Call for civil ac­tion against tyranny of trolls

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

IHAVE a friend with whom I dis­agree on al­most all po­lit­i­cal mat­ters. We have stalked each other’s Face­book feeds for years now, in­creas­ingly ornery at the ob­tuse, ab­surd, nar­row po­si­tions on dis­play.

I had even be­gan to won­der why we had grown friendly in the first place when, one day, we caught up in re­al­ity.

Over a bot­tle of red we re­vis­ited those causes of dis­sen­sion and laughed in­stead of raged. Facial ex­pres­sions, bod­ily ges­tures and speech nu­ances miss­ing from our on­line in­ter­ac­tions now soft­ened and iro­nised state­ments; flat equiv­o­ca­tion could now be seen in a thou­sand hu­man di­men­sions.

It oc­curred to me af­ter­wards that so­cial net­works are noth­ing of the kind. The bit­ter­ness and ac­ri­mony that char­ac­terise so much of what passes for com­mu­ni­ca­tion on the in­ter­net th­ese days sug­gests the an­ti­so­cial op­po­site.

Face­book and Twit­ter con­sti­tute a vast ar­chi­pel­ago of like-minded groups whose virtues are proven in the neg­a­tive, by the ve­he­mence with which they de­nounce the in­de­cency of those with whom they dis­agree. For all their man­i­fest virtues of speed and con­ve­nience, they have the school­yard feel of cliques tak­ing in­stant um­brage at real and imag­ined slights.

If you want to un­der­stand how the web’s utopian prom­ise of free speech for all de­volved into tyranny, a king­dom of trolls, then Richard King’s On Of­fence is the place to start.

But since King is first and fore­most a lit­er­ary critic, one of the best we have, he takes a longer view, dig­ging into canon­i­cal writ­ings on the sub­ject from Thomas Paine to Martha Nuss­baum. It turns out so­cial me­dia is only the lat­est and most ran­corous it­er­a­tion of de­vel­op­ments in pol­i­tics and so­ci­ety decades in the mak­ing. On Of­fence ar­gues the worm was in the dig­i­tal bud.

‘‘ This book is founded on three con­vic­tions,’’ King writes, ‘‘ that the prin­ci­ple of free speech is mean­ing­less un­less it in­cludes the freedom to of­fend; that the claim to find some­thing hurt­ful should be the be­gin­ning of the de­bate, not the end of it; and that the mod­ern fetish for sen­si­tiv­ity is cor­ro­sive of gen­uine ci­vil­ity.’’

It would be a dis­ser­vice to King’s nu­anced ar­gu­ment and its rolling caveats to say, sim­ply, that he sees this con­tem­po­rary ‘‘ fetish for sen­si­tiv­ity’’ emerg­ing from the po­lit­i­cal Left.

He out­lines decades of ac­tivist ef­forts to grant dig­nity and agency to those who have been vil­i­fied and si­lenced in the past. There is no in­vis­i­ble ‘‘ but’’ hov­er­ing be­hind King’s de­fence of those who have suf­fered as a re­sult of their gen­der, race, re­li­gion or sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion. What he does ob­serve is that th­ese im­pec­ca­ble egal­i­tar­ian im­pulses have had un­in­tended con­se­quences: Po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness grows out of a de­sire to right past wrongs, wrongs that con­tinue into the present, and it is for this rea­son that so many on the left . .. were se­duced by its un­der­ly­ing stric­tures. But what PC has done is to cre­ate a sit­u­a­tion in which cer­tain prob­lems, far from be­ing re­solved, can­not even be sen­si­bly dis­cussed, and in which a cer­tain fo­cus on lan­guage — on how we talk about is­sues — comes to ob­scure, or even stand in for, real and ef­fec­tive po­lit­i­cal ac­tion.

Be­fore tra­di­tion­al­ists of a cer­tain stripe get ex­cited about hav­ing their prej­u­dices con­firmed, it should be said King saves his fiercest

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