Wednesday 10 June 2015

Nodding and smiling.

In 1992, pollsters got the General Election wrong because they had no idea (even though it's, you know, their job to know these things) about the Shy Tory Effect. Afterwards, studying what went wrong, they discovered the Shy Tory Effect. Since then, they have expent considerable effort on adjusting their methodologies to take account of the Shy Tory Effect. Until finally, this year, they got completely caught off guard (even though it's, you know, their job to know these things) by the Shy Tory Effect. Twice. After all these years of effort, they've progressed from being flummoxed by the unknown to being befuddled by the known. Progress.

So what should the pollsters be looking at, that they aren't? Well, I reckon they could do a lot worse than watching Facebook.

I like Facebook. It enables me to keep in touch with friends (something I am otherwise quite bad at, partly because my friends are scattered around the globe and partly because I just am quite bad at it). We swap silly stories and jokes and have some quite fun and interesting conversations. I know very few people whose updates consist entirely of "Spaghetti for dinner! Woohoo!" (though, to be fair, all my friends know at least one person who goes on and on about his bloody lunch). Facebook is the Web's version of a living room. Or it is when it's at its best, anyway.

Lately, it has not been at its best.

Come round to my living room, and we might converse about many things: kids, work, music, holidays we're looking forward to, just how bloody great Peppa Pig is (really fucking great being the answer to that one), and, yes, quite possibly a bit of politics. That last is tricky, though. Some of my friends agree with me about lots of things, and we can have a good old eye-roll together about how people genuinely thought Ed Miliband was Prime Minister material. (No, really, they did.) Some of them agree with me about almost nothing but are perfectly happy to have a good-natured argument with no hurt feelings. And some live in the Lefty Echo Chamber, in which case I do the sensible thing and don't talk about politics, because disagreement confuses and upsets them, and — and this is the crucial bit — they're my friends. I don't particularly want to confuse and upset my friends. As the old proverb says, better to offer another slice of cake than to laugh about Ed Balls. (Though I understand Yvette does both.)

This used to be a fundamental and well observed rule of social interaction: "Don't mention politics." You didn't do it down the pub, certainly. It wasn't an absolute law: everyone understood there were exceptions, and it was fine when you knew you were surrounded by the like-minded. But, in a mixed group of people, gathered together because of their shared enthusiasm for drinking or Renoir or Abba or (hey, who hasn't?) all three at once, you just didn't do it, because doing so would almost certainly turn a perfectly nice time into a heated argument. And what is Facebook, if it isn't a disparate bunch of people with a lot more setting them apart than they have in common? That's what friends are.

On the Right, the rule is still observed, mostly. On the Left, it's been kicked to death.

Now, I've mentioned before Brian Micklethwait's dictum that it's important, when people espouse political beliefs you disagree with, to let them know that you disagree with them. Not to have a big fight, perhaps not even to have a polite debate, but just to let them know that you disagree. That way, they are informed that people they know, people moving in their own circles, normal people disagree with them. People who are never reminded of that fact can all too easily make a terrible mistake. Every time they mention their politics, no-one ever disagrees with them. Everyone nods and smiles. They can come to believe that their politics are completely unremarkable. They can come to believe that the people they hear about or see on TV who hold opposing views are just some crazy weird statistical outliers.

It never occurs to them that half the people nodding and smiling are doing so not because they agree, but because they don't. They're waiting for the conversation to move onto something less contentious. They're being polite.

I agree with Brian, so, although I very very rarely start a political conversation on Facebook, if someone else does, I join in. I let them know there's another side. But I'm odd that way. Most right-wingers are not doing that. They're nodding and smiling.

And not just out of politeness. It used to be just politeness, but the whole thing has been exacerbated by the Left's new zeal for ideological enforcement via outrage. Over the last ten years or so, a significant faction of the Left have moved from disagreeing with views they dislike to banning them. Sometimes they manage to get the law on their side, as with the recent Northern Irish case where it has been ruled that it is actually illegal to refuse to write a slogan supporting a political cause you disagree with. (That's going to be a fun legal precedent when someone demands a cake with a swastika on it, isn't it? Or perhaps someone could commission a Muslim artist to draw Mohammed?) But, when they can't get the law's help, no matter: they just gather thousands of people together and make their target's life hell anyway.

Brendan Eich: sacked for holding the completely unremarkable belief that marriage is between a man and a woman. Not just disagreed with, not just shouted at. His employer was hassled and harassed until continuing to employ him was getting in the way of everyday business, so they backed down to the ideological enforcers and sacked him. And how did the enforcers know what his views were on marriage? Because left-wing agents of the IRS leaked confidential details of people's private political donations to their comrades. Illegal, immoral, and corrupt, but good luck finding a left-winger who gives a fuck. All in a good cause, right?

That PlayHaven developer: sacked for making a pun to a friend in a private conversation. Justine Sacco: sacked and issued with death threats and hounded into hiding, not even for disagreeing with left-wing orthodoxy, but for agreeing with it but using irony to make her point. Irony! Eek!

I know some people on the Web were suggesting that my employers should be hounded into sacking me for the thought-crime of pricking a third-rate comedian's ego. I'm glad that campaign didn't take off. I've got into flame wars online for supporting gay marriage but disagreeing with the idea that it's marriage "equality" and pointing out that the oft-cited "right to marry the person you're in love with" supposedly enjoyed by straight people is entirely fictitious. As I've said before, this is insane: flying off the handle at people who support your cause but don't agree with every single opinion you hold is just bad politics. If your local Labour candidate turns up on your doorstep and you tell them you intend to vote Labour, they don't start screaming at you because you disagree with them about trade union block votes. They're happy to accept the votes of people with a wide range of views. All successful democratic political movements are coalitions — they have to be. That's not to say that non-coalitions can't be successful. They can succeed. By being undemocratic. Or, worse, antidemocratic. Which is exactly what you're being when you stir up an online mob to punish someone for having the wrong thoughts.

Into this toxic new environment, the modern lefty places onto Facebook a link to the latest hateful frothing from The Guardian: "SO TRUE!" What are their friends going to do? Express support for Israel's right to self-defence? Point out that a four-year study by the EPA has failed to find one iota of evidence that fracking pollutes water supplies? Say "Actually, I work for banks, and I'd appreciate it if you, who claim to be my friend, would stop publicly advocating for my salary to be confiscated and my family to lose their home"? Knowing that the public release of our opinions could lead to a flame war, the loss of friends, death threats, and the harassment of our employer until they sack us? Sure, it probably won't, but who wants to take on that sort of risk when they can just scroll down and their next friend has posted a really good cat video? Especially when the reason most of us are even on Facebook is for fun.

No, mostly, you nod and smile.

And thus was constructed the Lefty Echo Chamber. We've ended up with the political equivalent of those morbidly fascinating early-rounds X Factor contestants: people who aren't just offended by criticism but have trouble getting their heads around the idea that people who might criticise them even exist. It's totally outside their experience. I mean, for God's sake, The Guardian actually published this:

Why it’s OK to cry about this election

And it's somehow not a parody.

I finally broke down properly at around 6pm on Friday, when I allowed myself, finally, to think about my little brother, who is severely disabled, and what might happen to him. Whether I should grab him and run for the hills so that we could camp down together under warm, soft blankets and not come down again until the bad people have gone.


The nodding and smiling is getting wearing, though. It's tiring, watching people you like slag you off in public, in front of you, and turning the other cheek. Especially if you're just there for fun. It's like throwing a dinner party to which a bunch of the guests turn up carrying placards saying "FUCK YOU". And there's no middle-ground allowed in your reaction: you can cut them off forever or you can put up with it. A friend of mine told me recently (offline) how angry it made him, being put in the constant position of detesting people he knows he likes. On the subject of one particular friend: "She's lovely, and I want to keep in touch for the sake of old times, but oh my God could she just shut the fuck up?" He's sick of having his friends' politics thrown at him constantly whilst knowing how appallingly those same friends would react if he were to express his own views online. He's sick of being harangued.

So's Tom Conti:

A frequent visitor to my house in London regularly used the expression ‘Tory sh*tes’ – often in front of my in-laws who were Tory but far from sh*tes. Educated, civilised people, they bore it in silence. Conversely, I have never heard Tory friends express hatred for anyone.

I mentioned earlier that I do, very occasionally, start conversations about politics on Facebook. I have two criteria. Firstly, the thing I'm linking to has to be interesting above and beyond its mere political content. So, for instance, I recently mentioned this policy advice from the Adam Smith Institute to the Labour Party, not because I agree with all of it but because it was interesting how these policies from a right-wing think-talk would actually not be out of place in a left-wing party — some of them I first saw coming from the Left, in fact.

Secondly, and more importantly, I have to be up for a fight.

For I was raised on the Left, and the idea of talking about politics without arguing is bizarre to me. But then that was the Old Left. Brian Micklethwait (yes, him again) said to me the other day how he's finding the Communists to be quite reasonable and civilised these days — because Communists (at least as long as you don't let them have an actual country) have always been all about the debate. Endless, endless debate about every bloody thing, sure — but that's infinitely better than this modern penchant for refusing to believe that there even is a debate.

The denizens of the Lefty Echo Chamber don't talk about politics in order to have a debate. They talk about politics in order to declare an allegiance. "Here's a thing I agree with," they say, and their Facebook wall starts to fill up with friends saying, "Damn straight," "Well said," "Couldn't agree more," "Such a good point." What's the fucking point of that? I struggle to imagine anything more tedious.

Not everyone on the New Left lives permanently in the Lefty Echo Chamber, thank fuck. Some of my friends are up for an argument — which is just as well, since they have me in their lives. But sometimes they get exasperated and wish I'd shut up. In which case, I think, "Well, if you don't want to talk about politics, don't talk about politics."

But a handful of now ex friends have been quite firmly ensconced in the Lefty Echo Chamber, and have simply cut me off for not toeing the line. One man — a man I once defended from bastards on the Internet, ironically — unfriended me and, I think, will never be in contact again because I pointed out that Mitt Romney is quite a nice guy. One very old friend turned his Facebook wall into a constant barrage of ranting abuse against bankers, laced with a profound ignorance of finance dressed up as expertise, and hasn't been in touch on- or offline for years because I, though polite, didn't just sit there and take it. And one friend, whose Facebook wall was basically just the US Democratic Party's Twitter feed, was so abusive towards me for disagreeing that I had to unfriend her. Her only purpose in mentioning politics was to collect sycophancy. Disagreement was not allowed. Well, fuck that. Why would I sign up to a service where I get harangued and am not allowed to answer back? Because that service is offered by a friend? That makes it worse, not better.

But even most of my friends who are willing to have an argument still have one foot in the Lefty Echo Chamber. What else could explain their reaction to the election result? Not just disappointment or upset but sheer uncomprehending bafflement. They have almost no experience of the existence of Tories, yet it turns out loads of people voted for them. Who are these people?

These people are the ones nodding and smiling. You know lots of them — statistically, unless you're in Scotland, it is highly likely that around half your friends voted Tory. Hey, some of your friends probably voted UKIP. Yes, even though you've been calling them "evil stupid Nazis" for years, to their faces. They still did it. They just didn't tell you. Because they knew, with absolute certainty, that you'd be an arsehole about it.

Like Rebecca Roache, for instance, who is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of London and was a research fellow in philosophy at Oxford, and who became briefly famous for writing this drivel:

If you’re a Conservative, I’m not your friend

One of the first things I did after seeing the depressing election news this morning was check to see which of my Facebook friends ‘like’ the pages of the Conservatives or David Cameron, and unfriend them. (Thankfully, none of my friends ‘like’ the UKIP page.) Life is too short, I thought, to hang out with people who hold abhorrent political views, even if it’s just online.

This makes me profoundly glad to have studied philosophy at the country's leading philosophy department. I mean, I hear Oxford is considered quite prestigious, and yet they're still producing philosophers this laughably stupid?

Firstly, let's not get confused by Roache's deliberate conflation of the Facebook Like button with an actual literal liking. (I say "deliberate" because I'm assuming she's not a total fuckwit.) The Like button simply defines what you get in your news feed. I'm pretty sure every political journalist in the country Likes the Conservatives' and UKIP's pages — and Labour's, and the SNP's, and probably the British Communist Party's. Frankly, a philosophy lecturer with a declared interest in the study of ethics should be doing the same. I mean, come on: you want to teach ethics but you don't want to be exposed to various ethical systems? The message here is clear as a bell: Don't study philosophy at Oxford or London, kids.

But now look at what Roache had to do in order to unfriend her right-wing ex friends: she had to check their Likes. Why? Because they didn't fill their Facebook feeds with their politics — if they had, she wouldn't have had to check. Did Roache do the same? No, obviously not: there's not much in her public feed, but enough to leave little doubt about her politics. And we are talking about someone who told the world that she can't even bear to have right-wing friends here. She's not exactly shy about expressing her opinion.

So here's the glaringly obvious thing that appears not to have even occurred to Roache: All those people she cut off because she couldn't bear the thought of even knowing them were people who kept seeing her proclaim her views, who disagreed with those views, who no doubt found some of what she said outright offensive, and yet they remained her friends anyway. How self-absorbed do you need to be not to realise that this is something to be valued, not thrown away?

As I said above, that is what friends are.

All that being said, diss Peppa Pig and you're dead to me. Some things are just... I can't even... Just no.