A few months ago, I had a blazing row on Facebook with a friend who took exception to something I hadn’t written in my blog.
Yes, you read that correctly. In response to my blog, “All Hail the Mogg!” this friend chose to publicly challenge me as to whether, given my obvious admiration for Jacob Rees-Mogg’s views on gay sex and abortion, I would also endorse the views of a priest who had said that, in the event he discovered a fellow priest was abusing children, he would not speak out as he believed it is up to God alone to judge.
In fact, at no point had I expressed admiration for, or agreement with, Rees-Mogg’s views. The admiration I had attempted to convey in the blog – which appeared to be understood by all who read it apart from this one particular friend – was for Rees-Mogg’s willingness to give a straight answer to a difficult question about his religious views, in marked contrast to Tim Farron who had been completely unable to do the same a few months previously.
My friend insisted that he had fully read the blog, but also kept insisting that as the blog was clearly written in admiration of Rees-Mogg’s religious views, I must also agree with the priest who refuses to report paedophilia. It was hard to know where to start in responding to his accusations.
On the one hand I struggled to believe that a friend who I have always considered intelligent and highly literate, could so fail to grasp the key point of my blog and continue to insist on it containing arguments that simply were not there. But I was also horrified and offended at his dogged attempts to discredit my blog – and, by extension, me – by comparing what I had written to a willingness to turn a blind eye to paedophilia. I pointed this out to him, but he simply ignored my obvious consternation. His mind was made up, and he kept repeating the same accusation – if I could express admiration for a man who states that due to the teachings of his church, he cannot condone gay marriage or abortion, then I must similarly defend the right of a priest to keep quiet about child abuse.
I am usually very reluctant to end friendships over politics but this went beyond a political disagreement. This was somebody I had known for a couple of years, and while we regularly disagreed over politics, I felt we knew each other well enough to have gained a broad understanding of our common ground and shared moral codes. In this instance, either he was willfully misrepresenting my views for the sake of an argument, or worse, he truly believed me to hold the completely abhorrent views he was attributing to me, and was therefore simply ignoring what I had actually written in favour of his own pre-conceived ideas about my beliefs. Either way, I found myself wondering how this person could consider me a friend, while believing me to hold utterly contemptible views.
I mention this incident now because I find myself in good company, as the author Lionel Shriver has penned a remarkable response to those who have spent the past few weeks attacking her for views she never expressed in the first place.
Her original article, which caused all the fuss, took aim at the new diversity quotas introduced by Penguin Random House. Pointing out the absurdity of a quota system that sees “bi” and “bisexual” as two completely different sexual persuasions, while blanketing citizens of a multitude of geographically and culturally diverse nations under the ethnic grouping of ‘White:Other’, the key point of her article is that publishers should concern themselves simply with good writing, regardless of who or where it comes from.
At no point did she express any opposition to diversity in publishing. But this didn’t stop her critics from immediately representing her as a white supremacist wholly opposed to any efforts to increase diversity. She was promptly removed from the judging panel of a writing competition organised by the magazine Mslexia, as the organisers sniffily announced that her views were “not consistent with Mslexia’s ethos and mission”.
In an effort to calm down the row, the Spectator, in which the article was originally published, removed the article from its paywall, allowing it to be read in full by those who, it had to be assumed, had not actually read it and were just relying on second-hand reports of what had actually been written. To no avail. For those who had already made up their minds, the opportunity to read the piece in its entirety did nothing to sway opinion.
Shriver is a far more eloquent and gifted writer than I, and her response to a small group of her critics, also published in the Spectator, and also free of the paywall, masterfully captures her frustration at what she sees as willful misreading and ‘malicious misinterpretation’ of her writing. Bemoaning the fact that she finds herself in the position of having to explain her original article to those who seem to have misunderstood it, she writes,
“Perhaps in future it will prove necessary to write every column twice, the original with wit, playfulness and brio. Then I’ll draft a pedantic, leadenly prosaic rendition without any jokes.”
She goes on to explain in great detail, exactly why she is opposed to diversity quotas – not because she opposes diversity in and of itself, but because of the way in which quotas and affirmative action policies tend to pit minority communities against each other, while often alienating the very communities they are meant to help. She provides examples of how affirmative action policies in America have simply shifted the target of discrimination from one ethnic group to another, as college admissions boards, scrabbling around for an excuse to turn down bright, hardworking East Asian students in favour of those who match the required quotas, declare them to be low on “personality”. There’s nothing quite like insulting hard-working students as a way of covering up the inherent racism of your quotas.
After a great deal of back-and-forth over what I had and hadn’t written in my blog, my friend eventually let slip that he was completely unaware of Tim Farron having been previously asked about his views on gay sex, and mused as to what Farron’s views may be. When I pointed out that understanding this point was key to understanding the entire blog, and suggested that maybe he should have at least done me the courtesy of asking me about this point, or even Googling it himself, before attacking the blog itself, he responded that it was “so incredibly rude” of me to expect him to read and understand every single sentence of the blog before responding.
Shriver deals masterfully with this objection. She writes,
“No writer can defend against wilful misreading. On the contrary, a text entails a contract between authors and readers: authors will endeavour to deliver their message as clearly as possible; in exchange, readers will meet writers halfway, and make an effort — for reading is an effort, which is why it’s a decreasingly popular medium in an impatient age — to correctly digest this message, even if in the end some of that audience may still disagree with it.
My “friend” had made no effort to understand the point of my blog – just as Shriver’s critics made no effort to understand her original article. She continues,
“Outrage being the left’s contemporary drug of choice, addiction levels seem to have got so high that it’s not enough to get indignant about what’s actually out there; it’s now necessary to make enraging stories up. But I have a hard enough time sticking up for what I actually believe, and actually put in print, without defending against all the things I don’t believe, and didn’t put in print..… But a world in which you have said, not what you said, but what other people say you said, is a world in which savvy people stop writing and shut up. After all, this column — it won’t make any difference, will it? The verdict is in.”
Sadly, she’s right. Her column likely will make very little difference. It will be read, and greatly appreciated, by those who appreciated and understood her original column and who are almost as outraged as she is by the response to it. But it will be largely ignored by those who will insist that despite her protestations, she truly is a white supremacist who clearly despises any efforts at tackling diversity.
For this is the world in which we now live. Take the current state of political debate, already polarised by events such as the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s presidency. Add in a small but very vocal minority, already obsessed with identity politics, determined to pigeon-hole their opponents and write them off simply as “evil Tories”, “deplorables”, “racists”, “white supremacists” or, lately, “gammons” – and your chance of putting across any kind of nuanced argument goes straight out of the window. To these people, the idea that somebody could dislike diversity quotas while still being in favour of diversity, is as incomprehensible as the idea that one can admire a politician for giving a straight answer to a question, while still disagreeing with his overall beliefs.
Shriver, in her original article, didn’t expressly state that she is in favour of diversity – she shouldn’t have had to, as the article was purely about quotas. Just as I, in my blog, never expressly stated whether or not I agreed with Rees-Mogg’s views – because I shouldn’t have had to; the blog was not about the rights or wrongs of his views. But in these virtue-signalling times, sadly it seems one is not allowed to take a position on any minor event or circumstance, without first declaring, loudly and clearly, where one stands on the overall rights or wrongs of the wider issue itself.
Don’t even dream of giving an opinion on Brexit without first declaring whether you voted to Remain or to Leave – and similarly, unless you wish to be declared a deplorable, don’t dare write anything even vaguely supportive of anything Donald Trump says or does unless you first declare, loudly, that the man is, of course, a fool and a disgrace and that you didn’t vote for him. Without these key pointers as to which box you belong in, and therefore whether or not they need to give your opinion any credence, the keyboard warriors will more than likely skim-read your article and make their own assumptions, before firing off an angry response to something you never wrote in the first place. When challenged, they will, as my “friend” did, re-read what you wrote and selectively quote any passage or section that appears to support their interpretation, while conveniently leaving out the crucial context that, had they read and understood it properly the first time, would have led them to a completely different understanding.
Anyone who has ever tried crafting an argument and putting it down in writing will know how difficult it is. Finding the right balance between providing enough detail to explain your position, but not so much detail that your audience gets bored and gives up on reading; sticking to the topic at hand and not getting diverted into detailed analysis of every related point – and all while trying to make full use of language, tone and style to fully engage your readers – all takes time and a great deal of effort. I don’t know how much time Shriver’s original article took to write, but I’m guessing it took far longer than the couple of minutes it took her critics to skim-read it and launch their blistering attacks against it.
As a society, we get the writers we deserve. If talented writers such as Shriver can see her words twisted in this way, by a readership too lazy to take the time to understand them, then how long will it be before we reach a time when political debate falls away completely, to be replaced by politicians and pundits doing nothing more than trading insults and catch-phrases? Sadly I fear we’re not too far off that point already.