Wednesday 22 March 2017
Some months ago I wrote a letter to you. I haven’t written a letter for years, but felt compelled to. Perhaps it was a reflex action in the wake of That Thing That Shall Not Be Named Or Given Credibility But That Happened And That, In Not Giving It Credibility, We Merely Strengthen Its Insidious Resolve. In any case, I wrote, I saved, I thought about sending, I stopped, I reconsidered, I forgot, I remembered, I re-read, forgot some more, and now here I am, Palimpsestuous.
In recent weeks I have noticed a silver lining that speaks challenge to the end of this letter (written as it was some months ago); namely, the reconfiguration of the terms of debate/action, and how it is an opportunity as much as a crisis. But only if we engage with that which we cannot countenance. Only if we revisit our values and how we enact them. Only if we seek to understand, before seeking to be understood.
Still, I must remain true to these previous notes that follow, lest I provide to you a ‘fake news’ version of something that had a particular context, a particular time, a particular place and a particular me.
These are some blundering thoughts. I apologise in advance for their lack of clarity, and implore you to challenge, be exasperated, be offended, be cynical, and maybe even be inspired; they are not meant to be anything other than the words that come to me, at this time, in this location, in this mood, in this hope against all manner of despair of which I need not detail to you (for you know them, and live them, where I largely do not).
A number of years ago I imagined what it might be like to be aphasic, and nothing seemed quite so terrifying. To be able to communicate in any meaningful way is, after all, what makes us human, sentient. To be unable to do so and still yet with the ability to formulate the ideas and notions one might wish to make manifest, is to endure the slow, agonising death of one’s soul.
This did, and still does, terrify me beyond measure. But we live in age of abundance; an age of the democratised platforms for voice, if still not necessarily in the formal corridors of power (though the crests of social media waves are making a mess of some of those corridors).
And so I find myself dwelling on what we might consider to be the opposite problem: the terrifying spectre of having too much voice. Can this really be the case? In what circumstances can it be a bad thing to have too much access to a platform, to voice one’s thoughts, notions, ideas, opinions…?
The modern, liberal West is built on the heretofore unshakeable and undeniable foundations of the freedom of speech, and of the liberties that affords in the face of fascism and oppression. In recent decades, the liberal Western population has encouraged and policed the creeping democracies of Middle Eastern and African countries; Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, the so called Arab Spring; Twitter, Facebook, Wikileaks.
With the awesome power of social media comes the crowd-surfing of unchecked ideas, opined from shadowy corners and the liminal space of the shared meme or montage or blog or increasingly ideologically-partisan news outlet; we appear to have unwittingly stumbled into an era in which rhetoric Trumps evidence; in which volume drowns sense. In light of this we, the liberal left, the ethically condescending, the educated middle classes marooned on an island of our own politically-correct making, have wilfully partaken in the same game of smoke, mirrors and shadows perpetuated in the ephemeral and intangible market of Tweetbook-philosophy.
I ask myself again: would it be better to be aphasic, rather than an acolyte of post-fact, post-evidence, post-rational and post-globalised scaremongering?
The internet has shifted the balance of power, redistributed the wealth of communication, and exposed a complacent and latterly uncritical (of its own structures and limitations) ideology to the whim of opportunists amidst the disillusioned and economically disenfranchised.
This is one view, and a colour blind view at that. Even in criticising our position, I’m equally guilty of being complacent in regard to the distance that has not been travelled in the equality of gender, race, and religion. We pat ourselves on the back and say what a wonderful job we have done in the last seventy years to erode borders – real and imagined – and foster genuinely intercultural and multicultural populations. And to be undone within a matter of a few years? To be undone by the same wealth-making (wealth distributing – pah!) systems that gave rise to these ‘hard won’ social victories, by greed on an international scale that pulled the carpet from under our neo-liberal, economic feet, should do no less than violently tear down the shroud of our own delusion: that we had achieved a change genuinely systematic; that had any chance of perpetuating. What else can Brexit and Trump manifest other than the fact that we had no more cured some of the socio-economic ills that have plagued us for thousands of years than merely swept them under the carpet, put a quietening finger to our lips, and whispered “It’s okay, that’s gone, we don’t talk about that – far more comfortable to ignore it. It’ll go away on its own.”
To be aphasic, or an orator? To step back and stop giving oxygen to the raging flames of fascism that feeds off the divisions our opining undoubtedly fosters – if not in the voice of that friend, or that family member, in their unspoken thoughts and their unknowable voting? To proceed with actions rather than words (but what are those actions?); to turn words into actions (and how is this distinguishable, communicable, and have the efficacy required to slice through the white noise of Tweetbook philosophy)? To stand up and be counted (what does this mean?); to encourage and engage with, rather than denigrate, the filthy debate that has been so pompously dismissed but is so important to so many angry people; to write (where? when? why? how?) and to film; to be, and not merely represent…
We are on the edge of a precipice that can no longer be theoretical, and in ‘another place, and certainly not on our front door!’ It is on our front door. It is encroaching through the cat flap. It is wrenching the floorboards under our feet, and we can no longer afford to winch ourselves into an elevated and ungrounded position, eyeing the yellow pages for a number for ‘Civilisation Doctor, please, stat!’.
You: persist. Please. You’re a guiding light and the strength that is, and should be, the full strength of our effort. George Bernard Shaw once said that to feel more anger and emotion over a million peoples’ suffering, and to feel that it is more potent or worthy or affecting than the suffering of one, is to misrepresent and over complicate the issue: the suffering of one individual is enough suffering for an entire species; no magnitude of scale makes that suffering any more unbearable, any more lamentable, any more indefensible. Ironically, the reason stories are so emotive and affecting is because they operate at the level of the individual; one person’s story amidst a million is infinitely more affecting to the human emotional complex: but up-scaled, and cast over millions, billions, we turn flesh, nerve, sinew, into a textbook. Let us take heed: this isn’t a numbers game.
Have we become Kitsch? Kitsch in the way Kundera defines it:
‘… two tears flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass!
The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.’
My admiration and regards,