A series of events over the past few weeks have left me realising quite how dangerous it is to hold opinions – to the extent I’m thinking of giving them up.
In recent weeks I’ve had two episodes in which my opinion has elicited a surprising response. First when I suggested in my weekly wrap-up a couple of weeks ago that Tony Belton was a little too political in comments he made during a long service celebration at the council. Then when I made a comparison between the diagonal crossing at Balham and the “country’s first” at Oxford Circus.
Far more high profile have been the the response to Jan Moir’s article on the death of Stephen Gately, the BNP appearing on Question Time and the furore over Stephen Fry taking offence at a comment made about him on Twitter.
The simple fact is that all these involve someone’s opinion. Nothing more, nothing less. We all have a fundamental right to have opinions. And we all have a fundamental right to disagree with the opinions of others. What worries me is not the opinions expressed (however much I may disagree with them) but the response to them.
I commented in my post on Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time that “mob rule isn’t suddenly justifiable because the cause is right.” A comment I stand by.
Returning to my experiences, after my comments about Tony Belton I received an email which disagreed with my interpretation. I responded that it was a personal and political blog and, as you would expect, it was my perception. While that perception was shared by everyone I spoke with that night, I’m not so vain as to think it is the only perception one might have. My offer and suggestion of commenting on the post was rejected (well, ignored) and the complaint restated. I was also offered the warning that unless my blog was more balanced it “will soon be totally ignored.”
Well, I could live with that – there are plenty of other things with which to fill my life. But it’s a shocking state of affairs that I am expected to be balanced, as if I have some sort of equivalent to the BBC Charter and don’t stand for election under a party label.
When it came to Oxford Circus I was taken aback at Westminster’s response to the comments about Balham. I don’t think I would ever seriously compare the two crossings and it was tongue-in-cheek (as was my apology). I’m not sure if there’s an element of insecurity or unnecessary defensiveness on Westminster’s part, but I’m fairly certain their press team are lacking a sense of proportion or a sense of humour.
The simple fact is that I will display bias. You should expect that. I am a Conservative so I am far more likely to agree with them and disagree with any other party. I am a Wandsworth councillor and, naturally, everything in Wandsworth is better than anything anywhere else. Even within Wandsworth I would contend that it’s better in Battersea than the other bits of the borough. These opinions won’t always have an evidence base, they just reflect me and my position in the world. No human can ever be totally balanced and impartial, however much they strive towards that goal. With me, I would contend, at least it’s fairly transparent where my bias lies.
Equally, we shouldn’t be expecting balance from the likes of Jan Moir or Nick Griffin. But what I would expect is a sense of balance and proportion from the right-minded people who disagree with their bigotry.
I would have much preferred the BNP Question Time to be a discussion on policy, but can’t pretend to have shed any tears for Nick Griffin’s treatment. One could, at least, reason that while the ganging up was unpleasant, at least public opinion can be relied on to be right. Or can it?
The Stephen Fry episode suggests it can’t. The alleged assailant merely stated an opinion that despite his high regard for Fry he found his tweets boring. And they can be, just as mine often are. Just as anyone is boring unless the the person reading or hearing them has an interest. Boredom is rarely an issue with the person being boring – because it is a certainty that someone else would find it interesting – but with the person being bored.
Unfortunately, this caught Fry at a low ebb, and his response made news in both the online and offline media while the unfortunate opinion holder had to withstand a torrent of abuse for a perfectly valid opinion with people like Alan Davies suggesting an “Essex style” mob to persecute him for daring to call Stephen Fry’s tweeting boring.
This worries me since ideas, opinion and the expression of those are essential to progress. Many, if not most, scientific and social breakthroughs were, originally, totally contrary to the accepted order at the time. If we create a society in which people are afraid to air new ideas and opinions then maybe we should give up on progress. And maybe we should accept that people who think like the Griffins and Moirs of this world should be driven underground where their poison will do far more damage to society than it ever could out in the open where it can be held up, examined and defeated.
It is, perhaps, an extension of the Diana-isation of grief. It seems as if we can no longer hold an emotion on our own unless it is shared tribally. If we are disgusted by the beliefs of Nick Griffin and Jan Moir we should also be disgusted by the baying mobs that formed to attack them rather than attack their ideas.
The internet should be a wonderful tool for the sharing of knowledge and ideas, and the discussion and debate that leads to progress. Sadly, it might just prove that the internet is just giving us the tools to easily collectivise (and perhaps legitimise) our intolerance of what we perceive to be outside a shared norm.