Stylist’s Lucy Mangan explains why it’s time to embrace the art of discussion
I confess I winced when I first read the tweet by classics don and TV presenter Mary Beard. “Of course one can’t condone the (alleged) behaviour of Oxfam staff in Haiti and elsewhere,” it ran, regarding the alleged sexual exploitation of women and possibly children by aid workers. “But I do wonder how hard it must be to sustain ‘civilised’ values in a disaster zone. And overall I still respect those who go in to help out, where most of us [would] not tread.” It raised a million interesting points, but my only real thought was, “S**t, dude – Twitter is not a place to ‘wonder’ about anything.”
And so it proved, as people piled on to accuse her of rampant colonialism, advocacy of child rape, exculpation of men and much more. A follow-up picture of her red-eyed from crying, and a longer post on her blog explaining herself further (and badly, IMHO, but I don’t want to concentrate on that matter here), did nothing but fan the flames, and she left Twitter (and is, as I write, yet to return).
I have to wonder, really – hopefully in a format slightly more conducive to the procedure – how did this help anything or anyone? Good, insightful points were raised on both sides. Yet they were swiftly drowned under a cacophony of abuse from people whose only interest was in stating their point of view – with no regard for evidence, thought or analysis – as loudly as possible, in the hope that the opposition would give up and ‘their’ side would have ‘won’.
It’s such a poisonous, pointless and destructive way of approaching life. I feel so exhausted by it, and it works against us at every turn. If I agree with a public pronouncement or idea, I want it to stand up to stress tests via rigorous argument, not have it stand or fall by how loud its proponent can shout back at naysayers. And if I disagree with some piece-of-s**t statement by some piece-of-s**t minister or apologist for Weinstein-Trump-et-bloody-cetera, I don’t want it shouted down – I want it dissected, the pieces ground through the mill of logic and then fed to the dogs of rightful contempt.
Most gallingly, and despite all this, I find myself increasingly guilty of seeing life through the lens of outrage, too. I used to be almost pathologically tolerant. Now, I form opinions based entirely on 12-word headlines. I react to single glimpses of people’s behaviour on the Tube, or with shop assistants, and condemn them (in my head, so far) furiously and without mercy. Most importantly, where I used to welcome discussions with friends who think, believe and vote differently to me, I now avoid them because I can’t trust myself to listen and manage the tricky task of coping with nuance. I am out of the habit.
Who wins when this happens?
Bullies. The arrogant. Idiots who can only think in black and white. Who has his or her mind changed? No-one. We simply entrench and isolate ourselves, and that leaves the loudest, most extreme and most extremely certain people unchallenged.
The comedian Sarah Silverman recently made extraordinary efforts to engage with a troll. Instead of insulting him back, she unpicked the story behind his need to make life miserable for others, and the pair ended up forging a touching rapport. She is now helping pay the crushing medical bills that embittered him. We need not all go so far, but we should remember there are different ways of reacting to what offends or affrights us. Discuss, as animatedly as you like. But no shouting, please. And no tears.