“What is the future of the nation?”
I was once asked by a professor in a seminar on nationhood.
“Surely the internet will bring all of us all together and the concept of being of a certain nationality will disappear! When people see how everyone is ok really they will stop hating each other.” Was the gist of how I replied. A fellow student disagreed. People don’t get along, was his reply. People are naturally hateful of difference. The internet won’t change this.
I disagreed with his pessimism but I have to admit that in recent years the internet is hardly a fount of human goodness.
Behind the safety of a screen all the pent up venom of the human soul can be splurged on to an internet forum. The youtube comment section is now a symbol of violent, pointless argument, where all kinds of things can be said. A common thing to see on a youtube video of a less popular song or album is users commenting that the people who down voted the video are tasteless monkeys, with Justin Bieber being the prime symbol for the decadence of today’s youth and the death of all music taste. I could flout my hipster credentials at this point but really that is the root of the problem.
I could very easily like a certain kind of music, become bitter about how no one else around me likes it and find similar people online where I can vent my fury. I don’t particularly like Justin Bieber but (oh god I’m about to say it) I think his new stuff is quite nice. Taking joy in music, no matter how rubbish it is, is a beautiful thing. Going to a club with cheesy music where everyone is dancing and singing along is a magical experience. I would much rather be in a club where everyone is singing One Direction together than if Band of Skulls comes on (look em up, they’re good). To each their own music taste or interest, but there is something wonderful in combined experience in the flesh.
The internet basically allows people to find others of a similar persuasion on any subject under the sun and find comfort in that. I do. I take great comfort in being able to find people are interested in this obscure game or that weird album. However this comfort can be enticing, and lure us into camps. Users can find support in a community which most of them will never interact with outside of the internet. Thus becoming entrenched in ideas or interests which may not match with their colleagues in the material world. I have frequented meme websites where a glance can tell you what kind of person populates the feed. A large proportion of the material is no longer memes designed to be funny but people complaining and reinforcing each others views.
Certain traditions evolve. One meme website I used to frequent in my teenage years was dominated by young men of the geekier sort such as myself. A common tradition was that if a woman appeared in a post, in the comments section a GIF of a girl having frankfurters thrown at her face would appear. Implying that the woman in the post was merely attention seeking. Although seemingly light-hearted at first it reinforced the idea of all women as merely seeking validation, emphasising the quite male audience of the website. With the recent trend of Pepe the Frog being used as an alt-right symbol, its easy to see how seemingly harmless fun can become quite dangerous very quickly.
Occasionally a remark about “just be nice to everyone” will appear on a meme website and we will often brush it aside as vacuous and self-righteous. To be honest though, it is more important than ever. The world now seems more divided than ever before. Brexit, Trump, Harambe, the Turkish coup attempt, Syria, feminism, Black Lives Matter, we are increasingly aware that the world is solidifying into camps. Society is becoming ever stratified as hate boils against hate. Or so it would seem on the internet.
Certain members of my family voted for Brexit and wouldn’t agree with gay marriage. My grandparents once lived next door to a heterosexual couple where the husband came out as a woman after several years. Surely anathema to my more conservative grandparents. But my grandfather still let Bill fix his car, still had Bill round for tea, still greeted Bill in the morning. I’m not saying everything was hunky dory but the point is that different values did not stop them from being good neighbours to one another. My grandfather would be mortified if someone called him a homophobe.
Once a muslim friend of mine from school joked that anyone who was not a person of the book (i.e. Muslim, Christian or Jew) would go to hell. His comment was directed specifically to everyone of East Asian origin who were, to his mind, buddhists. I can only hope my Korean colleagues didn’t hear him. Later that day I discussed it with another friend who was much more versed in the Quran.
“Who are we to judge?” he said. God alone decides these things, it’s hypocritical and thoroughly foul to make such accusations. My friend was visibly frustrated by this story and judging by the lukewarm reception to my other friend’s joke, many of my other classmates were too. This friend of mine was of a different religion to me and likely differed on many other things, and yet I had so much in common with him.
I researched the Notting Hill riots in 1958, the first of many awful race riots in Britain’s history. A strange exchange between a British Asian man and a white passer by struck me. The white man said “We fought for our country, you don’t belong here. Go home.” The British Asian man was indignant and stated that he had fought for the British in the second world war and that it was his country too. The white man was mortified and apologised. This was no where near the norm in post-war Britain, racism against immigrants was ubiquitous and foul. However this snippet stood out to me as a heartening moment of reconciliation. Once the white man knew more, the scales fell from his eyes. It is a rare moment where decent humanity trumped prejudice in a very prejudiced atmosphere. Who are we to judge?
When I returned to the UK for university I was confronted with a strange new and much more liberal culture than I was used to. The internet had fed me visions of so called feminists running around castrating men, a vision solidified in my head by trends such as the #killallwhitemen incident in 2015. More left-wing newspapers that I liked frequently made me feel victimised. As a white, English, southern, Christian, middle-class male I was the epitome of all evil and everything that was wrong with the world.
And then someone explained it all to me. Close friends shared their views with me, explained the rationale behind many liberal points of view. And I understood. The point was not so much that I suddenly saw the light of the holy knowledge of liberalism but that someone I knew and liked talked about their views to me. Now that I knew a feminist who was not going to castrate me I suddenly felt less victimised by Guardian or Independent columnists.
I know some Trump supporters. I know many Americans who hate Obama. Liberal Europe scoffs at Trump supporters every day, Trump is a laughing stock for comedians all over the place, and red necks are the epitome of all evil for many Europeans. Similarly much of Liberal Britain cannot fathom why the rest of Britain voted Brexit. Brexiteers are surely all crusty bigots and the British countryside is the jungle in Heart of Darkness. Of course this is a monumental event in our history which cannot be ignored and will have vast repercussions, not least the spike in racist abuse in the last few months. However the key to healing our country is to understand each other. Disowning friends who may have voted Brexit is not an option, insulting and spitting on each other will not do.
Hate will only breed more hate. In the long term we cannot wave genuine problems away as “oh everyone has their own opinion and its all fine”. Problems need to be solved, prejudice of all kinds needs to be eradicated and the world should not keep bleeding. It is difficult but being kind and understanding to each other in everyday life is the first step. It may be the best step for now.