2007 - 2020

Going with the Flow

Having sworn to a Lent-long sabbatical from social media, I am enjoying the space away from the frenzy, a brief escape from the algorithms that dominate the ether of our lives transmitting outrage and hysteria back and forth in an ever-escalating war of exhausting in-consequence.

A report last year told us that people look at their mobile phones once every twelve minutes. Once every twelve minutes I thought? What are they doing for the other eleven?

Online culture through our poorly named ‘smart phones’ and our mis-named ‘social media’ is all-pervasive, all-encompassing and completely immersive. It means we are “on” all of the time and this isn’t conducive to “being” or “thinking” in a way that is healthy for us as individuals or as a society.

Being “on” means we are consuming all of the time – either the adverts that infest our visual landscape – or the Cookies that search our behaviour (with our endless permission) – or the facial recognition that we rejoice in from our latest gadget (but also tracks down protestors across the world).

We are being bought and sold and we are the willing brokers.

As the Enough collective which launched “Less for Lent” this week argued:

“Capitalism is based on the belief that the best way to organise the economy is by giving us what we want, all of the time. We are addicted to capitalism because we are blinded by the illusion that we can satiate our desires by consuming more.”

We are consuming not just endless apps, goods and crap we don’t need to clutter up our lives until we buy the de-cluttering book to do away with it all – but ideas too.

We are in the business of endless hot-takes, positions and postures and it is destroying both our common sense, our sense of perspective, and our ability to see a bigger picture of empathy, solidarity and commonality.

There’s an irony here, that the “net” that unites us in an awesome rich and wonderfully deep pool of instant knowledge, also transforms us into isolated narcissists.

Political and social division, despite Gordon Brown’s recent words, are just a reality of life. The fact that they are being surfaced through new forms of consciousness, itself partly accelerated through the free exchange of information and the new media that the internet makes possible, is a good thing, not a bad thing. Britain is “divided” because it is riven with class power, social inequality, political centralism, institutional racism and feudal hierarchy. It is “divided” because it is dominated by corporate power elites, patriarchal institutions and culture and because it is a constitutional basketcase of unresolved and antidemocratic forces. It is “divided” because it is suffering the inter-generational betrayal of Unionism and the Brexit fantasy. Not just Britain, but the entire world is “divided” by our inheritance of a worldview which separates us from the natural world, a perspective which is catapulting us into a catastrophic future which we can now glimpse when we look up long-enough to face it.

It is “divided” because, as Professor Danny Dorling of Oxford University told BBC News this week, Scotland and England are ‘splitting apart’ on social policy spendings & outcomes which is seeing England becoming more like USA and Scotland moving to more Scandinavian models.

These divisions are real, not imaginary, and they can’t be wished away by another plea for “unity” or “healing” whether that be from tired old Labour politicians or from the maniacs who brought you Brexitland.

That is not to say that we can’t avoid the instant binary reaction of Twitterland and Redditsphere, the culture wars that are raging around gender, sexuality and identity are just the latest expression of a society that can’t speak to itself.

The discussion of the presence in a primary school by a drag artist who performs under the alias Flow to talk about LGBTQ issues last week was the latest incarnation of this malignant phenomena.

Rather than being able to have an adult conversation about how you balance the needs for exhibiting diversity of the wider society with the need for child safety and inappropriate sexual images – we instead just descended immediately into default settings and positions of moral outrage, blame and attack.

This is partly because the “trans issue” – or discussion of the Gender Reform Act – has been weaponised out of all recognition – often by people with their own deeply reactionary attitudes – and who can’t face their own social conservatism (which is often masked by a nominally constitutionalism “radicalism”).

The result is disinformation boosted by people working in bad-faith masking their own prejudices and using these issues as a proxy for their own wars.

This is a disastrous situation for social solidarity and even for our ability to hold public discourse. It prevents, for example, us listening or understanding other peoples perspectives or lived experiences, or recognising that it might be possible to simultaneously be both an ally to vulnerable trans people and to women and to feminists. It prevents us from the realisation that a set of emerging conditions might be complex and not simple and that our attitudes and actions might need to be updated and re-appraised.

It was through this lens that the controversy waged this week about “Flows” appearance at a school.

As Darren McGarvey wrote in the Daily Record:

“This idea primary pupils need protected from sex-related discussion, as some have suggested, is painfully conservative. Children in primary school are smart enough to understand concepts like death, illness and war but not sexual identity and relationships? Then there’s the LGBTQ matter. I’m less sympathetic to those who oppose these issues being discussed in schools. Are we arguing that children are capable of conceptualising God but can’t comprehend everyone isn’t heterosexual?”

This is not so say that people don’t have legitimate issues about protecting their children in a hostile world, and this should be acknowledged not ridiculed.

If we are all in bubbles and silos created by both ourselves and the algorithms – and it seems we are – then this is true also of the world of “intersectionality” and the myriad worlds of the LGBT community. To many people some of the language of these communities is just an arcane jargon, and the tropes used seem infused with a sort of narcissism and privatisation of the self that feels self-indulgent when set against the chaos of poverty and social inequality.

Kodachrome Society

How do we resurrect a public sphere so that we can hold difficult uncomfortable conversations?

God alone knows when this level of toxicity has been cultivated. But one way out of this is to step away from the pinball of social media conditioning. Another is to exhibit actual solidarity in all directions and stop having a “position” or point of view to defend at all costs. Stepping out of your own silo, and stepping away from the keyboard might be a first step to healing our broken public realm. Stepping away from the frenzy of online life might help gain some perspective out there, and stepping away from the grimly constant “now” might help gain a historic look at complex issues.

As George Gunn has written this week:

“The present “now” is a grim comedy where capitalists do not have any capital, communists have no communism and Scotland has no state-hood. In this sort-of Kodachrome society where negative information is always more popular than positive interaction and where the fake is always bigger and shinier than reality.”

Relentless negativity – ‘Kodachrome society’ – is a marked feature of the online world.

But the funny thing about the apparent culture war raging is that there is a mirror effect.

The notion that hyper-partisan émigré bloggers might have women’s best interests at heart lacks any credibility. But the idea that “the personal is political” has no ramifications in an era when were are losing all sense of the collective and the social, also feels lacking.

In an age where socio-ecological crisis mount daily – and difference is amplified boosted and hyped through our contemporary means of communication, this is important. The performative dance of outrage needs to be replaced by real-world solutions and solidarity.

The message this Spring is: it’s not about ‘you’ anymore.

Comments (16)

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  1. Dr Tony Cooper says:

    While I appreciate most of your article, I find the use of the term “Kodachrome Society” rather strange. Kodachrome was a deeply saturated colour positive transparency film that brought the true character of the world to life after all those monochrome (negative) black and white years. It has a longevity that still preserves a lot of memories and facts. It has demised because of digital and the complex development process it required. It had a “flavour” of colour in photography that some liked and a few did not (they preferred Fuji Velvia which was even more colourful!), but relentless negativity (it was not a negative film) is not something I associate with it.

    1. Liz Summerfield says:

      I was in photosoc at secondary school, and I remember Kodachrome favouring ‘hot’ colours (red and yellow) and Ilford favouring ‘cold’ colours.

      1. This *may* not be the *main* issue?

  2. Daniel Raphael says:

    Wonderful as ever, and which I will quote in part in my latest blog article, and will tweet in toto later. I can’t thank you enough, Mike, for the excellence of this site and your crucial part as geni/motivator/founder in all of it.

    This perplexes me: “…their own social conservatism (which is often masked by a nominally constitutionalism “radicalism”).” I confess, I don’t get it. Clarify, please?

    Again, all thanks for what is my favorite site on the net.

    1. I mean that people posture as being “radical” because they are pro-independence but sometimes are deeply conservative – even reactionary in other spheres.

      1. Daniel Raphael says:

        Ah, thanks. I think if it had read “…nominally constitutionalist radicalism,” I might have grasped the essence of it…but your explication of it as a pro-independence view, is clarifying for me. Appreciated.

  3. Jo says:

    Ok, I’ll bite!

    First, this.

    “The discussion of the presence in a primary school by a drag artist who performs under the alias Flow to talk about LGBTQ issues…”

    The person is actually known, not as “Flow”, but “Flowjob” and this is important because it was this artist’s public image elsewhere, on adult sites, which led to concerns being raised. My understanding is there was no objection to children being informed about LGBT issues, the problem was that this artist wasn’t an appropriate candidate.

    What certainly didn’t help was the intervention of the MP Mhairi Black in which she accused those with concerns of homophobia via an extraordinary rant on Twitter. She really should not have done that. It was ill judged and inappropriate. She is undoubtedly a capable young woman but she has no right whatsoever to hurl damaging labels at those who believe they’re raising valid concerns. If we’re worried about creating toxicity in debates I’d say Mhairi’s own contribution was pretty toxic.

    As it happens, the Council issued a public apology following this event. It appeared to recognise why many people thought the artist selected wasn’t suitable and is investigating what checks were done beforehand.

    I heard Darren McGarvey’s response. I like McGarvey a lot. On this, however, I think he’s misunderstood the reaction. I don’t believe people were attempting to prevent discussion on LGBT issues in schools. My understanding is that there were concerns about the drag artist selected.

    1. I don’t disagree Jo and I know that “Flow” is known as “Flowjob” and I agree that is deeply problematic, not least because its completely naive not to think that children have access to social media.

    2. SleepingDog says:

      @Jo, as someone who is not on social media at least as much this article describes, that does seem to be a significant and safeguarding concern.

      But conceptually, what would be the difference if a blackface artist visited a school to talk about race issues? My impression is that some, if not all, blackface artists intentionally use derogatory stereotypes in their acts; and equally some, if not all, drag artists intentionally use derogatory stereotypes in their acts. Aren’t children supposed to be taught not to use derogatory stereotypes, or make fun of each other’s protected characteristics?

      Does this make me conservative or reactionary (odd when you think that conservative and reactionary forces have supported blackface and drag acts, at least the latter of which are perenially popular in the British military)? Or just logical? I would hope that primary children are at least being taught critical thinking.

  4. Arboreal Agenda says:

    A balanced and as ever, intelligent and thoughtful article though at the end of the day society will have to err more on one said than the other: there is no perfect compromise since the debate is underpinned by fundamental concepts of what we think sex is and means.

    The gender rights approach is that in essence sex is irrelevant and all that matters is what we feel we are, and so gender identity is all important and should be enshrined in law: ‘I am woman because I say I am and that is all society needs to know to affirm that’ and if you do not affirm it, you are responsible for further prejudiced-driven suffering I regularly undergo and are transphobic’; the critical approach however embraces the more-or-less immutable biology of sex and its current legal standing, whilst holding to the the original definition of gender as a societal stereotype: there is no such thing as gender in essence – we cannot ‘be’ a gender (a misunderstanding of the word’s origin), only a stereotype based on roles the sexes have traditionally been assigned in a patriarchal society.

    I cannot see any chance of some kind of effective compromise between these two positions without essentially basing that compromise on the underlying pre-eminence of one position. (For the record, in my mind I am much more sympathetic to the latter position not least because it has a huge weight of rationality and biology behind it whereas the former more or less consigns the notions of homosexuality and sex-based rights to the dustbin).

    This comes across as a veiled attack though on the gender critical position, that is in fact, taking a pretty clear stance:

    ‘This is partly because the “trans issue” – or discussion of the Gender Reform Act – has been weaponised out of all recognition – often by people with their own deeply reactionary attitudes – and who can’t face their own social conservatism (which is often masked by a nominally constitutionalism “radicalism”).’

    In other words people are who are critical about self-ID and the whole idea that a trans woman is in all meaningful senses the same as a woman, are, in fact, closet transphobes. Or maybe I am wrong? Maybe in fact it is an attack on trans-activists who embrace gender stereotypes such that they see a woman in only the most cliched feminine and traditional terms and hate feminism because it has spent decades trying to counter that? Or really cleverly, is it referencing both?

    1. Hi Arboreal – while the two sides seem irreconcilable my experience is that they are not in real life rather than either in abstract terms or in communication conducted through social media.

      For example you can recognise difference of opinion and perspective and agree to disagree. The question remains what the actual real world threat might be – and actually is – rather than the imagined one – and how this can be mitigated?

      I recognise that there are people acting in good faith on both (all?) sides, but these are frequently drowned out by those acting in clearly bad faith. It is these people who have weaponised this issue that I am referring to.

      1. Arboreal Agenda says:

        OK sure Mike and thanks for the response – I am in broad agreement. Maybe there is a way to have self-ID that still appropriately protects single-sex based spaces and I have certainly heard gender critical people accepting this as a possibility. But you are right that there are very loud people on ‘all’ sides who will have no truck with this idea and this means it is not discussed in the detail it needs – the best we get are statements (e.g. from SNP central or Labour leader candidates recently) that this is the ‘aim’. I may be biased, but the prevention of this debate seems to be mostly caused by those who shout transphobe so readily which has so powerful a chilling effect ,
        people just keep quiet, at least in public and even amongst friends unless there is real trust.

  5. SleepingDog says:

    Because I have just watched an interesting documentary, part 3 of Scotland: The Promised Land on BBC iPlayer:
    https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b076v8kd/scotland-the-promised-land-3-the-cultural-revolution
    it occurs to me to wonder what the public reaction would be to a primary school inviting the modern day equivalent of Harry Lauder to discuss Scottish identity.

    1. Arboreal Agenda says:

      Thanks for linking this programme SleepingDog, I thought it was pretty good and I learned a lot.

      I have some familiarity with the old sentimental, parochial and romantic images of Scotland through the critical writings of Colin McArthur about the output of Films of Scotland (on which I have written stuff) but this programme helped put that in context, as well detailing the challenges to it in the 1920s.

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Arboreal Agenda, I should point out that the first two episodes are also well worth watching, in my opinion. I think it is well worth reflecting on what promises were made, and not kept, for wartime service at home and abroad. And also if some of the reactions against reactionary Scots culture ever really broke away from what they were criticising.

  6. MVH says:

    I am so bored of the transdebate I could cry with both my eyes. I am grateful it is for me isolated on Twitter. Barely mentioned on either of my Facebook accounts or in real life. But I go to particular Twitter feeds to look for news and these are now choked with the trans debate. The upside is that I am looking for news other places now. If I saw someone who was involved in either end of that debate I would cross the street. I am not being ignorant, I studied women and gender issues at post graduate level in the 90s. I dated a trans person for 3 years. It was interesting to read about the debate until it just got monomaniacal in some places. In the 90s the debate was the lesbian sex wars. This was equally vicious, in a way, but it was limited to a small group of people, Definitely, l could go back 25 years to the days of the lesbian sex wars. It was insanity, but it was my insanity not someone else’s.

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