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by Tom Freeman
21 June 2019
Screaming at the void - how the far right have destroyed debate

Screaming cat - credit Mingo Hagen

Screaming at the void - how the far right have destroyed debate

When I started working at Holyrood magazine, I remember clearly a small pub next to where I lived at the time in East Lothian. I would sometimes pop in for a half after walking the dog.

This was a cheap, friendly, working-class pub, always inhabited with the same three or four regulars who were welcoming to other customers. The television at the end of the bar would show darts, golf or some other low-intensity shows which would provide the main talking point.

Except, as we approached the 2014 referendum, the television would be ignored as people began to discuss politics. These were increasingly passionate conversations about what kind of country we wanted. Never once did I witness a discussion that could be described as angry or that was rooted in name-calling, even as the referendum date approached. It was debate, in the proper sense of the word.

The most reasoned, philosophical debate around the indyref I heard was among the Tartan Army in Dortmund, beer in hand, just a week before the vote. 

More than five years later, I find myself asking where such debate has gone. Twitter has become a place where people increasingly howl into the void, and there is scarce evidence of attempts to convince others to come around to your viewpoint. 

People are dismissed as cybernats, yoons, remoaners, racists, snowflakes, extremists, leftards, incels, terfs and a host of others slurs and anacronyms which do nothing to convince anyone of an argument.

Some have blamed social media for this trend, pointing to how social isolation can lead to increased division. There is no doubt that it is more difficult to reach common ground in 280 characters.

However, as the revelations over the role of Facebook in Brexit have shown, social media is the weapon, not the cause.

This form of ‘debate’ has all the trappings of the far right, who practised their ‘othering’ tactics in the years before the Trump election. This was a highly organised internet culture war, orchestrated by new media which targeted people who felt excluded.

In 2014, as I was sitting in that pub, ‘Gamergate’ was being orchestrated. 

This was the test run of the self-proclaimed ‘alt-right’, where young white men were manipulated to feel that the ‘culture’ of videogames was under threat from progressive women. 

It gave voice to misogynists and anti-feminists, and momentum to a conspiracy theory that people were being manipulated by a left-leaning liberal press.

“Feminist bullies tearing the video game industry apart,” screamed one particularly fact-free Breitbart headline. The Ghostbusters remake was effectively destroyed by an orchestrated hate campaign because it had cast women in the lead roles.

Gamergate gave birth to the term ‘social justice warrior’, which, when you think about it, was no insult at all, but it was an extremely clever way of polarising a discussion about diversity into two screaming sides.

Now, five years later, it seems everyone is screaming at each other. Or throwing milkshakes. The ‘alt-right’ might well sit back and look with some satisfaction at the way people within the equality movement are tearing themselves apart over the rights of trans people, for example. 

But the plotters are not resting on their laurels.

“Sometimes, if you’re on this side of the argument, it feels as if we’re living under constant assault,” Farage recently told the US-based Conservative Political Action Conference. “And that’s because We. Are. Living. Under. Constant. Assault.” 

His ‘calling out’ of the BBC plays to conspiracy theorists of all persuasions. 

The former Smiths singer Morrissey said, in response to criticism of his backing of far-right party For Britain: “I don’t think the word ‘racist’ has any meaning anymore, other than to say: ‘You don’t agree with me, so you’re a racist.’”

A lack of faith in the system suits the far right, and in the current climate, no-platforming or name-calling increasingly plays into a long game narrative which celebrates the labels at the expense of concordance, which has been rehearsed throughout my time working for Holyrood.

Meanwhile, in that pub in East Lothian, I expect conversation has returned to the darts.

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