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Is Sir Simon Jenkins the Worst Columnist in Britain?

27 April 2012

11:53 AM

27 April 2012

11:53 AM

I know that this must seem a large claim while so many other rotters still breathe but at least, as questions go, it makes more sense than the one bold Sir Simon asks today: Now everyone is connected, is this the death of conversation?

Good grief but, being the charitable sort, you may suppose that since Mr Jenkins doesnae write his ain headlines his article may have been mischaracterised by some Guardian sub-editor. Such hopes will not survive for long. Mr Jenkins, you see, has been in the United States and he has noticed, as veteran foreign correspondents are wont to do, that the young people are spending quite a bit of time tapping and typing messages to one another on their smart-alec telephones that are no longer really telephones at all. It is all about the Facebook and the Twitter and the God-knows-what-else.

No place, perhaps not even a church (though Sir Simon does not report from Mass so it is hard to know), is safe from this facebookery and twittering and BBMing. Hush now, here’s the evidence:

The MIT professor and psychologist Sherry Turkle claims that her students are close to mastering the art of sustaining eye contact with a person while texting someone else. It is like an organist playing different tunes with hands and feet. To Turkle, these people are "alone together … a tribe of one". Anyone with 3,000 Facebook friends has none.

Nevermind the profound misunderstanding of Facebook here, consider the impressive vacuity of "alone together… a tribe of one". Next we learn that:

Psychologists have identified this [constant texting and messaging] as "fear of conversation". People wear headphones as "conversational avoidance devices". The internet connects us to the entire world, but it is a world bespoke, edited, deleted, sanitised. Doubt and debate become trivial because every statement can be instantly verified or denied by Google. There is no time for the thesis, antithesis, synthesis of Socratic dialogue, the skeleton of true conversation.

It is true that many people like listening to music or a podcast on their way to work or as they enjoy a cup of coffee. It may also be the case they prefer chatting with their friends than perfect strangers or, worse still, visiting journalists. Who can blame them? And who knew that Google – a large library – had put an end to "debate" and "doubt"? Did Socrates die in vain, for this? Alas so, poor man. Debate, it seems, should be restricted to those within earshot and nevermind that large parts of the internet are a seething, bubbling, raucous coffee house. But it gets worse. By god it does:

We have, says Turkle, confused connection with conversation – "the illusion of companionship without the demands of relationship". Human friendship is rich, messy and complicated. It requires patience and tolerance, even compromise. As we push other people off into a world of question and answer, connection and information, friendship becomes ersatz virtuality.

Here, reader, you will spy the problems inherent in hanging your thesis – Socratic or not – upon the twaddle-peg of psycho-babbling nitwittery. Try as you will I defy you to make any sense of "As we push ther people off into a world of question and answer, connection and information, friendship becomes ersatz virtuality." Besides, is not a back and forth of "question and answer, connection and information" usually the sort of thing considered "the skeleton of true conversation"?

Where will it all end? Did you know, for instance, that:

Even the phone is passé. Those who used to call a friend in trouble now send a text. Phone calls are to register urgency or shout anger, with corresponding loss of nuance and sensibility. From Mailer to Eminem, the modern cultural hero is expressionist. He or she has "attitude", and to prove it uses the F-word as often as possible.

Unpacking this is tricky, chiefly because it makes no sense at all and not only because very few people can posibly consider Mailer a "modern cultural hero". In any case, a text is often more polite and more considerate than a telephone call. It permits the other party to respond at a time and in a medium of their choice or convenience. Moreover, even those of us disinclined to speak on the telephone can appreciate that this veteran technology is still often used for chatting. Only someone determined to aver that conversation is dead could think that the telephone is merely a vehicle for expletive-filled expressions of something called "attitude".

At this point those of you familiar with the conventions of a newspaper column will sense that it is about time some effort was made to tie all this to the wider political arena. Sir Simon wants you to know that, like Rick Astley, he will never let you down:

Miller [a "historian of conversation"] notes that public discourse is dominated by contention, by "intersecting monologues". Anger, lack of inhibition, "letting it all hang out" are treated as assets in public debate, in place of a willingness to listen and adjust one’s point of view. Politics thus becomes a platform of rival angers. American politicians are ever more polarised, reduced to conveying a genuine hate for each other.

Oh mercy! I believe politics and public discourse have often been fuelled by some measure of "contention". Indeed it is hard to see how they could fail to be. Even, whisper it, in ancient, democratic Athens. Nor is it true that American politics is unusually polarised today. One can only say such a thing if one is prepared to ignore most of American history. The cousins have always been a disputatious bunch. Consider the election of 1800. Or perhaps, taking a bracingly revisionist view, Sir Simon recalls the 1860s as a period of sweet, bipartisan chivalry and dialogue in American life.

Alas, even when our intrepid reporter tries to engage the natives he runs into trouble:

Likewise, the lack of tolerance in American Christianity can be as frightening as it can in Islam. When I once professed support for IVF, a man glared across the table, tight-jawed, and asked: "What does it feel like to be a mass murderer?" With such people there is no conversation, only a tiptoeing from the room.

Again, one cannot help but feel that religious fanatics could be encountered at any point since man first discovered the need for gods. What’s more, a columnist who wishes us to engage with one another and shake off our crippling fear of conversation perhaps should not to be so quick to tiptoe from the room when he encouters stubborn opposition. Whatever.

Whatever? Yes, whatever. Because – and this is the bit that elevates this guff to impressive levels – Sir Simon now apologises for wasting your time.

All that said, the death of conversation has been announced as often as that of the book. Samuel Johnson and David Hume worried that the decline of political conversation would lead to violent civil discord. George Orwell concluded that "the trend of the age was away from creative communal amusements and toward solitary mechanical ones". The philosopher Michael Oakeshott professed himself desperate to "rescue the art of conversation". Somehow we have muddled through.

The "post-digital" phenomenon, the craving for live experience, is showing a remarkable vigour. The US is a place of ever greater congregation and migration, to parks, beaches and restaurants, to concerts, rock festivals, ball games, religious rallies. Affinity groups frantically seek escape from the digital dictatorship, using Facebook and Twitter not as destinations but as portals, as route maps to human contact.

A hundred online universities are no substitute for a live campus any more than Facebook is a substitute for sex or Twitter for debate. Gatherings such as Burning Man and Coachella have revived the medieval pilgrimage, with tens of thousands crossing mountains and deserts to spend from $100 to $1,000 a weekend to commune with like-minded souls. They talk. They even converse.

Somewhere in this cultural morass I am convinced the zest for human contact will preserve the qualities that Plato and Plutarch, Johnson and Hume identified as essential for a civilised life, qualities of politeness, listening and courtesy. Those obsessed with faddish connectivity and personal avoidance are not escaping reality. They are not TS Eliot’s misanthropic Prufrock, "a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas". Deep down they still crave friendship. They just want a better class of talk.

A different columnist might have reached this conclusion and decided that, having spent so much time peddling tripe only to admit, at the end, that it was all nonsense from the start it might have been best to abandon the whole sorry column and write about something else. Ah, but perhaps the deadline was looming and so, sod it, let me strap a suicide-bomb to my own argument and trust that most readers won’t reach these concluding paragraphs to see it explode.

Money for old rope really and Mr Jenkins finishes by implicating his Guardian colleagues in this wreck and dreck. To wit: "my editor has asked me to offer up a few practical suggestions and conversational cautions." Oh dear. As Loveandgarbage tweeted, it is hard to imagine a less promising start to any conversation than Hello, I’m Simon Jenkins. 

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