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Behind enemy lines

I’m going to continue where I left off last week. Different perspectives.

We are a pretty tribal species. We have our allegiances, and we value loyalty. Just this morning, a reasonably well known British MP was commenting on the possibility of voting in favour of a parliamentary motion tabled by the Opposition, and noted that she has been loyal to the government to date, as if it were obvious that such loyalty is in and of itself a good thing.

On social media, we are more likely to share the opinions of those who are ‘friends’ or we ‘like’ or ‘follow’ (funny how those words seam to mean something different from in the pre-Facebook/Twitter/Instagram era).

We create our own little tribal bubbles, in which we are right and ‘They’ are wrong, and in which it is, moreover, blindingly obvious that ‘They’ are wrong. I mean, how could any intelligent person think differently from us, right?

Is this really that different from our distant ancestors coming together in literal tribes (we call them clans up here) and forming social bonds and cohesion around that identity?

We are then surprised, shocked, and sometimes horrified when we discover that more than half of the population (or at least half of the voting population) of a country does not agree with us on something. But of course, they are all [delete as appropriate] stupid/deluded/racist/thugs/misguided/choose your put-down. We thought everyone agreed with us. Everyone we know agreed with us, pretty much. Or at least they said they did. Or did not actively contradict us when we threw in a comment, assuming it was what everyone else in the room thought.

So here’s the experiment. If we really don’t know anybody who disagrees with us on some important topic, and is able to articulate their position to us, try reading the opinions of those who hold informed, but different, opinions from us. It doesn’t have to be at the more extreme end of the spectrum, not least because it would be far too easy to write such views off without considering them, or the perspective they are coming from.

I tried it.

I read Nigel Farage’s columns.

Moving on swiftly, I read articles in Breitbart to gain the right-wing American viewpoint.

Breitbart is currently embroiled in a campaign to stop its readers (and others) from buying Kellogg’s products because Kellogg’s withdrew advertising from the media company because they wanted ‘to ensure our ads do not appear on sites that aren’t aligned with our values as a company.’

Breitbart commendably quoted the Kellogg’s statement in full in their article. Not everyone would have done that. It is all too easy to take words out of context, top and tail them and make them appear to say something very different from what was said, and certainly from what was meant. Shoot, that’s exactly what Breitbart did. The full quote came after they took part of it and included it the strapline of the article.


‘We regularly work with our media-buying partners to ensure our ads do not appear on sites that aren’t aligned with our values as a company’ (Kellogg’s statement)


‘Kellogg Co. announced on Tuesday its decision to pull ads from conservative media giant because its 45,000,000 monthly conservative readers are not “aligned with our values as a company.”’

Kellogg’s did not say that. They did not comment on the values of the 45m (hmmmm…) readers of the site.

And here is what the editor in chief and CEO said respectively (truncated by me):

‘For Kellogg’s, an American brand, to blacklist Breitbart News in order to placate left-wing totalitarians is a disgraceful act of cowardice. They insult our incredibly diverse staff and spit in the face of our 45,000,000 highly engaged, highly perceptive, highly loyal readers, many of whom are Kellogg’s customers. Boycotting Breitbart News for presenting mainstream American ideas is an act of discrimination and intense prejudice. If you serve Kellogg’s products to your family, you are serving up bigotry at your breakfast table.’

‘Pulling its advertising from Breitbart News is a decidedly cynical and un-American act.’

That’s pretty emotive. And definite McCarthy undertones in there.

What was more troubling was the readers’ comments – which, unfortunately, I have found is true of far too high a proportion of comments on any news articles in any paper I have looked at. Here is a small sample (of the ones that actually made any sense at all – again, in no way restricted to Breitbart as an issue, many comments do not mean anything at all):

From ‘Castiel’ (remember that all these comments are can be made anonymously and most are):

‘In the 21st century, it’s really not too tough to figure out who the Capitalists and who the Socialists are. Companies like Kelloggs, the NFL, Disney, ESPN, etc. are perfectly willing to spit in the face of their customer base in order to push forward their own particular version of “social justice,” a 100% Marxist strategy. These Socialist companies are dinosaurs whose outlandish persecution of the people who actually pay them will, much like dinosaurs, soon relegate them to the scrapheap of history.’

Bit of an issue there with what socialism and Marxism are, I’m afraid, but OK.

‘PStarr’ encouraged us to

‘Open your eyes. We might not be quite like N. Korea or Cuba, but we are definitely starting to lean that way. There are around 80 communists in the “progressive” caucus, and likely all of the “black” caucus are commies.’

And yes, I did read the article on Fidel Castro’s funeral, which a worryingly large proportion of readers thought should be bombed, with a debate about whether nuclear or conventional bombs should be used. Long live anonymous comments.

And ‘Balder the Brave’ took us one stage further in the Kellogg’s debate in arguing that Obama was partially responsible for the 2007 housing crisis:

‘Obama’s career was build on the creation of mortgagees not supported by down payments. The housing crisis was built on the Community Redevelopment Act. Community Organizers pressured the banks to give sub-prime loans or be sued by pressure groups.’

Well, don’t worry, President Obama. Pretty much nobody else went to jail for committing fraud in relation to the US housing market, so I suspect you’ll be all right, despite your apparent key role in the financial disaster which ensued.

So what did I take from this experiment (including the many other articles I read – on climate change, Trump, the Dakota Access Pipeline etc etc etc)? Much of the news coverage is entirely factual, professional and succinct. Borderline boring. There are hot buttons – Trump, climate change, (US) conservative values, where the reporting clearly moves swiftly into opinion, and strong opinion at that. But it’s pretty clear where that happens. Personally, I prefer reporting to be clearly differentiated from opinion, but there are legitimate arguments on both sides of that one. Breitbart also includes articles by contributors with contrary opinions, as most serious news organisations do.

Did I enjoy the experience? Not really, for one thing because there are some issues – climate change being a prominent one – where the reporting simply does not accord with or reflect the science. Breitbart is by no means on its own there, there are large swathes of American opinion which has no time with climate change, or evolution, or other areas of science. Does it help to understand a different perspective? Undoubtedly so, although I would have preferred more reasons than assertions to support the position being taken.

One recent article caught my attention – headlined ‘Race warriors decry “White Jesus”’. Didn’t like the article, liked the subject.

So next week, it’s finally time for religion. Definitely in the context of understanding different perspectives. Expect Dawkins, Grayling and Hitchens to make an appearance.