On OpenDemocracy, Keith Kahn-Harris and David Hayes worry that “the shrillness and point-scoring of much internet-based discussion – on topics as diverse as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and chronic fatigue syndrome – is narrowing the space where a larger political dialogue should be”. They note the growth of solipsistic micropolitics.
Some excerpts, but it’s worth reading in full – to take the edge of some of the online arguments (although there are reasons for the edge on arguments about Israel and Jews within the Greens other than the solipsism the authors rightly protest).
“This is not just a question of people with too much time on their hands beavering away at the keyboard on controversies that affect nothing – if it were “only” this, there would be little to worry about. The problem goes deeper. It is partly that so much of this activity is harmful and wasteful, in a context where intelligent citizens working in a spirit of constructive dialogue could in principle perform a useful role in clarifying issues and arguments and offering usable ideas to those seeking solutions to the conflicts concerned.
Even worse, this kind of internet politics is also engaged in by opinion-formers, major institutions and “the brightest and best” more generally. In the Jewish community – a world with which one of us is very familiar – those who are most committed and influential in what they view as the defence of Israel have, over the last few years, increasingly come to adopt the same style of politics and mode of address. They include (in the United States) high-profile intellectuals such as Alan Dershowitz and lobbying organisations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) and (in Britain) organisations such as Britain Israel Communications & Research Centre (Bicom). Pro-Palestinian activists, while usually less organised, also engage in these struggles with just as much fervid and driven commitment.
Both sides, all sides, have become tied up in intricate micropolitical struggles. At the moment these include: who exactly broke the ceasefire first; what the word “civilian” means; whether civilian casualties are simply “human shields”; what a “humanitarian crisis” consists of. In the recent past they have included long-running sagas such as whether Jimmy Carter is an anti-semite; whether settlements are illegal under international law; whether a particular BBC report is biased.
At root, these struggles can involve vital issues, but in the hothouse of the internet, they so often disintegrate into thousands of fragments – from the interpretation of an ambiguous phrase to the reliability of a single news item. The result is an internet war of attrition that produces an impenetrable fog of confusion – and must reinforce the indifference and alienation of the non-involved.”
They go on to introduce the example of internet combat over chronic fatigue syndrome, finding:
“The politics of ME – the illness – demonstrates that the insular internet-driven combat that influences so many arguments over the middle east are now replicated in other fields.
People equipped with the requisite background or expertise – for example, those few who (like one of us) are both committed Jews and persons with ME – might have the knowledge necessary to understand the political contours of these two particular controversies. But in the huge number of other controversies where an individual’s knowledge is more limited, the possibility of understanding, being persuaded by, or much less participating in them is much reduced if and when they descend into internet-driven cliquishness and circular backbiting. The day may be fast approaching when all politics will look like the middle east – and the only responses available will be either to join in the maelstrom of bickering or (more likely) to shrug one’s shoulders and switch off.
The democratising possibilities of the internet are in the process of speeding the degeneration of the public sphere into a proliferation of insular nodes, each fighting a war that can never be won. Battles cannot be won on the net nor can they be lost. What remains is a solipsistic politics of ME, ME, ME: my views, my truths, my facts, my pain, my anger. Convincing others and changing the world is forgotten in favour of the perpetuation of one’s own perspective.”
Internet combat about anthropogenic climate change would be another example. This is a very worthwhile article – although I think that it is often a sense of threat and helplessness, rather than solipsism, that fuels the arguments.
Shunted unjustly to the bottom of this post, this recorded interview (MP3 – scroll down to 11am on Sunday 2nd March) of Arnold Wesker talking to Daniel Gavron about his book Holy Land Mosaic introduces some the many peace and cooperation initiatives between Israelis and Palestinians. Gavron is very good at explaining the challenges and achievements, and making critique of the general situation in ways which avoid inflaming. If you listen to him you may have some of your assumptions about Zionists challenged. There are questions and answers too.
He particularly notes the value of environmental initiatives.