I was surprised to see the New Statesman pay attention to one of the Internet's most famous conspiracy theorists, Alex Jones, the other day. Amelia Tait, a tech writer for the magazine, began an article on conspiracy theories with reference to Jones's well-known rant on "turning the friggin' frogs gay."
I often wonder how Jones maintains a career. Only the other day, shortly after Milo Yiannopoulos resigned from Breitbart following his scandalous comments about pederasty, I was watching a video released by Jones in which he claims that Edward Heath, the late British Prime Minister and Conservative MP, would abduct young British girls and kill them in his office. "According to our British sources, they would lay out plastic on the floor; a young girl would be walked in and a man with a double-edged dagger would slit the girl's throat. She would fall to the ground, bleeding to death, and the Prime Minister would then, basically, pleasure himself." Jimmy Savile, Jones claims, played a large role in kidnapping these unfortunate young women.
With claims as ludicrous as these, I don't understand how anyone can take Jones seriously. Plenty of people wonder whether Jones is a reasonable man who has found a bizarre way of earning a living in pretending to be a delusional conspiracy theorist and vaudeville-like entertainer - could anyone really be sincere in believing the kinds of things that Jones does? Alternatively, Jones is a mentally unhinged individual who has fallen foul of greedy media producers who see the rants of a madman as a lucrative opportunity for business.
But what should be more worrying is that plenty of Jones's fans and fellow readers of Infowars.com do believe these claims. They believe, sincerely, that the government is working on all manner of schemes to dupe the American people; they are confident in their belief that the government is controlled by secretive, totalitarian groups such as the Bilderberg elite, George Soros and his cronies or something like the Illuminati.
Conspiracy theories, as Tait writes, enjoy wide circulation because of the Internet. Multiple fora and webpages exist for questioning Barack Obama's birth certificate or Hillary Clinton's health (Helen Lewis, Deputy Editor of the New Statesman, considers the latter case here). Amelia Tait is not the first writer to address the extreme claims of the fringes of American politics with reference to psychological conditions such as confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance. Several other writers have explored the influence of unseen psychological factors for other magazines, newspapers and academic journals, especially in the wake of the Brexit and Trump votes and the 'fake news' epidemic. The Guardian considers the influence of incorrect sources widely shared on social media on how young Americans voted; before her article mentioning Alex Jones, Tait refers to psychological concepts in an earlier article exploring misogynistic Reddit streams and some male users who were once their fervent fans.
Journalists are also mindful of the consequences of the tidal wave of misinformation and deceit. Also for the New Statesman, Laurie Penny addresses fake news and how its peddlers manufacture nonsense for profit's sake; the Observer also notes how easy it is to find websites dedicated to denying the existence of the Holocaust. David Tollerton, a lecturer, has reflected (and written about it for the Guardian) on the apparent futility of teaching his students to argue properly when emotional slogans and prejudice will win elections and referenda ("Should footnotes and bibliographies be dismissed as elitist pedantry? Perhaps we should be training our students in the art of constructing compelling internet memes founded on fantasies? Or forceful slogans that combine emotive power with a strategic absence of content?").
There is an strain of thought that most commentators seem to think is unpalatable to express. People simply don't want to put the case forward. I've been considering it for a while and, especially since reading Tait's article on conspiracy theories, I feel that someone has to present the argument, even if it is a bad one.
We cannot attribute so many bad ideas and poor thinking to the influence of psychological factors beyond our control. Without denying the power of confirmation biases and logical fallacies, as well as how social conditioning makes some of our decisions partisan without us realising, can we not accept that not every is either educated or intelligent enough to make a coherent argument?
This is probably the most radical I've been in my blog for a long time, but I think that this is something that no one dares write but many have thought about. Take Alex Jones's mad anecdote about Edward Heath. It's all very well to refer to psychologists and their awareness of how people can form conspiracy theories to simplify a complicated body of information, cope with social isolation or tie many fringe ideas together to form a pattern, but should our main worry be that there are scores of people around the world who, when told that a former British Prime Minister would slit the throats of kidnapped girls, do not think twice?
Just as depressing as the decline of rational, well-written, coherent argument in favour of emotional outbursts and vulgar pathos is the fact that the latter kind of rhetoric actually works. Fear of the totalitarian state, fear of an invasion of immigrants, fear of the death of native culture, fear of the Islamisation of Europe and the establishment of Eurasia, fear of moral nihilism, fear of fascism and so on. The high chance that your pandering to prejudice and fact-free argument can win plenty of support: that's what should be scary to people like Dr. Tollerton.
There. I said it. There are people whose arguments are divorced from reason, facts and reality. I'm not trying to make a partisan attack against anyone of a particular political perspective, as many commentators like to do. It doesn't matter which side of the political debate you're on - there are innumerable people whose arguments depend on anything but fact. They might not get much television coverage, but the conspiracy theorists, the sceptics and the tin-foil-hat loonies exist in their droves and are free to expand their half-baked accounts of the world into giant webs of mistakes, misinformation and lies.
How do you take on lies and misleading narratives? Do you forge a narrative of your own? According to George Mason, yes. "If the liberal media has any principle left it is not the comment pages but the front page headlines that should say: “President exposed as lying fantasist,"" he concludes. I disagree - for the left-leaning media to engage in the same behaviour as the dogmatic bloggers and illogical YouTubers who are, regrettably, making capital out of ignorance, would be to commit the same crimes with which we think they are getting away. The press must remain professional and aligned to nothing but truth and scrutiny.
Am I going as far as Professor Richard Dawkins, who isn't afraid to admit his support of elitism, arguing that the British people should not have been handed the responsibility of deciding whether Britain leaves the EU? No, not quite. Rather, I'm concerned that we are not standing up for standards of academic endeavour, reasoned argument and sophisticated, civil interaction. Everyone has the right to their own opinion, of course, but I wouldn't offer a platform to someone whose ideas are threadbare and illogical. We should be having conversations for our benefit, education and progress, not for the pollution of our minds. We live in a time when the President of the United States makes unfounded allegations and attacks left, right and centre; even worse are his advisers who defend his ill-informed and peculiar witterings with reference to 'alternative facts', events that did not happen and reports that were never written. We need to make the case for proper standards and good arguments.
Yesterday, on International Women's Day, I received an article via email from a stranger, asking for my consideration as Editor of my student newspaper.
As a company and an entity separate from the union, we regularly receive press releases and information from non-student-related sources. Rarely are these sources particularly linked to campus affairs or the city of York. In the last few days alone I've received information about schoolchildren's food allergies, a note on British Pie Week, genealogy and the appearance of Darth Vader outside a charity shop in Middlesborough. Rarely do these kinds of articles make it onto The Yorker's site - we focus strictly on news relating to the University of York and its students' union, as well as the city itself.
This article was different, however. "15 ACTIONS MEN CAN TAKE TO PROTECT THEMSELVES AGAINST FEMINISM," the title read.
It seemed more than coincidental that, only a short while earlier, the men's rights group Justice for Men and Boys (J4MB), about whom I have written earlier, shared one of my articles for The Yorker on its website. I had written about a talk given by Ella Whelan, staff writer at spiked, on the shortcomings of contemporary feminism. I introduced the article with a quote from J4MB and some examples of their ridiculous arguments against feminism. Clearly, the fact that I wrote that their arguments are based on "Largely on the basis of incredulous logic and conspiracy theories" and that it is "sad that so many of them mean what they write" didn't make a difference to the bright spark who shared the article; a hyperlink to a ramble which compared feminism with Nazism was quite enough to make it worthy of passing on.
What a charming thing to receive, on International Women's Day of all days. I am getting tired of the number of things with which feminism is regularly associated by its many, many critics - authoritarianism, gender supremacy, misandry, Nazism, communism, the enslavement of men, intellectual dishonesty, fascism, deceit and so on. In the spirit of healthy discourse, I thought it would be fun to explore (and most likely reject) as many of these fifteen ways as I could. If you fancy reading the article for yourself, click here - it's already been published by men's rights outlets such as 'A Voice for Men'. ["Post courtesy of J4MB." What a coincidence!]
Before even considering the fifteen ways that a man can protect himself against feminism, the author of the proposed article makes a number of contentious assertions. For example, the claim that "Men can be arrested and held in custody for 24 hours without being told why." Really? It's a violation of police conduct for a policeman to arrest a citizen without informing them of the reason. Following government instruction, the police should identify themselves, state the reason for arrest and the crime for which a person is suspected to be responsible. So it's not the case, legally, for men to be arrested and held in custody without knowing the reason for this. Whether this does actually happen is something for journalists to investigate - but it's not true that the government permits its police to arrest men without saying why.
Moving on to the points...
"1. RECOGNISE THAT WOMEN HAVE BECOME WEAPONISED... Under Home Office guidance, the police must now accept everything a woman says, believe everything a woman says and check very little. All female complainants are referred to as “victims.” Under the 2014 Positive Action Policy of the police YOU WILL be arrested. Under the Zero Tolerance policies of the Home Office and Alison Saunders at the Crown Prosecution Service YOU WILL be prosecuted. YOU WILL be treated as guilty until proven innocent and YOU WILL have to prove your innocence."
In the space of a paragraph there are a number of unsubstantiated claims about the way in which men are treated by police, magistrates and the courts. Unless the government has given up on centuries of civil rights, I sincerely doubt that the Home Office dictates that everything an individual claims must be accepted and believed by the police, regardless of their sex, nor that the police are intent on arresting any men for speaking out against female complainants. Finally, being treated as guilty and asked to prove one's innocence goes quite against British law.
"2. SHUN FEMINISTS AND VINDICTIVE PSYCHOS..." The reader is told to avoid feminists, whether they are married or not. Why would that make a difference? Are married feminists less of a danger than unmarried feminists? We are never told - it is left to the reader's prejudices to answer.
We should "Avoid women who have degrees in gender studies, use the word “victim,” or think the solution to their problems is to report pettiness to the police (or anyone for that matter)." Why so? These are relatively harmless character traits. Holding a degree in a particular subject, using a particular word and regularly disclosing details about problems to figures of authority in the hope of assistance don't strike me as indications of being a 'vindictive psycho'.
And finally, "Never have sex with them if they’ve had more than two drinks – they lack legal capacity to consent and they or their feminist friend can later accuse you of rape..." Would that mean if they were sober, their consent to your sexual advances would be automatic? The focus on how sex with someone who cannot reasonably consent would impact you, rather on how it is wrong to have sex with someone without their consent, is saddening to say the least.
"3. INSURE YOURSELF AGAINST FEMINIST ACCUSATIONS."
Yes, that's right, men should prepare themselves from the inevitable financial repercussions from interactions with feminists. £20,000 should be kept away and its existence kept secret from a man's partner. Will J4MB provide any assistance with funding that £20,000 'feminist defence policy'? I doubt it. There really is no need. Feminists can sue and accuse... but so can socialists, conservatives, accountants, metalworkers, Members of Parliament, lorry drivers, zookeepers, anarchists, milk men, swimming pool lifeguards, Liberal Democrats, or anyone else of any political persuasion and occupation - even men's rights activists!
"4. PROTECT YOURSELF WITH TECHNOLOGY. "
This instruction makes reference to Theresa May and the Conservative government's illiberal policies on surveillance and the use of the World Wide Web. If Michael Gove had become Prime Minister last year, would the author of this article be so worried? Or is it just because Theresa May is a woman that these policies are so worrying? I suspect the latter. Theresa May's policies on surveillance have barely anything to do with her being a woman, but the author would like you to think that it is a paramount condition of her attitudes to civil liberties. No, they are not.
"5. STICK TOGETHER AS A FAMILY."
The feminists - they're coming for your wife! They're coming for your children! But seriously, the author contends that the family unit is the best defence against a "male-hating, family-hating state." Is this still related to feminism?
"6. DISTRUST POLICE AND CIVIL SERVANTS... Teach your children NEVER to speak to these people without you or a solicitor present. This is especially true for your teenage or older boys. Don’t be naïve - NHS staff and state school teachers are now social services informants...Do not cooperate with the police, especially the Community Service Unit (the relationship police). They will lie, twist and exaggerate to create a case against you. Video or voice record every conversation or encounter you have with the police, social services, parking wardens, NHS staff or any other state worker. Your iPhone is your best weapon and your best defence."
I imagine this goes against the advice that many parents have given their children, at least in my lifetime or the lifetimes of my own parents. The fear of the police to such an extent is baffling. Also, how is this related to feminism again? This is the second instruction in a row to be barely related to feminism, unless the author is about to argue that feminism has led to the decline of the police, the civil service, the family and Internet freedom.
"7. EMBRACE WOMEN WITH STRONG FATHER FIGURES AND COMMON SENSE... Do not date women who demonstrate a sense of entitlement, victimization or extreme emotional instability. Be particularly aware of women who threaten you when jealous or make up or exaggerate stories about other men they have dated. Reduce your risk by vetting all women you date with a background check, searches on their social media websites such as Facebook, questions about previous relationships and how they ended. If necessary, hire a private detective to ensure they don’t have a record of making false or petty allegations against previous partners."
The lengths to which the author believes that men should go to be confident around women is unparalleled. The advice might as well recommend avoiding women who feel any sense of injustice or dissatisfaction with anything in life - or maybe even females who are capable of rational thought? (This coming from J4MB, perhaps they believe that females simply aren't capable of even that.) Can the paranoia get any worse? If you feel the need to hire a private detective to investigate women you are thinking of dating, you might need to hire someone else. When you're flicking through the yellow pages for that private eye, see if you can find a good psychiatrist as well. Or maybe arrange an appointment with an experienced taxidermist.
"8. AVOID NON-COMMITTAL NORTHERN EUROPEAN, BRITISH AND AMERICAN WOMEN."
A thought: if feminism encourages women to divorce their husbands, would it not also encourage women not to get married in the first place? The author thinks that feminist women will be after your money, but "family-orientated women" won't divorce their husbands. I mean, if a woman has a family, why would she any need to divorce her husband? It couldn't possibly be, say, because her husband is abusive, or has been up to no good with another woman?
The ninth ("MINIMISE YOUR TAXES"), tenth ("STAY OUT OF THE SYSTEM") and eleventh ("DITCH YOUR TV LICENSE AND STOP FUNDING THE BBC") instructions bear barely any relevance to the apparent evils of feminism; they appear to be badly-written, panicked versions of neoclassical economic arguments for the minimisation of taxation ("Tax is theft. Practice legal tax avoidance and stop funding the state’s war on men") and the privatisation of services, as well as a bit of a moan about the decline of university education. Still, we are told that "Broadcast television media, most notably the BBC, have become rabidly anti-male. Men are depicted as bumbling idiots and worse. There are almost no male news presenters anymore." I can name plenty of male news presenters off the top of my head - Huw Edwards, Alastair Stewart, Krishnan Guru-Murthy, George Alagiah. But even if there are no male news presenters anymore, is there something inherently wrong with that? Are female newsreaders universally incompetent?
The twelfth ("BE RESILIENT"), thirteenth ("BE GREAT AT WHAT YOU DO") and fourteenth ("STAY HUMAN") instructions manage to make tenuous links between feminism and a man's individual weaknesses amid some generic encouragement for self-betterment and persistence. Men should regularly exercise, be good at sport and their line of work, be open with their emotions and so on - what pleasant and normal advice, for once!
So, here's the final instruction, and, like #9, #10 and #11, there's barely any relation to feminism here...
"15. FIGHT BACK AND DEFEND YOUR RIGHTS. Most men in the UK are unaware of how their rights have been assaulted by the state’s actions and changed over the past years. Get informed and stay informed. Know your rights under the European Convention on Human Rights. Exercise and stand up for your rights and family values. Recognise the laws are wrong, Police and CPS application of the law is wrong and the justice system has become politicised. Engage in non-violent civil disobedience. Rational debate and free speech no longer exist. Be prepared to risk getting arrested."
This call to arms could easily be found at the bottom of any old political document - stand up for yourself, challenge the system, prepare yourself for state disapproval and potential arrest. Not long ago, women's liberation activists did these things too.
Overall, the fifteen-point plan for men is a dismal collection of unsubstantiated allegations against feminism and feminists. Feminism is responsible for a great deal of evils and afflictions in society, an accusation made possible by the lazy habit of critics to lump every feminist into one group and rail against "feminism" in general. Funnily enough, this is the same criticism that I levelled against Ella Whelan in my article for The Yorker which kicked off this little episode! Whelan is not alone in speaking about "contemporary feminism" in a disappointingly vague way, enabling her and others to subject it to all manner of criticism for which contemporary feminists are apparently responsible; but Whelan's criticisms of feminism stand in stark contrast to the conspiracy theories and blanket lies of J4MB and their acolytes.
It is now a week since I succeeded in my campaign to become the next Policy Coordinator of my union. Last Saturday I received the votes of the student body to take on the role, commencing in two weeks' time and lasting for a year.
I had thought that I would use my blog as a medium for independent writing and honest thoughts about the election process and the events as they unfolded. Unfortunately, I did not have the time to blog (no change there, then). In fact, with campaigning and covering the events on my agenda, I struggled to get the time to commit to my studies that week as well.
The election process took up more of my time than I had thought. I had planned to keep campaigning to the online world, establishing a Facebook page and scheduling posts to come out at busy times. This scheme changed when I walked onto campus on the first day of campaigning to discover my opponent unravelling two shiny, expensive banners, which they would drape around the most popular areas of campus.
For a little while I was panicking. I had no campaigning team and no resources for campaigning besides access to the Internet. Other candidates had assembled a team of helpers and acquired cardboard, string and tape in good time.
On the first day I went to see students dining at three colleges' cafeteria, finding groups at tables and taking a minute or so of their time to justify a vote for me. After that came a visit to the campus Labour Party and then to another college's Monday biscuit and cake night. The following day saw me visit three colleges' Junior Common Room Committees (JCRCs). The rest of the week has become a bit of a blur now...
Halfway through the campaigning, I messaged one of the other candidates. Quite unexpectedly, I was sitting in my room unable to think of a reason to dislike YUSU. The cynicism, the negativity and the frustration that had motivated me to stand in the election had somehow withered away and died. Everyone was trying as hard as possible to make the election process fun, kind and easy. The union provided us with a week's access to its community space, dishing out fruit, biscuits and cups of tea. Whether it was for journalistic inquiries or campaign advice, the Democracy Officer was always willing to offer assistance. Without that cynicism, we were able to laugh when a union officer Tweeted the wrong dates for the voting period. Campaigning may be exhausting, but it's thrilling.
Campaigning alongside potential representatives for other areas of the union also taught me a lot about problems and concerns that other students face, most notably disabled students. Many candidates drew attention to how strenuous and difficult the election process is. Some elements of the process are even harder for disabled candidates. How are students on crutches or in wheelchairs meant to make it into nightclubs where other able-bodied candidates go campaigning, or to the multiple hustings across campus? Participating in the process, even for one of the smallest roles in the union, taught me a lot about concerns that other students have.
Last Saturday was the results night. The Policy Coordinator position was the first to be declared. Sitting with The Yorker's News Editor, I could not make out the results diagram, but I heard the host call my name as the victor. "What's your role?" he asked me later, on stage. "Policy Coordinator," I responded. "Are you looking forward to coordinating policy?" he asked back. Make the role sound exciting, why don't you?
If anything I'm looking forward to making sense of the policy process. When campaigning, the top question to me was, "What actually is the Policy & Review Group?" Most students don't know that the PRG exists. They have no idea what it's for, how policies are suggested and reviewed or what responsibilities the Coordinator has. I pledged to ensure that the PRG does what it's supposed to be doing, but if there's an opportunity to make the policy process clearer without drastically changing it, I'd be interested to look into it.
That cynicism I mentioned hasn't really gone away - in the throng of campaigning and writing for The Yorker, it must have just been put on hold. With the job approaching, I have my objectives in mind: following the constitution and putting an end to an interpret-how-you-want-when-you-want approach to important documents, exhibited time and time again by staff.
I was elected on promises to get the PRG back in form, following the rules that are laid out. But a good Policy Coordinator isn't necessarily one who is very good at adhering to protocol (or, being a good bureaucrat, as you might put it). The Policy Coordinator must ensure that the policy process is carried out fairly, honestly and without biases. The Coordinator should also be looking to get more students involved in the policy process: it's one of the most effective ways of changing the way the union runs itself.
"You've joined the establishment now," one student commented. I suppose I have; the union cynic, the anti-establishment candidate, will be in a union position in a few weeks' time. But that doesn't mean that I have to behave like the establishment that I have criticised; if all goes well, I'll tidy a few things up!