Internet Abuse

Both David Aaronovitch and Linda Grant have written articles about intemporate language on the internet.

Here’s Linda:

One of the most depressing aspects of reading and indeed writing for Comment is free since its inception, is that amidst otherwise intelligent and informative debate what has been revealed is the human mind’s propensity for taking pleasure in hatred, stereotyping and demonisation.

This hatred is not just reserved for people from Liverpool, but Muslims, Jews, Arabs, gay people, Americans. I responded to Robbo that the phenomenon seemed to have little to do with politics, but was located in a psychological space in the mind that enjoys hating, and is probably akin to bullying. The criteria are the invocation of a pattern of factually inaccurate, cliched stereotypes and prejudice that feeds off intellectual laziness and is impervious to correction. It is a characteristic of right and left, neo-con and anti-imperialist. The system of belief is beside the point.

And always the accusation comes straight back – get over yourself, stop whining, we’re only having a laugh, you’re too thin-skinned. For that is the bullies’ charter. Put up with what I dish out, or you’ll get more of the same. It’s fun for me, why can’t it be fun for you, too?

What, if anything, can be done to reclaim political discourse? Bullies can rarely be shamed into admitting that they have done anything wrong. Perhaps the only way is to stand up to them collectively, for people of sharply differing political opinions to cross the lines of debate and join with others with whom they do not agree on a particular question, to insist that the venom, spite, stereotyping and demonisation are not welcome.

David has a specific example of the phenomenon in action:

So to his site, where [Craig] Murray was highly critical of me being allowed by the BBC to interview Tony Blair last year on the basis that I was “a leading neocon, pro-war, pro-Zionist and anti-Muslim propagandist”. But if I was slightly saddened to see Mr Murray seduced by the adjectival Pavlovianism of the anti-war movement, I was staggered by what he said about me personally, describing me as “that sleazy fat neo-con slob Aaronovitch – someone should buy that man a picture for his attic”. Of course, I am too fat; “neocon” is the new all-purpose political accusation; though scrupulously clean, I occasionally underdress – and if Mr Murray feels so obviously superior in physical aesthetics, then I am sure The Times can provide the reader with photographs of us both to enable a comparison.

[//EDIT// Oh, go on then…]

But my point is that Craig Murray – until recently a diplomat employed by the Foreign Office – certainly didn’t give vent to this stuff to my face when he had the opportunity, nor, I think, would he ever have said anything so abusive when being interviewed on radio or television or in writing for a newspaper. It could only have been done in the particular atmosphere of the web.

Actually it got worse. Mr Murray’s readers then added comments in which I was further accused, along with others, of being a “Jewish racist of the deepest and most awful sort” and of possessing a “Weltanschauung of Jewish supremacy”. Mr Murray’s response was “Well, yes up to a point”, before reminding the more excitable and probably libellous posters that they shouldn’t forget that were some good Jews too.

Now suppose, that I were to write an article for this paper in which I began by telling readers that Craig Murray was not just wrong and oddly ill-informed, but that he was also – let’s say – a chinless, adulterous, anti-Semitic clown whose vanity and incontinence had led to him damaging those very causes that he claimed to care for so much. My editors wouldn’t have stood for it, and the readers would have thought less of me for it. Yet in several of the more lionised and supposedly political websites that influence some of our journalists, this is exactly the level of debate.

One reason for this libellous intemperance is the odd anonymity conferred by the internet, and the peculiar sense of indemnity it seems to offer. It is almost as if Mr Murray doesn’t quite realise that his abusiveness will be seen as abuse. It’s a psychology that means that we should be careful before we assume that we know what this or that internet eruption actually signifies.

I think that the reason that debates on the internet sometimes go this way is that people do not “know” each other. This is particularly so on a website, like CiF, which has no real sense of community, in part, because of the terrible design of the site. At other times, it is because people are deliberately coming to a website to have a heated argument about something or other. Some posters like to go on a windup. Others enjoy being wound up.

HP falls into the second category, most of the time. On some occasions, people are perfectly cordial, and opponents engage in well-measured banter with each other. The next day, they’re at each other’s throats. It isn’t always meant seriously.

CiF, by contrast, is a sewer. You can’t build up relationships with your opponents. You post and go. It is like a drive-by shooting.

What do you think?