Why we (don’t) troll

He is a liar. The demon is a liar. He will lie to confuse us. But he will also mix lies with the truth to attack us. The attack is psychological, Damien, and powerful.
– Father Merrin, The Exorcist

Reading Jonathan Freedland’s latest at the weekend, I felt – not for the first time – that I was being trolled. To take a single example, Freedland cites Jeremy Corbyn’s much-quoted sarcastic response to two Zionist hecklers and concludes from it that Corbyn “sees Jews as not quite ‘us'”. This is like trolling in that, once you’ve read a full account of that incident, it’s impossible to see how anyone could draw that conclusion from it in good faith – a more charitable explanation would also be more plausible and… but I’m not getting into that now. More to the point, it’s like trolling in that I was trolled: the urge to respond by spending half an hour or so outlining better explanations, sourcing fuller quotes, citing names and dates, finding other people’s comments on the same individuals, etc, etc, was genuinely hard to resist.

Why is this, though? What’s going on? When your position is being critiqued by someone who maintains that they’re acting out of the most decent and sensible political motives possible, and yet you feel as if you’re being trolled – that’s, what exactly? And why – on some issues – does it seem to happen so often?

Us…

Let’s start with rational thinking. Where politics is concerned, the trouble with thinking rationally is that it’s hard; downright impossible, really, on a day to day basis. Life constantly confronts you with the evidence that other people – perfectly decent, sensible people – don’t share some belief or commitment that you hold dear; they may even be strongly opposed to it. The truly rational way to deal with this situation would be to unpack your assumptions and – as far as you can manage – unpack theirs too, and keep going until you’ve found something you can agree on, a kind of ethical equivalent of the Highest Common Factor: OK, so we both believe that people should be enabled to flourish and their representatives should respond to their needs, and that‘s why you vote Liberal Democrat – and it’s also the reason why I’m a council communist!

But really, who’s got the time for that? Mostly people take one of two short-cuts. One is to say that you know what you know; on that basis, you know what you believe; you can argue for what you believe, but if other people strongly disagree, well, it’s their loss. This is a reasonably comfortable position in the sense of not involving you in any contradictions, but it can get lonely. In 1988 I remember a heated argument at work that began with the proposition that Michael Stone might be a Republican provocateur, and moved on to the proposition that the SAS execution of Savage, Farrell and McCann was legitimate. I argued against in both cases, and in both cases I had one ally; it wasn’t even the same person both times.

The other short-cut is to assimilate what you believe, as far as you can manage, to what the people around you believe. Let’s say that you’re strongly opposed to the death penalty and you’re surrounded by people who support it; you haven’t got the time or inclination to find out what underlying beliefs you hold in common, but you don’t want to take the first – lonely – short-cut either. The alternative short-cut is to stress that you’re against the death penalty in most cases, perhaps because most cases haven’t been proved beyond all possible appeal, or else because most offenders aren’t serious enough. But, sure, if it’s an open-and-shut case, if you’d caught Fred West in the act or something.. Most cases aren’t like that, though… Your new friend is meeting you halfway, too: It’s there in reserve, obviously it’s not for every murder case… And you can each nod sagely, both telling yourselves that the other person agrees with the important bit. Something similar can happen with less polarised differences of opinion; if you particularly hate Tory racism while your Thatcherite friend is furious about their poor economic stewardship, you can kind of agree you’re talking about more or less the same thing, if you don’t think about it too hard.

This short-cut has the opposite advantages and disadvantages to the first one: you get to have a bit of company, but in return you profess a belief that isn’t actually what you believe – not really, not quite. And this has costs. Professing a belief isn’t just flapping your mouth; contradiction is always uncomfortable, and “I believe in a united Ireland, but I agree that sometimes the IRA should be shot down like dogs” is a contradictory position. And if you’re not prepared to resolve the contradiction by extricating yourself from it – “you make some good points about the IRA, but actually I do believe in a united Ireland, so, um, bye for now” – you will want to make it more comfortable by finding something you can straighforwardly agree on.

The trouble is, unless you’re going to dig right down into your prior assumptions (and who’s got time for that?), you probably won’t find anything. You and your new friend the death penalty enthusiast can agree that the punishment should fit the crime, say, but that’s small beer. You won’t find anything, that is, unless you go for the negative. Those people who don’t think the punishment should fit the crime – what a bunch of idiots they are! Those people who don’t care about victims and their relatives getting justice, those people who think Peter Sutcliffe was misunderstood and Fred West should have been let off with a slap on the wrist… now we’re getting somewhere!

…and Them

This is where trolling comes in. Of course, most – if not all – liberal penal reformers do care about victims of crime, and so on. But if you want to make an enemy – or a target – out of liberal reformers, you aren’t going to be too scrupulous about sticking to what they actually believe. The worst that can happen is that you end up wrongly accusing them – and what would be so bad about that? Prod them persistently and unfairly enough, and they’ll get riled enough to lash out at you – and that will just confirm that they’re your enemy. What’s even better is if you mix a bit of truth with the more dubious claims; that way you can keep them busy for ages, extricating themselves, putting out clarifications and fending off your counter-attacks. If building solidarity with Al by demonstrating that you’re opposed to Bob is what you wanted in the first place, annoying Bob is a good way to do it and getting Bob annoyed with you is even better; really, there’s no down side.

In this scenario – and perhaps more generally – trolling starts with attack lines launched in bad faith, and those bad-faith attack lines are themselves grounded in an agreement made in bad faith. (Even pure nihilistic trolling, for the hell of it or as a spectator sport, is grounded in an agreement to say stuff that nobody actually believes; cf. Tepper (1997).) To turn it round the other way, a bad-faith agreement is conducive to shared bad-faith attack lines – much more than to shared positive statements – and those bad-faith attacks are themselves likely to turn into trolling, or something indistinguishable from trolling.

I’m suggesting, then, that when political argument turns troll-like it’s a sign of an underlying bad-faith agreement. When you’re being attacked in ways that are unrelenting, unreasonable, unfair and to all intents and purposes unrebuttable – when every concession is taken as an admission of something much worse, and every clarification provides material for a new attack – the chances are that you’re facing somebody whose own position is shaky: after all, if they had a solid and persuasive argument against you, you would have heard it by now. In particular, if you’ve got multiple attackers you can bet that they are, at most, an alliance of convenience: nothing solidifies an uneasy and imperfect agreement so well as an enemy you can all agree to hate.

A Complicated Game

What’s this got to do with Jonathan Freedland? What shaky position, what uneasy agreement might lie behind this Why I still can’t bring myself to vote for Corbyn attack piece? I think there’s a clue in one of the more alarming statistics quoted in the piece. According to a survey carried out by Survation – using as population the 750+ Jewish members of an existing Survation panel – 87% of British Jews regard Corbyn as an antisemite. 87% – seven out of eight. Freedland’s reaction to this hair-raising figure is to ask half-heartedly why British Jews might think this way, and reply with some familiar stories suggesting that Corbyn and the Jewish community aren’t of one mind on certain issues. But really, this won’t do. Freedland’s recourse to partial, tendentious and provocative presentations of his evidence – his descent into trolling, in other words – is eloquent evidence that it won’t, as it attests to the strain that his argument is under.

I’m not going to relitigate Freedland’s list of examples, although God knows it’s hard to resist (comic-book thinks bubble goes here: MUST… NOT… ENGAGE… AM BEING… TROLLED…) But here’s a thought-experiment: let’s play Spot The Antisemite. There’s a man standing in front of you; he’s either an anti-colonialist leftist who supports Palestinian independence because he hates colonialism, or a right-wing antisemite who supports Palestinian independence because he hates Jews. You are allowed one question. Unfortunately, you weren’t really listening when they told you the rules, so you just make conversation and ask the man what he’s been up to. He reels off a lot of rather boring stuff about international solidarity and union recognition and council candidates, then says that, actually, he’s just come from a very productive meeting with well-respected Palestinian leader comrade X, who had shown him his designs for a monument to comrade Y. Now, you happen to know that comrade Y was killed by Israeli security forces while attempting to hijack an El Al flight, and that comrade X – while undoubtedly a popular figure in his own community – has expressed some rather whiffy opinions about the Jewish role in world history. What’s your answer? Do you need another question?

The answer is, of course, Yes, you do. There is an obscure (but noisy) corner of the Left where antisemitism of the old Rothschild-conspiracist school has survived and even, sadly, thrived; you can talk a good game across a whole range of left-wing policy and still have a thing about Jews. So you haven’t heard anything to prove that our man’s not an antisemite – but you haven’t heard anything that proves he is, either. It would be nice if a continuing history of deprivation and defeat didn’t tend to breed irrational hatred (as well as the rational kind); it would be great if every leader of an oppressed community could stand in for Desmond Tutu, or Gandhi at a pinch; it would be terrific if everyone whose cause you supported also expressed views you agreed with and used methods you approved of (why, the cause would practically support itself!). But that’s not the way to bet. Nothing our man has said necessarily tells you anything other than that he supports the Palestinian cause – and you knew that going in.

None of Freedland’s examples – and none of the many, many others I’ve seen – say any more than that Corbyn has a long-established, non-Zionist position on Palestine; that he believes in making progress on Palestinian rights and the cause of a just peace, and to do so is willing to go to places and talk to people most British politicians avoid; and that his well-documented support for the Jewish community in Britain does not take precedence over the first two, or even (in his eyes) come into conflict with them. But it’s not surprising that Freedland can’t stand up the proposition that Corbyn is an antisemite; ultimately this isn’t a proposition or a belief, it’s just an attack.

Come Together

Read symptomatically – with an eye to its strains and gaps – Freedland’s piece is informative, but it tells us about Freedland, not about Corbyn. It tells us, or reminds us, that there’s a substantial body of opinion for whom it’s vitally important – for a range of reasons – to remove Corbyn and restore the pre-Corbynite status quo in the Labour party; and that there’s a substantial body of opinion for whom it’s vitally important to shift Labour (back) to a broadly friendly and pro-Zionist stance towards Israel. It also tells us, perhaps surprisingly, that neither of these argumentative positions is very strong. If there were good reasons for thinking that 2010-15 were glory years for Labour, in absolute terms or in comparison with 2015-19, you can be sure that we’d be hearing all about it, and not just about the reasons why Corbyn shouldn’t be the next PM. The arguments for more and stronger Zionism aren’t all that persuasive, either. While most of the great British public would certainly tell you that they didn’t want to see the state of Israel destroyed by force, the same is true of all but the most extreme and isolated fringes of the Palestinian solidarity movement. The real question is whether it would be more appropriate, starting from where we are now, for the British government to be a bit less Zionist and a bit less supportive of Israel, or a bit more so – and I don’t think, if we had that argument publicly, that Corbyn’s position would be the unpopular one.

Some overlapping personnel aside, these two positions don’t really have anything in common. But the partisans of the pro-Zionist position see anti-Zionism as verging on antisemitism at the best of times, while the anti-Corbyn partisans don’t really mind what mud they throw at him, and so “Corbyn is an antisemite” becomes their meeting-place and their slogan – and a stronger argument than either of their own. At least, it’s a strong argument until you notice that it’s not an argument at all; it’s just trolling.

But what about that 87%? The Jewish community itself can’t be trolling us. Admittedly, there are some oddities in that survey, deriving from the composition of the panel. Under-35s, in particular, are heavily under-represented and are consequently upweighted by a factor of 2.4. Particularly given that younger respondents were slightly more left-leaning than the other two groups, this suggests that a better sample might not have given such an extreme result. There wouldn’t be any major changes, though; if Survation had recruited a full cohort of under-35s and every one of the additional recruits had been a Corbynite, the overall figure would still be over 70%.

So there’s no getting away from the scale of Jewish disaffection with Corbyn; specifically, the extent to which British Jews appear genuinely to believe that Jeremy Corbyn hates Jews. This survey finding should have given Freedland more trouble than it did, seeing that he evidently doesn’t believe that Corbyn is an antisemite; at least, if he does, he hasn’t got any good evidence for it. Surely the only rational conclusion is that something has gone terribly, terribly wrong with the Jewish community’s perceptions of Labour; the evidence that should support a view as widely-held as that just isn’t there.

I’ve been out on the doorstep recently, and it’s been very striking how few people had any criticisms of Corbyn. Don’t get me wrong, quite a few people said that they didn’t like him and that his leadership put them off voting for the party, but they didn’t have any actual criticisms – they couldn’t tell us why they didn’t like him (even, in one case, when asked directly). There’s just a vague sense of ‘extremism’; it doesn’t have anything to support it (apparently), but it still sticks to Corbyn. I wonder if, in large parts of the Jewish community, ‘antisemitism’ has stuck to him in a similar way; it’s not something that needs to be demonstrated, more something that needs to be disproved – or rather, something that can’t be disproved.

Ideas don’t just float around and stick to people of their own accord, of course, particularly when they’re ideas that attack somebody. I suggested earlier that commentators like Jonathan Freedland sit on the rickety bridge between committed Zionism and centrist Labourism (or underneath it, ho ho). Perhaps something similar is true here. The British Jewish community doesn’t (by and large) get pushed to the back of queues, or singled out and ethnically ‘othered’ in any way. Consciousness of this happy situation and of how historically unusual it is favours a certain social conservatism, an attachment to the maintenance of the status quo and the non-rocking of boats. (And, perhaps, outright capital-C conservatism; according to one survey 69% of British Jews supported the Conservatives in 2015, as against 37% of the population of Britain.) On the other hand, the community is also characterised – not universally but to a very high extent – by an accumulation of dreams and objectives, myth and realpolitik called Zionism (a pretty heterogeneous bundle in itself).

The two don’t really go together: love it or hate it, Zionism is a transformative project on an international scale, whereas the social conservatism of British society is, well, conservative, not to say British. Push one too far and the other inevitably suffers. How better to solder them together than for both sides to agree on what they don’t support: those scruffy subversive lefties, stirring up trouble here and in the Middle East – don’t you just hate them? And how better to attack them than to go for the big guns and accuse them of antisemitism. You hate him, after all – and he’s certainly making trouble for you – so he has to be an anti-semite really, doesn’t he?

Sort of. More or less.

Well, it’s close enough. It’ll get a reaction, anyway, and that’s the main thing.

One Comment

  1. Guano
    Posted 18 November 2019 at 10:28 | Permalink | Reply

    Freedland’s column is a Gish Gallop through a list of weak or tendentious talking points. Dozens of commentators write similar columns every day using arguments that don’t stand up well if you examine them closely. As you say in a comment on a recent Yorkshire Ranter post, the commentariat come from the same Essay Crisis school as many of our politicians and have always managed to get by through padding out their writing with arguments that they don’t really understand (and may have implications that are the opposite of what they intend). There is also the Debating Society school, which involves choosing a conclusion and scraping together as many talking points as possible to reach that conclusion (even if a closer examination of them would reveal their weakness). There is sloppy analysis and there is arguing in bad faith. A lot of media comment is Thinking Fast, while Thinking Slow would lead to very different conclusions. Some of the serious divisions in UK society are due to politicians and the commentariat creating a popular worldview that is based on knee-jerk reactions.

    There are many people in the Labour Party who want to revert not only to a pre-Jeremy age but a pre-Ed and a Pre-Gordon age. Life was much simpler in the Labour Party under Blair as you didn’t have to do much thinking. Unfortunately the world is full of wicked problems that require more than knee-jerk responses.

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