Friends who only know me from me from my books about fascism sometimes ask whether I’ve ended up on far-right hitlists. Not really. There was a death threat I was sent when I was at university – more a chain letter with some pornographic cartoons than anything more serious. There was a time in Sunderland when the organisers of the BNP branch read a letter of mine in the local paper, and tried to knock on every door of the street I lived until they found me. (The street ran to number 800 and, as far as I can tell, they never got anywhere near the flat where I was staying).
Years ago, in Liverpool, a former BNP member who’d been on trial for attempted murder got hold of my email address, and that only. But, to be honest, he was more looking for someone -anyone – to read his turgid memoirs than to do any harm to me.
In the last decade, most of the hatemail has come from other socialists. Like the person in the SWP who wrote to me, “Fuck off back to Eton you filthy rich tosser … you snivelling piece of shit.” When I pointed out that he’d sent what he plainly thought was an anonymous message from his private work computer, and therefore that I could identify him, the comrade had the good sense to respond, “I was completely wrong to say the things I did and I would like to offer my apologies.”
Then there was the fellow antizionist who wrote to me last year, “I suspect that the only thing you have fought for is a good seat at a restaurant … I won’t congratulate you on becoming a class traitor, not least because you were always of the wrong class anyway”. Which was at least better-written, and me laugh, even if the rest of the letter was annoying, stupid and rude.
What intrigues me is why people send this “red-on-red” fire? Obviously, there’s the narcissism of small differences, the way in which when you’re stuck at a point on the political spectrum it can feel as if people with a similar politics to you are operating as gatekeepers, keeping your voice from getting the attention it deserves.
But I think there’s something more than that, to do with the long-term consequences of the relocation of life from off- to online. Some readers will recall a time when online discussion was minimal, when it was something which took place in universities and through an electronic infrastructure which excluded the vast majority of people, and when other means of international communication was prohibitively expensive. (Don’t you remember having saying to people: I need to make a call, it’s international – I’ll pay you?)
If you had said to anyone 30 years ago that we were on the verge of a transformation in people’s ability to speak, opening up interpersonal communication to billions of people, the prospect would have filled every one of us with delight.
Plainly, social media is not only a negative phenomenon. Billions of people devote their creativity and ingenuity to the effort to make that experience as pleasant as possible. A shared experience on this scale could not simply be unpleasant, any more than all “food” or all “water” could be bad. Yet the fact that speech is mediated – i.e. communication controlled by huge businesses – has replaced the prospect of liberation with something less.
We spend hours of our lives, dozens of them a week, hundreds a month, thousands a year – doing what, exactly? We want to be liked; we want our posts to be read. We know that the most effective means of obtaining a like – a follow, a friendship request – is by “taking down” something we disagree with. This behaviour isn’t an attraction to someone else. It is alluring to you, dear reader. It is alluring to me.
There are a thousand fine gradations between making a well-deserved point, puncturing someone else’s nonsense, and mocking them openly, harassing, calling for them to be dismissed. And yet these are all fine distinctions within one total set of behaviour: lines drawn on the same piece of cloth.
Anyonymous posting, commenting beneath the line – they change the people who do them.
The free speech battles of our time thrive on fume. Both sides present the enemy as capable of dealing to them a fatal defeat from which they could never recover. Typically, one side makes this claim with greater truthfulness than the other. But, typically, that justice claim gets lost, shrouded in the claims of mutual victimhood.
Somehow, we have to detach ourselves from the social media companies. The last time I looked, the wealth of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was $80 billion, almost all of it contained in the share price of his company. He was the world’s fourth richest person. Since 2012, Facebook’s share price has been growing at the rate of roughly $50 billion a year, earning Zuckerberg an effective income of about $8 billion a year.
We need to stop feeding their personal wealth; we also need to stop behaving in the ways that their products encourage.
(If you’ve enjoyed this piece, my next book, No Free Speech for Fascists: Exploring ‘No Platform’ in History, Law and Politics, is published by Routledge in June. It can be ordered here or here. Tickets for the book-launch – with Evan Smith and Kate Doyle Griffiths – can be ordered here).