Sunday, 20 October 2013

The role of the internet in polarising opinion

In a recent TV programme, Frost on Satire, the American satirist Bill Maher was interviewed and the interviewer mentioned his quotation about the US that, "This country is not overrun with rebels & free thinkers. It's overrun with sheep & conformists." Maher went on to say that communities are often polarised, giving the average American "no reason to leave his echo chamber." The focus of the programme was of course on satire, and Maher was followed by Ian Hislop, who argued (much as I have in a previous post) that the main function of satire is not to change opinion but to validate and harden it. However Maher's comment got me thinking about a wider point about the internet in general.

I'm not sure that anyone predicted it in advance, but what the internet has done almost more than anything else is to provide a platform for vast numbers of people across the world to air their opinions in public. Any news article, any video, indeed almost anything on the internet is now followed by reams of comments, tallies of Facebook likes and Google +1s and streams of Twitter posts. All this, of course, provides an unrivalled opportunity for lively debate and the democratisation of opinion-giving and is thus a GOOD THING (to quote Sellar and Yateman). However, note that I said opinion-giving and not opinion-forming, because like satire I think such stuff will always tend to validate and harden opinion rather than forming it.

You see, the distinguishing feature of such internet-based comment, when compared with almost every form of public comment that predated the internet, is shortness- both of the pieces themselves and of the time taken to write them. Twitter is limited in length of its nature of course, but comment pieces tend to be equally short, and if they are not then they are usually truncated, with a "see more" link that few people probably ever use. Also, such pieces tend to offer a single (often fairly extreme) point of view- hardly surprising since they are generally probably fired off in a fit of rage/enthusiasm/irritation/exasperation. It is rare for a comment to start "You make a number of good points, @fascisttroll, but I would like to pick you up on one detail..."

Indeed it would seem that what the internet has done is to refine the ability of the general public to produce and respond to oneliners. Twitter seems precisely designed to limit each tweet to a single pithily expressed point, and memes can combine text and imagery to produce oneliners that are shorter, more focussed and at least as funny as anything that predated their invention.

However there is a big difference between oneliners and debate. In fact since time immemorial oneliners have been used to end rather than to further debate. You may have heard of the wonderful putdown attributed to Andrew Lang, "He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp-posts… for support rather than illumination," but do you have any idea of the subject of the debate in the context of which it was presumably used? Done well, oneliners are of course brilliant, and can demolish an idea in seconds. Who could argue for the more arcane features of traditional English grammar, such as never putting a preposition at the end of a sentence, after Winston Churchill's  famous "this is the sort of criticism up with which I will not put"?

Oneliners are of course often used to attack a person's reputation, and where they appear to us justified (the comment about Nixon: "He inherited some good instincts from his Quaker forebears but by diligent hard work, he overcame them" is a personal favourite) they are brilliant. However they can be cruel too. Churchill was famous for his character assassinations, such as "he was a modest man with much to be modest about," and Mark Twain's comment "I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it." is, when you think about it, downright nasty. Best of course is where two artists of the oneliner go head-to-head: when GBS wrote to Churchill "“I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend... if you have one,” Churchill replied "Cannot possibly attend first night; will attend second, if there is one.”

All of which is slightly off-topic of course. And that is fundamentally my point. The internet-based fora for "debate" do not in fact encourage such digression. If anyone started reading this blog entry in the first place they will probably have clicked away by now. The form of communication fostered by such media as Twitter and comment strands is characterised by speed and immediacy. Pieces are produced swiftly to make a single point, and read as quickly, most of the audience having already framed their personal viewpoint and looking for comments either to agree with (handily, you can often click "like" to register your agreement) or fulminate against. This is new: previously the process by which any statement of opinion appeared in the public domain took time. Even newspaper editors had to write their pieces, have them sub-edited, review them, place them on the page and wait fro them to be printed and distributed. Simple members of the public could only "write in" and hope that their piece would appear in the next day's paper at the earliest.

All of which is fine of course, and the internet has indeed democratised the process of opinion-giving to an extent I would never have predicted. No longer do our opinions come solely from politicians interviewed on the evening news or editorials in newspapers.

However there is a form of debate that the internet does not appear as yet to have fomented, and I think that is a shame. This is the sort of debate where contributors take time to formulate subtle and complex statements of opinion and take time also to absorb, consider and reflect on the contributions of others. As a child I attended Quaker meetings with my family and the one "rule" that I remember is that, if someone has spoken, nobody may respond immediately. There has to be a time of silence between contributions for those present to reflect on what has been said. And of course such silence is not encouraged on the internet. Indeed the opposite is often the case. Should you ever have found yourself following a lively interchange of opinions on a comment thread you will know that if you do not respond IMMEDIATELY then the thread will have moved on by the time your response is posted and it will look completely irrelevant.

It may seem a non-sequitor, but there is a relevance here to poetry. There are poems, such as haikus for instance, that are as short as tweets. However even they they were not produced as quickly, and as a result can have a subtlety that tweets never approach, and promote contemplation rather than instant reaction:
"rain falls on the grass,
filling the ruts left by
the festival cart."

And only slightly longer poems can be constructed to engage the reader in a journey of thought which challenges their preconceptions and encourages deep and repeated reflection, often ending in a surprising place. Shakespeare's most famous sonnet begins "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" and draws the reader in by purporting to be a poem about love. Yet by the end he has made the reflective reader think instead about how we form unattainable ideas about people we love, and about the nature and longevity of poetry itself. Show me a comment piece in an internet discussion that does anything similar. Of course, there may be several, but no-one would know, because no-one would have bothered to read to the end, let alone to reread and reflect on the whole piece.

I would like to end on a piece that combines poetry with comment on a political issue and shows the sort of comment that no-one would engage with if it appeared on the internet. And indeed feel free to click away now and scroll through the pages of comments that follow whatever news story is prominent right now.

The piece is Easter, 1916 by WB Yeats and is about the Easter Rising, which many have taken as the start point of the decades of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Yeats was originally a supporter of the Republicans and had long been in love with Maude Gonne, the estranged wife of John MacBride. Countess Markievicz was a long-time friend, though he is not particularly nice about her at the start of the second stanza.

The point about the poem though is the way that it takes a hugely inflammatory topic (the justifiability of violence in pursuit of a cause) and rather than arguing a single point of view it reflects on a range of issues. Its conclusion, such as it is, is the prescient but hardly simplistic line "a terrible beauty is born."

One of the ways that Yeats "debates" the issues involved is through his use of imagery, particularly in the third stanza. Using the extraordinary power of connotations he causes us to reflect on the image of the stone in the stream. The stone is the vehicle of this image, the tenor being the notion of a band of single-minded revolutionaries living in the midst of a world of more nuanced opinions. The relationship between tenor and vehicle is not straightforward here though, and the grounds subtle and complex, so it is really not clear at the end where Yeats' sympathies lie.

All of which might sound, in today's internet-based world, like woolly, waffly pontification without focus and direction. Yet for me Easter 1916 gives more space and encouragement for thought on a range of issues from Irish Republicanism to jihadist terrorism than thousands of oneliner comment thread contributions. Read it yourself, and see if you agree:

Easter 1916

I HAVE met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

That woman's days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our winged horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road.
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone's in the midst of all.

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse -
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

W. B. Yeats

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