Sunday, 6 November 2016

Looking each other in the face

Reading newspapers online has its pros and cons. Being able to read them when you're travelling is a real bonus, though not always when the wifi is as unreliable as it is here in Malawi. The disadvantage, however, is that you inevitably end up reading the spewings of vomit-laden comment which some people think are an appropriate response to any view expressed which does not exactly mirror their own.

Why do I read these comments then? Well, usually by accident, when I scroll down too far. So many are characterised by a complete lack of punctuation and a penchant for CAPITALS  and exclamation marks that they become mildly amusing!!!!!!! The reader recognises at once that these writers are casualties of the education system and may well have significant personal issues of their own. Having said that, they have the IT skills to manage to find their way around the Internet with ease and even end up reading, if superficially, earnest publications like the Guardian.

Sometimes I deliberately read the comments, often because I'm supposed to be working and this is a useful distraction, but also because I genuinely want to know what people are saying. Except, of course, that these commentators are a only tiny cross-section of the reading public. But then so am I, and so probably, are you.

Recently I have been reading the online comments quite frequently and quite deliberately, and not just from boredom.  Indeed, these days I have also been going one step further: I have started to respond to them. Why? Seems crazy on my part and a sheer waste of time, as none of these sad twisted people is going to change his or her mind because of what I have written. So why do it, then?

I don't bother perusing the comments on all the articles I read, of course. Not even I am that short of things to do. I have started to read them, however, when they're attached to articles about subjects that I really care about. At the moment, this is largely the refugee crisis which I find heartbreaking and about which I feel helpless. Twenty quid to UNICEF is not going to stop it.

These comments about foreigners post-Brexit worry me most. I worry about the calls for all refugees to drown. I worry about the calls for everybody without a teddybear to be sent back to the battlefield. Above all, I worry about what our country is becoming. I want to track the hardening of views and the progressive loss of compassion and empathy which treats all people who are 'other' as faceless. I do feel we are on a knife's edge and could so very easily slip into anti-foreigner fanaticism, if we are not there already.

I have started responding to individual comments calmly and logically, trying to provide a few well-founded evidence-based details, dismantling some of the more mischievous of the Daily Mail-inspired invented 'facts', demanding proof and so on.

The results have actually been quite encouraging. No, I haven't suffered from any venomous personal commentary so far. I don't count the 'do-gooding' accusations as venomous. Quite complimentary, actually. The people whose 'arguments' I have been trying to discredit just tend to fizzle out. They clearly can't cope with rational debate. However, the really encouraging thing is that so many other people start doing the same thing - comment after comment quietly debunking the racists with factual information.

But why waste one's time? Why not just leave these poisonous simpletons to fester in the venom they milk from their carefully-cultivated resentments?

I have started to intervene because otherwise it looks as if they have no opposition, nobody questioning, nobody challenging. In the echo-chamber of the online forum, their mad ravings rule. And if they ever venture outside the view-less womb of their computer room, how are they going to behave? Are they the people who beat up Poles and rip hijabs off women's heads? And, in our current frenzy of mob-rule, when will the online mobs start marching down the street and begin enacting their own Kristallnacht? I feel I have to take a stand.

What particularly worries me about the attitudes adopted is the way those making comments use blanket terms and make blanket judgements. Poles are this.... Refugees are that.....left-wing do-gooders are something else....

What I virtually never do, however, is challenge some of the nasty stuff nearer to home. I usually ignore it and don't respond for fear of being tracked down. It is such a slippery slope.

One relatively minor event shook me a bit a couple of weeks ago, however. There on Facebook was one of those stupid memes which people like me waste their time with. The post emanated from a Nationalist website. It involved six miniature maps of England, with the border of Scotland carefully delineated. Each mini-map had a caption, condemning 'England' for some crime or other. I can't find the post again and all I can remember is the final caption: 'England voted Brexit'. I think there was also one about 'England voted Tory'. It sounds likely. All designed to whip up Scottish antagonism against the 'English'. Perhaps it was supposed to be funny. I didn't find it funny.

The reason the post appeared on my newsfeed? Because a friend of mine had 'liked' it. Six damning comments about 'England', a blanket term if ever there was one, all supported by a friend.

I then looked at the online comments. Poisonous sneer after poisonous sneer.

Trivial, you might think. Why bother? Well, I didn't actually. I hummed and hawed, my fingers hovered over the keys, I typed in some letters then deleted them. I didn't do anything, however, as I didn't want to upset my friend.

So, my friend thinks that 'England' is a monoculture, a bland undifferentiated land mass in which everyone has adopted the same political standpoint, a standpoint that all good Scots would and should abhor.

My friend includes in this mass of right-wing English bigots my son and his family in South London, my in-laws also in South London, my brother and his family in Cornwall, my nephew in Bristol, another nephew in London, another nephew in Manchester, my cousin and his family in Essex, another cousin and her family in Rutland, another cousin and his family in Northamptonshire, another cousin and his family in Cornwall (again), a cousin in Dorset, another in-law in Cambridge, another set of in-laws in the Lake District, more in-laws in Lincolnshire and my second cousin in Manchester.

And that's without me even starting on my friends: the set in Malvern, another set in Worcester, another set in South Yorkshire, another set in Dorset etc etc. All undifferentiated rightwingers, so my friend and his online buddies would have you believe. All Little Englanders.

You get the point. All English people are the same, wherever they live, whatever they do for a living, wherever they were born, whatever their life experiences, whatever their religious allegiances etc etc. All the same. An identical view to the one which I had been tackling through the online comments about foreigners for weeks on end.

Now, of course we know that that interpretation is not true. My friend does not even know that my family members exist, let alone how they voted either in the general election or in the EU Referendum. Actually NOT Tory, NOT UKIP either, so that's one prejudice dealt with. Oh, and they were Remainers to the last man or woman. Indeed some of my English friends and family live in places which voted Remain at higher levels than the area in Scotland where my friend himself lives.

My friend almost certainly did not intend to upset me. I am not close enough to the target area on his radar to feature as an 'English' person who might be offended or upset by anti-English racist propaganda. He could even have forgotten that he had some English friends and that I was one of them. Am I his only English acquaintance? I doubt it.

If my friend met my English family and friends, he would be perfectly and quite genuinely pleasant to them because he is a genuinely pleasant person and because he would find them quite pleasant people. They are my friends, after all. The 'England' of the meme is an invention.

Actually, the brave valiant little Scotland standing up against the English bully is also an invention. Are all Scots the same? No. Do they all vote the same? No. Did they all vote SNP? No. Did they all vote Remain? No. And so it goes on. However, you wouldn't think so from the massaging of news stories these days.

I had put the minor incident of the mini-map out of my mind until I read my online version of The Herald today. Here were members of the Scottish Nationalist Party kicking each other under the table because they had all been pretending that they were, to the very last man or woman, 'overwhelmingly' cuddly Remaining teddy bears and now, it seems, it isn't true. Even worse, it turns out that some of them actually voted for Brexit. Quite a lot of them, actually. 38% actually, a handful of them even MSPs. There they have been, making nasty comments in very public places about English people who voted Leave against the 'overwhelming' wishes of 'the Scottish people' and it turns out that quite a number of them did too, kept it quiet, joined in the barracking of the faceless hapless English and now have been outed.

So, I am going to carry on challenging bigotry, ignorance and prejudice wherever I find it. Wherever? Well, not exactly. That was a bit of an exaggeration, but it sounded good. I need my friends. They are very important to me. So perhaps I just have to put up with one or two of them occasionally treating my family and me as if we were faceless identikit monolithic Tory-voters.

The other solution of course, is that perhaps we should all just start looking each other in the face a bit more when we express an opinion.

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