How contagious are opinions?

I like to think that, as I go through life, I learn from the experience. I observe and listen to the people I meet, I consider the various texts that I read on all mediums, I evaluate my responses and question if I should be adjusting my point of view. I wonder though how much of this is within my reasoned control. I wonder if all opinions are contagious.

Let me try to explain what I mean. I consider myself fortunate in being surrounded by intelligent individuals both at home and amongst my wider sphere of friends. These people come from differing backgrounds and often have strong views which they can back up with carefully presented examples and facts. They are capable of arguing their cases calmly and cogently even if they come to differing conclusions amongst themselves. They consider those who do not agree with them to be at best deluded, but more often foolish. They each appear convinced of their own rightness.

I am rarely convinced of my absolute rightness. Apart from my views on religion, which are based on a belief born of many personal experiences, most of my views have been built up over many years and are not fixed. It is not that I am swinging wildly from one side to the other, but rather that I am not so fixated on any particular argument that I am unwilling to consider that I may need to take some outcome into account that I had not previously considered.

I wonder how much I am influenced by impressive oratory skills and how much by the opinions presented. How blinkered are the views of those I listen to?

In an attempt to learn more about why people think as they do I follow quite a few political activists on line. I read a great number of comment pieces and consider historical outcomes based on principles argued for that, too often, didn’t quite work out as anticipated. The more I learn the less clear I am about any side’s rightness. I do not understand how my friends can be so unquestioning in what they argue for.

Yet I do believe that their opinions are contagious. Once they have put their thoughts into my head I cannot forget them. The thoughts sit there, waiting to offer a rebuttal to the next opposing point of view. By trying to be receptive and fair in my own opinions I am considering conflicting conclusions drawn from the same finite well of facts. How am I to know what to think?

Let me put down some questions to consider. Do we encourage the government to spend huge amounts of money on developing so called renewable energy when the resulting environmental benefits are questionable? Do we ensure that nobody goes hungry by increasing the availability of welfare for the needy when this acts as a sticking plaster rather than addressing the cause which is often not enough access to decent jobs? Do we invest in encouraging enterprise to create jobs when this also benefits the wealthy? Do we increase taxes on the wealthy when this will encourage them to move to a country that is less punitive, thereby removing their investment from the economy? Do we nationalise to keep profits within the economy when this has, historically, led to gross waste, lack of investment and inefficiency?

The previous paragraph is obviously simplistic and the causes/effects questionable. However, I have listened to many arguments that both back up and refute each of these examples. The result of these assaults on my reason is that I have no clear answers, I do not know what to think.

Yet in each of these cases I do think something, I cannot help but have an opinion. Often this is based on what I would once have considered to be common sense, yet that is invariably biased and based on views I have been exposed to rather than facts I can be sure of. Of course I do not wish to see any citizen of what is still a wealthy country go hungry, but if the hungry choose not to buy food because of an addiction should we subsidise that? I wish the ill to receive quality healthcare, but if their illness is not life threatening then should they receive whatever treatment they desire? Always there is an opposing argument, an extreme case to be cited, statistics that show how many or how few cases exist. There are statistics to back up every argument and a slippery slope for the opposition to take advantage of. How far do we go with the finite resources available?

I am not attempting to offer answers for any of this but rather to put forward for consideration this idea that our thoughts, views and beliefs are influenced so strongly by the arguments that we are exposed to. I would argue that, with difficult and complex situations to consider, nobody can be absolutely right.

One of the things that I find quite depressing is that some of those I know are so willing to mock opposing points of view in an attempt to sway opinion. They come across as patronising rather than convincing. In the public sphere this is also the case, an example being in the climate change debate. Eminent scientists on both sides offer biased and incomplete arguments, dismissing the opposition with accusations of being under dubious paymasters and therefore not trustworthy. There is little open and reasoned debate. It is hard, as an observer, to be sympathetic to either side when it is clear that this issue has become such a money spinner. Big oil may finance the sceptics but agreeing with ‘the consensus’ appears to be necessary to retain a job in the field. Science suffers as trust is lost amongst the spin and hyperbole. Information is hidden, opposing opinions derided, the public patronised.

I will continue to attempt to learn but have become much more cynical as I have observed how my own response to difficult questions can be altered by a well researched article or debate. Where is the balance between being too easily swayed and stubbornly digging in when a position becomes dubious as previously unknown facts come to light? Difficult questions rarely have easy answers.

I find it depressing that papers such as The Daily Mail are still influential, the mainstream media reports only news that it knows will sell, headlines mislead and memories are short. Too few seem interested in paying attention, preferring to believe the popular sound bites and shock tactics employed to sway public opinion.

Even when I do not agree, I can respect other’s right to hold opinions based on critical thinking. Perhaps some may consider themselves better than others, a conceit that is unlikely to be conducive to open and rational thought, but if they can back up their opinions when pressed, whatever their prejudices, then I can learn from them. Who knows, perhaps over time some of my opinions may even be caught by those I know. I suspect that some may be horrified at such a thought.

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Attack the message, not the messenger

It is political party conference season here in England.

First up we had the Liberal Democrats, who did nothing to improve their crumbling credentials by headlining with their economic policy game changer (not): a plastic bag tax (Lib Dems back 5p charge for plastic bags). The party were mocked in the media and then dismissed. At a time when so many people are suffering economic hardship; with the cost of living steadily rising while wages stagnate; to open their annual conference with the announcement of a plastic bag tax suggests that they have no worthwhile policies to offer. If they later managed to announce any, then the headlines generated by this initial, punitive and ineffective measure drowned them out.

Second to the rostrum were UKIP. Their unfortunate buffoon (the one who hit the headlines over the summer for referring to ‘bongo bongo land’) made the headlines by calling the women in his audience sluts (UKIP’s Godfrey Bloom under fire over ‘demeaning’ joke). With that, UKIP shot themselves in the foot. It was unfortunate, and their leader was furious, but the media lapped it up. What disturbs me more though is that this has not merely been mocked and set aside. UKIP policies are gaining a lot of support; there is a real possibility that they may gain a huge increase in votes at next years European elections. The media is responding to this by trying to personally smear their leader, Nigel Farage. A couple of photographs have been released on social media recently showing him with a darkened upper lip, like a little moustache. I have no problem with reasoned criticism of policy or calling out buffoonery, but attempted character assassination with a cleverly taken or photo shopped picture suggests biased desperation.

Next to perform were the Labour Party, who managed their conference with fewer gaffes. It is unfortunate that their leader is now embroiled in a row with the odious Daily Mail newspaper over an article published about his father (Ed Miliband in row with Daily Mail over ‘smear’ on father). I refuse to read this paper with it’s hate and fear promoting propoganda. However, the timing of this row detracts from what was seen to be a reasonably successful conference for Ed Miliband. I may not be a Labour supporter but, once again, I object to going for the man (and his family) rather than what he stands for.

The Conservative Party conference is ongoing, but one little nugget that I have picked up on was their attempt to ban one activist from taking part in a panel discussion on the Rise of Food Banks (Off to Conservative Party conference, despite them trying to ban me from going). All of the political parties aim to use their conferences as a PR exercise; to outline policies that they believe will appeal to their core supporters and potential swing voters. It is the growing tendency to get personal when the political parties do not offer the media something significant enough to mock that makes me mention Jack Monroe. She has only recently started to come to the public’s attention, and, with that rise in profile, has come the hate. She tweeted yesterday that:

‘The abuse from strangers is endless: I’m ugly, fat, vile, ‘rank looking’ – it’s draining, exhausting. Don’t they have better things to do?’ (Lifted from the Twitter account of A Girl Called Jack (@MsJackMonroe)).

Of course, she is not the first person in the public eye to suffer cyber abuse. The classicist Mary Beard, amongst others, has been grossly insulted and threatened via Twitter (Television classicist Mary Beard sent bomb threat by ‘trolls’ just hours after apology by Twitter boss). It is a symptom of a wider malaise.

Politics has always been a dirty game to play with rumours, scandals and media outrage forcing those involved to back down or resign with depressing regularity. The public seem to expect their representatives to behave in a way that they themselves may not be capable of managing. It is when the slurs are invented, or contain opinion aimed at being personally hurtful, that I feel uncomfortable. However the saying goes, words can do damage. We may not be physically stoning those we disagree with, but by hounding them with hate filled dialogue we show how unwilling we are to listen to an alternative point of view; to even allow it to be voiced in case others support it.

UKIP is a case in point. There are many who vehemently oppose their ideologies, but at least they offer an alternative. If a voter disagrees with what they offer, they will not vote for that party. I would hope that it would be the policies and rhetoric that they are rejecting, not the leader with the photoshopped moustache.

The three main political parties in this country are depressingly similar in policy and outlook; I have posted my views on this before (Tolerance in adversity). Jack Monroe is not a politician and is new to the public arena. She is refreshing to listen to as she will still say what she thinks. UKIP representatives will also sometimes say what they think, and can be judged accordingly. Perhaps it is this honesty that I miss in political dialogue; it is very hard to know who to support when pronouncements willfully obfuscate.

Sometimes those in public life need to be called out over their views, but attacking their appearance is unnecessary. I may have little time for those who court publicity for themselves rather than a cause, but I still believe that all should be treated fairly and with a degree of courteous humanity.

English: Shows the 649 seats after the electio...

Communication

As we do not have broadcast television in this house I pick up my news from the internet. Each morning I will browse the BBC News website along with a couple of free, on line, British newspapers (the Independent and the Guardian). I do not trust the media to give well researched, honest and unbiased reports. I wrote about my views on this in a previous post (The mainstream media and blogs). The media reports a lot of self promotional material that I ignore (I have no interest in Strictly Come Dancing or Big Brother). When I do come across something that I consider to be news I will research it. Occasionally I find something of interest.

As well as the newsworthy story that interests me, my research often pulls up related material alongside opinion pieces written from varying perspectives. Armed with this information I am then keen to discuss my thoughts. My children are now old enough to have their own views and I will relate what I have come across to them and canvas for their opinions. These discussions are interesting; young people are just as capable of considered thought as their elders. What they lack, though, is life experience.

My husband has strong views and reads very different on line sites to me. I love to discuss issues with him as this helps to sharpen my thinking and hone my debating skills (they still need a lot of honing). The problem is his availability. He works long hours and has numerous other calls on his time. As well as helping out with child taxi services, he plays hockey for a local team (along with our elder son), goes on runs, plays football and works on his fitness at the gym. When he is at home he sometimes just wants to relax, read a book, watch a film or listen to music. I cannot expect him to fire up on a topic just because it interests me.

There are always other things that I need to pass on to him anyway, the sort of home administration stuff that he will want or need to know. Perhaps the kids have plans or achievements that will interest him; there may be maintenance issues to discuss or decisions to be made that require his input. The kids themselves seek his advice on certain subjects; there is often little time left to burden him with more.

I find it very frustrating when it seems that my husband is the last to know about a discussion I have been having that may have generated a reaction. He misses out on the hows and whys, being presented with whatever comes after with no forewarning. His views are well thought through and worth having, but the demands on his time limit how involved he can become. Perhaps this is why some long married couples still go out on dates, just to ensure that they are keeping up with each other’s worlds.

Communication is vital to any relationship. When life gets too hectic I have been known to make lists of things that I need to say to my husband just to ensure that he is kept in the loop. I know how hurt I feel when he shares an anecdote with someone that I was not aware of; I do not wish him to ever feel that he is not important to me. I want to share my life with him, all of it, but I recognise that he needs to be allowed to live his life too. I cannot complain about the limited amount of time he spends with me when the majority of what he does away from me is for all of our benefit.

There are, of course, evenings when I need quiet time for myself. I may be engrossed in a good book or simply need an early night. The rare discussions that we do manage can only happen if we are both in the mood and have no distractions; little wonder they are so rare.

When I bemoan the fact that I find it difficult to find anyone who is eager to discuss challenging topics with me it is with the knowledge that I live with someone who fits the bill perfectly. I guess I need to extend the understanding I have of his reasons for rarely engaging with me to my other friends. If I insisted that they enter into heated debate every time we got together, I suspect my small group of friends would evaporate entirely.

This is a "thought bubble". It is an...

There and back again – differences of opinion

My Berlin friend has strong views on many topics. We disagree on rather a lot of these, which I find interesting if a little challenging at times. He has a similar background to me and is highly intelligent academically. I find it curious that, what I would call our baseline beliefs, differ so markedly.

We were both raised in Belfast by working class families at the height of The Troubles. We attended local Grammar schools and went up to university at a time when this was still unusual amongst our contemporaries. From here our paths diverged. Ian stayed within the folds of academia for many years, developing his interest and participation in theatre until he emerged with a job as an arts critic on a national newspaper. He pursued a career that matched his interests; I pursued a career that could earn me money.

This difference in early ambition perhaps characterised what developed into our differing value systems. As an example, we have markedly different views on what we would define as fair regarding wealth distribution. Although we would both support tolerance and acceptance of differing lifestyle choices, our political ideologies are poles apart.

One of the reasons that I wished to spend time with Ian was that I am aware that I mix with people who generally agree with my own baseline beliefs. I hoped for discussions that would shine a light on why he thinks as he does. I was also keen that my children should gain an understanding of this alternative point of view. Although I will always try to offer them both sides of an argument, it can be hard to explain reasoning behind certain political beliefs when I do not fully understand myself why people think as they do.

It turns out that this is a hard goal to achieve. Our evening discussions in Berlin touched on the impact of Margaret Thatcher, the Unions and membership of the European Union, but did not get to the bottom of why Ian’s views differed so emphatically from my own. Before my children could gain an understanding, the discussion had become dangerously heated and had to be diffused for the sake of our friendship. I concluded that these topics were just too close to Ian’s heart and were not open for debate.

Politics and history are convoluted; reasons behind events are hard to define simply. Although Ian and I had lived through many of the pivotal moments discussed, our memories did not always tally. Our reactions to events also differed, perhaps due to personal experiences at the time. I was living and working amongst people whose goal was to establish a well paid career in business, get married and raise a family in comfort. Ian was living in major cities amongst actors, writers and others whose lives were linked to creativity and the arts.

Although the time we spent together in Berlin has granted me a clearer understanding of just how ingrained political beliefs can be, I am no closer to working out why Ian thinks as he does. We appear to have similar views on ideal outcomes of political policy, yet would support radically opposing means of getting there. I guess if there were clear and easy solutions to these societal problems then politicians would adopt them. It is the uncertainty of success and the complexity of application that presents the difficulties in achieving desired solutions.

The evening discussions in Berlin that centred around music were much more satisfying than our attempts to delve deeper into British politics. Ian has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the background and development of the genres in which he is interested and succeeded in giving me an understanding as to why some people choose to listen to bands whose music I find grating.

Back in the day, when I first got to know Ian, he and some other mutual friends were creating cassette tapes of music under the Cemental Health Records label. I could recognise their early passion for experimenting with sound in the Krautrock bands he introduced me to in Berlin. Knowing his regard for the late DJ John Peel, I began to understand the attraction. I doubt that I will now choose to listen to the music, but I can at least appreciate a little better why others do.

It is this understanding that I was trying to achieve with our discussions around political beliefs. I did not expect to change my opinion, nor to influence how Ian thinks; what I was looking for was improved comprehension. Perhaps I should have realised that such views are rightly described as beliefs. Some things cannot be fully explained, being an ingrained and sometimes inexplicable part of a person. To question their validity is to question credibility.

The world would be a much more tedious place if we all thought the same way. Ian and I can continue to hold our differing beliefs and remain friends. We are both exasperated with the current political situation and wish to see similar outcomes in so many areas. I now suspect that there is little to be gained from trying to discuss the best way to achieve these though. Whatever the reason for our beliefs may be, we seem highly unlikely to reach agreement as to the most effective way forward.

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Writing to be read

I have quite a number of friends who are writers. I admire their ability to think clearly as well as their humour and wit. Even when I disagree with a point of view, their cogent arguments will encourage me to consider what they say. They can be forthright and self assured to the point of arrogance yet are amongst the most accepting of others rights. However opinionated they may be, they know how to listen and counter in a manner that comes across as fair.

A number of these friends are professional journalists, which these days appears to be such a precarious career. With so many amateurs throwing their words into the public void, and fewer people being willing to pay for the news and comment that is freely available on the internet, earning a living from such writing can be tough. Quality has been forsaken for cheap and easily available quantity.

I follow a few of the blogs that are written by journalists. These tend to be well crafted and researched, full of interesting ideas but with less of a personal feel than is typical of much of the genre. As with any writing, it can be satisfying to agree with the points being made as this offers reassurance, but when feedback is given it can feel more academic; rather like losing or gaining marks in a school essay.

In contrast, blogs written by amateurs come across as more friendly. Shared feedback allows a reader to feel they are getting to know the writer as a person. Agreement offers a virtual hug, like being wrapped in a warm blanket. The quality of the writing varies widely but professional offerings can be just as diverse in construction.

Most bloggers, whether amateur or professional, wish to see their words being read and published beyond their personal sphere. Few would turn down payment, but it is being read that matters to a writer. In much the same way, authors of books will self publish when they cannot find a publisher willing to take them on. Whilst they may dream of being able to earn a living from book sales, having produced the work they seek readers.

In times gone by, books were written by gentlemen of independent means or who pursued other professions. When women entered the fray they used pseudonyms in order to be accepted. A level playing field, where anyone with a good idea may write a book, is all but impossible due to the effort required to produce a publishable work. Time and financial support are needed as well as skill and luck.

Those who truly wish to write will find the time to do so, but their words may not find an audience. The strength of the internet as a means to provide a platform for all opinions, not just the officially sanctioned ideas, also means that anyone can publish on this medium. So many good stories and ideas are lost in the swamp of resulting words.

The plethora of writing makes it difficult for both new writers to be noticed and for experienced writers to garner payment. As an avid reader and opinion seeker I believe that we will all be the poorer over time if the writers skills are never honed. A talented author can still benefit from having their work polished by an experienced editor. If it becomes impossible to earn from the endeavour then fewer will be able to afford the investment. Words will be published raw and quality will suffer.

It feels as though we are reverting to a time where story telling has become a hobby rather than a profession. The publishing houses stifle innovation in their desire to promote blockbusters above literature. Our news is propoganda provided by government and corporations rather than investigative propagation of key facts.

Independent thinkers are needed by any society that wishes to progress. As readers we need to seek them out and support them when we can. Buy books by an author you have not read before rather than the latest in a string of formulaic tales by a best seller; click on news items that inform rather than on shock tactic headlines or fluffy gossip about media darlings; support writers by sending a message to those who hold the purse strings that we want variety and quality rather than a rehash of what worked before.

Good writing offers the pleasure and satisfaction of a Michelin starred meal. Support the chef or we will all end up at McDonalds.

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The mainstream media and blogs

Those of you who know me or who have followed me for a while may well be aware that I am a fierce critic of the mainstream media. I do not blame the professional journalists for this, but rather the way news reporting has moved so far from being thoroughly checked, investigative and ground breaking to page filling propaganda. When significant events occur, the race to be first to publish allows only cursory checks for truth or accuracy. Readers and listeners can no longer rely on what they are being told by the official sources.

It has always been true that each news outlet reports with a bias to please their perceived audience. The extremism of the British ‘Daily Mail’ is one of the more obvious examples of this, but the same is true of the supposedly quality broadsheets. The on line news sites require clicks to satisfy their advertisers, and the dead tree press is fighting desperately against it’s approaching demise in it’s current form. Even the statute demanding impartiality of the BBC is regularly flouted as their flagship news programmes display a blind or blinkered bias on certain pet subjects that is particularly depressing given that so many people still believe what they are being told by this source.

Much of the news reported by the mainstream media is made up of barely modified, official press releases that provide free advertising or an outlet for interested parties propaganda. The hows and whys of our descent into this situation is better covered in Nick Davies book Flat Earth News. This should be required reading for anyone who still believes that the news they are being fed is in any way new or containing impartial truths.

Given that we are in a situation where we cannot rely on these sources, I am not surprised that many in the mainstream media regularly and fiercely criticise blogs. As these publications broaden and increase their following and readership, they provide serious and financially damaging competition. It is notable that the national papers response appears to be a move towards publishing more and more comment pieces themselves. Each of the major newspapers commission a number of words from their favoured writers each day on topical issues, as well as printing guest posts in the likes of the Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’ or the Independent’s ‘Voices’ columns. These provide just the sort of writing that can easily be found on numerous, well written and thoroughly researched blogs that are now being followed by more and more people.

There is no doubt that topical blog posts are biased according to their authors views, but no more so than the equivalent pieces published and reported by the more established media sites. The challenge is to ensure that those of us who wish to look behind the propaganda at what is actually happening in the world can lift ourselves out of our personal comfort zones to read different sides of the argument, not just those that stroke our own, personal prejudices. A cogent and well argued rebuttal of a long held view can make uncomfortable reading, but is necessary if for no other reason than to force us to work through our own thinking in reply.

There are many, of course, who do not wish to consider political thinking too deeply. The number of words published on celebrity gossip, diet and beauty tips, parenting or relationships advice and sport suggests that there is more interest in these topics than in potentially world changing news. Basic economics demands that the paid for media will provide what it’s audience wants.

Governments have long realised that they can manipulate a population by influencing or controlling the information that is disseminated. Thus we have a situation where we cannot believe most of the health reports because they are written in support of government policy (e.g. smoking and alcohol guidelines) or are provided by an interested party looking at increasing it’s funding (e.g. medical research bodies). By constantly bombarding the public with propaganda and dodgy statistics dressed up as fact these powerful protagonists will attempt to steer a population’s thinking to demonise the behaviour or people they wish to quash. Look behind the headlines and you may wonder why you are supporting a point of view that has been so obviously perverted.

Blogs may not provide the impartial and honest reporting of facts that I would like to see, but they can help us to get behind the official, approved press releases. While the mainstream media persists in churnalism, party line promotion and the propagation of pet beliefs without recourse to facts or debate, there will be a place for those outside the payroll to question and publish an alternative point of view.

I see this as one of the strengths of the internet; that such activity remains accessible to all who wish to participate in the dissemination of news, even if only as an interested audience. When governments seek to control or close down and punish those who seek the truth, we will know that they are afraid and have been uncovered as the charlatans that they are.

Cover of "Flat Earth News: An Award-Winni...

Book snob

A few days before his latest book was published, I came across this newspaper article which made me laugh: Don’t make fun of renowned Dan Brown. I read The Da Vinci Code a number of years ago, when everyone was praising it as a ‘must read’, but found it glib and shallow. Sure, it was easy and entertaining enough but, in my view, the story had been told so much better in Foucault’s Pendulum. I was not impressed with the way Dan Browne wrote and felt that this journalist (Michael Deacon) captured why. I shared the newspaper article with my friends on Facebook and thought little more of it.

Then, a couple of days ago, I read this: 30 things to tell a book snob. It made me think about my attitude to books, what I read, why I read what I do, and how I judge others based on what they read. I have written many times about how I hate being judged and try not to judge others so this made me uncomfortable. I was concerned that I was being shown to be a book snob and I didn’t like the way this made me feel.

I love books. I love the excitement and anticipation of holding an unread book; of turning the pages for the first time before immersing myself into a new and exciting, unknown world; getting to know the characters as I learn about their lives and adventures, their trials and pleasures. For me, there are few more enjoyable ways to spend time than curled up on a comfy sofa with a good book.

When I reach the end of a work of fiction that I have enjoyed I feel a sense of loss. As I process the tale in my head and consider what I have just read, there is a feeling that people I knew well have moved away and I am unlikely to ever see them again. They have been a part of my life for a short time and now I must move on. I usually need a few days to get over a book. Their stories touch me and change my way of thinking, even if only slightly.

It is not just the words that I love but also the physical books. Shelves full of books make a room look so comforting and inviting. I look at pictures of rooms full of bookshelves such as this one book lovers staircase  or this one book lovers room and I want to get to know the people who live in these houses. With all of those books read or to read I think the residents must be so interesting. I want to look through their books and discuss the ones that I have enjoyed, to share what I think of the stories and the authors.

I guess I think that if I read the same books as someone then we may have views and opinions in common; I am interested in what they enjoyed or disliked about a book that I would rate highly, or what they thought of a book that disappointed me. When I lend out a book I want to know what the reader thought of the gift that I shared with them. Perhaps I can gain further insight into a tale or a character from a new reader’s perceptions. I want to improve my mind through reading, to challenge my preconceptions through literary characters, to gain knowledge from research done by diligent authors, to enjoy reading a well written piece of literature.

Am I a book snob? I much prefer it when I see people reading even trash novels than not reading at all, but I do consider so many books that others seem to enjoy to be little more than mildly entertaining fluff. I rarely enjoy reading books by ‘best selling’ authors as I find them predictable and repetitive. Obviously there are plenty of people who choose to read these books and therefore, presumably, enjoy them.

I was annoyed when I discovered that some of these authors think up their plot lines and then get ghost writers to produce a manuscript written in the required style. There are so many talented writers out there with original ideas, yet the publishing houses prefer to churn out repetitious books by authors they know will sell. I can understand the economics but rail at the lost chances to improve the depth of our literary experience.

I always have a pile of books that I am eager to read if I could only find the time. It takes effort to stop myself buying more and more books, there are so many out there that sound interesting and worth investing in. I value recommendations from friends and love to receive books as a gift. I have no wish to own an ereader. I want to hold a book in my hands, to smell and feel it as I turn the pages.

I guess I do form views of others based on the books they read, in much the same way as I am influenced by the television programmes they watch, the films they enjoy, or the effort they put into how they look. These interests and preoccupations are a part of who they are and offer insights into their psyches. I am able to empathise more with someone who reads because books are such an important part of my life. I may not be able to understand how they can enjoy certain types of books, but will not condemn them for this. A variety of tastes and interests in any area of life is a good thing.

A story that I find shallow, weak and predictable may be the escape that someone needs from difficulties they face in their life. Just as I look for challenge and stimulation in my literature so others may seek rest and recuperation. Books provide a door to another world. Most readers will try many different types of books, enjoying some but not others. Whatever books they read and for whatever reason, if they derive pleasure from the experience then their book has served it’s purpose and is, therefore, a good one for them.

English: Stack of books in Gould's Book Arcade...

Paranoia

My husband enjoys a good conspiracy theory. His favourite plot line in The X-Files (TV Series 1993–2002) involved the smoking man; he teases the children by asking them if they have considered if the moon landings were filmed in a studio, or if JFK’s shooting was a set up by some secret agency that is really in charge of America; he read and liked The Da Vinci Code (book by Dan Brown) even though he did accept that it wasn’t a great piece of literature. I am sure that he plays up to my exasperation at his random comments about news items by raising questions about hidden agenda’s and asking the children to consider wild and unsubstantiated assumptions. I am also pretty sure that he doesn’t consider this stuff to be true, and is merely enjoying playing with the idea of the existence of some sort of good or bad international power such as Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D.

Today though, I find myself wondering about conspiracy and censorship. I find myself wandering down a path that feels very much like a route to paranoia, and I am uncomfortable with my inability to know what I should think or believe. How do we know what is true when we can no longer trust the long established sources of information?

The events of the past week have brought into sharp focus the changing face of news gathering and propagation. A number of mainstream media outlets, in their race to be first with the facts, broadcast updates that subsequently turned out to be false. There has been enough comment on how this happened and why, but it got me thinking about the effect that this could have on the general public’s willingness to believe what they are told in future.

Governments rely on the fact that the public will accept as true the information published by the mainstream media; this is why they invest so much in attempting to influence what gets reported. If too many people start to look elsewhere for their news then the government will try to gain control of the alternative outlets. Popular blogs and other on line publications will become more of a threat and this will encourage governments to regulate. Regulation is more likely to be used to assist the wealthy and powerful than the general public.

This sort of speculation is not new. There are already a number of attempts to allow government agencies to look at individual’s on line activity and act if this is deemed a threat, although to whom is rarely specified. What I had not realised is that the surveillance is already in place, or should that be potentially in place? I do not know if this is paranoia or fact.

I have been following this post today: Facebook Censors Users during Media Blackout on Privatisation of the NHS | Scriptonite Daily. I read the original post yesterday and noted that yet another newsworthy story was not being reported by the mainstream media. The comments do not offer clarification; there is speculation that it is unlikely to be Facebook policy but could be an orchestrated effort by detractors to silence the story. I am left wondering if this is just more food for the Tin Foil Hat Brigade or if we should be waking up to something more insidious. For me, this is the problem. Changes that happen gradually may not be noticed until it is too late to stop them. If our freedom of speech and expression is to be curtailed then this is unlikely to be proclaimed by those who seek to silence dissent. Whatever the truth is, how can we know?

I am reluctant to blame Facebook for the way it operates. It is a free to use service and I enjoy it’s functionality. I accept that I will have little control over what I post, but would be upset if my account were deleted with no explanation. It would seem that this has happened to some people. Although I can see no reason why I should ever be affected in this way, I have a little history in this area.

For a few years now I have had an ebay account. I did not use it regularly but, from time to time, I would purchase a few low value items from the site. I have also used it to sell one item. I have a 100% positive feedback record and always paid by Paypal as soon as the bid was confirmed as successful. The item I sold was posted immediately and was received by the purchaser who gave me top marks for service.

At the end of last year my Paypal account was blocked in the middle of a purchase. No explanation was given and I could not get it unblocked. I paid for the item I had just bought by cheque (thankfully the seller was understanding), but still have no idea why the site chose to block me. It has stopped me using ebay and made me wary of how much we are at the mercy of algorithms that can go wrong. I did not default or defraud and had no known complaints against me. I have no inkling as to why this might have happened.

So what if, in the future, individuals posting news and views come under scrutiny from unknown, on line sources, be they people or algorithms? Blocking publication is as likely to be cock up as conspiracy, but will we ever be able to find out the how’s or why’s information is censored? And what if legislation is introduced, but worded in such a vague way that huge fines or worse are possible – will there be as much willingness for anyone anywhere to opine and comment?

We currently have a situation where, as Lauren Nelson over on Cogent Comment says: ‘Today, information – accurate and not – is everywhere. If you want to find a justification for spending the rest of your life trapped in a basement, you’ll find plenty of people validating the idea. If you need to feel vindicated about your choices in child raising, you’ll find whole communities on the subject, with people eager to tell you that you are correct. Anyone with an internet connection and clear voice can join important political and social debates. Refined is no longer an adjective that works in this equation. Information distribution today is more akin to a high school cafeteria food fight than the marketplace of ideas once lauded by John Stewart Mill.’

Personally, I would much prefer to be in this situation, where it is left up to me to filter what is worth listening to and what is unsubstantiated, biased ranting, than to watch the accessible media, in whatever it’s future form may be, develop into a Ministry of Truth.

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I want to believe 

The result of promoting hate

I have been known to complain that there is nothing new being reported in the news. I have little interest in celebrity gossip or rehashes of minor, political spats, and I have no interest at all in sport. News that generates interest is dissected and repeated ad nauseam; trustworthy investigative journalism is rare. I understand that columns must be filled and clicks encouraged, but much of what is written has been taken directly from official press releases making it, in effect, advertising. The media has a tendency towards self importance and builds the profiles of it’s own people and events affecting itself. Its London centric approach can be irritating to those of us living away from the capital where life and attitudes can be very different.

These past couple of weeks, however, have provided more newsworthy events than may be wanted. First we had Margaret Thatcher’s death and then yesterday, the bombing of the Boston Marathon. What a difference in tone have been the reactions to these two events. With one coming so soon after the other it has highlighted to me how worryingly hypocritical some people’s way of thinking can be.

Margaret Thatchers death and the official eulogising that followed brought to the surface feelings of extreme hate in rather too many people. There has been some talk of peaceful protest at her funeral but also a great deal of despair at the inability of her detractors to effect the change that these vocal agitators  want to see. These people seem to be so sure that their way is right and they want to force it on everyone else, using violence if necessary. It seems to be their view that, if democracy has allowed Thatcherism to flourish, then an alternative is required. I find this attitude disturbing. Isn’t  it exactly the way that terrorist extremists think?

And then we had the awful events of the Boston bombings. It is too early to say who caused this senseless atrocity but it is likely to have been done as a protest; as a means of gaining publicity for a cause that does not have sufficient public support in America for the perpetrator’s liking. Hurting people to force change has long been used by those who cannot get their way through the ballot box.

I read this excellent blog post today: Boston Bombing: Hoax Reports, Racial Assaults and Hope | Scriptonite Daily. I follow this site as it often argues against my point of view and I like to check my thinking by looking at issues from both sides. I see some of the author’s reasoning on other issues as flawed and factually selective, but on these initial thoughts about the bombings in Boston we concur. We should reflect on our reaction to what has happened in Boston and consider carefully how we wish to act and the effect it may have.

There are those in this country who would like to use the political discussion that has occurred following Margaret Thatcher’s death as a catalyst for change; they would like to see active protests at her funeral tomorrow. I do so hope that caution will be exercised by all sides. The language of hate leads too quickly to lives being damaged; those who wish to see change may campaign and build support, but as soon as they try to use force they are putting their own wishes above and beyond the rights of the many. If they believe that they have enough support then violence will not be needed. Trying to force a belief system or a way of life on people through violence is going to result in the killing and maiming of innocents.

‘A revolution is not successful or complete until a new set of oppressors consolidate their power.’ If we wish to live in a free country then we cannot condone gaining power through acts of hate and terror.

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Self improvement

I very much enjoy receiving feedback on my posts and welcome all of  the comments that readers have kindly taken the time to submit. Some of these come from people who do not know me and have found this site by chance. If they are also bloggers then I will try to visit their sites; I now follow several of them and enjoy considering their posts immensely. There is only so much that I can manage to read in a day but I welcome the chance to gain a perspective on their lives and on the thoughts and issues that they discuss.

Other comments come from people who know me outside of the internet. Often these are posted on my Facebook page, where I always include links to the posts that I publish. As these people know me personally, and have often done so for many years, their comments can be more of a challenge to deal with. They are not just basing their reactions on the words that I write but on the person that they know. It takes more courage to share thoughts and feelings with friends than with strangers. If things go badly then I have more to lose.

If I were not happy to receive such feedback then I should not write about personal or controversial topics. That, however, is one of the aspects of blog writing that I enjoy. I like to put down what I am thinking; I find that it helps to clarify in my own mind what are sometimes fairly woolly thoughts. It also helps me to see where I have done my own thinking and where I have simply believed what others have told me. Much of our knowledge is obtained in this way but, when I choose to disseminate an argument, I am taking it as my own. I am well aware that I have valued friends who will strongly disagree with many of my views.

What has been particularly interesting for me has been the general feedback that I have received on the methods that I appear to employ when considering a subject. I have been told that, whilst I claim to encourage reasoned debate, I do not always come across as accepting of others point of view when they disagree with me. I state that I respect the right of others to think differently to me yet display an exasperated manner and speak impatiently of their choices. It would seem that others do not see me in the way that I see myself. When I think about this honestly, I believe that they are right.

I find it easier to clarify my thoughts in writing rather than face to face as I need time to consider what I wish to say. I am not good at debates; my mind is not quick enough and I cannot recall the detail of enough factual knowledge to make it sound as if I know my subject; I do not have a good memory for detail. At school I was better at the subjects which required problems to be worked through rather than a regurgitation of memorized information. I failed miserably at languages as I just could not recall enough words. When faced with a friend who possesses a memory to rival Google I feel bumbling and foolish; I need time to consider new information and to work through my thoughts on this new information as I would a mathematical puzzle.

When I am considering a subject I will try to read around it, but even this can be fraught with difficulty. I cannot help but have preconceptions and it is so easy to read opinion pieces that agree with how I already think. When a writer, well qualified in his subject, creates a cognizant argument with well researched facts, figures and references to back up my point of view it feels so satisfying; it is as if I am being proved right despite others not agreeing with me. Much harder is to read a similar document that is equally well put together but carefully argues that I am wrong in my thinking. This makes uncomfortable reading. I am working hard to make myself seek out these difficult pieces and grant them proper consideration.

In my head I find myself thinking that those who disagree with me cannot be reading and considering the information that has encouraged me to think the way I do, but that is disingenuous and beside the point. This is not about me changing others – I have no right to attempt to do that – it is about improving myself. Effecting change in the way I think is a challenge.

If I wish to become the person that I have claimed to be then it will require effort but I truly do not wish to be closed to new thinking, neither do I wish to be accepting of flawed arguments. Living with ourselves can be difficult enough at times; by promoting myself as this open and reasonable, accepting and respectful individual I have been outed as a hypocrite. Now I need to do something about it.

Please continue to comment on the subjects that I write on. I am going to try to read more of those disagreeable but well argued opinion pieces and to give more consideration to why I have accepted a certain point of view. It will be interesting to see how my own thinking changes, if at all. I doubt that I will be able to debate any more effectively, but I hope that I will grow closer to being the person that I have claimed to be.

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One step at a time