Choose substance: Glasgow students teach us how to deal with trolls.
One of the few uplifting things to have happened this week was that human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar became the rector of Glasgow University.
It was good because he is a smart competent person who will do a good job in making things better for the students. However, the most uplifting part was that the students overwhelmingly chose a man of substance over the professional troll Milo Yiannopoulos.
In recent years there has been a lot of debate about the rise of reactive authoritarianism in young people. About how millennials have been raised wrapped in cotton wool resulting in them developing coddled minds. They don’t want to be offended so they protect themselves with safe spaces, trigger warnings and no platforming. Not so with the Glasgow University students.
Instead of them being so emotionally traumatised by Milo’s patter that they formed a totalitarian riot mob.
The Glasgow students listened to what he had to say and then democratically and peacefully told him to jog on. It is exactly the way we should deal with trolls in a civilised, mature society. Ignore them or even politely listen to them before proceeding to starve them of the wrath fueled attention they thrive on.
If people had taken this approach years ago then Milo would be the complete nonentity his exploits merit. Instead he has been propelled to infamy by a multitude of faux outrages. Those who elevate him to stardom feign fury in exchange for followers and clicks. The Glasgow students showed us the way. Too late to stop him becoming the poster boy of the Alt Right and the bête noire of the perpetually incandescent. However, not too late for us to prevent the next shock merchant polluting their way to infamy.
Glasgow treated Milo with the scorn his insincere baiting deserves and they made a choice of substance instead. Wouldn’t it be great if we could see this tactic applied more often?
We are completely bombarded by emotion over substance. The media, old and new, is chockablock with outrage, pathos and titillation.
I was thinking about this when I was watching the debates this week in the Scottish parliament.
You can see why people are so turned off by politics as many of our politicians are not too different from Mylo. OK, they tend to be less controversial, but they are playing a similar game of sensationalism over substance. What we see of it is often adversarial. Lots of angry folk not listening or interested in the opinion of the other side. Instead they just feign indignation at perfectly reasonable views, attacking the opposition for things they do themselves, piling one shallow victory on another, hoping to get their one upmanship broadcast on the 6-o’clock state funded click-bait-o-thon.
Although the alternative would make boring news, wouldn’t it be better if we had a system that forced them to sit down and actually talk to each other? To really listen and try to understand what each side of the debate was thinking. Where they were coming from, what their goals are. That must be better than foaming at the mouth across a cavernous chamber because someone has had the audacity to change their mind about a minor comment they made off the cuff 5 years earlier?
They are playing to our emotion in the hope of bypassing our ability to reason. At tactic that is almost ubiquitous in modern public discourse.
We saw the same phenomenon this week in the reporting of the incident on Westminster Bridge. The media churned out reams of wild, melodramatic, flag waving speculation. Elevating the act of the latest in a long line of sick violent maniacs into a state of emergency just shy of a full-scale invasion. All the while seemingly oblivious to the fact that we are reacting to the incident in exactly the way Isis had planned. Helping to spread the fear, anger and division they seek to seed. Reaching a global audience the world greatest marketers could only dream of on a budget of a knife and a hire-car. The visceral emotion of the whole thing allows it to be propelled to a level of eminence the substance of it doesn’t deserve. The ultimate troll gains the ultimate exposure.
Milo, the bickering politicians and the violent extremists are all playing a media landscape that they know will dance to their tune. It’s not their fault, it’s what we want, it’s what gets ratings and clicks.
Who wants sober reporting when we can watch round the clock footage of experts speculating about the significance of traumatised French school children and contorted corpses lying in pools of blood? Who would be prepared to sit down and listen to politicians having an actual normal conversation when we can watch them pummel each other with angry insults and empty rhetoric?
Well, without much of a fuss the Glasgow students chose the serious human rights lawyer when they could have had a flamboyant charlatan provocateur? They will benefit from demanding substance as they will get a much more competent person fighting their corner. Wouldn’t it be good if this calm rejection of sensationalism was more widespread?
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