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?
‘And you are hanging blacks’
There’s been quite a lot of speculation as to whether the Russian government has meddled in the US presidential election, in the French presidential race, and in Brexit. There are stories of armies of Russia-sponsored Macedonians and bots generating and disseminating fake news and “astroturfing” – creating the impression of grassroots support for far-right ideas, when in fact the number of people subscribing to those ideas is far lower. There are allegations of shady political deals between Donald Trump’s team and Russian operatives, mysterious donations to anti-EU groups, and connections between Russian entities and and Leave campaigners. There’s also, as a footnote, a growing trail of bodies of Russian diplomats.
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.
Russia’s love affair with whataboutery dates back to a diplomatic exchange in 1905. After Moscow was criticised over the Kishinev pogrom, its US ambassador responded: “Well, Americans recently lynched blacks.” For reasons that we’ve been through, the point was irrelevant, but it successfully moved the focus of the debate away from indefensible ground. So successfully, in fact, that the appeal to hypocrisy became the central plank of Russian foreign policy for the next 115 years.
For 115 years, whenever someone in power in Russia has taken a dislike to someone, their first recourse has been the smear. They’ll bring up the lynching thing. They’ll set up a secret camera and film their enemy having sex with his mistress, or catch him taking a sauna with some women. If there isn’t enough real evidence, they’ll make some up; a favourite tactic is to install child pornography on the target’s computer.
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.’”
When the Panama papers came out, and an associate of Putin’s was implicated in the shadowy global money-laundering operation, the Russian president’s reaction was tiresomely predictable: “There was no corruption involved at all. Besides, we now know from WikiLeaks that officials and state agencies in the United States are behind all this.” Translation: “No, you farted.”
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.
Five ways to spot fake news
How Trump’s following grew out of a teenage chatroom
Carole Cadwalladr meets Arron Banks, director of Leave.EU
Is someone “Putin” cash in Ukip’s pockets?
Russia accused of clandestine funding of anti-EU parties
The Russian sponsorship of the European far right
The Kremlin’s Trojan horses
Post-truth and the “metropolitan elite” feminist
How Russia is hijacking western politics
The Russian “firehose of falsehood”