No room for bigots

Why there are some subjects that are so polarising I'm coming to the conclusion it's almost impossib

It's tempting, as the editor of a website, to commission subjects that will get as many comments as possible. The theory goes that a lively comments section drives hits and given websites like ours are businesses that's quite a consideration.

But there's a serious downside to this. The web's provided all manner of characters with a brand new opportunity to access a mass audience and quite frankly an awful lot of commenters don't deserve that.

Previously the chance to feed back into public debates were limited to democratic expressions like voting, petitioning, demonstrating or writing stiff letters to the editor or your MP.

Of course there were exceptions of a few talk radio stations, which I generally like, and the reliably awful Any Answers - the BBC programme which follows Saturday's edition of the often excellent Any Questions which fields a panel of public figures.

From where I sit you get to see all the comments made on newstatesman.com and you have the responsibility to ensure what the boundaries are. I've blogged about this before.

Inevitably - however much one tries not to - there's a chance of getting dragged into debates because, I suppose, my own views inform some of the decisions I make.

One of the things that annoys me most though is the failure to see - or to admit to seeing - the weakness in one's own argument. You can always tell when a leader is past his or her sell by date because they start to believe their own bull - Tony Blair was a classic example of this. One could almost see him convincing himself as he fired off an explanation for some decision.

Equally we have commenters who relentlessly push the same world view at any opportunity. Believe me it's begun to get a little tedious in some cases especially if they constantly accuse you of being part of an SIS plot or, in another case, unwittily insult fellow contributors - over and over and over again.

But all of this is part of the territory and comments can also be extremely intelligent, interesting and funny too.

What isn't funny, intelligent or interesting is the vileness that appears in our comments section when we run anything to do with subjects like Israel/Palestine, the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, the division of Cyprus - I could go on.

So having published an article to mark the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht and wasted far too much of our time on trying to moderate the comments I've switched off your right of reply. I'm not interested in providing an outlet for revisionist views of what happened in the Holocaust - especially when they blame Jewish people for the climate from which National Socialism sprang.

Equally I'm not interested in being a platform for extremist Zionists who scarcely conceal their racism towards their Arab neighbours and who belittle other victims of Hitler's vile regime.

The question is, can we now allow debates about these touchpaper issues? I'd like to but some of you are, frankly, changing my mind.

And if this turns me into the role of censor so be it. That is a responsibility that comes with the job.

Now moving on. Sarah Palin plans to allow god to guide her on her decision to run in 2012. Let's hope it's a different god to the bigoted, warmongering, morally deficient one that apparently guided Dubbya.

Ben Davies trained as a journalist after taking most of the 1990s off. Prior to joining the New Statesman he spent five years working as a politics reporter for the BBC News website. He lives in North London.
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Wrists, knees, terrible rages – I felt overwhelmed when Barry came to see me

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state.

To begin with, it seemed that Barry’s wrists were the problem. He told me about the pain he was experiencing, the pins and needles that came and went in his hands. I started to examine him. His palms were calloused, his fingers thick and stubby, veterans of the heavy work he’d undertaken throughout his 57 years. Even as I assessed this first problem, he mentioned his knees. I moved on to look at those. Then it was his back. I couldn’t get to grips with one thing before he veered to the next.

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state. Barry was making me feel overwhelmed, the more so as I learned that he’d been experiencing all these problems for years.

“Why are you coming to see me about them now,” I asked, “rather than six months ago – or in six months’ time?”

“I need some time off, doc.”

There was something about the way he wouldn’t meet my gaze. And again, that feeling of being overwhelmed.

“What’s going on at work?” I asked him.

His tone hardened as he told me how he’d lost his temper a couple of days earlier. How one of the others had been winding him up, and something inside him had snapped, and he’d taken a swing at his workmate and landed a punch.

Barry had walked out and hadn’t been back. I tried to find out if he’d heard from his boss about the incident, if he knew what was likely to happen next.

He told me he didn’t care.

We talked some more. I learned that he’d been uncharacteristically short-tempered for months; his partner was fed up with being shouted at. Sleep had gone to pot, and Barry had taken to drinking heavily to knock himself out at night. He was smoking twice his usual amount. Men like Barry often don’t experience depression as classic low mood and tearfulness; they become filled with rage and turn in on themselves, repelling those closest to them in the process.

Depression is a complex condition, with roots that can frequently be traced right back to childhood experiences, but bouts are often precipitated by problems with relationships, work, money, or health. In Barry’s case, the main factor turned out to be his job. He’d been an HGV driver but at the start of the year his company had lost its operator’s licence. To keep the business afloat, his boss had diversified. Barry hated what he now had to do. He was now a “catcher”.

I didn’t know what that meant. Getting up at the crack of dawn, he told me, driving to some factory farm somewhere, entering huge sheds and spending hours catching chickens, thousands upon thousands of them, shoving them into crates, stashing the crates on a lorry, working under relentless pressure to get the sheds cleared and the birds off to the next stage of the food production chain.

“It’s a young man’s game,” he told me. “It’s crippling me, all that bending and catching.”

It wasn’t really his joints, though. Men like Barry can find it hard to talk about difficult emotion, but it was there in his eyes. I had a sudden understanding: Barry, capturing bird after panicking bird, stuffing them into the transport containers, the air full of alarmed clucking and dislodged feathers. Hour after hour of it. It was traumatising him, but he couldn’t admit anything so poncey.

“I just want to get back to driving.”

That would mean landing a new job, and he doubted he would be able to do so, not at his age. He couldn’t take just any old work, either: he had to earn a decent wage to keep up with a still sizeable mortgage.

We talked about how antidepressants might improve his symptoms, and made a plan to tackle the alcohol. I signed him off to give him some respite and a chance to look for new work – the one thing that was going to resolve his depression. But in the meantime, he felt as trapped as the chickens that he cornered, day after soul-destroying day.

Phil Whitaker’s novel “Sister Sebastian’s Library” will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt