There has never in my lifetime been a more clear-cut case of light versus dark
Just a little post on why I am such a passionate Remainer.
I wasn’t actually all that pro-EU when all this referendum business started. I mean, I knew it was expensive, and could be more efficient, and sometimes seemed a little in thrall to the neoliberal economic model. But I also knew that it conferred huge benefits, in freedom of movement and trade and cooperation with our European neighbours. That was, frankly, enough to decide the matter for me.
And as if that weren’t enough, look at the Leavers themselves. Gove. Johnson. Hannan. Farage. Banks. Duncan Smith. Rees-Mogg. Hoey. Even May, when she switched sides, went from steely, sensible woman to bitch from hell. Can you think of one person associated with the Leave campaign with a scintilla of compassion or wisdom?
For me, this is no longer about clinging on to the status quo, or protecting against personal loss (although Brexit has already been costly to me not just financially, but in terms of opportunities lost and friends forced to leave).
No, now this is just about making sure the bad guys don’t win. There has never been, in my lifetime, a more clear-cut case of light versus dark. And I’m not about to step into the darkness, or even the penumbra, in the interests of an easy life.
Fuck you, Farage, and Banks, and Cummings, and Putin. For as long as there is breath in my body, I shall fight your perfidious Brexit.
Footnote: the Tories, the Daily Mail and their cabal of piss-breathing liars would have us believe that half of all Remainers have suddenly changed their minds and thrown their weight behind Brexit. This just three weeks after another poll by the same firm showed that people who thought Brexit was a bad idea outnumbered those who supported it for the first time.
Of course, this claim, like pretty much everything else that comes from a far-right source these days, is bollocks. I was going to devote a post to explaining why, but handily, @HelenDeCruz, bless her cotton socks, has saved me the trouble. (TL:DR; the questions were poorly phrased and the headlines were misleading.)
If you’ve taken part in, or followed, enough online discussions with a diehard Brexiter, a Trump supporter (apparently there are still a few around) or any other species of fascist, you may have noticed certain phrases cropping up with tedious regularity. The wording doesn’t vary much; it’s almost as if the phrases were lifted directly from a playbook – or a Paul Joseph Watson tweet.
The thing is, they’re all rubbish. While some of their lines are superficially clever, they’re all predicated either on a logical fallacy, or on false information. And even though most of these claims and lines of reasoning have been conclusively demolished time and time again, there are still plenty of basement-dwellers smugly regurgitating them as if they’re the last word.
So for those of you still fighting the good fight out there, I thought I’d put together a handy reference guide – a liberal playbook, if you will – setting out exactly why the far right are wrong, on basically everything, and how you should respond. (Warning: some of these suggestions may result in you being insulted or blocked. Nazis don’t like being proved wrong.)
“Stop trying to overturn the democratic result, you anti-democratic democracy-hater!”
Referendums are about the closest thing we have to true democracy – government by the people. However, the western world worked out long ago that true democracy is not a very effective operating system. For one thing, we don’t all have the time to be voting on every single issue. For another, people aren’t, on the whole, very well informed about things. This is why we have politicians; we need people who know their stuff, or can designate other people (the civil service) to find out about this stuff. That way, they can make what they believe to be the best decision based on the best evidence available.
The belief that a view must be correct because the majority of people hold it is a logical fallacy called the argumentum ad populum, about which I’ve already written at some length. In brief, crowds are not generally famed for their wisdom. You think a million people can’t be wrong? Well, there are 2.2 billion Christians and 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, and they sure as hell can’t all be right.
For this reason, the actual system of government we’ve ended up with in the UK is not true democracy, but parliamentary democracy, under which the people appoint representatives (MPs) to make decisions on their behalf. And as systems of government go, it’s worked pretty well. Most of the world has tried to emulate it.
For much of its history, the UK has fought shy of referenda, for the exact reasons given above. They’ve also been banned in Germany since Hitler used them to arrogate so much power to himself. Plebiscites violate the principle of parliamentary sovereignty.
In referendums on matters of great constitutional importance, a supermajority is usually required – a minimum turnout, and a minimum threshold for change (say 66%). This makes the result binding. But no such parameters were set for the Brexit vote – a simple majority only was required – which technically means it was only advisory. Someone, somehow, lowered the bar for a Brexit vote, and then imposed a result as if the bar had been higher.
That, plus a bit of gerrymandering – banning 16- and 17-year-olds from voting, plus EU citizens and UK expats (what was the criterion for eligibility? Residence, or nationality? How can you justify excluding people on both?) – was enough to drag Leave over the line.
The EU referendum campaign is likely to go down as one of the dirtiest of all time. But the hardcore Brexiters insist that, since both sides were as bad as each other, the Leavers can be excused their shameless lies.
First off, most of the Remain “lies” weren’t lies at all. Most were simply attempts to predict what would happen if the UK left the EU. Some may turn out to be inaccurate (although that looks increasingly unlikely), but that doesn’t make them lies; it makes them inaccurate predictions. Why would you even campaign for Remain if you didn’t believe the consequences would be awful?
Leave, meanwhile, were cynically and systematically mendacious, saying things that they knew to be untrue. Turkey’s not about to join. The EU didn’t ban bendy bananas. We don’t always get outvoted in the European parliament, and we sure as hell won’t have £350m a week to spend on the NHS. (There’s a more comprehensive, authoritative list here.)
“What happened to world war three? Instant recession? Austerity budget?”
Contrary to popular belief, David Cameron, almighty dickwad that he is, never claimed that a Brexit vote would lead to an apocalyptic global conflict. That was, in fact, Leave campaigner Boris Johnson, straw-manning Cameron’s much more reasonable point. (Don’t just read the headline – read the story. NOT THE HEADLINE; THE STORY. Idiot headline writers.) Although it’s salutary to note that within hours of questions arising over the sovereignty of Gibraltar, a former Tory cabinet minister was on a war footing.
Most of those who forecast a recession said it would happen after we left the EU, not the day after we voted to leave it. That prediction is looking increasingly safe.
Of course Brexit can be stopped; if it couldn’t, your tone wouldn’t be so histrionic. There’s a general election coming, there are ongoing legal cases, and we might yet get a referendum on the exit deal, after which we decide not to leave. Even if we do leave, there’s nothing to stop us rejoining soon afterwards, and the demographics suggest that’s exactly what we’ll do.
“You lost. Suck it up.”
If this is Brexit (or Trump) we’re talking about, and you’re not Arron Banks or Donald Trump or any of their billionaire friends, so did you. We’re all going to be poorer, many of the brightest and best minds are already leaving or cancelling plans to work here, and the UK and US’s global reputations have taken a hammering from which it could take decades to recover.
So, as long as there’s any prospect of Brexit being reversed and Trump being impeached, or at least of the damage being reduced, that’s what all true patriots – those who stay, anyway – are going to continue to fight for. Resisters gonna resist. Remoaners gonna remoan. It’s called democracy.
Besides, the ardent Brexiters didn’t shut up for the 40 years of our EU membership, and arch Republicans bitched about Obama from day one. Why should the losers this time round conduct themselves any differently?
“Now we’ll be free to trade with the world!”
We were already free to trade with the world. Who do you think accounts for the other 56% of our exports?
“But we’re getting our sovereignty back! We’re taking back control!”
The UK was never a subject of the European Union. It was a fully fledged member – and among the most influential of them, to boot.
The UK had a hand in drawing up most EU legislation, and a power of veto over the stuff it didn’t like. We were very rarely on the losing side of a vote, and we always had the threat of leaving as a last resort. (Now that we’ve played that card and are on our way out, we no longer have any such clout.) It wasn’t about 27 other countries telling the UK what to do; it was about 28 countries deciding together what to do, and then abiding by that decision.
In any case, the legislation passed by the EU was generally trivial, technical stuff. Laws about industry regulations, manufacturing standards, safety protocols, environmental targets. Little of it was very controversial (unless you were a Daily Mail leader writer); it was just oil for the wheels of commerce. We’ll still need to pass equivalent laws in our own country – by ourselves. Now we’ll be footing the bill for that (this work accounted for a lot of our annual membership fee).
In no real sense is anyone in the UK “taking back control”. We’re simply taking it from one set of faceless bureaucrats (the EU commission and parliament) and handing it to another (Westminster – to all intents and purposes, the Tory party). And of those two sets of bureaucrats, I know which I believe has the interests of ordinary working people closer to their heart.
“I can’t be racist. Islam isn’t a race.”
If you’re being face-achingly pernickety, then yes, attacking a religion does not technically make you a racist. However.
Strictly speaking, no one can be a racist, because there is no universally agreed definition of the set of characteristics that constitute a race, or where to draw the lines between them. It’s pretty obvious, however, that plenty of people treat others differently based on the colour of their skin, that they discriminate, and it’s generally agreed that these people are scum – hence your strenuous objection to being called racist. (Let us also note, in passing, that the overwhelming majority of followers of Islam are brown.)
Second, those who set out to discredit Islam might have a different target from a racist, but their methodology – or rather, their error – is identical. They’re still discriminating, just on the basis of religion instead of colour.
English speakers haven’t quite settled on the right word for this yet – I’ve seen “faithism” and “religionism”, but those give us the rather clunky derivatives “faithist” and “religionist” – but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. On far right websites the world over, it clearly does.
You may not, by the strictest definion, be a racist for demonising all Muslims because of the actions of a few of its adherents, but you’re no fucking better than a racist. You may not be racist, but you are most certainly a cunt.
Accusing liberals of hypocrisy is probably the far right’s favourite pastime. “Do as I say, not as I do,” they sneer, despite having no clue as to how you spend your day. Apparently, because they lack even a scintilla of empathy for their fellow man, everyone else must be similarly handicapped.
Well, this may come as a surprise, buster, but a lot of us actually back our words up with action. We give to the homeless and to charity; we raise awareness of, and funds for, good causes; we volunteer; some of us even actually take in refugees.
But even those who don’t are not wrong because they don’t spend every minute of their spare time doing disabled veterans’ shopping. We’re still entitled to speak our minds in the hope of influencing public debate. And this is, coincidentally, exactly what all the at-right seems to spend all its time doing; I’ve yet to see one of them putting his money where his mouth is and jetting down to the Levant to fight Isis, or unilaterally deporting a family of Muslims.
I’ll continue to “virtue signal” as much as I like, thanks, if you’re going to carry on evil signalling.
“How many refugees have you taken in?”
The most common example of the above. Again, I’ve talked about this. We cannot physically do all the things we wish were done, and it’s not up to us anyway.
“Everyone who disagrees with you is a fascist.”
A slight variation on the above, but one that invites a different response.
I’ve disagreed with plenty of people. Muslims, Jews, socialists, conservatives, doctors, teachers, plasterers, feminists, vegetarians. And none of them were fascists. (OK, maybe the doctor was a bit of a prick.)
The difference was, they made their arguments politely and reasonably, and were willing to listen to what I had to say. We usually found some common ground, and always learned something from each other.
The far right, meanwhile, for all its bleats of “free speech”, does everything it can to silence all opposition. They make (ahem) liberal use of ad hominem and smear tactics, they lie, they fabricate stories, and when given half a chance, they kill. I have yet to learn anything from a fascist, except a creeping disillusionment at the coldness of some of my fellow men.
“Ha, liberals, they say they’re so tolerant, and yet they won’t tolerate any views that don’t agree with theirs.”
Aka “Liberals are the real fascists”. Occasional variation on the above. Liberals can, and do, and have, for years, tolerated differences of opinion. There’s only one view that we won’t tolerate, and that’s any view that involves silencing others’ views. Such as, for example, fascism.
“‘Racist!’ That’s the only argument you have.”
It’s really not. It’s just the most obvious, important one, and often the only observation of substance I can fit in 140 characters.
If you fancy a change of insult, I also have unimaginative, unoriginal, gullible, backward, reductive, simplistic, binary, ill-informed, mendacious, misleading, and utterly lacking in compassion.
“We voted Leave to regain control over immigration.”
The UK government has always had full control over immigration from countries outside the EU. It simply failed to invoke those powers. The vote to leave the EU will have precisely zero effect on the numbers of, for example, Pakistani Muslims coming to live and work in the country. (It might even lead to an increase, as if EU migrant numbers fall, certain sectors will still need a workforce, and many trade deals, such as the ones we hope to strike up with India and the Philippines, are dependent on visa quotas and/or free movement of labour.)
It’s true that under freedom of movement laws, any EU citizen can come and live in the UK, and many have chosen to do so; but even they are under restrictions. They can only claim jobseekers’ allowance for a limited period, for example; they can be refused entry for any number of reasons; they have to wait three months before claiming most benefits; and they cannot claim permanent residency without comprehensive sickness insurance for the whole period of their stay (and not many took it out, since its importance to their rights has only recently been spelled out).
Why did the government not make more of an effort to reduce immigration? Because, along with just about every economist, it knows that immigration benefits the economy. Attracting the best minds from all over the world has a hugely positive effect on GDP.
Let’s gloss over the fact that this assertion totally contradicts the last one. Immigration is not a zero-sum game; the number of jobs to go round is not fixed. The more people come into the country and earn and pay taxes and spend, the more jobs get created. It’s no coincidence that two of the most migrated-to countries in the world, the United States and the United Kingdom, are also two of the richest; or that the most insular – North Korea, Cuba, Somalia – rank among the poorest.
By way of illustration, unemployment in the UK, now host to more immigrants than at any point in its history, is currently at an all-time low.
“Immigrants are driving down my wages.”
The data is far from conclusive. One study found that large-scale immigration can exert a slight downward pressure on pay in certain sectors, but most think the impact is negligible. For the most part, what’s kept workers’ salaries down in recent years is spiralling executive pay, rising rents, and the economic crash of 2008.
“Immigrants put a strain on social services.”
The vast majority of immigrants – from all countries, not just the EU – are young, healthy net contributors to the economy. If services are under strain in certain areas, that’s the government’s (or the local council’s) fault, not the immigrants’ (and it certainly has naff all to do with the EU).
In any case, given that so many immigrants work in the very social services they are allegedly destroying, our infrastructure would be a lot shakier without them than it is with.
Really? They’ve abandoned their home country and everyone they love, given their life savings to people traffickers, risked death several times over and lived in a filthy camp for months, just so that they can claim £60 a week? Isn’t it more likely that their homes have been turned into warzones and their loved ones have been killed, or they’ve been the victims of religious persecution, and that their only choice, if they want to live any sort of worthwhile life, is for a fresh start in another country?
“Why don’t the ‘refugees’ stop in Saudi Arabia?”
Many of them have. The reason official statistics list Saudi Arabia as having taken zero refugees from Syria is that Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE never signed up to any UN protocols on refugees. Ergo, it has a different classification system: anyone from a nearby state who turns up seeking a haven in Saudi is not registered as a refugee, but as an “Arab brother or sister in distress”. It’s estimated that around 500,000 such distressed siblings from Syria are currently benefiting from Saudi hospitality.
“Why don’t they stop in Poland or Germany or France?”
Again, many do, but not many of them speak Polish or German or French. One of the side-effects of being a great commercial and cultural power is that a lot of people abroad learn your language, and it just so happens that English is the most widely spoken European language in many parts of the Middle East.
“All the refugees from the Middle East are men of fighting age.”
In a bid to stoke up fears of terrorist infiltration, or alternatively of “white genocide”, the far right are for ever banging this drum: “If all these people trying to get into the country are genuine refugees, why are they all young and male?”
They’re not. According to UN figures, 50.5% of all refugees worldwide are women, and a further 17% are aged under 18. Males aged from 18 to 59 make up just 22% of all refugees worldwide.
It’s true that a higher percentage of recent refugees from the Middle East to Europe appear to be male; a UNHCR report estimated that 72% of the 400,000 people known to have crossed the Mediterranean in 2015 were male. But this isn’t so sinister when you think about it for a second. How many children, women and old people do you think could survive that perilous crossing, a walk of thousands of miles, and countless nights without shelter and food?
It’s also worth remembering that because of the lower life expectancy, a far higher proportion of Syrians are young males. The average age of a man in the UK, with its relative peace and prosperity, is 39.3. The median in Syria is 23.7.
“Mohammed was a paedophile.”
According to the Qu’ran, when he was in his 50s, the Prophet married a nine-year-old girl. Extremist rightwingers take inordinate glee in repeating this point at every opportunity, using it as “proof” that Islam is a corrupt and evil religion.
Second, this is seventh-century Arabia we’re talking about. Things were different. For one thing, puberty was regarded as the onset of female adulthood. Marriage to, and sexual intercourse with, young girls were commonplace – and not just in the Middle East. Here are a few examples of other historical figures who are believed to have had what would today be considered improper associations:
Joseph, “stepfather” of Jesus (married Mary when she was 12)
St Augustine, father of the Christian church (betrothed to a 10-year-old girl)
Edward I (his bride, Eleanor of Aquitaine, was 13)
Isaac II Angelus, Byzantine emperor (took a nine-year-old wife)
Richard II (married his second wife, Isabella of Valois, when she was seven)
Giralomo Riario, Lord of Imola (took a 10-year-old wife)
Thomas Jefferson (strong evidence that he had a relationship with an underage slave)
Even in the modern era, we have Jerry Lee Lewis marrying his 13-year-old cousin, Elvis Presley dating a 14-year-old Priscilla, and Bill Wyman preying on the 13-year-old Mandy Smith. As recently as 1984, the Paedophile Information Exchange was an active campaigning group in the UK. Times change. You can’t judge yesterday’s men by today’s standards.
“Islam is a religion of hate.”
Trust me, if Islam were a religion of hate, and all 1.6 billion of its adherents were hellbent on destroying western society, I would not be here to write this, nor you there to read it. Most respected estimates put worldwide membership of jihadi groups at about 100,000. That’s 0.00625% of the Muslim population. Almost all of them are in their native lands or nearby, and the battle with Isis in Syria and Iraq is likely to have put a dent in that figure.
For the record, the vast majority of liberals hate those evil bastards just as much as the far right do. We just don’t want to tar the 99.99375% with the same brush.
“All Muslims are rapists.”
A proportion of men commit sex crimes, and Muslims are no different. But some high-profile cases, such as the Rotherham child abuse scandal, which involved abuse on a huge scale from the late 1980s to the early 2010s, have given fascists plenty of ammunition for their anti-Islam smear campaign.
True, the proportion of Muslims in UK jails (15%) is higher than in the civilian population (4%), but that corresponds almost exactly to the profile for black people (12% versus 3%). Muslims are more likely to go to prison largely because they’re statistically more likely to be from poor areas with higher crime rates, and they’re more likely to be stopped and searched. The authorities may have turned a blind eye to wrongdoing in Rotherham, but the wider pattern, it seems, is one of racism as usual.
It’s also probably worth a reminder at this point that a lot of the stories of rapes of white women by Muslims are either exaggerated, endlessly repeated, to make them seem more common, or just plain made up.
The fact remains that most sex offenders, by a huge margin, are white men. And no one, I hope, is proposing to deport all white men.
“Hillary Clinton took part in ritual sacrifices and ran a paedophile ring from a pizza parlour.”
Really. She didn’t. There is literally no evidence to back up this ridiculous assertion. If there were, Donald Trump would have been able to follow through on his promise to “lock her up”.
Mistakes were undoubtedly made in the run-up to the attack on the US embassy in Libya, but a hearing at the House of Representatives in October 2015 largely cleared then secretary of state Hillary Clinton of any direct responsibility for the tragedy.
OK, I’m done for now. Next time you catch anyone trotting out any of this guff, don’t waste time Googling and copy-and-pasting. I’m sure you’ve got more important things to worry about. Just reply “BS” and paste in a link to this page.
I’m sure I’ve missed a few out. Please chip in if you have any far-right bollocks you’d like debunked – I’ll keep this updated, and maybe, if I get enough time and help, some day turn it into a wiki.
An epidemic of abuse is threatening to tear western civilisation apart. Who stands to benefit?
In my last post I wrote the epidemic of abuse sweeping the western world – against individuals, but also against entire groups, including immigrants, liberals, “experts”, academics, Muslims and the mainstream media. I mostly talked about the how. Now I’d like to focus on the why.
When public debate consists almost entirely of ad hominem attacks, it does far more than create an unpleasant atmosphere. Let’s follow ad hominem reasoning to its logical conclusion. (It may be that only 10% of the population are thick enough to swallow this logic, but as Brexit and Trump have shown, 10% is enough.)
Tony Blair, because he took the country to war against Iraq, cannot be trusted on anything ever again. Hillary Clinton, because she conducted some government business on a private email server and happened to be secretary of state when terrorists attacked the US embassy in Benghazi, can never run for public office. Tim Farron, because he avoided, as a Christian, saying that gay sex was not a sin, is the embodiment of evil. Jeremy Corbyn, because he once spoke to members of the IRA and Hamas, is a “mutton-headed mugwump” whose every word must henceforth be disregarded.
Furthermore, according to the guilt by association fallacy: because a handful of immigrants claim benefits, they’re all at it. Because the EU once passed a slightly fussy law about bananas, the entire institution is corrupt, from root to branch. Because the Guardian once published a column in favour of feminism, the entire media is irrevocably biased. Because you haven’t personally taken in a displaced Syrian family, you’re not allowed to advocate for the humane treatment of any refugees.
And at least 598 people seem to agree with the sentiment that because Yvette Cooper is a member of the Labour party, which happened to be in power for part of the period during which a group of men of Asian origin were found to be running a child abuse ring in Rotherham, she has no right to talk about the dangers of internet grooming.
(Donald Trump, on the other hand, can misspell basic words, mishandle legislation disastrously, go bankrupt four times, lie through his teeth, mock a disabled reporter, make openly racist comments and boast about sexually assaulting women, and still be allowed to run the most powerful nation on the planet.)
Quite apart from being the logical equivalent of – well, bollocks, frankly – this speaks to a fantastically grim view of human nature. A single misdemeanour, or error of judgment, renders your entire existence invalid. Make one mistake – or even have a fleeting association with someone who once made a mistake – and you forfeit all right to express an opinion again. (Except if you’re Donald Trump. He can screw up as badly and as many times as he likes.)
We all make mistakes. Human beings are flawed creatures. And as I argued last time, we’re all, inevitably, hypocrites. But by the reasoning of the far right, this means that no one in the entire world should ever be listened to again.
Thus, there can never be any laws. No decision can ever be taken by any authority, because no one on this earth is perfect enough to have authority. “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” a chap called Jesus once said, knowing full well that no man born is without sin.
There’s more. By ad hominem logic, no one is ever allowed to change her mind. People do not learn from their mistakes. No one can grow or become a better person. No more Martin McGuinnesses; once a terrorist, always a terrorist. (Everyone you ever had a drink with is a terrorist too.) Every feud is eternal, every war unending. In this universe, apologies are pointless, redemption impossible. Thou must not forgive. Rehabilitation? Ha.
I’ve straw-manned a little here, but I hope it’s clear that this way of thinking is more than just deluded; it’s destructive. The tribalism produced by the guilt by association fallacy, by demonising entire classes of people at a stroke, entrenches opinions, feeds resentments, and creates deep and damaging divisions. This assumption that the acts of a few in a group reflect the disposition of all of them breeds distrust, intolerance, hate. Ad hominem reasoning, combined with the guilt by association fallacy, undermines trust in the system in a way that threatens the very stability of society.
And yet the far right (and, to a comparable extent, the far left) seem to be pushing this exact agenda. Who on earth stands to benefit from this?
It all sounds a bit tinfoil-hat, until you remember that it is Vladimir Putin’s plainly stated aim to disrupt and undermine western society. The sanctions imposed after the invasion of Ukraine are biting. Russia is suffering economic hardship, is concerned about Nato, has imperial ambitions in central Europe and the Balkans, and Putin, a KGB officer when the Soviet Union fell, is still smarting over the defeat. Russia doesn’t have the will or the military might to declare open war on the west, but it does have the wits.
People better qualified and connected than I are exploring the diplomatic and economic avenues. What turned my eye eastwards was the methodology being used: ad hominem. Because if anyone can be said to have made ad hominem an art form, it’s the Russian government and the various iterations of its intelligence agencies.
So enamoured are Russians of this strategy of digging up and inventing incriminating evidence that they have their own word for it: Kompromat. (Here’s all the legit dirt you’ll get on me, by the way, far-right fucks. You’re welcome.)
In Vladimir Putin, we have possibly the finest practitioner of the dark art of the smear who has walked this earth. When Putin – or Russia, and by extension, Putin – is criticised, he unfailingly responds in the same way. Instead of answering the charge – he never, but never, directly addresses negative questions – he will point the finger at his accuser. Tu quoque. Whataboutery. Tu quoque.
The day after the arrest of Julian Assange, when Putin was asked about the lack of democracy in Russia, he replied: “As far as democracy goes, it should be a question of complete democracy. Why then, did they put Mr Assange behind bars? There is an American saying: ‘He who lives in a glass house shouldn’t throw stones.’”
This was all a bit of a joke before the internet took such a big role in our lives. Now it’s a clear and present danger, because social media allows people to pursue this strategy on a previously unimagined scale. Now it’s not just a bloke on the telly momentarily dissing you. That bloke can pay people to run multiple accounts and create automated accounts – bots – to boost his signal, and mobilise what appears to be millions of people to discredit you.
People don’t generally alter their opinions much if they hear one negative comment about something. But it’s a different story when they hear thousands, or millions. And this is exactly what’s happening. Tabloid newspapers, far-right demagogues and internet spambots have been systematically smearing immigrants, liberals and the EU in a bid to tear up the very fabric of western society. The Russian Method ™, honed over a century, has finally found its perfect attack vector: unlimited voices at instant speed, all reading from the same hymn sheet. Even better, it’s all untraceable.
It’s not for me to say whether Russia is orchestrating the far-right resurgence, merely colluding with it, or that alt-right nutsacks like Paul Joseph Watson have simply torn a leaf from Putin’s playbook. But at the very least, the convergence of interests here is extraordinary. Whichever way you slice it, the far right in Europe and America are using Vladimir Putin’s tactics to further Vladimir Putin’s agenda.
There may be no smoking gun as yet, but there are a hell of a lot of fingerprints.
I’ll finish by suggesting a few things we can try to do to stop this in a couple of days. In the meantime, here are some solid reads on related topics.
Online debates these days unfold with all the dignity and decorum of a stag do at a Reading Wetherspoons
“Whoever first hurled an insult at his enemy instead of a spear was the founder of civilization” – Sigmund Freud
Insults are nothing new. From the 4th century BC ding-dong between Demosthenes and Aeschines, to Shakespeare’s “You starveling, you elf-skin, you dried neat’s-tongue, you bull’s-pizzle, you stock-fish!”, to Noel Gallagher’s laceration of Robbie Williams as “the fat dancer from Take That”, incivility is as old as civilisation. We start calling each other names in the playground and, if the Leave voters I’ve encountered online are any guide, there’s no upper age limit on abuse.
But suddenly, it’s Ragnarök out there. Get involved in an online discussion about anything from topiary to the Tweenies and the chances are you’ll be set upon within minutes. Political “attack ads” were once frowned upon; now they’re the norm. There’s hardly been a single positive message in the UK general election campaign thus far; it’s just been smear after slur after slight. Most modern debates – usually online, but increasingly in real life – unfold with all the dignity and decorum of a stag do in a Reading Wetherspoons.
It’s all rather odd, because as I’m sure you already know, attacking a person in this way, instead of the substance of what they’re saying (or in the case of political debate, their policies), is a fallacy: a failure of reasoning that renders a claim invalid. In this case – the argumentum ad hominem fallacy – abuse is invalid because the truth of a person’s statement has nothing to do with their character, past behaviour or friends. Just because it’s Tony Blair saying, “Two plus two equals four”, that doesn’t mean the real answer is five. Much as it pains me to quote Margaret Thatcher, on this point, she had it right: “If they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left.”
Civilisation is supposed to be advancing. We are devising ever better theories to explain the world, sending more kids to university, sharing more information, faster, than ever before. The use of logical fallacies should be declining, not increasing.
So why the recent explosion of invective? Some blame the global climate of fear since 9/11 and the ensuing jihadi atrocities. Some say it’s deindividuation: when we’re online, or part of a large group, we enjoy anonymity; our actions have fewer repercussions for us, either because we are untraceable, or we because we share responsibility with others. When we are at one remove from the consequences, our actions tend to be less inhibited.
Others point to the bubble effect, the fact that people tend to assort themselves into groups of like-minded people. If we spend too long in these echo chambers, hearing only what we want to hear, then we are likely to react more aggressively when someone attacks them.
These theories all have merit, but I don’t believe they are enough to explain the extent of the poisoning of discourse, or the speed with which it’s happened. Echo chambers have always been with us – we’re a tribal species – and abuse is less effective online than in the real world, because while we may be anonymous, our opponents often are too, so we don’t have as much informational ammunition.
There’s something else going on. I have a theory of my own, but before we go into that, it would be helpful to look at abuse in more detail. First, a key distinction. There are two broad classes of ad hominem, which serve different purposes. The first is relatively innocuous and is largely accepted as a legitimate debating tactic.
“You, sir, are drunk.” “And you, madam, are ugly … but at least I shall be sober in the morning.”
Winston Churchill’s zinger to Lady Astor is a regular chart-topper on “Top 10 Putdowns” lists – but like all ad hominems, it’s a fallacy. From a purely logical perspective, Lady Astor is in the right. Churchill’s comeback is fallacious; as well as being offensive, it’s irrelevant. He’s also drawn a false equivalence. While he is quite capable of controlling his level of inebriation, poor Lady Astor has no such dominion over the shape of her face.
But if Astor wins on substance, Churchill wins on style. This is a class of ad hominem that you might call a joust. It’s usually found in the context of the cut and thrust of repartee, and its purpose is to throw the opponent off balance. If your interlocutor has the upper hand in a discussion, a droll, well-targeted personal attack can move the debate to surer ground. Since people’s natural reaction to being attacked is to defend themselves, they’ll often attempt to defend the slight instead of driving home their advantage.
Jousts take place in real life, in real time, in the real world. If they hit the mark, they earn kudos for the wielder. Churchill’s comment may have been mean, but it was quick, it was (presumably at least partially) accurate, and it took some courage – presumably Dutch – because the target of his tongue-lashing was standing right next to him. Above all, it was funny.
Many of the greatest literary minds in history have been able practitioners of the joust. Chaucer, Swift, Pope, Voltaire, Johnson, Twain, Byron (“Posterity will ne’er survey/A nobler grave than this:/Here lie the bones of Castlereagh:/Stop, traveller, and piss”), Wodehouse (“She’s got brains enough for two, which is the exact quantity the girl who marries you will need”), Wilde (“I never saw anybody take so long to dress, and with such little result”) and Orwell (“He is simply a hole in the air”) all earned their stripes partly by tearing others off a strip. We excuse these slights, applaud them even, because they show qualities that we aspire to: intelligence, originality, speed of thought. Besides, there’s often a sense that the target had it coming. Who are you going to side with – the guy who won the second world war, or some judgmental fuddy-duddy?
The second class of ad hominem is the smear. It too is rapidly becoming an ingrained part of public discourse, but it is, I will try to argue, far more dangerous, and has no place there. Smears come in four main varieties.
Trump’s gibes have the same drawback as jousts – they’re irrelevant to the discussion – and none of the merits. They’re not funny. They’re inane, unoriginal, and, as often as not, false. They do not signal a quick wit, because for the most part Trump delivers them via Twitter, or in prepared speeches to adoring crowds. And they are anything but brave, because Trump’s opponents are rarely in the same room when he vilifies them. To compare the US president’s infantile taunts to Shakespeare’s eloquent excoriations is to stick a Lego staircase next to the Taj Mahal.
And yet here he is, signing poorly drafted executive orders like baseball cards, merrily topping up the swamp with the contents of every septic tank in America, and hooking his drives ever closer to the nuclear bunker. How so?
When you look at the Mango Mussolini’s modus operandi, all becomes clear. Shower your enemies with insults; see which gains the most traction (ie likes and retweets); then use it again and again, until it becomes irretrievably associated with the target. So Hillary Clinton becomes “Crooked Hillary” at every mention; the New York Times “the failing NYT”; and rival for the Republican nomination Ted Cruz “Lyin’ Ted”.
These remarks are not designed to artfully throw Trump’s opponents off balance or to enhance his comic credentials. They’re not really directed at his opponents at all; they’re aimed at the wider world. Trump is not trying to undermine what his rivals are saying now, but everything they have ever said. These are cynical, systematic smear campaigns. And incredibly, through sheer force of repetition, they worked.
Most people are smart enough to realise that, just because a hay clump stapled to an overripe satsuma repeats something over and over again, that doesn’t mean it’s true. Unfortunately, it seems there are just enough credulous idiots out there for Trump’s bullying tactics to pay off. By means of a million gutless, leaden, charmless, bogus backstabs, Trump managed to destroy the credibility of everyone who stood in his way.
TL;DR: Your argument is rubbish because you are rubbish.
“L’hypocrisie est un hommage que le vice rend a la vertu.” – François VI, Duc de La Rochefoucauld
The tu quoque – Latin for “you also” – is a special case of ad hominem also known as the appeal to hypocrisy. Here, instead of trying to undermine the target’s argument by maligning their character, you are attempting to do so by pointing out things they have said or done in the past that contradict their current position.
A tu quoque often feels somehow more cutting than a basic ad hominem, because, well, no one likes a hypocrite. However, it is just as invalid as a criticism, because it too fails to disprove the premise. Whether your past or current actions are 100% consistent with your view or not is completely immaterial. Let’s take a recent example.
We live in a world where personal and public interests do not always align. (This is why we need governments; to balance private freedoms against the general good.) Politicians aren’t just politicians. They are also, despite appearances, human beings, and many of them are parents.
When you’ve got your MP’s hat on, grammar schools are a bad thing. Most studies have concluded that while they might benefit the few who attend them, they have a deleterious effect on other schools; they suck in all the best pupils and the best teachers, and regular schools suffer as a result.
But now look at the question from the viewpoint of the MP as parent. Grammar schools exist. The kids who go there do better. Given the choice between sending them to a grammar or to a comprehensive, which way do you swing? The effect of your decision on other people is infinitesimal – but it could make a huge difference to your child. You’re technically a hypocrite if you choose the grammar, but it doesn’t mean your opposition to the principle of grammars is wrong.
When Lily Allen and Gary Lineker spoke out in defence of refugees last year, they were bombarded with incandescent messages along the lines of “Well, how many are you taking into your mansion?”
Like May’s tirade, the detractors were missing the point. It isn’t Lily Allen’s job to look after refugees. There are lots of childless couples who’d probably be more than happy to take in a Syrian orphan, for example. The alt-right are constantly frothing at the mouth about the atrocities committed by Isis – but how many of them are donning combat fatigues and heading off to the Levant? If Allen and Lineker are hypocrites, so are they.
Few of us have the time, the equipment or the expertise to devote our lives to solving all the world’s problems. There are others better placed to tackle these matters: police, governments, charities. All we can do is flag them up, perhaps donate some cash, or if we’re lucky enough to have a free weekend, organise a trip to Calais to hand out clothes and food.
The fact is, we’re all hypocrites on a regular basis. Have you ever sat in gridlock and moaned about the traffic? You’re part of the problem! Ever merrily sucked on a fag while gravely warning a young relative never to take up the habit? Pot, meet kettle! Worried about overpopulation – and you have two kids? You’re a fine one to talk!
TL;DR: Your argument is rubbish because not every single thing you have ever said and done in your entire life has been 100% consistent with it.
3) Circumstantial ad hominem
The implication that a person has taken a position purely because it suits their agenda; they cannot be trusted on a particular issue because they have a horse in the race, or their judgment is otherwise clouded.
There’s sometimes something to this one. Most prisoners on death row insist that they are innocent, because it’s hugely to their advantage for others to believe them. However, by strict logical criteria, their claim is not automatically untrue simply because it is in their interest. We just need to take it with a healthy pinch of salt.
TL;DR: Your argument is rubbish because you are biased.
4) Guilt by association
Fetch the Nurofen. We are now entering the realms of spectacularly twisted logic, where the cognitive gymnastics can induce migraines in the unprepared.
4) is essentially 3) on steroids. The association fallacy is the most egregious and toxic of ad hominems, since it attempts to invalidate someone’s point by smearing them on the basis of her membership of, or tenuous association with, a particular group.
It’s become depressingly common practice, in online discussions, for your opponent to try to dig up dirt on you. They’ll read your profile, scan your previous tweets or comments, even Google you in their quest for incriminating evidence. Failing that, they’ll use whatever they find to try to pigeonhole you.
Why? Because then they can write off your opinion on the basis that they have already written off the opinions of everyone in your group. “Aha, you live in London! Of course you’d parrot pro-EU propaganda – membership benefits the metropolitan elite!” (Forty percent of Londoners voted Leave.)
As well as committing the same logical misstep as the other smears – implying that a person’s identity is somehow relevant to their point – the association fallacy asks us to accept two further false propositions: a) that the entire group’s views and values are without merit; and b) that everyone in that group thinks and acts in exactly the same way.
Loath as I am to cut the hate-fuelled shitrag that is the Daily Mail any sort of slack, the continued attacks over its historic sympathy for Hitler and the Blackshirts make no sense. For one thing, everyone involved with the paper in 1934 is dead. New office, new owner, new staff. The words “the Daily Mail” now refer to a different entity; there is no immortal “Daily Mail soul” that inhabits everyone who sets foot in its offices. (True, the current team is starting to look more and more like its historic incarnation, but from a logical standpoint, there is no reason why this should be so.)
The guilt by association fallacy effectively means that no one can ever be right, because it holds that your view is worthless if you, or any group you have ever been associated with, have ever done anything wrong.
Telltale phrases: “Typical Leaver”, “You liberals are all the same”, “Just what I’d expect from a Muslim”.
TL;DR: your argument is rubbish because I consider (erroneously) that everyone in the group I have assigned you to (erroneously) is wrong about everything.
I used to think that humanity was slowly waking up to the preposterousness of generalisations like “All men are bastards”, “All Jews are stingy” and “All Gypsies are thieves”. But suddenly, writing off entire cross-sections of society at a stroke is enjoying a renaissance.
I picked the Daily Mail example for a reason. Of all the smear campaigns mounted in the last few years, one of the most sustained and successful has been the coordinated effort to discredit the entirety of the world’s journalists – or, to use the dismissive alt-right term, the “MSM” (mainstream media).
Organisations like the Mail, Express and Fox News haven’t helped the cause with their rabidly partisan headlines and editorials, and it’s true that the Independent, for example, has a strongly pro-EU slant. But the far right demagogues would have you believe that every journalist in every media outlet in the world is part of some huge conspiracy to deceive you, to keep a boot on the throat of the working classes and maintain the status quo.
The alt-right pursue this narrative by seizing on any and every mistake, oversight or lapse of judgment from any publication or broadcaster and magnifying it to ludicrous proportions. So, because the Guardian once ran an erroneous story about Jeremy Corbyn sitting on the floor of a train, we now cannot believe any Guardian story we read. Because Buzzfeed runs listicles and fluff pieces on its site, its investigative journalism is worthless. Because the BBC once published a news item about the negative effects of Brexit, it is irredeemably biased in all matters. The fact that Nigel Farage – an MEP for a party with no representation in parliament who only bothers turning up for work to sour the UK’s foreign relations – gets more airtime than any other politician in the UK is neither here nor there.
Yes, the mainstream media have made mistakes. And yes, some lean in a particular political direction. But on the whole, they try to give a reasonably balanced view of things. They are bound by ethical standards and libel laws, and most submit to the oversight of a regulator. When they get things wrong, they apologise, they retract, and they print corrections.
Again, most people don’t buy into the alt-right’s absurd narrative. But a small, significant section of society have swallowed the lie, and now routinely reject any facts from mainstream sources as “biased” or “fake news”. To them, all of the media – from the Independent to the Guardian to the Mail to the BBC to ITV to CNN to the Times to Al-Jazeera to Buzzfeed to the South China Morning Post to the Dumfries & Galloway Standard – are all part of some vast conspiracy to prop up the metropolitan elite. We have now reached a point where a Brexiter, in a discussion about Brexit, will demand that you provide evidence to back up your point – and then, when you do, airily dismiss it because it happened to be published in the Sunday Times.
So if no conventional news sources can be trusted, who are these people listening to? Who has stepped into the information vacuum to expose The Real Truth? Blow me down with a feather, if it isn’t those selfsame alt-right demagogues! The alt-right demagogues, whose newsgathering resources generally stretch to a Twitter and YouTube account and a camera in their mum’s basement. The roving-reporter alt-right demagogues, like Paul Joseph Watson, who openly admits that he hardly ever leaves his Battersea flat, and Julian Assange, who has been trapped in the Ecuadorian embassy for five years.
(This post is plenty long enough without a diversion into the shameless mendacity of the alt-right, but I’ve posted a few examples here, and there are plenty more at Snopes, FactCheck.org and FullFact.)
It wasn’t enough, of course, to smear the media. They are, after all, just mirrors to majority opinion. If a new order is to be imposed, all the traditional institutions must be undermined.
Dominic Cummings’ “Take back control” was very clever. The NHS promise on the bus probably did it for some people. The Breaking Point poster, even though immigration from outside Europe had precisely jack shit to do with the EU, undoubtedly won over a few racists. But for me, the real stroke of genius from the Leave contingent, and the turning point of the whole campaign, was Michael Gove’s “People have had enough of experts.”
Never mind that he was told to say that by one of the exact same metropolitan elite experts he was maligning. Never mind that he apologised abjectly for the comment the next day and retracted it months later. In one pithy phrase, Gove manage to articulate the fury of millions of underachievers. He also single-handedly destroyed the last scrap of trust the public had in the system. Suddenly, the opinion of the man in the street was just as valid as that of someone who had spent years mastering her subject.
Gove’s (or, rather, Cummings’) ludicrous argument, that, because some trusted individuals once made an incorrect prediction, all their predictions are worthless, was the final justification for a Brexit vote among a decisive group of waverers. This arrant nonsense, combined with parallel whispering campaigns – Boris Johnson merrily defaming the EU in his columns for the Telegraph and Spectator, and the relentless demonisation of immigrants and Muslims in the Express, Mail, and far-right “news” sites – was what dragged Leave over the line.
For years, liberals ignored all this mudslinging, I guess because they assumed no one was gullible enough to believe it. Hopefully, they’re waking up to the fact that they can’t afford to ignore it any more.
(I’ve got more to say on this subject, but I’ve already wittered on for too long. Part two will follow shortly.)