The Great Unfriending

It’s official: I’m a very rare breed of social media user.

A scientific study of Twitter interactions on climate change discovered that almost all people who tweet about climate change are only listened to by people who already agree with them. Or to put it another way, they’re probably wasting their time. The people who bridge the gap between the two sides are so unusual that some are listed by name. They include Richard Betts of the Met Office, New York Times environment writer Andy Revkin, “… and an account named @moronwatch”.

This isn’t to say that I’m ambivalent on climate change: I’ve often taken the piss out of climate change deniers on this blog, as well as on Twitter and Facebook. So I was very proud to learn that I’m one of the tiny minority that has had the opportunity to change minds on climate change.

But beyond my personal little triumph, the finding is profoundly depressing. Increasingly, and globally, people on social media are building themselves tight little echo chambers. After May’s general election, I saw a spate of updates from Facebook friends, proudly boasting of unfriending Tory voters. Then, following the historic and wonderful Supreme Court decision last week that finally brought gay marriage to all 50 US states, it happened again. People who should have been overjoyed (and magnanimous in victory) instead showing off that they had deleted friends who expressed concerns over the judgement.

But why? What purpose is served by deleting someone with opposing views? If one holds a view strongly, surely one also wants to influence other people’s views too? That, after all, is why I blog, at times, about climate change: because it’s an important issue, and it’s important to change minds.

And likewise, I want to challenge homophobic, racist and other views I encounter. I have many black friends on Facebook, many of whom are religious; black Christians (in my experience) are far more likely to express homophobic, or at least anti-gay marriage views (it’s debatable whether these are the same thing or not). Last week I witnessed anti-gay marriage comments from three Facebook friends – all black Christians. In each case I could have unfriended, or just ignored. But this issue matters to me, so in each case I responded, and made similar points: 1) I disagree with you, 2) I respect (and will defend) your right to hold your views, 3) I’m open to further discussion and would like to change your mind.

In interacting with these three people, I believe I did far more for the cause of combatting homophobia than did any person that decided to delete “homophobic friends” on the basis of their own supposed “tolerance”. In fact, if anybody turned back the clock on gay rights, it was those people who witnessed homophobic views, and decided to ignore them.

To delete “homophobes”, “racists” and other evildoers is to create a childlike view of the world in which every person can be stamped with a simple label of either good or evil. It denies the existence of shades of grey, or the fact that good people can be flawed. It is the action, not of a liberal or tolerant person, but of a self-centred and selfish individual. It expresses a simple belief that so long as MY view of the world is shiny and nice, then the world is a shiny and nice place. It is an abrogation of responsibility to improve the world. I’ll go further: by burning bridges, it makes the world a worse place, building up walls between increasingly hostile tribes.

Ironically, most of the people I personally encounter expressing racist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, sexist, transphobic or homophobic views are black. To selectively cleanse my friends would be to make my circle whiter. Most of the “liberals” I see deleting friends have almost exclusively white, middle-class social circles. What kind of liberal doesn’t extend their social networks beyond their own narrow social and racial groups?

How do you tackle racism, if your world-view says you must unfriend anyone expressing what you consider to be a racist view? How do you deal with homophobia if you won’t talk to homophobes? By deleting friends, you reveal yourself as intolerant, closed-minded and apathetic. You show yourself incapable of, and disinterested in, making the world a better place.

In 1984, Orwell wrote about doublethink, which twisted the meanings of words beyond recognition. Aptly, this was a creed of English Socialism – INGSOC – which had taken left-wing values and twisted them to mean the exact opposite of their original meaning. An INGSOC slogan was: “War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength”.

Let’s add one more to that: Intolerance is Tolerance. By turning on the minority opposed to gay marriage, today’s mob is no different from any other majority that hated any other minority. In this case, the mob is more likely than the average to be white, middle-class and well educated. A white, privileged mob shunning and marginalising a poorer, darker minority. Ring any bells? Same shit, different era.

Did The Government Just Ban Cheese Sandwiches?

Last week’s Queen’s Speech contained the standard Tory fare, and prompted the usual, largely justifiable anger. Yet the interesting stuff was tucked away at the bottom of the 21 point list. Undoubtedly, the outright weirdest point on the list was at number 20, the Psychoactive Substances Bill, which promised to outlaw all “legal highs”.

The tabloid press has done a good job of convincing people that legal highs are a threat to humanity, and the standard “hang ’em all!” comments can be found on social media. But in reality, legal highs are just drugs that haven’t been banned yet. Coffee, alcohol and tobacco are all legal highs: and two of those substances are responsible for around 99% of all known drug deaths, both legal and illegal.

Government after government, Labour after Tory after Labour, has banned legal highs for no reason whatsoever. In 2005, the last Labour government banned magic mushrooms. This, despite the fact that the drug has probably been used for thousands of years, causes no known harm, and probably has multiple medicinal uses. Labour also banned mephedrone for no particular reason other than media outcry: as I blogged here, it was later discovered that legal mephedrone availability had led to a steep decline in cocaine use. This has now probably reversed. Substance after substance, often more beneficial than harmful, has been banned. Among all the bans, other potentially important substances have been attacked, notably cannabis, LSD, ketamine and ecstasy. This kind of act is simply cultural vandalism, and is our reward for electing puritanical dullards to represent us.

Science has made a mockery of all these bans. For every banned substance, a dozen new ones reach the market. The legal process can’t keep up with the technology. So, some Baldrick-like Tory policy-maker came up with a cunning plan! Why not just ban ALL recreational drugs? That way, anything that reaches market is instantly illegal by virtue of being a drug. Somehow this piece of outstanding idiocy made it into the Queen’s Speech, and probably soon into law.

Why is this thinking so stupid? Because we are chemical beings, and infinite substances have a “psychoactive effect”, including our foods. Try fasting for a day then eating a piece of dry bread: your mood will be rapidly uplifted as the starch reaches your system and is metabolised. Starch, our main source of energy, is a drug – as is its faster-acting sister, sugar. And that’s just the beginning. Cheese contains opiates – substances related to morphine and heroin. Did the government just ban cheese sandwiches and cheeseburgers?

Worry not! The new law will, apparently, make exemptions for drugs already in daily use, including caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, and foods: these exemptions merely underline, rather than do away with, the ludicrous nature of the law. Now, if one puts one’s pills in a cheese sandwich, do they count as food?

And, of course, existing medicines will also be exempt. But if I use paracetamol as a hangover remedy, am I using it medicinally or recreationally? If I take Viagra for a sex party rather than to remedy impotence, is it now a legal high? Hilariously, the drug at the forefront of this ban – laughing gas – is also a food additive (it’s used to whip cream) so is still freely available on Amazon.

Here’s the thing: virtually everything we put into our bodies is a drug, and many drugs have recreational as well as other uses. This is why the entire anti-drug narrative has always been nonsensical: it simply attacks mankind’s chemical nature. We’re all drug users, every one of us.

This legislation does, at least, do away with one big lie: every drug that’s ever been banned to date has been labelled dangerous, whether it really is or not. The new law at least finally admits that our worthless drug laws are not based on harm, but on morality. They don’t measure a substance based on its ability to hurt us, but on its potential for being enjoyable. Finally, some honest politics!

One wonders why they didn’t go beyond drugs and ban everything fun. But then they would have ban their own creation of idiotic laws, because one suspects certain politicians get a masturbatory thrill from trying to micro-manage our private lives so carefully.