What comments on The Guardian’s website have taught me about the impossibility of rational discourse; also, a cat video

Now, there’s a title-and-a-half…

You may laugh at me for my naïveté, but I’ve always had this vague presumption that Guardian readers are intelligent.   I mean, sure, there were things about them that annoyed me.  I always knew that they were voguish, snobbish, metropolitan and, in some respects, deeply hypocritical.  (Hypocritical’s maybe not quite the right word – is there a specialist term for someone who devotes much intellectual energy to worrying about the plight of the disenfranchised poor, but would be horrified if someone wearing a Kappa jacket zipped up right to the chin sat next to them on a park bench?)  Maybe it’s just that I know my sister buys it sometimes, and I still have that kid-brother assumption that anything she does must reek of intelligence and sophistication.

Whatever the reason, intelligence always featured in the checklist of features I thought a Guardian reader possessed.  Not always common sense, perhaps, certainly not sound political judgement, but still basic intelligence: an ability to understand and engage with the fundamentals of rational discussion.  That presumption’s been taking a knock over the last little while, mainly thanks to my occasional violation of the cardinal rule of the internet – never read the comments – and the subsequent discovery that Guardian readers can be every bit as …well…thick as Daily Mail readers.  By calling them thick (which is rather rude of me, I know) I don’t mean that I disagree with them, or that they express opinions I find frustrating, I mean that they display an inability to understand, even at the most basic of levels, the things they discuss.  I’m not sure when the scales first began to fall from my eyes in this way – and I haven’t been keeping URLs or screengrabs, so you’ll just have to take my word for it (or not, as you choose) – but one of the first examples I remember was to do with the phone hacking scandal.

You remember, I’m sure, that, back last summer, Murdoch père et fils had been called to give evidence to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee at the House of Commons, and that they reluctantly showed up and were very careful to make sure they said nothing substantive for a couple of hours?  And that, towards the end of that process, a protestor by the name of Jonnie Marbles briefly enlivened things by shoving some shaving foam in Murdoch Snr’s face?  There was an orgy of commentary on The Guardian’s website about that action (and, say what you like, but it got the scandal – and the fact it was serious enough for parliament to be involved – mentioned on all the major news bulletins in the US).  But what really caught my eye for its sheer stupidity was the claim – repeated several times, by several people – that the fact the separate cameramen employed by the BBC, ITN and Sky had failed to capture any decent video footage of the event was clear evidence of some vaguely-defined conspiracy amongst the media to do …something.  (Guardian readers love vaguely-defined conspiracies, but I don’t hold that as evidence of a lack of intelligence – a lack of common sense, as I mentioned, but not a lack of intelligence.)

Now, OK, I’m prepared to concede that I may be unusual in having known even before Mr Marbles set shaving foam to paper plate that the TV services in parliament are provided by an independent media company under contract to the Parliamentary Recording Unit, and that all footage of parliamentary proceedings, wherever it’s shown, is recorded by that company using remote-controlled cameras.  I’m further willing to concede that I may be unusual in actually watching coverage of parliamentary committees on a regular enough basis to know the standard positions of cameras in the committee rooms in Portcullis House, and therefore to know that the coverage of the Murdochs’ appearance was being filmed in the typical way.  I also wouldn’t stand open-mouthed in astonishment if you told me that not everyone has my passing familiarity with the rules under which parliament is filmed, which mean that, in the event of any disorder breaking out, the director is required to cut away from it.

I don’t blame commenters on the Guardian site for not being aware of those things – not everyone can have such a tragically sad (lack of) life as me – but even without that knowledge the comments about the lack of clear footage of the attack were so obviously stupid.  I mean, how could anyone watch reports on the incident on ITN, Sky and the BBC – as several people claimed they did, in order to become aware of the ‘conspiracy’ – and not notice that they saw the same pictures shot from the same locations on all the channels?  And having noticed that, how could they not have realised that this obviously meant that the broadcasters were sharing the footage, and so did not have their own cameras in the room?  And as for the claim that there was something odd in cameramen not noticing Mr Marbles’ preparations from the corners of their eyes and turning their cameras to film him – well, even watching only the few seconds of the attack itself, surely everyone would have to realise that the angle the pictures were shot from could only mean that the cameras were located at or near the ceiling (when people stood up, their heads were still well below the cameras), and thus can’t have had people standing behind them?

I can understand that people may not be familiar with the intricacies of parliamentary broadcast.  I can even restrict myself to no more than a weary sigh when I see people loudly proclaiming themselves to be experts while making comments that demonstrate how very far they are from expertise – this is a standard feature of any internet comments thread ever, after all, and I’m sure I’ve been guilty of it myself many times.  It’s the sheer, naked stupidity revealed by not taking into account immediately available information that I find hard to take.  It’s not the ignorance, or the arrogance – they’re par for the course – it’s the lack of basic intelligence that’s so dispiriting.

Here’s another example, more recent this time.  Comments were being left on an article reporting that a new windfarm had been approved on Shetland, and, of course, windfarms are one of those hot button topics that get people clattering away at their keyboards in droves, and there were lots of comments I found to be ill-informed.  Again, I can cope with that.

I can cope with the fact that not everyone stops to think that Shetland might be windier than the southeast of England, and that wind turbines placed there might generate more electricity, and so it might be more worthwhile to build them there.  I can cope with people not knowing that, in 2011, renewable resources accounted for around 35% of all the electricity used in Scotland, and that renewable electricity isn’t the niche part of the energy mix it is in England.  I mean, sure, they’re the kind of things you’d hope somebody might stop to think about before they start publishing comments saying that windfarms never produce enough electricity to be worthwhile, or that Scotland can’t hope to produce more than a few percent of its electricity from renewables, but it’s not the easiest of information to track down – well, not unless you have a habit of surfing Wikipedia for fun, as I do.  All that I can cope with but, as with the Jonnie Marbles incident, it’s the lack of intelligence revealed by a failure to take account of immediately available information that’s so depressing.

You see, one of the commonly made assertions in the comments thread after the article was along the lines that the turbines were going to destroy (or, alternatively, enhance) a beautiful, pristine wilderness.  Now you may assume I’m going to make some sort of point about nowhere in the UK being a wilderness since every part of it has been drastically altered by the actions of man – and it’s true that the bleak, desolate landscape we associate with the Shetland ‘wilderness’ only exists because Neolithic settlers on the islands chopped down all the trees.  But I’m prepared to concede that wilderness is a relative term and that an empty landscape – even if it has been made empty by ancient human activity – is wild in a way that a landscape dotted with wind turbines isn’t.

What was so frustrating was that the very article people were commenting on included information to the effect that the planned number of turbines had been reduced in order not to impact on the flight-path for the nearby airport that was built to service the oil terminal.  Forgive the shouty bolding, but it’s obvious that only someone who failed to appreciate why each of those terms is profoundly incompatible with the idea of wilderness could leave a comment stating that the wind turbines were going to be placed in a wilderness.  And the thing is, it wasn’t just one person that made the mistake, loads of people did – some arguing that the turbines would despoil the ‘wilderness’, others that they would enhance it with their elegance – but all of them lacking the basic intelligence to realise that they clearly weren’t being put in a wilderness.

Well, it’s not really fair of me to lash out specifically at Guardian readers like this, or to suggest that the intelligence of the bulk of readers is accurately reflected by the people who leave online comments.  Truthfully, what’s led to this post is a much more general sense of malaise.  Partly the familiar old lunacies – I’ve not been in the best of mental health lately; I had a good run-in with chronic anxiety that heightened into some fairly intense paranoia, then trailed off into a listless depression that’s now become a more fractious depression in which pretty much everything has the capacity to annoy me.  But I’m also becoming increasingly disillusioned with the internet.

That possibly strikes you as funny – and, yes, I do know that the internet is really about pornography, cat videos and shopping: I use it for all three things myself.  But you see I also had a quaint and, I now see, rather naïve belief that parts of the internet could be about intelligent discussion.  I always knew that it was an uphill struggle, and that most of what was published online was professional trolling (or, as sanctimonious newspaper editors like to pretend, trenchant opinion pieces that serve to spark important debates).  I could cope with that – it didn’t make me happy, but I could cope with it – just as I could cope with the fact that a sizeable and hugely vocal minority of people had no interest in discussion, just in endlessly restating their opinions as fact.  Freedom of expression means freedom of expression, and people have to be free to express themselves even if what they say is rather unedifying.

What I can’t cope with is that stupidity is gradually infecting everything.  I believe, passionately, in the power of rational argument, and I think rational argument can ultimately win out over almost everything – prejudice, superstition, ignorance.  But the one thing it has literally no hope of winning against is deliberate, intentional, wanton stupidity.  Rational argument is, at heart, an agglomerative process – it depends on the principle that any idea may be disputed and debated, but that ideas can be built one on top of the other to create a coherent argument.  That process cannot proceed if people oppose an argument in a way that takes no account of the foundations on which it is based.

You can argue against, of course, any constituent idea within an argument.  If you don’t accept that the protocols surrounding parliamentary recording explain the lack of footage of the foam attack on Rupert Murdoch then, fine, make your case.  Ditto if you think that an oil terminal and airport don’t compromise an area’s status as wilderness but wind turbines do.  That’s all fine, because it’s part of the process of rational argument – the process of debating and testing ideas to see if they can take the weight that’s being placed upon them.  What’s not fine is just to ignore them – just to pretend that they don’t exist, and that, by ignoring them, you can make them disappear.  That approach is inimical to rational argument – in fact, to discussion at all.  You can’t have a discussion without listening to what the other person says, and responding to it.  Without that all discourse is reduced to the level of people shouting past each other into the wind.

That’s what really lies behind this blogpost – not irritation at the supposed intellectual failings of Guardian readers, just the bleak fact of facing up to something I had heretofore managed to ignore.  I used to fondly imagine that I could use this blog to make the tiniest and least impressive of contributions to the rational discussion of things that really matter.  Now I realise I’m just another voice farting uselessly into the wind – something the rest of you have known for years, no doubt.

But don’t worry – I’ll get over myself, and my ridiculous sense of self-importance, soon enough.  In the meantime, let’s all watch this video of cats being amusing:

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5 Responses to What comments on The Guardian’s website have taught me about the impossibility of rational discourse; also, a cat video

  1. Its a bit depressing to think about really, isn’t it? The cat video helped though.

  2. blackberryjuniper says:

    Pffft, Pffft to the cute cat! You DO make a difference!!! Stupidity and a lack of reasoned thought is all over the place (not least in the comments section of your post on Ricky Gervais recently, as I said in my own effort to not be a stupid comment there)…But please don’t give up, or even think about it.

    The worst thing about trying to not be a stupid person or to drown under the weight of all the other stupid thought going on, is to think you are the only one you know with this feeling, this effort. I found your blog quite randomly, and am very happy that I did. You give me hope, you make me laugh, and I respect your brain. I don’t always agree with you, but hopefully when I do disagree, I’m not dumb and rude about it! Keep going! Cats, porn and shopping aside: Reasoned Thought is always worth reading :-))

  3. Kapitano says:

    People are good at feeling, not thinking. We have emotions from birth, but putting one’s own emotions to one side, thinking an issue through, doing research – all these are learned skills.

    Learning to be rational is like learning to read. If someone doesn’t learn early, they’ll probably never be much good at it. There’s little incentive to get good at it. And schools treat minimal competence as ‘success’.

    It’s odd how ’emotionally dissociated’ is never used as a complement, seeing as it’s the first prerequisite of not being stupid.

  4. Thanks for the comments.

  5. I have just had a horrible hour of being infected by the Guardian comment section, the fact this article exists gives me a little hope. Great stuff.

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