in her direction. When I eventually asked if she could stop talking, she said she would whisper. I responded, ‘please, no’. She stuck her middle finger up at me!

A certain woman from Chicago operating a rather suspicious English language agency here in Barcelona set me up right good and proper. Sending me off to teach classes, taking a significant third of my hourly salary as commission, but then sending my payments to phantom Pay Pal accounts, and then having the temerity to question my integrity. Oh, by the way, she works for an agency called The English Garden. Which has a website with fake tributes from people with names like ‘Bernie Clinton’. Yes, I was ridiculously gullible to sign up.

I have more positive examples of human behaviour to cite. The lovely Italian women who make fresh ravioli at Mercat de Galvany opposite and promised me and my partner a freshly made tiramisu if we come by this weekend. The lovely woman in the bakery at lunch today who wanted to help me practise my Spanish. The lovely kids I teach every Monday.

The lesson? I’m not sure I’ve been able to prove anything here at all. Count this as one of my rants. What do I take away for myself? We can all piss each other off. But the more human our interactions, the less likely we’ll resort to quite inexplicable levels of personal abuse. Inhuman levels of disregard for one another’s welfare and mental health. Amidst all the chaos and uncertainty surrounding Coronavirus, lets show a bit of solidarity. That’s where I better direct my attention this coming week. Not get into useless shouting matches.

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