Of all the methods of frittering away our leisure time that humankind has come up with since the advent of actually having time to waste, we have finally reached peak distraction with the advent of arguing online.
While only a few decades ago people would spend their evenings watching Morecambe and Wise or smoking a pipe, or perhaps building a scale model of HMS Victory from matchsticks, social media has swept all before it to leave us with the sole hobby of arguing with complete strangers about the topics of the day.
This is all great knockabout fun most of the time, as long as you’re robust enough to have your ideas rubbished and your intelligence called into question. Leaving aside the keyboard warriors who are emboldened from their usual position of cowardice to issue threats or insults we shouldn’t be afraid of ferocious debate. Only through argument and critical discussion of theories can we reach a place where we can hold beliefs that have some merit. The problem in our allegedly post-Truth era, is the cherry-picking of facts to support our positions coupled with the ignoring of details which detract from the case we are making.
One man saw both the need for argument to arrive at a better understanding of the world and the ways we would seek to dodge arguments that contradicted our own – the philosopher Karl Popper, speaking before the days of the internet, eerily predicted the nature of Facebook political debate when he said “If we are uncritical we shall always find what we want: we shall look for, and find, confirmations, and we shall look away from, and not see, whatever might be dangerous to our pet theories.”
Since the Brexit referendum and the election of Trump the world of online arguing has gone insane and I’ve felt myself becoming increasingly annoyed by those who fall into the trap outlined by Karl Popper.
Last week I reached the point where I had to stop reading online arguments and it was all to do with the Holocaust.
The Jewish community’s links to Leeds run deep and our city’s life has been immeasurably enriched both culturally and economically by their input. You may not know it but last Friday was Holocaust Memorial Day. It is one day in the year set aside to remember the innocent victims of a bestial ideology that wielded its hatred with industrial might in an attempt to wipe an entire people and their history from the face of the earth. This is not ancient history. There are still among us some few who survived to bear witness to mankind’s darkest moment. And those who went on to have families after their deliverance from evil have left with us their greatest revenge – new generations of Jews who the Nazis hoped would never see the light of day or draw a breath and speak among the families of the earth. Their lives are a victory in themselves.
On Friday I realised not just how ridiculous it is for people to shout “Fascist” at every idiotic policy that either Tories or Trump unveil but also how belittling of the unique obscenity that was the Holocaust to constantly be drawing inaccurate comparisons between Germany in the 1930s and the world today. The Holocaust was a unique event – unique in horror, intention and scope – and those who seek to use it to further their own arguments about today’s world tarnish both their own arguments by doing so and the memory of those who were murdered.
Watching a Trump-hater lecture the son of Holocaust survivors about how Trump is a new Hitler made my hackles rise like never before in online debate. Trump may be many things – idiotic, wrong-headed, sexist, blundering – but he is not a new Hitler nor are his policies fascist and to constantly overuse that word undermines the work of bringing judgement to the genuine fascists who are abroad in the modern world.
His policies don’t make him a fascist unless you are willing to concede that Obama was also a fascist. For example, if you use his 90-day travel ban on people from seven countries (bizarrely six of whom ban Israeli citizens from entering their countries) entering the US, or his proposed Mexican border wall, as evidence to label him a fascist while simultaneously ignoring the fact that Obama banned Haitian refugees and deported more Mexicans than any American President in history, no serious person will take your theories with anything other than a massive pinch of salt.
Online arguing requires a coherence of outlook and thought unless you wish to be revealed as hypocritical. You can’t ignore the enforced dress and moral codes imposed on millions of women in the world and say that sexist remarks made 12-years ago by Trump make him the greatest ever threat to female equality if you want me to take you seriously. Likewise, you can’t scream racist at people who voted to leave the EU and ignore the fact that the EU’s policies of “fortress Europe” led directly to the death by drowning of thousands of Africans and Asians in the past three or four years.
When we come to battle clutching our “facts”, prepared to throw them at our opponents and deliver a killer blow to their position, we would do well to apply some rigour in evaluating our evidence.
When you argue online, if you ever want it to be more than simply an exercise in screaming your opinions into the virtual void, be coherent, be like Karl.