Sometimes I get angry about stupid things. Not the usual stuff writers get angry about. You know, “your” instead of “you’re”, adverbs, Oxford commas, (<- there’s one!) and all the other inconsequential nonsense that passes for provocative on Twitter these days. No, these are passing clouds on an otherwise glorious day.
I’m talking about STUPID things. Things that are literally so stupid that it makes me angry when people try to justify it.
(Let me insert a disclaimer at this point – my definition of stupid may well differ from yours, dear reader. And what thousands, or even millions, of people, consider stupid today may turn out to be entirely true tomorrow and those who believed it will look stupid, myself included!)
If we were honest with ourselves, we’d find plenty of beliefs and assumptions that aren’t verifiable or even rational but we accept them because we choose to believe them. And if that makes you uncomfortable, dear reader, then it’s not going to get any better; you’d better go and make that eleventh cup of coffee if you’re a writer.)
I’m going to try to steer clear of politics, as much anger has been generated in the past few years by the deeply partisan decisions that have rocked the British and American cultural landscape. But the root of that anger has a similar origin. You see, what makes us angry about differing opinions is not simply opposition. It’s that somebody holds an opposing view, and we just can’t figure out why. It offends us that someone could be so wilfully obtuse in the face of concrete evidence and the overwhelming weight of opinion. And yet, they have their reasons for believing as they do; reasons which may be at least as compelling as our own for holding the opposite view.
So, here’s how I got angry.
I was browsing the internet, telling myself I was researching a side project (first big mistake – I know I should have been finishing my latest book, but hey). I found an article about space technology and one of the comments under the main article stated in all seriousness that the Earth is flat, Antarctica is an ice wall around the continents, and space isn’t real. I had a bit of a chuckle and even posted it to Twitter with an ironic aside of my own. Hardee-ha-ha. Who are these morons? Etc.
I should have just moved on, but something about it stuck in my mind. Not the idea, which I thought absurd, but the confidence with which this person had brazenly posted their bizarre ‘opinion-expressed-as-fact’. Were they mentally ill? Or was the confidence inspired by that most deceptive and misleading social construct – agreement?
In this social media-dominated world, even the most unfashionable and offensive of viewpoints can be confidently expressed if the speaker knows there are numbers of people that agree with them. (Donald Trump’s old Twitter feed is a good example).
In my lifetime, I saw rampant racism almost disappear from daily life in my corner of Britain because society at large decided it wasn’t acceptable. My kids grew up without it. Racism still existed throughout that time, of course, but it had been relegated by consensus to the dark corners occupied by the unrepentantly racist minority. Views that were regularly expressed in public and even on TV thirty years ago were only heard in the whiny, faux-victim moaning of the repressed individual, usually followed up with a plaintive “But you’re not allowed to say that anymore, are you?”, as if PC authoritarianism was the only reason for the change. (The only reasonable reply to that question is, “Of course you’re allowed to say that, it’s just that no one will agree with your small-minded opinions and it might leave you feeling isolated. There, there.”)
Sadly, since Brexit (and, of course, the rise of Trump in America), racism is back, dressed up as ‘free speech’. Openly expressed, intimidating and, depressingly often, violent, it’s become “okay” to inflict racist abuse again. And, since racists don’t discriminate among people of different cultures, any non-white person can be a legitimate target. The particular variety of fear-fuelled racism encouraged by the media in our country isn’t purely about ethnicity either; white Europeans are as much at risk for the crime of speaking in their native tongue on British shores.
The point is, ideas become infectious when more people start believing them. And stupid, abhorrent beliefs become actual culture when a majority of people believe them, and begin to teach them to subsequent generations.
With that in mind, I decided to research this Flat Earth thing. How prevalent is it? What chance is there for this odd idea to actually gain traction in our modern, scientific world? I was ill-prepared for the answer.
I was pointed by three sources to a particular YouTube video (Eric Dubay – watch at your own risk) which was over two hours long. I claim credit for my dogged determination as I managed to grit my teeth through almost all that time, painful as it was. I began by trying to listen open-mindedly to these arguments. Of course, the appeals to scientific proof are at best questionable, and most of the “proofs” seem to be of the ‘Coincidence? I think not!’ variety that conspiracy aficionados know and love. But give them a chance, right? That’s what us fair-minded, emotionally-balanced people do, isn’t it?
Regrettably, around the 1h 50-minute mark came the bit that turned me from ironic detachment to full-blown fury. They began talking about airline routes and flight times. Now, I know a bit about these. I spent the first 15 years of this century flying airliners all over the world. Like Han Solo, I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but there’s nothing I’ve seen that would convince me the Earth is flat. Far from it. But the film began making some outrageous claims about air travel that are patently NOT TRUE. They weren’t just misunderstandings or plain ignorance, but blatant distortions and totally made-up nonsense.
If they are making stuff up about the things I know about, it makes me rather suspect that they treat many other disciplines with the same level of disdain in order to lend strength to their own argument.
And that’s where I began to get angry. Not that these people were ignorant. Anyone can be ignorant, by accident or by design. Not that the ideas were stupid. Plenty of stupid ideas have shaped vast swathes of our television output. No, it was that they were using blatant untruths to deliberately deceive and tempt people to this specious belief system. If they have to fabricate and distort to present the basis of their argument, then their argument has no basis. It’s quite simple.
If they have no argument, then why are they doing it? Is it to gain attention through notoriety? Do they simply want a following to earn advertisers’ money? Or is it more perverse than that – a form of cultural vandalism, cynically hijacking the unrest and dissatisfaction of a jaded public to create fractures along already strained fault lines?
The sheer futility of this meaningless flat Earth agitation made me angry. For hours afterwards.
I know that defensible facts and proven knowledge arm me against this kind of fakery. But many people don’t. Ideas like this have ensnared enough people to make them “a thing”. There are many “things” that severely annoy me, like the moon landing conspiracy myths and the lie that foreign culture is a dangerous threat. The sad thing is that it causes people to question what is right and sends them into the hands of charlatans who are only too happy to sell them a giant pile of egregious nonsense which subsequently sounds “right” to them.
And that’s why I’m angry. We can choose wrong for right. Falsehood for fact. And the only qualifying factor seems to be how many people believe it. We have to arm ourselves with truth, facts and proof, no matter how much it clashes with our personal belief system. Because we cannot afford to regress into a new Dark Age.
We stand at a genuine pivot of history. Let’s use what we have to stop the darkness of ignorance and populism turning us backwards. Fight falsehood with fact, even if it hurts. Quash lies with truth, and never stop calling out ignorance. We’ll be doing culture a massive favour.