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Sound and Fury: A civil correspondence about online rage

Keith Kahn-Harris, editor of the Jewish Quarterly, and Helen Lewis, deputy editor of the New Statesman, discuss the anger that permeates the online world and how, as editors, they respond to it.

Towards the end of last year, Keith Kahn-Harris emailed me, asking whether I would be interested in exchanging perspectives on our experiences of online rage, and how to generate more light than heat when covering contentious topics. Keith's background is as the editor of the magazine Jewish Quarterly, while most of my experiences of Twitterstorms and other expressions of anger have been through the New Statesman's coverage of feminism and gender. This piece is also posted at JQ.

 

 

 

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Dear Helen,

I’m guessing we’ve had similar experiences.

We’ve both written on contentious topics. We both know the excitement of unleashing our thoughts on the world.

And we both know what comes next.

The comments! The tweets! The sound and fury! Yes, there’s instant gratification and recognition. We both know the relief and delight when we touch a chord in others, when we give voice to what others are thinking. But we also know the anger, the abuse, the vitriol that often drowns out the praise and more thoughtful criticism.

As editors as well as writers, we are also confronted with questions of responsibility. As gatekeepers to the online and offline written worlds, we can make choices about what gets out there, what voices to promote and what voices to suppress.

So, I’d like us to try and think together about this brave new world of cacophonous voices. Why is the practice of writing today accompanied by so much sound and fury? Has the internet unleashed something new, or was this always the case? Why do some issues, such as those that we write on, trigger such a vociferous reaction?

Looming over this is the question of civility. What does civility consist of nowadays? Should writers and editors worry about questions of civility, or should a thousand red-faced flowers bloom? Above all, is there a civility problem in public discourse today?

I look forward to reading your thoughts.

Best wishes

Keith 

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Dear Keith,

I think the first thing to say is that reaction—even sound and fury—is no bad thing. If no one cared enough about what you were writing to react or respond, it would be a good sign that there wasn’t much point writing it. It’s also because there is so much at stake: all discussions about Israel, for example, take place in the shadow of the events that led to the founding of Israel. When I write about feminism, I have to remember there are people alive today who were born at a time when women couldn’t vote. No wonder so many people feel an emotional investment in these issues, rather than a purely intellectual interest.

I think the problem is that democratisation of public discourse is actually very superficial. We were promised that thanks to blogs, petitions and social media, everyone would have a chance to have their voice heard. But it doesn’t always work out like that—Mary Beard made this point on a panel I was once on, saying: “It’s still Beard on Question Time, though, isn’t it?” I think people feel betrayed when they see the same old ‘Establishment’ occupying the top jobs and plum spots in the media, in what is supposed to be a wonderful new world. 

If you spend any time on Tumblr, or similar sites, you’ll hear discussions about ‘tone policing’. That’s the idea that when people are angry, you mustn’t dismiss their concerns because they are communicated in an uncivil way. I have a lot of sympathy with that: it means that those for whom the status quo suits pretty well have an advantage in discussions, because they are able to respond coolly and ‘objectively’. 

My problem has always been, though, that some people use this as an excuse to be rude or overbearing—or they try to turn every discussion into a question of moral disgust, and if you disagree with them you are a ‘phobe’ of one sort or another. On Twitter, this is particularly noticeable. There is very little downside in adopting The Most Outraged position on anything; however, try to make the case that you don’t find something offensive, or you don’t think it’s a particularly big deal, and you might be accused of being insensitive (or, worse, put in the stocks alongside the original offender, as if you have given tacit approval to everything they say or do). 

The other point about incivility is that it drives people out of the conversation. I’m sure there are many writers who do not touch particular subjects because they know they will be subjected to vicious—and often highly personal assaults. The recent ‘GamerGate’ storm was an extreme example of this: several women who merely expressed an opinion on sexism in the videogame industry received death threats or had their personal details published online. (I’m sure these tactics are used by ‘progressives’, too.) On a lower level, many people may look at a flame war and simply conclude there’s no point venturing an opinion: and if you lose the moderates from a discussion, you are just left with the extremes on both sides yelling. Compromise becomes impossible, and public debate is poorer as a result.

As another editor, I’m interested in how you gauge what’s an acceptable level of anger—both in writers ‘above the line’ and in comments, etc.?

Best wishes,

Helen

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Dear Helen

It’s interesting that you talk about an “acceptable level of anger.” I certainly agree that anger is both an inevitability, and something that should not be a priori ruled out of bounds in public discourse. The question is when anger and incivility becomes pathological or dangerous to the extent that ‘gatekeepers’ like ourselves need to step in and act.

One approach that I’ve been thinking about is to differentiate productive and non-productive anger. Productive anger goes somewhere, does something, takes us somewhere—it moves us forward in some way.

How might that distinction work in practice? You asked how I deal with these issues as an editor. Well, the anger issue was constantly in my mind in putting together the autumn/winter 2014 double issue of the Jewish Quarterly. The issue contains a lengthy special section called “After Gaza”, in which I commissioned a range of reflections on the summer 2014 Gaza conflict. I had the idea for this special section when I was putting to bed the summer issue of the magazine as the conflict was reaching a crescendo. Several stakeholders in the JQ pushed me to include something on the conflict, but I resisted: my sense was that there was such a deluge of instant online comment—a lot of it very angry—that I didn’t feel we could add anything. Rather, a quarterly magazine like ours can offer a ‘slower’, more considered set of reflections after the event.

What I didn’t acknowledge at the time was that I was probably a little afraid of the angry polemics that I’d receive had I commissioned in the summer, not to mention the angry reactions they would no doubt provoke from some of our readers. After Gaza, as it turned out in the end, still included some angry contributions, but I think some of the force of the anger had abated, which enabled some more productive reflections than might have been the case earlier in the year. 

Yet, I’m also aware of what I might have lost in delaying After Gaza. I’m sure we can both think of angry and passionate polemics written in the heat of a bitter conflict that still manage to be literary accomplishments: would Zola’s “J’accuse” been such a literary classic had he waited several months to publish it?

On the other hand, there are counter-examples as well: “Strange Fruit” is full of anger, but part of its power in Billy Holiday’s rendition of it is its timelessness, its sense of finely-tuned control. And I would hazard a guess that this kind of ‘delayed’ anger has produced better art and writing on balance than the more immediate kind.

So part of the job of an editor seems to be to provide space and time to transform anger into this more productive and timeless kind. That is easier for me than for you—we only publish every few months!

The problem with social media, comment threads, Tumblr, etc., is that not only is there no editor, but there’s no productive delay—fthe immediacy, 99% of the time, produces only the rawest kind of anger. This immediacy is very seductive and can be cathartic, but it can ruin reputations. The Salaita case in the US—in which a pro-Palestinian professor was denied tenure, in part because he indulged in some pretty vicious tweeting—highlights this. While I’m a passionate believer in civility and try myself (sometimes unsuccessfully) to avoid tweeting things I will regret later, I share your concerns about ‘tone policing’. Certainly in the Salaita case, demands that he be civil were sometimes overlaid with the implication that as someone of Palestinian descent, he was incapable of (western) civility. 

There needs to be a degree of tolerance for online anger, in that its temptations are so great that few of us can really claim the moral high ground. Rather than policing tone, I’m much more interested in creating opportunities for more productive conversations and a more measured kind of anger. In parts of After Gaza at least, I think I may have succeeded.

I’d like to end with a question to you: is online anger and incivility worse over some issues than others? Does ‘everything’ spark internet viciousness or are some things—Israel, feminism, etc.—worse than others?  And if everything is so controversial these days, are we all angrier than we used to be? 

Keith

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Dear Keith,

Your final question is an intriguing one. Sarfraz Manzoor once wrote a piece for the Guardian’s Comment Is Free with the headline, “Boris, Israel, 9/11 and me”, in which it was observed: 

“The ideal CIF story would probably combine Islam, Israel and 9/11 conspiracy theories with immigration, feminism and Boris Johnson. And it would be written by Richard Dawkins and Mike Read.”

It’s now seven years since that piece, but I think it still holds true. One distinguishing feature, which the most febrile subjects often share, is that there is an uneasiness about some groups being held to different standards, or singled out, for criticism. Israel is an obvious example, but the same thing happens in feminism—high-profile women are lambasted for the accommodations they have to make with both patriarchy and capitalism. I know many Muslim writers feel the same about Islam: a religion of one billion people is judged by the actions of a few thousand. So there is a tension about how to address the problems within these groups without placing too high a burden of representation on to individuals.

From the perspective of journalism, I worry about the use of anger. It’s like sugar—an immediate hit, but ultimately often not very nourishing. And yet, the problem is that people (myself included!) find sugar a lot more exciting than nutritious but unexciting porridge. So, particularly in online journalism—where no one knows what you are reading—there’s an arms race. In order to stand out, you have to be even more angry, even more disgusted, even more outraged. You end up in the situation described by Martin Amis in Koba The Dread

“You might denounce someone for fear of their denouncing you; you could be denounced for not doing enough denouncing; the only disincentive to denunciation was the possibility of being denounced for not denouncing sooner.”

. . . in such a climate, it’s difficult for difficult, complicated, thoughtful journalism to flourish; and, furthermore, it increases the pressure to shave off any rough edges on stories which might otherwise be too nuanced or complicated to offer a simple Manichean perspective. I see the role of magazines like ours to take the slow route, stop and smell the flowers a little more, investigate the complications and contradictions of a story. God knows there are enough people taking the other path!

The final conundrum I leave you with is this: how do you deal with people who are angry that you aren’t angry enough about something?

Helen 

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Dear Helen

I’ve experienced many times the wrath of those who would like you to be as angry as they are. Anger seems to be an emotion that looks for company—and often succeeds in doing so. 

This raises interesting issues about the ways in which people are drawn in, or not drawn in, to controversy and uncivil argument. I’m sure we can both think of many examples of online—and offline—arguments that start off as relatively contained disputes between a couple or handful of individuals, and then spiral out of control as others are drawn in. 

Not everyone does get drawn in, of course, and this raises the question of how and whether those who don’t involve themselves are different in some ways from those who do. One case that is sometimes made—and that I’ve sometimes made myself—is that more ambivalent, nuanced, and quiet voices become alienated and intimidated from vituperative debates. I think this does happen; in fact, during last summer’s conflict in Gaza, I experienced this myself, as the ‘passionate’ views on display put me off participating in social media for a while.

Yet, this distinction—between hot-headed certainty and fragile ambivalence—can be overdone. One can interpret the ‘silence’ of those who don’t take part in online and offline conflict in many ways. There are vicarious pleasures to be had in regarding the anger of others, even if you don’t participate in it. Writers such as Rod Liddle, Julie Burchill, Kate Hopkins, et al, have prominent platform in part because their foul writerly personalities are tremendously engaging and exciting, even if you are outraged by what they say.  There’s also an element of ‘outsourcing’ going on: I’ve often noticed, in the Israel conflict, how quieter activists empower their most extreme and argumentative colleagues as the latter will can take the abuse so others don’t have to. 

Any attempt to create a more civil conversation about controversial issues will require a wider accountability than just pointing to themes and uncivil voices. Most of us, at some time or other, empower the incivility of others, even when we don’t engage in such behaviour ourselves. 

It’s easier said than done, though. I freely admit that I’m drawn like a moth to a flame to writing and to personalities that make me angry. I liked your sugar analogy—argument is, indeed, something that we all need in small doses—but too much is bad for you. To extend the analogy, we need to avoid offering healthy, but dull nut roasts, as an alternative to unhealthy but appealing junk food. We need more ‘fine dining’—in which flavour is maximised, but without necessarily relying on addictive sugars and fats. 

Magazines like ours often provide this fine dining, but there’s no call for smugness! We are just as susceptible to polemical writing, which—as I argued in my previous email—while it does have a place, can sometimes be just as crude in highbrow publications, albeit couched in more sophisticated language.

So, I guess, where we end up is with the long, hard work of taking personal responsibility for civility and incivility, which translates into a multitude of small but crucial choices over what we write and what we read. Now excuse me while I go off to get angry at the latest Melanie Phillips column....

Keith

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Dear Keith,

I entirely agree—no one wants a world of bland conformity, and you gesture towards a point we haven’t explored yet: the line between advocacy and journalism. As a hack, I appreciate the skill and wit of the writers you mention, but as, say, a feminist, I wince at the arguments they advance. Personally, I believe that actually caring about a subject makes you a better writer (and that ‘objectivity’ is largely impossible, anyway) but I suppose that does also increase your susceptibility to being wound up.

Oddly, as we’ve been corresponding, I’ve read a very good article called “The Toxoplasma of Rage”, which mentions something called “the PETA effect.” Essentially, this is the idea that the controversies that really gain traction are often the marginal ones, where there is no clear good/bad. If something is obviously bad and wrong, that usually leads to silence, rather than heated arguments. I suppose the fundamental point is quite banal—that you need two sides to have an argument—but it’s what happens when an outrage is clear-cut that I find most interesting.

The author writes: “A rape that obviously happened? Shove it in people’s face and they’ll admit it’s an outrage, just as they’ll admit factory farming is an outrage. But they’re not going to talk about it much. There are a zillion outrages every day, you’re going to need something like that to draw people out of their shells.”

That is something that we need to bear in mind as journalists: that feeling of disempowerment, which comes with knowing something is deplorable—but also feeling powerless to change it. No wonder the controversies flourish, because we feel that if we can argue our case sufficiently hard, we have achieved something. Perhaps it’s the horrors that no one can be bothered to be angry about which should worry us most.

Best wishes,

Helen

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.