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Is it possible to speak sense on social media?

Kent's social media users are reportedly backing a 'leave' vote this month - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Comedian, musician and writer MITCH BENN considers Twitter as the area to open discussions on Brexit.

I spend a lot of time on Twitter, and I make no apologies for this. Quite apart from the fact that my time on the site has done me some good (I got this job via Twitter, I got my first book deal via Twitter, I’ve met many people via Twitter who have become true and lasting friends) I hope I’ve done a bit of good on there myself on occasion.

I don’t hold with the notion that Twitter and its fellow social media sites are a poor substitute for human interaction; they are human interaction, on a grand and yet intimate scale. I’ll grant that Twitter in particular could do a lot more with regard to curbing and punishing abusive and threatening behaviour; I myself have occasionally incurred the rather limp wrath of Alt Wrong/white ‘supremacist’ types but I’ve never let it spoil my fun as a.) I’m pretty difficult to intimidate and b.) those guys tend to save their real threats and insults for women, fearless übermensch that they are.

I have – and try to observe – a few rules of conduct with regard to Twitter interactions. One thing I can’t abide (and try never to do) is when someone says something disparaging or just plain rude about you in the third person, but refers to you by your ‘@’ name (eg. rendering my name as @MitchBenn rather than simply Mitch Benn), in the knowledge that this means you’ll see it anyway, for all that it wasn’t ostensibly addressed to you. That’s a cheap trick, like talking loudly about someone behind their back. I have no hesitation in picking someone up on it when they pull that one on me; not because of the negative opinion they have expressed (to which they are of course entitled) but on the snide manner in which they have chosen to express it.

On the other hand, if you do a search for your own name – for example, if I go looking for instances of the two words ‘Mitch Benn’ rather than the handle @MitchBenn – then what you find is entirely your own problem. People are entitled to discuss whatever they want on Twitter, including how stupid/talentless/arrogant/just plain wrong about everything they think I am, and it wouldn’t be fair for me to wade into their conversation just because I’ve been egotistical/insecure enough to try to find out what people have been saying about me (I’ll make an exception if I think I’m actually being libelled, of course).

I’ll confess that I am, in fact, sometimes egotistical and/or insecure enough to do this. It can be instructive; if I’m being genuinely wrong-headed about something (which is entirely possible) it’s as well to find out, even if nobody’s saying it to my face. And sometimes this can throw up points worth considering, even if I don’t agree with them.

Example: I recently came across a posting by someone who thought he had put his finger on the mistake that I, and other anti-Brexit ‘centrists’ are making. ‘Centrist’, incidentally, appears to have supplanted ‘Blairite’ as the go-to insult for anyone deemed ‘not left wing enough’ by the ‘proper’ left, perhaps since Ol’ Demon Eyes himself has been doing the rounds again recently and sounding, even the most devout Corbynite must squirmingly admit, remarkably sane and reasonable.

Apparently where we have been going wrong is that while we are bang on the money with regard to the facts on Brexit, we have failed to put forward a sufficiently convincing ’emotional argument’ to win over the die-hard Leavers.

I thought about this; firstly, I’m not sure it is either possible or indeed necessary to win over the truly die-hard Leavers; anyone who is still gung-ho for Brexit after all we have learned in the last 20 months is, I would suggest, no longer amenable to reason or emotion. Fortunately, by this stage, we are only talking about around 40% of the electorate, and, as they themselves have been telling us since June 2016, the views of 48% of voters or less can legitimately be ignored completely.

Secondly, I would posit that it is precisely because of the reliance on ’emotional arguments’ that the world is in the mess in which it currently finds itself. Brexit wasn’t debated on the facts but on gut beliefs and notions of national pride; Trump didn’t win because his supporters paid any attention to what sort of a guy he actually was, but because he made them feel good.

But if it is indeed the case that emotional arguments win the day now, rather than appeals to evidence and reason, then fair enough. I’m going to construct a winning emotional argument against emotional arguments.

I think this could be done. I think one could construct a compelling story about how, while yielding to an appeal to the emotions can make you fleetingly happy, this cannot actually alter, or enable us to escape from, reality. I think one could speak movingly about how reality is always there, even when hidden by false narratives and comforting fantasies and that how, when those narratives and fantasies dissolve – as they must – reality will have to be dealt with, whether we are prepared for it or not.

I think it is possible to rhapsodise about how we have the tools to discern and decipher reality; reason, evidence, civilised discourse… I think one could convey the satisfaction of defeating bad logic, of skewering fallacious arguments, and the joy of finding what, for want of a less loaded word, we’ll call the ‘truth’ that lies hidden beneath them. And I think it is possible to persuade people of the contentment that comes from knowing that the bases have been covered, the facts addressed, that the reality of the situation – however grim it may be – has been confronted.

Or if nothing else, you could spin them a truly terrifying yarn about where choosing emotion over facts gets you. By pointing out where it’s gotten us.

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