OPINION: “…I heard his mum’s got AIDS”

Butterfly screen break - lr - smBy Ed King

I’m acting like a child. And this conversation is losing me friends.

It’s alienating colleagues, polarising peers, and upsetting a family who just want to chat over tea. And I keep having it. I keep stamping my feet. By the end of the year I could be in this room alone.

But the issue, to me at least, is important; one I hope gets discussed by the rational, forthright and intelligent. Or, in light of my own (continually failing) endeavours, is approached with enough compassion to be first heard, second understood, and ideally further discussed.

So what’s the story? Well, if the headline is ‘Media Responsibility’ (or integrity) then the subtext is ‘a complicit public’; the promulgation and knee jerk acceptance of news, as reported in the public domain.

It’s the pub table conversation, and the headlines from canny media who are trying to garner numbers instead of fostering truth. Or even just fact, if the truth is still under question. It’s our own immediate, yet oddly often still cynical, endorsement of a story – and the duplicitous machines that churn one fact into 10 different angles, spoon feeding the public fatuous rhetoric it can pass off as informed commentary; in a garrulous regurgitation of perceived information, often accumulated from partisan sources, to purport a basis of knowledge, understanding or learned opinion. Or in essence, talking shit.

And I’m not claiming to be a bastion of credibility. I DO THIS TOO. Thankfully not very often (anymore) and whilst making the appropriate, if not egotistically clandestine, reparations.

But it’s becoming a bad habit many of us fall into without either the care or attention to mend our ways. Or even notice our ways. It’s becoming more prevalent in intelligent company, a set play amongst the under informed, and permeating the bitter cracks of a society that taught me to wear CND badges and fight racism in the playground. The same voices that told me to see beyond colour (or to not see it out of context at all) are now telling me how “I’m not racist but… “

N.B. If you are concerned about immigration, or ‘don’t understand why we can’t have an open and frank conversation’ about its potential burdens on the welfare state, Google. Seriously. Find the factual answers to the statistical questions you have, from reputable sources in the public domain, and start from there. Otherwise it’s a rant about something else.

I sound on the attack, and reading this back I can understand why my attempts at discussing the issue have fallen on apathetic, then defensive, ears. No one wants to listen to a man screaming at them. And I need to work on that.

But this is bigger than me, it’s bigger than you; and it’s bigger than the discussions, failed or fervent, one has with the other. It’s a big problem, but could be combated with a button touch of cross referencing through the world’s largest library, available in many homes, cafes and (ironically) libraries.

I believe this short cut to thinking is divisive. It spreads misunderstanding, undermines the role of truth, and turns the free press into a playground of ignorance. It also makes us, the willing recipients of such hyperbole, into ambassadors of lies. In a war they’d call it propaganda.

Plus it leads to conversations like this, held between me and an old friend of mine (an intelligent man with more compassion than I) about the suspected involvement of a British national in the Westgate Shopping Mall attacks, in Nairobi, on Sept 21st – 24th 2013:

Friend: “…with a British woman being one of those behind it. Apparently the Kenyan government has evidence of her involvement in the attacks.”

Me:  “I saw her picture on several front pages, what’s the evidence Kenya has?”

Friend: “That she was involved, they’ve got proof apparently. Evidence.”

Me: “What evidence?”

Friend: “Evidence.”

Me: “OK, but what evidence? Tell me exactly.”

Friend: “Official evidence, linking her to the attacks.”

Me: “…you can’t just say evidence, what evidence?”

Friend: “Proof. Evidence.”

Me: “What evidence?”

Friend: “Evidence.”

Me: “WHAT EVIDENCE???”

(Repeat the last two lines, with increased incredulity from ‘Me’ and calm reiteration from ‘Friend’, and you can start to see the roots of both my frustration and alienation)

The saddest result of this conversation, and others like it, is that nobody learns anything. I honestly didn’t know much about the Westgate Shopping Mall attacks, whilst my friend was simply trying to make conversation. But his refusal to concede the holes of information, and my frustrated verbosity, alongside the widespread evolution of a story that’s been bobbing up and down since the Kenyan government issued a warrant for the arrest of Samantha Lewthwaite on Jan 4th 2012, leaves us literally just fighting in the street. None, the, wiser.

But it’s not just the overt contentions of a Daily Mail lead with the words ‘white’, ‘woman’, ‘Islam’, and ‘terrorist’ in it. It’s the misrepresentations of culture over a faculty’s shortsighted policy on appropriate campus clothing. It’s the unsubstantiated flame fanning over figures on a Work & Pensions press release. It’s the threat of new disease, the dangers of food, the war of the sexes; it’s the paedophile in the classroom and the bomber at the bus stop. The world is full of enough bigotry, misfortune and danger – we don’t need to make up any more.

Plus, and perhaps the most pertinent fallout of all, it stops intelligent discussion. As does me shouting “WHAT EVIDENCE???” at three in the morning.

As I said, this conversation is losing me friends. But thankfully the ones who know me well are still sticking around; and I, in turn, have added ‘more compassion’ to my New Year’s resolution list.

But it worries me that we are descending into a world of comfortable fear, that the pure joys of knowledge are being replaced by a herd’s need to accuse and chastise. That our egos are so rampant we value social prominence over progression. That fact beats fiction if it gets a laugh or an approving murmur. That with more news has come more avenues to manifest our frustrations. That as the information age excels, with an array of devices to disseminate fact and nurture community, we stick to throwing stones and slinging mud. That ignorance is winning.

I don’t like this culture we’re fostering; I don’t like my part in it, and I don’t like what it’s doing the world around me. It reminds me of the bullies at school, and the whispering court rooms that would accuse and sentence before lunchtime; a time and place I was glad to leave and see no sense in returning to.

So in hopefully more dulcet tones I’ll keep asking asking “what evidence?” across 2014, and hopefully someone will check the facts and get back to me. And in the meantime I’ll make a promise to try and temper my tantrums.

I guess we all need to grow up.

Ed King is editor of Birmingham Review: https://twitter.com/edking2210

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