I blame the comment threads. Whether on YouTube, Facebook, a widely unread blog or the seething, dissociated hive mind of Twitter, letting people have their say turned out to be a really terrible idea.
Because people are the worst.
Or maybe it’s just that, as W.B Yeats knew long ago, “the worst are full of passionate intensity”.
Writing a weekly column for Fairfax’s online network of mastheads, I’m familiar with the toxic hell stew of other people’s opinions. That’s fine. I get paid well to take a bath in the bile. What often strikes me, however, are those unhinged obsessives for whom everything is political.
Example? I once chaired a discussion at a writers festival. Four restaurant critics talking about the tree and their place within it. Our first question from the audience? It wasn’t a question, natch. It was a severe telling off.
“I can’t believe we sat here listening to you talk about food for an hour and not one word about world hunger! Shame on you.”
Occasionally I’ll write something wry and amusing and as totally non-political as my wits will allow; a column about the rebirth of hamburgers as a gourmet food, or what the best superpower would be if you could choose just one. (Being able to teleport yourself anywhere, by the way — thanks for asking). I write these pieces as a break from the relentless combat of modern discourse, but inevitably there’s always someone who wants to fight.
“Meat is murder!”
“I just wish I had the power to get rid of this terrible government.”
For some people, everything is political, and the ability to comment, immediately, everywhere, about everything, has allowed them to hijack all conversation in the online town square. It’s not a left or a right thing. It’s both. An insatiable, unstoppable demand for political discourse over everything.
Sometimes it can be funny.
The most recent example was this week’s hashtag #GetOffTheCouchBabyBoomers, which started life as a medical story on NPR about the dangers of prolonged sitting, especially for older people. The tag enraged and energised a furious horde of Trump-loving Deplorables on Twitter who assumed it was aimed at them. Because they live on their recliner rockers in front of Fox News? Who knows?
What they did know, however, was that those snarky millennials, illegal immigrants and transgender kombucha-drinking social engineers were coming for their comfy loungers.
Deplorable D Pierce shot back at the threatening hashtag: “I worked from 16 to 62 years of age. I am tired. I owe YOU nothing! YOU are your own problem!”
“We did get off the couch and elected @POTUS,” roared user ImNotFakeNews. “What we need is the millennials to get out of their basements.”
Mostly though, it’s not this much fun. It’s demoralising and off-putting and it drives away most people, who don’t see every little thing as a close-quarter battle with trench knives in a much wider culture war.
It’s why those media outlets which still survive are increasingly getting rid of comment threads below their stories, even in the opinion sections. The extra clicks are always nice to have, but the brute awfulness of the worst people having at each other just because they can isn’t worth the aggravation.