Why does politics spiral into ever darker pits of cruelty and lies?
In an interview by Freddie Sayers (link at the end of the article), author Kate Clanchy, who has recently been the victim of a huge row about what’s racist and what isn’t, has made a good attempt at explaining why some political questions become social media pile ons, that become major real-world battles, that cause those concerned huge grief and material harm.
My take on all this political screaming and wailing is based on these passages (listed here because they make a handy summary of the story):
17:39-20:13 The timeline of Kate Clanchy’s cancellation
20:13-23:29 Pan MacMillan apologises for the social media furore around Kate’s book without consulting her
23:29-28:36 What did it feel like as the controversy raged?
28:36-31:09 Why did Kate agree to rewrite parts of her book?
I picked out these comments to think about…
Freddie Sayers: Where do you think the cruelty comes from?
Kate Clanchy: Well it’s in all of us
FS: The confusion is that in theory it comes from a good instinct — Protection of a vulnerable group and all of that and yet the ultimate effect of it is so vicious
KC: It comes from inside … it makes people so frightened and must be horrible for them because once they’ve uttered something …climbed too high a tree …. they’ve broken taboos, they’ve done something quite terrible really, and then it has to be the right thing, and so they have to double down. …. They have to keep justifying their words
We’ve all seen this…
Personally, I’m thinking about the women’s groups I work with which some people now habitually call ‘anti-trans hate groups’. Over the years, in vain we have asked people to watch the videos of meetings, told people there have been trans people at those meetings as speakers, and as audience participants, so how can we be denying they exist/should exist etc etc… but we are ignored by those who’ve already started shouting accusations. They’d rather pay attention to out-of-context quotes or even fake videos – anything that will justify the accusations they’ve been hurling.
Now we know why. In that Clanchy interview, Sayers appears to be puzzled (as was I) by Clanchy’s sympathy for her accusers, and her apparent contrition over a sin even she does not think she committed. He talks about ‘the theory that’ their words come from ‘a good instinct’. Clanchy’s sympathy is genuine. She sees her accusers as stuck up a tree, and climbing higher because they can’t get down – in other words, as having to continually make up worse accusations to justify their earlier ones.
Perhaps some of it comes from good instincts. I remember thinking about my own words and actions when I was part of the movement battling for a Corbyn government back in 2017. I do remember how passionately we grabbed for and amplified anything that made our case, then had to keep pulling ourselves up and re-thinking our arguments because Corbyn, like Clanchy, was outstandingly committed to not excluding anyone. He didn’t want to write off half the Labour Party. He wanted to give his accusers opportunities to climb down from their extreme positions.
Well, that didn’t work so I remain sceptical, but Clanchy’s clarity and generous empathy illustrate what happens so well, despite the fact that a lot of Twitterspats are no more than an opportunity for passing tw…. twitterers to be abusive and get away unscathed. If their spoutings match any bankable virtuous ideals then, by mere co-incidence, they get more traction. The media and company PR departments will quite happily run with them and cause vast amounts of grief – as Pan Macmillan did in the Clanchy case – no one in that story has ‘good instincts’.
I also know that there are, currently on my own soc media pages, potentially useful conversations that stalled because someone said something rather officious, which was amplified by someone being quite rude, and together on the page their declarations looked like a pile-on, so the one they were addressing rattled off a defensive paragraph that included something fairly annoying, got called out for that, and WHAM, everyone’s angry.
The people in that exchange all had good intentions, I think, so it’s an example of what Clanchy is talking about. We all need to look out for those moments when we transfer our impatience from one difficult conversation into another that doesn’t warrant it. We probably also need to remind ourselves that soc media conversations miss all those real-world checks and balances. It’s missing ‘sorry, did that sound harsh’, ‘what I meant was…’, ‘I didn’t realise that you…’ and ‘can I get you another coffee’ and stuff like that.
So what do we do?
Personally, I still think Clanchy is being way too sympathetic to a bunch of troublemakers but at the same time, it’s very useful to think of those who scream at you in righteous indignation (via soc media) as being unfortunately stuck up a tree they don’t know how to climb down. Just feel a wee bit sorry for them and carry on talking normally, or maybe figure out how to offer them a ladder….?
The interview on YouTube
(If you click through to the YouTube page, the notes under the video include an article for those who prefer reading to watching, and the break down of the timings of the different questions discussed)
It’s great to be able to identify what happens and how we might deal with it. One might even say ‘oh well, social media’s only been around for a couple of decades. We’ll get the hang of it.’
But we also have to get our heads round the way most politicians, and the PR departments of most profiteer companies (which includes universities, these days) have learned to exploit – or even generate – those social media pile-ons, and use them to make the changes they want – changes that often really don’t suit us – changes in the real world – changes that we would never vote for, given a chance to think it through.
I think Pan Macmillan only joined in the assumptions about Kate Clanchy to get themselves out of a difficult situation when her book suddenly seemed too hot to handle but sometimes, organisations have a larger goal in mind – like sabotaging people’s awareness of what their companies are actually doing. We need to get really good at climbing down from those trees when that happens or the rest of our time on this planet is going to be a mass of (to name a few) Brexit/anti-semitism/gender-theory/conspiracy-theory/vax-or-not, mask-or-not fights and we’ll never see the wood for the trees.
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