February 2017

I was lucky enough to attend two big rallies recently against the Trump administration and our government’s unquestioning toadying up to it. One in the bright sunshine of London, two weekends ago. The second a few nights ago in the damp Town Hall Square in Brighton.

There is something comforting in the face of such ugly media narratives that there are people out there who think along the same lines of you and who are fierce and fiery in their commitment to ideals you hold dear. The playful and often witty banners, the youth of the protesters, the peaceful conviction of the marchers: all this made me smile and breathe a little more easily.

Thousands of people turned up spontaneously in Brighton. So many, in fact, that the little speakers that amplified the various orators only barely reached the few rows in front. The vast majority of the crowd were way out of earshot, so occasionally chants would spread through the protestors and swamp the speakers in a pleasing tsunami of collective voice-raising.

“Say it loud, say it clear/ Refugees are WELCOME here”, was one of the most popular and most up-lifting. If I were a passing refugee or asylum-seeker, I would have felt very welcome that evening in Brighton.

And yet, as we chanted it for the fourth or fifth time, I started to get a rather uneasy feeling of the words losing their meaning and the hollow sensation of being stuck in a bubble of self-gratification. The singing and the lovely uplift of mass participation was exhilarating but it was also circular. I felt that we could keep on singing compulsively – almost as a panicky way of warding off the ugly reality of Trump, May, a crumbling Labour opposition, 20 more years of Tory rule, Brexit, decline, collapse.

Fatally, we were chanting to the converted. No one at that rally needed to be chastised into wishing well to refugees. We wanted to feel part of a tribe – which is very legitimate – but that tribalism is actually part of the problem.

Owen Jones, who was very active in the London protests, wrote an excoriating book back in 2012 called ‘Chavs’. And he identified in that word, all the increasingly validated contempt and disgust for so many working class people in Britain. Since the 1960s when the working class were still respected and took major roles in successive Labour administrations, there has been a slow vilification of working people into shiftless, stupid, tasteless “chavs”.

And like it or not a lot of the divisions of post-Brexit Britain is along class lines. As Pankaj Mishra points out in his book “The Age of Anger”, the divisions in India, in Britain, and in the USA are all divisions between wealthy sections of society (labelled ‘elites’) and the excluded majority of non-urban, small town, working people. The top-brass have prospered over the last four decades from the upward mobility of a global market, open borders, increased technological advances, low tax, high property yield and education. That exact prosperity, however, has come to the detriment of those outside of the moneyed capital, in areas of systematic unemployment and very low investment. And the ascent of people like Modi in India, Trump in the USA and the pro-Brexit Tories in the UK have all played on that sense of outraged exclusion felt by the non-elite majority.

The irony of course, is that Trump and May are all part of the monied elite and rather than draw attention to this (and the ultimate betrayal of the working class that they will speciously effect) they deliberately direct the ire and frustration of the non-elite onto an outsider – the immigrant and the Muslim.

This is what we should scrupulously protest – not the devaluation of millions of our fellow citizens, who are rightly indignant. We need to find a chant that all those folk who voted for Brexit or Trump can sing as well. They voted that way out of an exasperated need to be heard and validated. The response of so many left-leaning people (I include myself) after the collapse of our liberal narrative in 2016 was to lash out at these vandals who had broken our (according to Mishra, illusory) myth of progress. Yet the painful truth is that our progress came at the cost of millions of suffering humans around the world – in sweatshops, inhumane factories, slums, unemployment queues, swimming desperate in the Mediterranean. We owe them an apology not our contempt.

That is not to excuse the racism or the displacement of their anger onto the Outsider – racism is racism, but as Jo Cox said, there is more than unites us than divides us. And what unites us is the desire to be happy, support our families, protect our children and loved ones, stay sane, stay safe.

The Buddhist ideal of ‘bodhicitta’ or awakening heart is a challenge. Essentially it makes it an imperative to build a bridge of mutuality to those who we despise. Because we are the same but our contempt, our ‘rightness’, our moral superiority convinces us that we’re not. And it’s that conviction that ‘those’ people (whether that’s Muslims or Brexiteers, immigrants or Trump supporters) are to blame that perpetuates the ugly game.

Phap Dung, a Vietnamese-American and one of the senior students around Thich Nhat Hanh, gave a good interview to the matter on the Vox Website:

“Trump is not an alien who came from another planet. We produced Trump, so we are co-responsible. Our culture, our society, made him […] We’re shocked because we found out there’s a member of our family that we’ve been ignoring. It’s time to listen and really look at our family.”

Until we can find a chant that unifies, then we perhaps should recognise our chanting is just tribal self-soothing. What would have been much more radical and yet potentially healing would have been the chant: “Say it loud, say it clear / Brexiteers are welcome here.” The thought boggles my brain – but rings true.

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.”