The trolls we despise are our own creation

To kill off the poisonous notions of celebrity, we have to stop giving it our attention and act civilly to each other.

It’s easy to mock Paris Hilton.

She is the scarecrow that embodies everything we use to keep our morals flapping above the fields of indignity. With celebrity culture, the glitz of Hollywood has lit up long dormant beasts in each of us: because they’re on the big screen, they’re deserving of our vitriol, of our scorn. But we no longer direct rotten fruit at them, but rotten terms: Too fat, too skinny, cheater, liar, weirdo, skank, whore, drug addict, stupid, bimbo, loser, airhead, meaningless. Terms most of us left in the schoolyard, replacing them with conduct catered to civility and, indeed, common decency, are somehow allowed rebirth and fruition to be used at these idols of our indulgences, these effigies to narcissism.

Yet, those of us who casually and so easily mock the failings of young women we do not know, or largely harmless men with admittedly weird religions, are also quick to shake our fists and heads at rude online comments and bizarre blog threads; we are outraged at the targeting of people for making the mistake of, for example, reviewing technology or being a woman and having an open comment thread on the internet.

When we turn off the screen, a black monitor greets us with a darkened face and we have an answer. Do we even realise the casualness with which we dismiss celebrities as idiots, bimbos, wash-ups, has-beens, irrelevant? This ignorance on our part of targeting people who are, in fact, complete strangers – just more famous ones than online writers – is itself part of the problem. We’ve casually allowed for this environment of trolling, of harassment, because so many of us do it. We’ve built a culture of mockery, a religion of ridicule, where we drink the spirits of vitriol down parched throats, raw from directed anger. And we wonder where these ‘new’ beasts come from.

We created them. We’ve produced an environment where people like Charlotte Dawson attempt suicide because strangers on Twitter had direct access to someone they’d otherwise never be able to reach. Technology may be bringing us together, but no one ought to assume this is always a good thing. Celebrities and people on television have always been the target of casual hatred, of comments that dismiss them as persons with actual emotions, instead of entities flickering on a screen, or smiling from a glossy magazine; all that’s changed is Twitter and blogs and forums have allowed us to air talk that would’ve quickly evaporated at dinners and barbeques into a permanent format: often in ways allowing us to aim our hate directly at the celebrity in question, as with Dawson.

We like to think we’re better than celebrities: these entities with no emotions, these scarecrows of our own design, with the expensive smiles and poor judgements. They’re not real like our friends, our lovers, our families, we think, they exist in some other world beyond our mere mortal grasp. While this is true to some extent, it’s no reason to treat them with casual hatred and quick dismissals: if we really are better than them, surely that means we should demonstrate it, in not allowing even casual hatred to be a property we have. It’s easy to create scarecrows from the threads the screen provides, from the weird behaviour picked apart by gossip columnists, by the tiny increase in bulges etched into eternity by paparazzi; it’s much harder to fight against this machine that manufactures celebrities out of ordinary people, fed by screaming passion of voyeuristic indulgence.

In a global society increasingly growing weary of gods, we’ve become lax to a religion that creates them all the time, demanding the sacrifice of our decency.

There are multiple ways to make places like the internet and society in general a space in which adult discussion can occur. There are ways to combat the influence pundits, who sprout fallacies and untruths, have on political discourse in the most powerful countries in the world. One way is to grow a stable foundation of our own discourse. It’s to reclaim civility in a consistent way. It’s to say we’re better than this, we’re better than the hype machine, we’re better than the trolls.

There will always be strange people doing harmless things, always be celebrities who say nonsense like Paris Hilton and her homophobic ideas; but our passion and our anger are better served elsewhere than on strangers – no matter how big-named they are.

Celebrity does not imply talent. Celebrity is only made by attention. We should start killing the notion of "celebrity", replacing it with actual talent, actual ability. But to do that requires us to stop giving attention, to stop hurting our own humanity as moral beings: we’ve got to act civil – ie read and engage charitably, begin with some measure of respect, until such time as interlocutors do not reciprocate or demonstrate deserving of it, and so on. 

If we can’t even maintain a modicum of respect for a rather harmless young woman like Paris Hilton, is it any wonder we fail in facilitating proper dialogue on important matters with our opponents?

Paris Hilton: a celebrity we created. Photograph: Getty Images
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The conflict in Yemen is a civil war by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood