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“Find Flesh”: Twitter, Bullies and the Power of Depth

The events of the last few months have brought me back to Twitter.

I suppose it’s a despair in the shocking state of a lot of newspaper journalism and – sadly – BBC news coverage that makes me want to find out things quicker and from more sources.

I am careful to curate my twitter feed and not have too much of a left-wing bubble. I follow some alt right feeds from America and some Brexit-loving feeds from the UK. (Just as I have taken to always casting an eye on the headlines of the Sun, the Express and the Daily Mail in the newsagents.)

I feel a sudden shudder and contraction when I read the deliberately monosyllabic put-downs of a Breitbart twitter post (usually something like “What a douche!” or “Nuff said” attached to a linked article) and my heart contracts. The evil genius of that site is to completely discredit even Nobel Prize Laureates with the sneering dismissal of a high school Jock calling a A-Grade student a nerd.

There’s been a lot written about the way in which a media that no longer deals in truth or facts is not really something you can meaningfully engage with or argue against. But I also am keenly aware of the part of me that was bullied at school for being gay, rears up with particularly potency in the face of this bullish, male-white-entitled talk. It’’s like I not only don’t trust the media but I have become afraid of it.

I am profoundly glad that I am gay and that I suffered bullying for it because it allows me some measure of empathy for the bullied every where. For decades (it seemed) the rights of the bullied were being respected and protected. Suddenly in the matter of weeks, that has all evaporated. And the 9-year-old me is highly present and highly alert. He makes reading news feel like an anxious flashback to the schoolyard.

The medium of Twitter (and Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat for that matter) do have a structural role in all this. They are not transparent media (as a brilliant interview with Anil Dash points out). When the Arab Spring was in full swing, Twitter was keen to claim credit. After Trump’s victory, suddenly it’s “We are a neutral platform”. The truth is that all of the social media platforms completely mediate how we get and respond to information. Suddenly we are dealing with a world where the President of the United States of America makes policy in bullying soundbites with no appeal to truth. That is a function of the tweet as much as the Trump.

While I feel a huge admiration for J.K. Rowling’s twitter efforts (how does she find time?) and her refusal to be at all abashed by these on-line bullies, I am struck by the fact that she has to react with the same tough, 140-character counter blast. The very nature of Twitter prevents anyone really going deep. We are dragged into arguing with slogans. Or worse, with bullying put-downs.

There’s a part of me that thinks I should stick my head above the parapet more and argue with people. To point the world to the fine analyses of the current world situation that I glean from the deep journalism of Adam Curtis, of the London Review of Books and the New Left Review. Or to adopt the brilliant strategy of Positive News and unsettle people by constructive, optimistic information.

Certainly when I do engage, my ambient fear of bullies recedes. But then I am grazed against a more fundamental concern and the perennial Zen koan of modern media: how can I keep informed about what is going on in every corner of the world and avoid feeling responsible for all of it? How can the intolerable burden of the Web be carried?

I can not be a politician, a sociologist, a historian, a scientist every time that I post or make a comment on the world. That way lies madness. Some people seem to strike the balance. Returning to J.K. Rowling, she points out that she can be a writer of wizard-stories AND speak freely to the current situation. But speaking up is one thing, but the responsibility to speak up truthfully and usefully is a big one. It’s an intolerable burden to wake up every morning with the sense that I personally have to be the Harry Potter to Steve Bannon’s Voldemort.

And yet… and yet the alternative seems heretical: to lay down my insistence on having an answer to ever aggressive tweet; to let go of the need to be perfectly informed and up-to-speed on all the complexities of geopolitics, neoliberal economics, Marxist theory; to admit that I can’t solve every problem. This alternative seems like dangerous capitulation.

“To sin by silence, when we should protest/ makes cowards out of men” (said Ella Wheeler-Wilcox) but perhaps it is the Internet’s unending stimuli to protest, the proliferating number of things we should speak out against, the expectation that everyone should be 100% informed is what makes most people not only turn silent, but also lay down in exhausted compliance.

Perhaps the overwhelm of social media is deliberately utilised by the bullies to smother our intellect and thus distracts us from action. (See Adam Curtis’ excellent Hypernormalisation to this point).

We need depth, but we need localised depth. We do what we can and we do it well and deeply. Stay anchored in the body, the space around us the neighbourhood.

“Go take refuge in nature, and find a cause where your heart doesn’t feel inactive and in despair. This is the medicine.”, says one of Thich Nhat Hahn’s senior monks. “We go out and we help. […] Right now people in our family are still there, and they might need us. Our friend might be someone who is being discriminated against. You can only be there to offer that kindness if you are stable. What people need is your non-fear, your stability, solidity, clarity.”

Without surrendering to the bullying numbness of ‘Nuff Said’ and “Loser”, I can anchor myself in depth but in my area of expertise. And release the compulsion to speak authoritatively on subjects that I can only have an amateur interest in. I am a psychotherapist and a Buddhist meditator and teacher. I present TV shows. I can speak well, I can write, I can think. I have a partner, family, neighbours. I have a locality that is reassuringly responsive.

We need depth to counter the insistent shallowness of Twitter and Breitbart but we need realistic depth and actionable depth. People need to go deep in what is closest to them professionally, socially, psychically. And they have to own that. But there needs to be some boundaries otherwise we end up being spread thin and succumb to the thinning out of insight, the vanishing of depth.

Brother Phap Dung continues: “Community practice is crucial at this time. It’s crucial not to be alone in front of the computer, reading media. That makes the world dark for you. Find flesh. There are still wonderful things happening.”

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