July 24, 2016

On sides, and the choosing of them

Earlier this week I was told, on Twitter, to "choose a side". We're awash with sides at the moment, aren't we? Leave vs Remain, Corbynista vs social democrat, radical vs liberal feminism, new Ghostbusters vs old Ghostbusters... the list goes on.

This, though, was in relation to one of the most complex and divisive issues in UK conservation, namely hen harriers and driven grouse shooting. I am not going to rehearse the landscape of this conflict here – partly because to do so would doubtless be to invite vicious criticism from one 'side' or the other, determined to show that I have deliberately misrepresented the situation somehow – but I do encourage everyone who cares about wildlife and the countryside to find out more.

Although being told to "choose a side" (with all the implied criticism it contains) was unwelcome, it came as no surprise. I follow a wide range of people on Twitter, including those whose opinions differ from mine, and I try to interact with people as human beings and treat them with respect. Given how poisonously polarised the hen harrier/DGS debate has become, I knew that this might be causing discomfort. And so it has proved.

Moreover, I've learned not to join in with Twitter pile-ons, or insult or mock people I disagree with. This is partly because I have no wish to add to the febrile atmosphere that permeates social media at the moment, and which I think is poisoning so much of our public debate. It's also because the moment that you insult or belittle someone, the opportunity for progress in the discussion is lost because they're not going to be open to anything else you say. Why should they?

I also choose, for the most part, not to comment publicly many of the issues that give off the most heat on social media. This is because I have discovered, over the past six years, that except in very rare cases it is usually pointless. A cycle is in place in which every event sparks a million 'hot takes', which themselves spark critiques, memes and takedowns, which spark pile-ons, polemics and the taking of sides – until something else comes along, a new set of flags for everyone to rally sanctimoniously around.

It may feel, when one is penning one's latest think piece, or coming up with a really scathing 140-character response to a high-profile tweeter's shockingly outrageous and utterly evil throwaway comment, that one is partaking in the life of the nation, the vital to-and-fro of events. But this is not the case. The future of the Labour party is not currently being decided by any of the extremely certain and morally outraged people who are currently filling my timeline with playground-level propaganda; it is being decided elsewhere, out in the real world, by people doing real things. All that frenzied comment – all of it – is just static; and harmful, divisive static, at that.

But to believe that someone who chooses not to tweet about politics has no political beliefs is to commit a great error. Similarly, to believe that I am indifferent to the problems facing hen harriers would be a mistake. But do I think the way the conflict is currently being enacted on social media is actually doing anything to help hen harriers? No. No I don't.

What I see on Twitter is an issue of huge importance being reduced to name-calling, endless straw-man arguments, deliberate disingenuousness, childish provocation and passing of blame – on BOTH 'sides' – instead of the intelligent, impassioned, productive discussion that could, and should, be taking place.

Why does this matter, though, if everyone involved is actually enjoying the conflict at some slightly fucked-up level, or at the very least, finds themselves unable to stop?

It matters because it is public, it is pointless, and it is driving people away who might otherwise have something useful to contribute to the situation.

Debate the issues you care about openly and kindly, online and offline. Take action in the real world that makes a difference and supports your beliefs. Try to live your principles. 

I am a writer: primarily, though not only, a novelist. That is my job, my life's work; it's how I choose to contribute to the world, and I believe the contribution I make – including to how we connect with nature – has value. My job is not to be a mouthpiece or a campaigner or an idealogue. I leave those roles to others.

To do my job well – to affect people somehow, and maybe challenge their prejudices and beliefs – requires imagination, empathy, and the willingness to tolerate and explore complexity rather than reduce the world (or other people) to black and white, good and bad. Albert Camus said, "To feel absolutely right is the beginning of the end." I never feel absolutely right! I am always open to learning more and having my view on something changed.

What's more, half the time I just don't know how to solve things, or what's the best thing to do. And the older I get, the more comfortable I feel about admitting that, because often, when you go into a subject with an open mind, the more complex you see that it is, and the greater you perceive the consequences of any one course of action to be. Online, though, the pressure is to curate a persona that includes a set of firm opinions and political stances – maybe via a Twibbon on your avatar so everyone knows which 'side' you're on, whether you're 'them' or 'us', and whether to follow you or not.

But you know what? For most of us lay people, it's OK not to be 100% sure what you think should happen next. "Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd," wrote Voltaire. To forego certainty and partisanship isn't easy, because for one thing, certainty feels safe. To tolerate doubt means never giving a tub-thumping speech about the issues du jour when you've had a couple of pints. It means questioning every newspaper article you read and weighing it up against other sources. It means listening to views that are surprising to you, or even repellent, and trying to understand them. On Twitter, it can mean taking shit from both 'sides' of a debate, as has happened to me many times, and never having the comfort of a 'team', a group of people who will unquestioningly like or retweet what you say, or rush to your defence if you're under attack.

It is by no means the easy choice.

A Record of Killing, my piece about Northumbrian grouse moors (among other things) will be published soon by @HexhamBookFest