Disagreement is not a capital offence - and nine other rules for online debate

By bleating about a writer’s erudition you are merely allowing your own ignorance to embarrass you

Howard Jacobson
Friday 22 January 2016 17:42 GMT
'Jeremy Clarkson is not a knob because you disagree with him. He might be a knob for other reasons, but he isn’t a knob because he has a bone to pick with cyclists and you’re a cyclist.'
'Jeremy Clarkson is not a knob because you disagree with him. He might be a knob for other reasons, but he isn’t a knob because he has a bone to pick with cyclists and you’re a cyclist.'

Spoiler alert: some of what I am about to say I intend ironically. And that includes the previous sentence. Then again, some of what I say I don’t intend ironically. And between these extremes of meaning it and not meaning it are likely to be utterances whose status as to truth and sincerity I am unsure of myself.

Here is the joy of writing an essay, as opposed to a manifesto or even an opinion piece. An essay is a process of trying or testing. An experiment in words and thought. Hence those who throng to the armed wing of social media in the hope of destroying what an essayist essays are behaving exactly as Basil Fawlty did when he thrashed his stalled Austin 1100 with a limp branch: they are taking the wrong weapon to the wrong object.

We know why Basil Fawlty was so frustrated; but what ails the Twitter death squads? I leave that to psychologists of mob derangement to determine. I am concerned in this column – that’s if I am – a) to educate the deranged in the rudiments of civilised conversation, and b) – altruistically – to prevent them wasting what’s left of their lifeblood on causes that aren’t causes at all. See a man on his knees screaming his disagreement with the scent of a rose and you want to help. That’s what I’m doing.

Sixty nine would appear to be a fatal age if you’re a genius. Joyce Grenfell, who had more claim to being called a genius than many to whom the word is promiscuously applied, died just short of 70 in 1979, which must seem a long time ago to people whose knowledge of past events goes back no further than the launch of Instagram.

She was an actress and comedian, though her comic routines could just as fairly be called short stories. Perhaps the most famous is Nursery School in which she teaches a class of children whose dimwitted naughtiness brings to mind the misdirected delinquency of the chatroom. The most beside-the-point of the delinquents is Sidney who, when invited to be a flower of his choice, chooses a horse. “A horse isn’t a flower, Sidney,” Joyce Grenfell tells him, her patience wonderfully tuned to stretch till doomsday. Followed by, “No children, that isn’t funny, it’s very silly.”

Let that, then, be lesson No 1 for those who cling like drowning rats to the coat-tails of any writer who can swim: learn to tell the difference between a flower and a horse. Thus, when someone thinks differently from you, that doesn’t make him or her a murderer, and it therefore isn’t necessary for you to call for the death penalty. Thinking differently from you isn’t a crime. Thinking differently from you might, if anything, be a virtue.

Lesson No 2: A horse is not a flower and Jeremy Clarkson is not a knob because you disagree with him. He might be a knob for other reasons, but he isn’t a knob because he has a bone to pick with cyclists and you’re a cyclist.

Lesson No 3: Camilla Long isn’t the worst columnist who has ever been because her heart doesn’t break into the same number of pieces as yours does when an entertainer dies. Here’s a handy rule to follow before calling someone the worst columnist there has ever been: be sure you’ve read the others. Unless you are only speaking immoderately for the fun of getting up someone’s nose. But in that case, ask yourself whether the columnist you can’t abide is only speaking immoderately to get up yours.

Lesson No 4: Don’t marvel that publications give space to the particular worst living writer you have your sights fixed on today. It sounds like sour grapes. Of course it is sour grapes, but you should try to conceal it. The last thing a person whose only outlet is an online forum should draw attention to is the envy consuming him from the fingers down.

Lesson No 5: Failing to see the point is not a virtue. The more articles you don’t see the point of, the more questions are going to be asked about your perspicacity. You are right that some things are a waste of space; in all likelihood your tweet is one of them.

Lesson No 6: Don’t complain that the media won’t stop hounding whoever it is you admire – say, Corbyn, to pluck a name at random. Most public figures, not excepting Corbyn, get a fair crack of the whip somewhere. What you’re really complaining about is that you don’t get a fair crack of the whip anywhere. But that won’t be bias. It will just mean you’re a knob.

Lesson No 7: Remembering what I said about irony, think twice before buckling up for war. You might be walking into a trap for the literal-minded. As a rule of thumb I’d say that if you don’t have a sense of humour you are missing the tone of most of what you read. So why advertise the fact? If you have nothing to do, and are looking for an activity that doesn’t require a sense of humour, try colouring in.

Lesson No 8: A writer who has more words than you have isn’t ipso facto a show-off. Ditto a writer who has read a couple of books and is otherwise cultivé. By bleating about his or her erudition you are merely allowing your own ignorance to embarrass you. It should.

Lesson No 9: Don’t imagine that a word you say is going to make a blind bit of difference. You wouldn’t be tweeting poison if you were otherwise able to solicit interest. But if you must fight a losing battle try at least to be sophisticated. Telling a writer you despise that he has his head up his arse will only make him feel good about himself. Better his arse, after all, than yours.

Lesson No 10: Remember Sidney. Being a horse when you’re meant to be a flower isn’t funny, it’s silly.

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