News & Commentary

Helen Razer's mea culpa (and the tyranny of internet debate)

| |

Journalists warn each other often never to enter the internet’s bottom half. “Don’t read the comments”, they say; and, if one wants to live to write another day, this is probably good advice. Say, for example, one writes a piece on the qualities of proper sponge cake, the comments may offer “why are you body-shaming sponge cake?” or “typical left-wing refusal to acknowledge the tea cake” or simply “you are a sponge-cake loving arsehole who should die”, and you may be disinclined again to write for fear of either (a) dying or, worse, (b) being misunderstood. Ergo, don’t read the comments. 
Personally, I have never been able to follow this guidance. And this is not just that I am a sucker-for-punishment, but because I am greedy for good ideas. There are good ideas in the comments. There is often valuable instruction. Once in Crikey, someone offered a surprisingly simple explanation of the relationship of GDP to debt with the use of a primary school-level fraction analogy. Often at Daily Review, readers will offer cultural references of which I hadn’t known or thought. This enlivens conversation for readers and challenges writers to out-read their highly literate audience. The good in the “bottom half” is something I choose to elevate.
But, this has been a peculiar few days at work. First, a piece I wrote on Daily Review “went viral”, as they say. Second, this prompted a lot of personal abuse on the internet generally — this happens regularly, but not so forcefully as it has in the last week.
Third, this has prompted in me some very unhealthy reactions — which is to say, in one case, I myself reacted like an idiot — and I just wanted here to share some notes on the experience in the hope this may clarify for some of you the Sisyphean chore of trying to either make a point or stay sane on the internet.
If you’ve ever been trapped in the hell of a Facebook thread and found that it actually turns you into *just* the fuckwit against which you’re reacting, perhaps this account will be helpful. We start with the best intentions. These can very often quickly devolve into the worst.
I was very careful in this particular published piece, as I am in all professionally published pieces, not to personally disparage people. This is not because I am lovely. It is because (a) I don’t like being sued, and (b) I know that criticising a person and not an idea is not a useful argument. And, you know, it’s also just mean.
This piece was misread as personal attack. Many correspondents and commentators attacked me personally and very publicly on the basis that I had made a personal attack. Which I had not. I am not asking for sympathy here as I am also, as you will soon see, prone to this kind of behaviour myself. Of course, I don’t say “Kill yourself!” or “You are mental!” or “You are a has-been who doesn’t deserve to work!” as others have to me. Still. I am vulnerable, as many people are vulnerable, to produce an aching degree of self-involved internet stupid.
The way we now talk to each other about Serious Issues can be very peculiar. We diminish their intellectual complexity by transforming them into some very bleak and simple cognition.
My work and the reactions to it are a bit different than Facebook or everyday social media experience in that I will spend several days writing and researching a single piece, because such is my profession. I have the great luxury of time to think. But, still, it’s not even as if there are parallels between the social media experience and the journalist’s. Often, as one’s work is discussed on Facebook, it’s a matter of absolute convergence.
Which is to say, these observations may be of direct use to you, whatever your profession.
Our emerging conversation often proceeds: someone makes a point about a big issue. Someone calls them a fuckwit for holding that view. Someone reasonable may enter the “debate” at this point and ask for all players to consider the complexity of the big point at hand, and the two people having the argument call the reasonable person a fuckwit, transforming them also into a hurt fuckwit. No one is talking any longer about the big point. Meantime, everyone is busy on Wikipedia picking cherries at speed with the partial intention of making a point, but the ultimate intention of diminishing others. And, very often, no one actually has any reliable clue about the point at hand. But, everyone feels that the right to freedom of expression is the same thing as an obligation to expression. It’s not just “I’m entitled to my opinion” anymore. We actually feel we’re required to hold one. Even if we know dick-all about the matter at hand.
We can see this play out very well in new TV show, The Verdict. Which I criticised in exactly these terms.
But. It was just this week that I answered a comment in very personal terms. I have just spent a day writing to the chap to apologise because my ugliness, derived from conversational stupidity, has been troubling me ever since I pressed “submit”. And in this case, he had not even attacked me personally but simply countered a point not even made by me, but by another commenter entirely, whom I felt he had disparaged. Which he hadn’t. And, yes, I know that “he said, she said, ooh look over there at that shiny thing” is hard to follow, but that’s the perverse shape of internet conversation, isn’t it? We amass misunderstanding to the point of mutually assured intellectual destruction. Afterwards, we stockpile justification for the fact we have been an arsehole.
And, I was an arsehole.
My reaction, which I describe fairly confident that you have experienced a similar exchange, was produced in the crucible of personal attack. Muggins here, who should have known better, felt so upset that her objective work had been widely read as personal attack, that she personally attacked an objective presentation. Which does not excuse the fact that I made a nasty, hasty comment to one who had nothing particularly offensive to say to me. But does, to some degree, explain it.
There are some popular, scholarly works on the topic of instant reactions and the Big Emotions and small thinking these produce. John Freeman, former editor of Granta, has written in The Tyranny of Email a historical and referenced account of how we now read much more quickly, comprehend much less fully — according to several laboratory studies, we now read less than 50% of full texts to which we will respond — and answer much more forcefully. The non-stop context of electronic communications also appears to us as an ongoing conversation. Which is to say, all the discrete communications we read become part of a mass — it all happened on the internet, after all. And so, we react to what we perceive to be the entire conversation — made up of many comments and correspondents about which no other account holder but us could know. To say we are talking to each other at cross purpose is tragic understatement. We are all, very often, talking to our own hurt feelings.
I have made drier presentation about this process before. I have described how someone makes an assertion by internet and, whether this has a basis in research and sound thinking or not, how reactions to it quickly become about something else altogether. This “something else” is most often our belief we must spend our annual opinion entitlement. We think: I have a voice and I am going to use it. Even, and sometimes especially, if I have nothing to actually say. And in the absence of having anything to say, I am going to say that you’re an arsehole. Because, dammit, I had a shit day on the internet or elsewhere.
When I have written about this very quick turn-around, which transforms intellectual complexity into the lowest kind of cognition — we don’t read properly and then we respond more quickly than we ever have before in history and so misinterpretation piles on top of misinterpretation — I haven’t really said that I can be guilty of it, too. So, here, for the sake of better future dialogue, is my personal abuse to myself: Helen, you have been a fuckwit.
As a commenter and a provoker of comments, I will expend more effort. I value good conversation, not just for the pleasure I can take in it but the way it can lead to good thinking over time. So, I don’t want to demean conversation by saying “your a dick” [sic] or even of talking about material I am not reasonably qualified to talk about. That’s my commitment as a provider of news analysis and criticism.
I fully expect this declaration to prompt more personal abuse. I give it about thirty seconds before someone on the internet publicly says “If Helen Razer won’t talk about stuff she doesn’t know, she’ll be out of work, lol!” All I can try to do is not react, either directly or in the broader conversation, to such comment.
I would ask that you consider taking a similar approach in your Facebook conversations and in your comments online. Don’t diminish conversations with speed and anger but extend them with time and thought. This is no injunction to be pleasant. It is simply an invitation to talk and to elevate the “bottom half” to the primacy it deserves.
Thanks for reading this far without heading to your social media account and calling me a dick. Thanks for waiting, at least, until I was done.
And again, I am sorry to that bloke for being an arsehole. You didn’t deserve it.

28 responses to “Helen Razer's mea culpa (and the tyranny of internet debate)

  1. Far be it from me to advise on the necessity or otherwise of your own personal abuse however may I say your moment of fuckwittedness would be the exception that proves the rule of your professionalism. Long may your tone, well researched & beautifully written pieces reign!

    1. Well NOW I feel lame for using the comments only to thank Ms Razer for adding personal insight – rather than offering insight or instruction from which she can benefit.
      Ms Razer, there just no-one who writes like you with the mix of the passionate personal, and insightful and analysis.
      I’m sorry you strayed, and it is indeed unprofessional that you did – but big of you to admit, analyse and publicly reflect on it. As a truer exploration of the phenomenon, it is far more likely to temper my own hasty reactions than your (invisible) restraint would ever have been.
      So thank you, for that much at least.

  2. There is joy
    in gentleness
    in refraining
    from action
    from declaration
    from condemnation
    and above all
    till the heat
    of the moment
    what is not done
    need not be undone

  3. I always look forward to reading H Razer’s columns…and the mental health piece & this latest one are no exceptions.

  4. Thank you, Helen. I appreciate your honesty as well as your well-considered analysis and advice. Okay, that’s enough toadying.

  5. As a rampagingly narcissistic and usually long-winded hijacker of other people’s hard-earned online bylines, generally in casual passing while on a fag break…I personally can’t fathom why any of you professionals tolerate comments from us amateurs for a millisecond. The kind of people you want to read your stuff will still read it without an opportunity to reply. Pains me to say it HR but you guys really should get rid of us guys. Interactive Op Ed was dopy fun while it lasted but, really: let us wannabes earn our own goddamned bylines, if we love the sound of our own voices so much. Or start our own site. If our output is pure irresistible genius then you can always chuck us a boosting link…

  6. Someone once said that a Gentleman is someone who can play the bagpipes but chooses not to.
    That’s always struck me as good metaphorical advice vis a vis internet posting.
    “Because one can”, doesn’t mean one should.

  7. Can I say it (or tweet it or facebook it) is pretty much always (imo) secondary to the question of should I say it. The Internet has pretty much made us gods of the Can (no pun intended) but totally ruined our appetite for asking should.
    I think we need more Helen Razers!

  8. It’s at times like these I like to remind myself of this document which I was pointed to in 1985. I’d been slung off UK network research mailing lists for being abusive a few times before then, and it cheers me up no end that it remains substantially true to these days.
    I know below the line comments aren’t email but the fundamentals of online communication haven’t really changed that much.

  9. Seems appropriate:
    It’s somehow a pity that most of the world didn’t know about Usenet while it was a functioning discussion medium, nor watch it in its decline (but I’m glad of it!) It was excellent training, particularly in the art of not rising to trolls. My hope is that in another few years the medium of internet-mediated text communication will have normalized within society and everyone will have learned more positive reactions.
    Or maybe it will all be video, and much, much worse…

  10. Geez Helen don’t be so tough on yourself. Your mental health piece the other day, as an example, was searingly good and challenged the twee predictability of the ‘norm’. Discourse should be encouraged not discouraged. And, for the recent comments you made that troubled you, at least you had the courage to reflect and apologise. Not many do. Mark Llewellyn.

  11. Very nicely written and nuanced. You identified the problem clearly. We (half) read and then (half) think the response. We all get shouty and then we move on. Ad hominem attacks over a beer are usually laughed at later. In writing they endure and can be revisited and picked at. Most of us read your pieces and don’t comment probably because we have nothing meaningful to add (if we are honest with ourselves) or just too lazy. Keep thinking and writing. I, for my part, do appreciate your efforts.

  12. Helen I think I know the comment you’re referring to, because the gentleman came back and made it clear he was actually personally hurt and feeling vulnerable which is not always easy to admit or use without being manipulative…. That’s hard to take. I think most of the time in Internet Arguments, people just say they’re “offended” for some almost-political reason and continue to hurl shit and nonsense.
    Your response here is thought provoking as always…and also your hair looks amazing, when did they make the photos bigger?

  13. Hi Helen. Get your drift about too speedy. Ditto, responses. Sometimes what you write requires effort from readers like me~ and I admit I can skim over elements which don’t make sense on a first read as I appreciate layering and craft but I am seeking the “what are you saying”. Anyhoo, this vent is clear.

  14. Unfortunately, it’s only the wise who know they are stupid. All the regular stupid people have no clue.
    Just by reflecting and admitting your own intellectual miscarriages makes you several cuts about the average Joe.

  15. I just hope your MeaCulpa is not going to make you tone down your style, you are the only columnist I read on the internet and I would miss your sharp wit (and tongue), because it is always very intelligent and worth reading. Keep writing!

    1. Warm thanks, Mia. Such extraordinary flattery works very well (to the distress of many, I’m sure!) to keep me writing.
      As for the possibility that my tone will be tempered. I’m afraid this is close to nil. I can’t seem to stop writing as I do. And, honestly, I have tried.

  16. Its good to be Human. Hey I have fucked up many times & I admire anyone who can admit it. Discourse is about slinging shit sometimes & being forgiven for it. Fuck if I was to go after the diddos who monitor my shit 24/7(yes they do!!!) I would be as big an arsehole as thos e who think they know better. Having said that, I sincerley the person turns this into a positive as can be achieved. I rather like most of your material Ms Razer. So please be forgiven so we can have more of that sharp, dry wit.

  17. It is the habit of fools,
    be they laymen, or belonging to the king, or members of the clergy, to think:
    “this is done by me. May others be subject to me.
    In this or that transaction a prominent part should be played by me.”
    Fools do not care for the duty to be performed or the aim to be reached,
    but think of their self alone.
    Everything is but a pedestal of their vanity.–The dhammapada.

  18. Contrary to what follows, I am trying to stop remarking on most things, even though I can, even though sometimes I should, even though that other bloke is such a trolling dick.
    Yeah, been sucked in before, but always trying to learn from my mistakes.
    I can be acerbic, but always try to veer away from the personal abuse, but not always easy, so I don’t go in hard when I do.
    Been self-exiled (escaped) from an internet community due to the abuse of one particularly obnoxious poster. I had been a regular there for nearly a decade and contributed muchly, and mostly positively.
    But eventually you have to let things go, and letting go of the need to air my opinions publicly is one of them I’m working on now.
    No, not giving up, just trying to limit my input.
    Good luck HR. Everyone’s a dickhead some time. Some of us recognise those moments, the rest are yet to be informed of their status.

  19. Beautifully put Helen, and to all of the people who offered an opinion, the same. What a refreshing read that was.
    Helen you write great and thoughtful stuff (oh no, is ‘stuff’ demeaning?), but it is always going to be fuel for the haters. “Haters gonna hate”. just find the ‘block’ button for these morons.
    I hope you can take a deep breath of fresh air, (and confidence from the comments that your … stuff … is very worthy), and continue on, as it can be difficult to latch on to a great contributor such as yourself.
    Now before we all start vomiting …
    … all the best, keep it coming.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *