Call for civil action against tyranny of trolls
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