I’ve often banged on about getting out there, getting engaged and arguing the case for libraries, no matter how volatile the audience is (in some ways, the more volatile the better!). Problem is, this is sometimes harder than it sounds. You have to be made of pretty stern stuff at times to plough through some of the verbal garbage that is thrown in your direction dare you pop your head above the parapet. Sometimes even I find it hard to commit myself to the moment. Not because I am fearful of the response, but because I begin to wonder what the point is – these people don’t listen. So sure are they of their own beliefs (no matter how illogical), nothing could possibly persuade them they are wrong. Facts won’t work, in fact the only thing that will is quite possibly first-hand experience. But when so hostile, what is the chances that they will ‘dip their toes in the water’? Probably zero.
But then, this isn’t really about persuading ‘them’ anyway. I never seriously believe that I am going to change the mind of the individual I am arguing with. What I aim to do is to try to show how weak their arguments are so that when an open-minded individual comes to read the thread (they do exist you know!), they see how illogical some of these people are. Stick to facts and logic (avoid name calling at all costs) and you are on to a winner. Stray far from that and you are in trouble. Never, ever resort to name calling. Once you do that, the argument is lost. Besides, in my experience, nothing annoys them more than your sheer reasonableness (and I do love to be reasonable).
However, as well as trying to expose the weakness of their arguments, it is also about providing a voice for those that are unable to speak up in their defence. As I have said repeatedly in the past, both on this blog and elsewhere, 9 million people in the UK have no experience of using the Internet at all. It is self-evident that this sizeable minority (15% of the population) cannot engage in such debates. It is those that have Internet connections that engage in these discussions. Not only those with Internet connections, but those that seek to hijack these forums to promote their own particular political viewpoint (this is especially the case on Comment is Free which tends to attract, shall we say, ‘non-typical’ Guardian readers).
I was trying to think of a suitable analogy for these types of forums and discussions. The best I could come up with was that it was rather like discussing a woman’s right to vote in a gentleman’s club at the turn of the century. The people who are truly affected by the discussion are totally excluded from it. Instead, it is left to those who only see things through a particular prism. Sure, there is bound to be someone who speaks out, but they will undoubtedly be drowned out by all the others in the room. Still, isn’t it a good thing that person did speak out? There is always the potential that one person in that room will leave thinking that the crazy outspoken dude may have had a valid point. And if one person can be converted………
Part of the problem, I feel, is that too many people suffer from a kind of social myopia. There is an utter failure to appreciate and comprehend the bigger picture. Too often it is about what is relevant to the individual rather than what is relevant, or beneficial, for society as a whole. Or even just a basic failure to see things from more than one perspective – to take a more balanced view. You see this in many aspects of our society. Many people only see certain events from their own perspective, they fail to appreciate how those same events are interpreted by ‘the other’. That’s why, to take a recent example, we see certain people attacking the recent student demonstrations against the rise in tuition fees. They’re not at university anymore, they are not affected by the rise in tuition fees, so why should they see things from the students’ perspective? Of course, this avoids the point that maybe their children may be put off going to university by the introduction of higher tuition fees, or indeed the point that many of the students protesting will not be directly affected as they would have left by the time the new regime is introduced.
This myopia also affects the library debate. Too many of those involved in the various debates fail to see how the proposed cuts and closures affect other people. The people who do use the library regularly. The people who rely on libraries to access the Internet and take advantage of a service that they take for granted. The people who are unable to leave their homes and rely on their library service to deliver books to their door and relieve their feeling of isolation. The children who rely on libraries to support their learning and give them their best hope of reaching their potential and prospering at school. The people who simply rely on libraries as a safe, secure and non-judgemental public space.
So where does that leave us with the trolls? To be honest, I don’t know what the answer is. I’m torn between my need to correct falsehoods and my understanding that it is virtually pointless. What do you think? Engage or ignore?