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Like and Share

15 Feb

Recently I posted a comment on Facebook about a government minister that caused some offence to someone.

I don’t particularly wish to rehash the ensuing exchange, but it did prompt me to think a little about why I even bother to comment about these things.

After all, it’s not as though any comment of mine is actually going to change anything, is it?

For one thing I have no idea how many people actually read anything I post on Facebook and for another, I have no idea to what extent any comment I post actually affects anyone’s thinking or behaviour. Probably not much, as a matter of fact.

So maybe all this commenting on Facebook is completely futile, or worse, a form of narcissism.

Which brings me on to a different, but related topic; i.e. online petitions.

Like almost anyone who has ever been online I have signed and shared the odd online petition and it’s possible that some of these petitions have had some kind of effect. Organisations like Change.org, Avaaz.org and 38 Degrees will obviously claim significant achievements for the petitions launched and supported by their members and I’m sure they’ll have convincing evidence to support those claims.

On the other hand, like most people who spend any amount of time online, I receive notifications about new petitions on a daily basis and I’m aware that there are far more online petitions out there than I will ever hear about and this is the bit that troubles me.

In a way it’s a good thing if anyone can start a petition if there’s something that they feel strongly about. But in another way I think there’s a problem here. With so many online petitions flying about there’s a risk that support for a cause that has general support will be divided amongst half a dozen petitions, thereby making it that much easier for the powers that be to ignore each petition in turn. Something that might be more difficult to do if there was just one petition signed by everyone who cared about that particular issue.

The other risk that follows from having so many online petitions is that any one petition, no matter how worthy, is liable to be swamped by the sheer volume of other petitions, however worthy in themselves. There is also the risk that politicians, amongst others, will find it all too easy to dismiss online petitions and the people who sign them. Already we’ve had Liberal Democrat Lord Tyler using the term ‘rent a mob’ and Simon Burns MP (a sometime Health Minister) describing members of the petition website 38 Degrees as ‘almost zombie-like’. (This is a very politician like smear since it gets across the basic ‘zombie’ insult, while the qualifier ‘almost’ allows plenty of wiggle room in the face of any challenge).

So there is a question about whether or not the sheer accessibility of online petitioning and campaigning effectively undermines the message being sent as a result of so many messages being sent.

You could avoid this problem, or at least reduce it, by having some kind of filtering process in order to avoid duplication of effort or even to weed out the cranks. (To some extent 38 Degrees, for example, does this because it will only go ahead with a campaign on a particular subject if there is a strong consensus amongst its members behind it). But the risk involved in ‘weeding’ anything out is that some perfectly justifiable point of view is suppressed simply because it’s unfashionable, or because it goes against the hang ups and prejudices of whoever’s doing the weeding.

Which brings me back to my original question. Is there really a point in making a comment, signing a petition or sending a letter or email to your MP when you can be pretty sure that it’s going to have no real effect in practice?

As an aside, it’s worth noting that on February 2nd 2003 an estimated million people turned out to protest against the American led invasion of Iraq. (This in spite of Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, instructing the Royal Parks Agency to deny permission for the use of Hyde Park for the rally. This decision was apparently taken on safety grounds and in order to protect the grass. The decision was later reversed and the rally took place with, so far as I can gather, no great risk to anyone’s safety, although there may have been some

damage to the grass).

This protest, probably the largest in UK history, achieved absolutely nothing in terms of changing government policy. We had a pretty bland comment from Toy Blair (The Prime Minister at the time) about respecting other people’s views, but then the invasion went ahead anyway. (It’s very possible that Mr Blair means something different from the rest of us when he talks about ‘respect’. I think in his lexicon to ‘respect’ means to ‘ignore’).

So was there a point to that rally?

Probably.

If nothing else it was an attempt to speak truth to power. (Something that’s probably always worth doing). And if nothing else it means that no amount of lying, spin, or history revising will ever allow supporters of the war to claim that the Blair government had the wholehearted support of the British people on this issue.

Which brings me back to my habit of commenting on various issues on Facebook. (A somewhat more modest proposition than rallying a million people against a war, I admit).

Why should I bother?

I suppose most of the reason is because it relieves, to some extent, my frustration and irritation at the behaviour of people in power. To that extent, I suppose, it’s therapeutic and therefore has some value, if only to me.

As for anyone else?

Well, of those who actually see anything I post on Facebook, I suppose some will simply scroll on until they find something more interesting. Others will at least read what I’ve posted. Of those some will agree, others will disagree and from time to time someone will take offence.

In any event the world will go on with its turning and the price of cheese (amongst other things) will remain entirely unaffected).

Except that maybe someone will be made aware of something that they might otherwise have missed and maybe someone will think about something they might not otherwise have thought about and maybe change their mind. (NB I make no claim that I will be able to change anyone’s mind, I’m deeply sceptical about my ability to do that, but I do think that people can change their own minds if presented with new facts or maybe a point of view they hadn’t encountered before).

Which brings me to a brief digression on the subject of angels.

Our word ‘angel’ is derived from a Greek word for messenger (ἄγγελος or ángelos). Angels turn up, of course in various religions and mythologies, particularly Zoroastrianism and the Abrahamic religions, and more recently in some New Age belief systems.

One, rather fetching, take on angels that I heard once, was provided by a Rabbi who said that anyone could be an angel. His view was that an angel was simply someone who said something, perhaps quite inadvertently, that changes the way you see things.

But then again, my chances of acting as an angel are probably no better than anyone else’s, and probably greatly reduced on Facebook since most people on social media are less likely to be seeking enlightenment than funny pictures of cats. (Or glamorous pictures of horses).

So again, why bother?

Well, I suppose I have a vague notion that when we come across something we think is wrong we shouldn’t just let it pass. Ideally we should do something about it, or if we can’t do anything, then we should say something. Even if no one’s paying any attention.

This is because I think if we just let things carry on as they are, even when we know that what’s happening is wrong, then we become complicit.

It could well be that if you speak out, you’re only talking to yourself, but that’s not such a bad thing even if it only serves to remind you of what’s right or wrong and how to tell the difference.

And it seems to me that the alternative is to simply acquiesce. And the risk of doing that is to allow things to become acceptable when they should be completely unacceptable.

There is also the fact that big problems don’t have to be solves all at once and sometimes the non-negotiable demand for a complete, all in one, solution ends up being an obstacle to taking any action at all.

(For example, in a city plagued by slum housing, the local authority may wish to institute a large-scale campaign of urban renewal, demolishing the slums and building new homes for all the people displaced from the slums. Obviously this campaign will cost a huge amount of money and require a great deal of careful planning and organisation. Obviously this will be a huge benefit to the community if it all goes well, and the temptation would be to stop carrying out basic repair work while the big plan is pending because the big plan will make all that repair work redundant. Or, what’s worse, to ignore the basic repair work because fixing one person’s leaky roof doesn’t address the big problem and the big plan will do just that. But what happens if there is no big plan? Do you fix the leaky roof, or do you just complain that fixing a leaky roof won’t provide a complete solution to the big problem?).

So I think we should speak up in the face of things we think are wrong. I also think we should speak plainly and speak the truth. (If we can and in this context, FactCheck.org, Snopes and Mythbusters all provide a useful, if much underused service).

It might not do any good or it may only do the least conceivable quantum of good. But if it does any good at all then that’s better than nothing and little things can accumulate until they become quite big things. A tiny effort by enough people can become an unstoppable force.

Which is not to say that the full extent of our moral obligations is to post a snarky comment on Facebook. If we can do more then we should. But registering some kind of protest is a perfectly acceptable first step and if that’s all we can do then that’s what we should do.

Every Complex Problem

14 Dec

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong. (H.L. Mencken)

To be honest I don’t know much about HL Mencken other than the fact that he gets a mention in The Sun also Rises (Also known as Fiesta) and, on the strength of the comments made in that novel, I don’t think Earnest Hemingway was a fan.

On the other hand, I kind of agree with Mencken on this point at least.

The trouble is, of course, that the world often seems to be full of people who are quite determined to believe that these clear and simple solutions aren’t wrong, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, but are, in fact, the only solution.

And, of course any aspiring politician with more ambition than integrity (which would be most of them, it seems) will latch on to these clear and simple solutions and peddle them for all they’re worth to all the people who already believe them to be right.

One of the most obvious examples of this kind of (non)thinking can be seen in the current urge to curb immigration.

Essentially the line of (un)reasoning goes as follows. You can’t get a house/job/GP appointment/ a place for your kids in the local school. Therefore there are too many people in the country. Therefore the problem is immigration. Therefore if we stop people coming into the country and repatriate those immigrants who’re already here, then everything will be nice again.

Except, of course, it won’t.

You still won’t be able to get a house if there aren’t enough houses being built and you still won’t be able to get a decent job when the economy has been ‘rebalanced’ to provide high paid jobs to the privileged and low paid insecure jobs for the majority. You also won’t be able to see your GP when you want to if the resources that are put into the NHS have been squandered in yet another top down reorganisation (even when you’ve been solemnly promised that no such thing will happen). And you’ll struggle to get your kids into a decent school when Local Education Authorities are starved of resources so that politicians can fund their pet educational projects.

But this is all complicated and problematic and recognising, let alone addressing any of these issues would require a bit of serious thinking. And why should anyone bother with that when it’s so much easier to fall back on the usual exchange of sound bites and slogans and easy to remember, drip dry policies that can be explained in a few column inches or in a brief, stage-managed TV appearance.

This is, of course, a fundamental problem with trying to run a democracy in an industrialised, capitalist society that is dependent on mass media for the communication of ideas.

It’s worth taking a look at the phrase ‘industrialised, capitalist society’.

A society that is industrialised is one that has the capacity to feed, clothe and house a far larger population than one that is pre- or at least non- industrialised. This large population is one that can support and indeed necessitates mass media, word of mouth can only go so far in a population of millions.

A society that is capitalist is one that is defined by the capitalist mode of production (as Karl Marx would tell you, if he was here).

One of the characteristics of capitalism is that it turns everything that has a value into a commodity. (And incidentally devalues anything that can’t be turned into a commodity). In other words, most of the things you might want, including information, will have a price and there will always be someone willing to sell it to you.

As a consequence it is the business of the media to ‘shift product’, be that a physical item like a newspaper or a book, or advertising space or something else that can be sold and therefore raise revenue. (With public service media outlets the need to ‘shift product’ is a little more indirect, but circulation and/or ratings still count if the outlet is to justify its existence to those who control its funding).

Given that the easiest way to guarantee a mass audience/readership is to confirm what the majority of people already think they know, or at least to avoid contradicting anything they believe to be true, those media outlets that reach the greatest number of people will be those that avoid challenging the majority view on anything. They will also be the outlets that keep things simple, that avoid long, involved arguments and that won’t burden their customers with a lot of bothersome facts or figures.

So in the more downmarket hovels of the media, you will seldom find any serious attempt to look at how many people actually come to live in the country, what they do, how they live, what they contribute and whether or not they might enhance or enrich the communities they live in. What you will be offered instead are anecdotes about individual immigrants who might have criminal records, engage in anti-social behaviour or, horror of horrors, actually use public services that they are perfectly entitled to use.

These individual cases will then be held up (explicitly or implicitly) as being typical of all immigrants. This use of facts which may, or then again may not, be accurate in themselves will therefore contribute to a perception of immigrants that is unfair, untrue and of no use to anyone except bigots and racists and those who would seek to profit from them.

You can incidentally see a similar pattern of reporting where other vilified groups, notably benefits claimants, the homeless, people who depend on food banks and, of course, asylum seekers are concerned.

There is a way to correct this irresponsible and divisive kind of reporting.

Don’t buy crap newspapers and don’t watch garbage TV programmes. Complaining is no use, writing to your MP is pointless, simply damage their revenue stream and you’ll soon find the media sorting themselves out.

This leads me to a more general point about politics.

The political system we have in this country can be characterised as government by millionaires on behalf of billionaires and a great many people are sick to death of it.

A healthy democratic political system depends on the quality of the politicians who participate in it, and the media that report on it. And both of these, in turn, depend on the extent to which members of the general public (that’s us, by the way) are willing to engage in politics.

If we won’t take the trouble to pay attention then we will allow lazy, complacent journalists to allow politicians to spout off their lazy, complacent platitudes. And if we do that then we have very little to complain about if democracy descends into the shallow pretence of free choice where all we’re offered is two or three versions of the same thing wrapped up in different packaging.

It is very easy to despair of politics and politicians and far too many people fall into despair or indifference or the lazy, cowardly assumption that nothing we can do will make a difference.

But at the heart of all this there is the fact that when our political system doesn’t work properly people get hurt.

So it’s not good enough to say, ‘politicians are all the same’ and ‘they all lie through their teeth so what difference does it make?’ or to fall back on the old Anarchist slogan, ‘don’t vote, the government will get in’ because the government will get in anyway.

The only difference will be that the government that will be elected when the majority of us don’t vote will be a government chosen by those few zealots, activists and ‘bee in the bonnet’ merchants who can still be bothered to put their cross in a box.

And what that means is that we’ll get a worse government than we could have had if we’d all paid attention and actually tried thinking about what we need and what we want instead of just assuming that all we can do is make a selection from the limited set of options that the political parties choose to offer us.

And, say what you like about the result, our recent Independence Referendum was pretty effective in getting

people stirred up and getting them involved.

As an aside, I note with interest that whenever you hear anyone complaining about the referendum, it’s alleged divisiveness, the abusive and stupid behaviour that some (a tiny minority) just couldn’t resist, the way that the referendum allegedly brought the work of the government in Scotland to a standstill, you’ll find that they’re always Unionists. They are, in fact, those who are, or those who support, those who are already well established within the Westminster system. (Or in the case of UKIP those who, for all their attempt to cultivate rebel chic, would dearly love to become well established within the Westminster system).

On the other hand, some of us are willing to put up with the odd internet troll and the occasional egg being thrown (not that I would advocate or excuse either) if that’s the price of getting people involved in making the decisions that will affect their lives. I should scarcely need to add that I would very much prefer it if none of us had to put up with this kind of behaviour, but it’s better than a sulky, brutish apathy that allows politicians to do whatever they like.

I think it’s perfectly obvious by now that the majority of our politicians are willing to put up with low turn outs and declining party membership if that means that they can carry on offering their clear, simple solutions without having to worry too much about whether or not their wrong.

But there is an alternative, and it is this: the only politician worth a damn’ is the one who has good reason to fear losing his, or her, job. And, of course, the way to instil that kind of fear is to make sure they know that you’re a/ paying attention and b/ willing to vote them out of office if they don’t behave themselves. (NB and this is really crucial, voting a politician out of office cannot be done by NOT voting. It can only be done by voting for someone else).

So if we want to make things better in our country (and it is OUR country) then we have to start, or continue, to pay attention to what appears in the media and what our politicians do and say. More than that we need to be willing to punish those who behave badly. If you don’t like the crap that appears in your newspaper, stop buying it. If you don’t like the crap you see on TV, then stop watching it. If you don’t like what you MP. MSP, EMP or Local Councillor does then pick someone else and vote for them.

The kind of tribal loyalty that the established parties have depended on for generations (in the West of Scotland that means Labour, but elsewhere it will be other parties) is worse than pointless it’s counter productive. All it means is that one party will ignore you because they think they already own your votes, while the other parties will ignore you because they don’t believe you’ll ever vote for them regardless of what they do.

So the last thing you want to do is be a party loyalist in a safe seat, because if that’s what you are, you’re a complete irrelevance in the political process.

And if you think on the basis of any of the above that what I want to do is to subvert the way we do politics in this country, then you’re dead right. I can’t think of anything else you can decently do with it.