My memories of the few times I’ve lost my temper about politics when talking to strangers IRL are mostly shameful to the point of trauma. In a cottage in the west of Ireland in early 1999, I was introduced to a friend of the couple I was visiting. I’d worked with my Dublin friend Barry in the kind of stupid software call centre job which everyone was only pretending to pretend that they were doing. He was hugely witty, sharing my predilection for massive acts of seditious timewasting and tactical work avoidance. He was also teeming with goodwill, even towards the idiots phoning up, and was massively gifted in terms of Scandinavian languages and various forms of stringed instrument. I was one of the first people with whom he shared the news that he and his Swedish girlfriend Ana were going to have a baby. However, I don’t want to dwell on self-pity because I wasn’t the victim, but rather the protagonist of an attack of rage. I have no idea what it was all about. Maybe the integrity of the Irish Labour Party. Or the Millennium Bug. Or EU piscine policy and its relation to the price of fish. Regardless of the content, the form was drunken shouting. All that mattered was winning. I regret the whole incident, not so much for its consequences (I never saw my friends again) but because my behaviour was just plain wrong. I was subsequently too ashamed and they were (I presume) too angry to contact me again. I’d ruined a valuable friendship and been a total prick to someone who definitely didn’t deserve it and could herself have become a friend.
There have been other times (not recently, I’m pleased to say). One New Year’s Eve a couple of years ago I got angry with the partner of a friend for excoriating Jeremy Corbyn. Luckily I knew by then that I had a choice, that although I could if I wished give in to the seductive impulse to let my blood boil over, to allow myself off the leash, it was wrong in the fullest sense to do so. On that occasion I was able to reign myself in and treat a fellow human being who happened to hold a slightly different opinion with respect rather than scorn.
Unless (as I often need to remind myself) you’re dealing with someone whose sole motive is to abuse, annoy or in some other way antagonise you, it’s far better to identify points of agreement and try patiently to move forward from them, no matter how swampy or thorny the territory. While it can be great fun to throw off the constraints of politeness, in any sort of meaningful social reality there is no way that you can or should do so. We are after all civilised creatures, socially interdependent beings. Only if you actively want to alienate yourself from a particular social group can you rant and rave to (as it were) your hate’s content.
The first rule of civil debate is not to attack the person themselves. In an attack of rage there’s always an element of the personal. Fury always seeks a target, and almost always finds the wrong one. That’s what’s refreshing about Twitter. There are no real people, only avatars. Thus it doesn’t matter if you hurt someone. It doesn’t matter if someone unfollows, mutes or blocks you, or vice versa. Or, when you prefer, you can join in on ripping to shreds someone who, on the basis on fiften or sixteen words at most, appears to deserve it. Jon Ronson’s book ‘So you’ve been publicly shamed’ is an excellent primer on how pile-ons can resemble rapidfire pogroms or instant witchhunts. Taking part in such orgies of digital violence is like participating in a Milgram experiment being conducted on a planetary scale and producing much the same results. As a Twitter user you have your own microfascist coup at you fingertips: you can eradicate dissent with the tiniest gesture of the thumb. And, of course, trolling is huge fun, creating an imaginary audience for your savage japes, while all the time alert to the danger of being trolled yourself. Thus we all get to be bullies, and then when called out on it pretend to be victims. Or often we’re long gone by that point. We never see our victims again but did they even exist in the first place? Twitter is a world without moral consequences, rather like a dark room of hate.
How am I so sure of this? It’s a game I’ve happily played in the past. My own life on Twitter has gone through several stages, including more than one phase of outright addiction. I used to see myself as scourge of Britain’s far-right, and wasted several months of my life trying to reason with people opposed to reason itself. I was also guilty of all the bad habits described in the previous paragraphs until eventually (in the day after the Brexit referendum, my wife reminds me, when it was clear that the far-right had basically won) I finally deleted my account, which at that point had a balance of around 1,200 followers (who for comedy purposes I referred to as my disciples) and around 47,124,132 mostly angry tweets. I was drawn in again recently by the sweet opium smell of Trump’s catastrophic presidency. Although, of course, Twitter is not so much opium but crack cocaine. Over the course of a few intensely fruitless days I went on a binge, throwing the odd firecracker into rooms that may have been empty, hoping to hear an explosion. It was not by any standards an edifying or improving experience.
If you search for mentions of Trump on Twitter you see immediately that there are two worlds that only skirmish and very rarely engage in any meaningful way. The next civil war is being rehearsed, this time first as farce and then quite possibly (almost inevitably at this stage) as tragedy. Viewed as a game, Twitter is a first-person shooter, in which the main activity is sniping. It involves as little human engagement as two people sticking their heads above opposing walls, acknowledging each other’s existence only insofar as they’re trying to eradicate each other. Just like a baby wishing its parents dead because it has no sense of what that might mean, if I’m arguing on Twitter I want to annihilate the other person.
Then there’s the question of time. A few years ago there was a story doing the rounds about a Korean couple who were so busy raising their virtual baby that their real one died. I didn’t quite get to that point over the last week, but I did come close to falling into that mysterious black hole of time that, as Thomas Pynchon puts it, produces most internet content. Twitter is an intensified form of social media in that even more than Facebook it rewards minimal effort with an infinite abundance of stimulation. My overuse leads to extreme irritability upon even momentary withdrawal. No wonder it is the perfect medium for Donald Trump.
Maybe it is the medium itself that’s the problem, maybe not. Some people make wonderful use of it, and by no means everyone uses it to track down and antagonise political adversaries. Perhaps in a better world where people were in a more cheerful mood…but I don’t think so. Much as has been written of Zuckerberg and Facebook, the ways in which his immature notion of friendship has come to dominate the world, Twitter doesn’t serve our needs, or at least not in any way which we can consider healthy. In my experience, the notion of social media as a community is risible. People in communities share various complex facets of their daily lives. For me, Twitter brings out the very worst side of me – the side which craves instant affrimation and adulation in return for very little imagination or effort, along with an aggressive and sadistic streak which I’d really rather not encourage. That’s why I deleted my account again and will endeavour not to get drawn in again in the future. Tl/dr: instant updates –> instant asshole.