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How to criticise the left

Thanks to the internet, a new discursive register has emerged: either you’re with us, to the most extreme interpretation of our ideas, or you’re against us.

If you use Twitter a lot, you may have wondered exactly how to criticise large parts of the left without sounding like a bigot, a racist, or worst of all Richard Dawkins. 

The legacy of what the internet calls “identity politics” is that the lived experience of an individual now not only informs a given debate, as well it should, but dominates it, leaving no room for dissent.

Coupled with the binary nature of the internet, in which layered ideas are pounded flat by the limitations of the format, a new discursive register has emerged: either you’re with us, to the most extreme interpretation of our ideas, or you’re against us. There are no in-betweens.   

For instance, even advocates of political correctness (as I am) often concede that the use of inclusionary language can potentially be wrongheaded or clumsy. Yet anyone caught contravening the latest iteration of an increasingly esoteric cant is blacklisted as a witch, a heretic, a mansplainer, a “whorephobe”, Richard Littlejohn, or a similarly unflattering slur.

It leads to a question: is this hectoring attitude towards cultural shibboleths likely to alienate well-meaning middle-grounders from ever truly engaging with the ideas?

Not that engagement is always the objective. The development of stylesheets to define a person’s credentials is also a defensive weapon – if someone lacks the argumentative tools to tackle an idea, they can discredit the person having the idea instead. It’s an excuse for emotional, rather than critical, thinking. “Why,” a leftist might ask today, “should I engage with Peter Hitchens on immigration or drug law, when he’s a Tory/racist/space alien?”  Twitter is lousy with people who know the answer before they’ve asked the question.

Equally the internet is a great way of insulating yourself against challenging ideas, and you can even become something of a left-wing darling among choirs of like-minded peers. But no matter your cachet within the hierarchy of progressiveness, will you ever be qualified to reliably discuss Beethoven if you’ve only ever listened to the Dead Kennedys? 

The reason I feel the need to analogise is that creativity is required to express ideas in an age where words and ideas can quickly become taboo. Try having a grown-up conversation about freedom of speech or immigration or austerity without the debate quickly descending into a face-off around each word’s representative categorical implications. Unironic use of the words free speech mark you as a libertarian, your stance on immigration makes you either pro or anti racism, and what you think about austerity implies whether or not class privilege courses inexorably through your veins. I am using this garish italicisation as is customary for non-integrated foreign words, because at this point they may as well be: these words have no longer have any original or literal meaning but represent only a wider cultural idea, like saying plus ca change or c'est la vie. 

Without doubt, this is a result of use, misuse and overuse, the sucking until flavourless the sour and sweet confectionary of political rhetoric. Powerful, provocative words cannot enjoy unlimited transplantations in and out of their intended context. Soon, the context will stop sticking, like worn-out velcro. We risk devaluing useful globules of language by repurposing them so often not as useful signifiers but as brands for the ideologically impure. 

This problem is by no means limited to the left – just look at how similarly right-wing parodies of social liberals miss the point of trigger warnings and safe spaces, warping the words beyond their intended uses – but the unifying factor of this context-free approach to language is that it makes criticism impossible without invoking some real or imagined transgression.

Think about when Charlie Hebdo recently published cartoons of Aylan Kurdi. The cartoons were many things – tasteless, offensive, upsetting – but instead the controversial magazine was accused of making fun of a young boy’s death. A cursory Google translation of the captions and an ounce of critical analysis confirms that this interpretation simply wasn’t true – but try typing that online without looking like you endorse Charlie Hebdo’s repugnant sketches. Like so much else, the answers to our questions of cultural morality exist in the spaces, where they can’t produce retweet-grabbing soundbites.

Maybe we should give up expecting balance in any criticism of the far left, the far right, or anyone. But we should always try to remember one of the things that separates us humans from pigs – chiefly, the ability to analyze a piece of communication critically. Tempting though it may be to allow emotions alone to decide our allegiances, mindlessly trotting in hundred-strong herds to whoever is offering the biggest pail of swill, we have the power to understand the world – and its language – objectively. We have the power to analyse and critique and discuss, beyond the scope of our base instincts. It’s a controversial thought these days, but perhaps if we remembered it more often, political discourse on the internet and beyond wouldn’t feel so much like Lord of the Flies. 

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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.