Monthly Archives: August 2011

The Twitter Debate

In the wake of the riots in England I’ve heard many opinions on the credibility of Twitter and other social networking sites. Social networking played a significant role both in fanning the flames of the riots, and also in the clear-up afterwards as well as support for some of those whose livelihoods had been destroyed. It seems that whether you applaud Twitter for its usefulness or deplore it for how unhelpful it’s been, it’s simplest just to disregard how Twitter performed on the other side of the argument.

But what if we tried to take both perspectives into account at the same time? How can we hold together those two views in some sort of creative tension? Or is it really worth the effort?

My own view is that looking at the role of social networking is not just interesting and helpful, but critical to understanding Western culture and the context in which we live today. It has become a massive phenomenon, and has been responsible for information being disseminated without the media companies ‘interpreting’ in their own style, for assisting incitement to violent behaviour, for enabling local people to offer support in the wake of the storm at the Pukkelpop festival this week, and even for publishing sheer banality on a very wide scale.

I think it might be important in this debate to consider the idea that objects, in and of themselves, have no intrinsic moral or ethical value, but rather it is the inclinations of the people using those objects that is the root of the issue. For example, you can use a frying pan to cook a meal or to knock someone unconscious, but it’s the person who holds it in their hands who determines its use. Perhaps there are some items that become so locked into a cycle of unhealthy usage that in human minds they become irredeemable, but I do wonder if that depends on the capacity of the human mind to be transformed, and how much acknowledgement we give to that potential.

If this is true then all that Twitter has done is to highlight the wide variety of responses that human beings naturally make when things go wrong. It suggests that the great breadth of human experience and development expresses itself in different ways, through whichever means of communication are available. True enough, it’s highly unlikely that Twitter will ever be transformed into something that is exclusively used for helpful and creative purposes. But I can’t help believing, somehow, that for all those who now fear Twitter for the part it played in the riots, it is possible to redeem the object of their fear by using it for better purposes, and by encouraging others to do the same. After all, the social networking phenomenon is becoming very well established, so it looks like we need to get used to it!

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What’s in store for England?

Economic decline and rioting on the city streets of England are filling our newspapers at the moment, but very little attention is being paid to what things are going to be like when all the furore has died down and we have to rebuild what has been damaged and lost.

It feels as though we’re on a precipice, on the verge of ecomonic disaster and momentous social change. And not just us, I hasten to add – the USA, Spain, France, even China to some extent – one by one the economic powers are falling, and I haven’t heard anyone even allude to what the world is going to look like when the last power bloc falls.

England stands firmly within an international community, a complexity of economically interdependent relationships whose strength ultimately relies on the strength of the American economy. The plunge into ridiculous levels of debt since Bush’s decision to deregulate the financial industry has undermined those relationships, and those who have taken the dream of capitalism between the bit and galloped off in pursuit of perfect freedom are now miring themselves and others in the bog of being unable to extricate entire countries from this now unsupportable debt.

And so the worsening economic climate has been a major contribution to social disaffection. The police shooting of Mark Duggan was catalyst rather than cause of the ensuing violence, as discontent has been rumbling and building under the surface of our society for quite some time now, perhaps even generations. Unsurprisingly some of the major media-fed characteristics of our society – such as the drive to possess, and the centring of ones own world around oneself – have driven the wedge between the wealthy and the impoverished in England deeper and deeper every year. As a nation we are all, including myself, responsible for having created the mess we are in, being almost completely unable to see the value in caring for the wider society we ought to be a part of.

For some individuals, the immediate aftermath of the riots is clear. My heart goes out to those whose livelihoods have been destroyed, to those who have suffered injury or bereavement. They are ever-present in my prayers as they face the coming weeks and months and possibly years of coping with the fall-out of the awful events of this week. As a nation, staggering through a social crisis that no-one seems to have foreseen, and simultaneously suffering from the blows of international economic decline, it feels as though we have a long way to go before we reach any kind of stability. I wonder why it has to take a crisis this deep-running to bring people together; still, it is hopeful that we are now beginning to show, as a nation, our potential to see beyond our own individual needs. Witnessing the hordes of people cleaning up the damaged streets, and reading of the generosity of those helping affected people, is a tonic amidst so much suffering. If, as we rebuild businesses, homes and lives, we can build such expressions of generosity and good will into the fabric of our society, then whatever the future brings for England, we will be better resourced to deal with it.

What is it like on the borderlands?

I’ve just come back from holiday. We took the boat to Northern Ireland and spent a week visiting relatives, then drove north across the border to Donegal. As we drove across I suddenly had a very clear memory of myself as a teenager, being driven across one of the European country borders by my mum to some holiday destination. I vividly remember thinking how much I would dislike having to live on or near to a border between countries. Not being particularly discerning at the time I don’t think I managed to work out why that was; now I suspect it was to do with the fact that issues of geographical identity were particularly important to me, especially because I had no sense of belonging to a particular physical place.

The startling contrast was that driving over the border from Northern to Southern Ireland, I found myself revelling in being in a place between places, where somehow the physical identities of each country merged seamlessly together; one flowed into the other, rather than experiencing an abrupt change. I enjoyed the sense of being in a place where you could live on one side of the border but perhaps identify more with those across the ‘invisible line’ than with those fifty miles away in your own country. It felt good to be in a place that seemed to point more towards the commonalities between people – whichever social group they belong to – than their differences.

The question I asked myself in response to this inner revelation was about how people feel who do live on or near a border.  I suppose I was thinking particularly about the European borders of my own experience, where there are no severe political tensions or open warfare; simply people living side by side who are born into different cultural traditions. Is living in such a space more likely to produce someone who is happier to dwell on the borders in other respects, not always feeling as though they need the safety of black and white answers to the difficult questions? Allowing people to be first of all people, so that other things which define them don’t draw unnecessary limits around who they are or what they have the potential to be?

I have no idea whether there is any connection between living on physical borders and being enabled to live in the borderlands of human experience, but to me they certainly have in common a sense of risk and excitement, as well as the potential to open us up to the possibility of our own transformation into a better version of ourselves. To learn to be comfortable with ourselves in a state of change, and withhold judgement on others; perhaps those are achievements worthy of a lifetime of living in the borderlands.