“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.”


  1. Colin

    February 10, 2017 at 12:33 am

    Hi Alistair I totally agree with your article and since the stress weekend I have resisted the desire to look at Facebook every day (and the whole Trump swamp) but escaping the news seems harder to achieve.

    One thing I would add is that like you the bullying in my formative years affects how i respond today and Twitter it seems to me is a haven for these people because of its anonymity. Bullies are at source cowards and Twitter allows them too much breathing space. I loved JK Rowling’s response to someone who said they would be burning her books but like you I find it too hard to be on my guard all the time. My heart races at any type of confrontation but I hope to use some of your techniques to conquer this and be more centred. All the best, Colin

  2. Chris

    February 13, 2017 at 1:27 am

    Dear Alistair,

    I so enjoy you on your programme, Escape to the Country. In fact, I just watched an episode placed in Dorset from the 14th series. Whilst still in the home you warmed my heart by telling the prospective buyers that you wanted to show them the garden as they had a river there. Once outside you demurely admitted, “I may have slightly oversold it as a river.” I smiled and laughed as the three of you stood next to a small stream. I got such a kick out of that. I truly did.

    Now, as to the subject of this essay, I would ask you, just exactly what is “wrong” with Trump? I see many people deriding him, but exactly none of them are stating specifics. Just exactly what is/are these heinous crimes against humanity that he has allegedly committed?

    My own feeling, upon actually watching him, listening to his speeches, his plans and so forth, is that he is very inclusive and truly wants to put the power of the U.S. government where it belongs, firmly back in the hands of ‘the people.’ He is not a globalist. While he is certainly a very wealthy man, he cares deeply about all the disadvantaged people who live in poverty and surrounded by crime. He is the first U.S. president in decades who has addressed the needs of the inner city and the black community, as an example. In fact, he has already done more in less than a month as president to help the plight of those people than Obama, Bush or Bill Clinton did in all their years, combined.

    Certain unstable members of society who have paid little attention to what Trump actually says, stands for and indeed, has done over the past few decades seem to be busily lapping up the lies of the main stream media. I’m thinking specifically of one lesbian woman on youtube who shared her very public meltdown, apparently fearful that Trump would outlaw homosexuality. Her ignorance of his actual stand on the issue is shameful. There really is no excuse in this day and age to be so willfully uninformed.

    That many U.S. citizens are concerned with the porous borders that allow not only those seeking a better life, but many members of drug cartels, murderers and other assorted misfits to easily slip into the country undetected, should not be a matter of concern to anybody outside the U.S. The fact is, the U.S. Constitution sites the duty to protect the citizens as the number one concern of the federal government. That object has not been taken seriously for decades. And whilst Mexico has itself a southern border wall to keep out Guatemalans and others from Central and South America, it decries the U.S. for wanting the same in order to protect it’s own citizens. Why is that okay?

    Trump, (for the umpteenth time) is not against immigrants and refugees. He is against the inability to know to whom the door swings wide. Why is that a problem? Why should any country be expected to take anybody and everybody onto it’s shores without any knowledge of the intentions of those people? There is no obligation to do so. In fact, the obligation of any government should always be to it’s own. Since every group, every country can point to it’s own misfits and trouble makers, why should it be expected to potentially import more? What is wrong with vetting people? Nothing, is the only sane answer.

    The fact is, the left has waged a war on nationalism, as well as sanity. It has embraced all manner of destructive and unhealthy pursuits and lifestyles. It has even entangled itself with those very people who would seek to destroy it. The farthest left of the feminists have colluded with the very people, Muslims, whom would just as soon seem them dead. Have you never acquainted yourself with the quran, Alistair? Many pleas to kill the infidel, to lie and be deceitful (as the end justifies the means and as it says – that Muhammed is the greatest deceiver) and so forth are the rallying cry of islam. Female genital mutilation, females being executed for the misfortune of being raped (and not having 4 muslim men as handy witnesses to defend them in court) honour killings, the fact that women are considered 1/2 as valuable as men and that muslim men are allowed to beat and even rape their wives, all in the name of the quran and sharia law. In fact, tossing gays off of buildings is sport to some of them. Yet you think any country on the earth, and in particular the country that above all stands for freedom – should freely allow these cultists whose very belief system stands in stark contrast to the Constitution of the U.S. – you believe they should simply be allowed in to live off the government – aka American taxpayer – (as the majority do since few actually work and support themselves) aaannnddd, you think that as a foreigner you should somehow be allowed to have a voice in such things? Oh Alistair … lol, I do so love you, but that’s just daft. Please acquaint yourself with the fabulous Milo Yiannopolous for immediate instruction on the subject.

    Yours very truly,

    A heart-warmed fan.

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