What’s going on?

One of the most memorable features of 2016 was a continuous cacophony of intolerance and raw aggression. Our most pressing task for 2017 is to find a distinctive voice of militant tolerance and decency. It is a bit of a challenge, but it must be done.

Stridency appears to have infected public debate of all types. It is not confined to the likes of Messrs Farage and Trump. It is equally evident in the continuing (and, in my opinion, sterile and pointless) campaign by a small but high profile group of academics to discredit every point of view about mental illness other than their own.

The Daily Mail and liberal apostates such as Melanie Phillips have contributed to the stentorian tone of public life, but I think that social media, especially blogs and Twitter, have done much more to shape the way that we disagree. As a contributor to both mediums, and as a person of distinctly left wing orientation, I write this with a wry smile.

Karl Marx’s contribution to modern thinking turns on a single concept: history is shaped by conflict between great impersonal socio-economic forces. From this he derived the belief that capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction. There is more than a touch of post-modern irony in the emerging reality that the end of civilisation may well occur as a direct consequence of Donald Trump’s habit of Tweeting the first half formed thought that comes into his head. Surviving historians will be able to debate whether this was due to Trump’s personality (the “great man” theory of history) or the historical inevitability of the development of social media (Marx’s “materialist conception of history”).

When the Internet first appeared there was a good deal of rhetoric to the effect that this would make it harder for the powerful to mislead the rest of us. It has not worked out that way. Instead we have an ugly mob in our sitting room, trying to bully anyone who disagrees with a narrative of conspiracy, xenophobia and intolerance. Twitter thugs are not exclusively oafish shaven headed men with bare beer bellies escaping from their football shirts. Billionaires, former public school boys with messianic ambitions and even academics with an axe to grind have all developed prolifically antisocial cyber-personalities. We have ideologues speaking directly to the population at large, and some of the population talking back in a positive feedback loop of unpleasantness. Some people say we are in a post-truth era, but I think that Twitter has dropped us into an era of intolerance. There is a lot of Tweeting and very little listening.

So it is that the trolling behaviour of right wing bigots has spread to all shades of opinion. Anyone who wants to contribute to change has to engage with people through Twitter, because that is the reality of the time. However, if we try to fight with the same offensive ad hominem tactics, any message of tolerance is destroyed. The message is the medium, and in a broader sense than McLuhan intended.

Here is the let down: I know what the task is but I cannot offer an off-the-shelf distinctive voice of militant tolerance and decency. What I do know is that we have to be serious about developing one. It is conventional to cite Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela in this sort of debate, and both examples are relevant.

No matter what one thinks of Jeremy Corbyn’s political views, he is pretty ineffective as a champion of the values that he obviously holds dear. His saintly demeanour, drawing on the honourable tradition of ethical socialism rooted in non-conformist Christianity, does not look at all convincing in the present circumstances. We need a more uplifting form of militant decency.

Back in February 2016, I caused a brief Twitter storm by reproaching Professor Richard Bentall. He had criticised Stephen Fry for understanding his own mental illness to be a biological problem. That blog and its aftermath have reverberated around a fair bit. Some service users agreed with me, and others criticised me. I am content with that. A proper debate involves respect for all points of view and leads to attempts find a way forward that most people can live with. A service user, Veryan Richards, gave a paper at the 2015 International Congress of the Royal College of Psychiatrists entitled “Parity begins at home: with you and with me”. She said this about psychiatrists:

“I think that the contribution you make as a profession to the health of the nation is often under-estimated and under-valued. Psychiatry is the medical speciality best skilled to enable recovery from mental illness and it has a major input and influence over the quality of care and outcomes for patients. It is a key participant in the health and wellbeing of our society.”

Some voices in the there-is-no-such-thing-as-mental-illness lobby regard this stance as evidence that such service users have been so damaged by the medical model that they have internalised it. I think that is patronising and disrespectful. In mental health care and in politics alike, all is lost of we deny the right to conscientiously disagree. So that is part of a militant voice of decency.

Another part of militant decency is a refusal to be intimidated. Only a fool feels no fear, but reacting to that fear is within our own control. We must be prepared to speak up for what we believe is right, whether the fear is of a savaging on social media or of reprisals in the real world. If we fail to do so, we will not only lose the battle, we will also lose our self-respect. Fear is real, but it need not hold dominion over us.

The title of this blog refers to Marvin Gaye’s great musical commentary on the turbulence in the USA in 1971. Gaye never wanted to be a soul singer. He was a jazz musician who worked in the studio for Motown in the first instance. This live version from 1972 shows off some of his chops on jazz piano. The song is a plea for tolerance from the side of a civil conflict that had most reason to be angry.