One of the phenomena of the internet and social media age is that everybody seems to feel an increasing need to know everything about everything. Google and other search engines make everything searchable at the touch of a few buttons – after which nobody needs to admit to ignorance on anything.
And to have accessed the knowledge is therefore to have a right to an opinion. If a person is found to have committed “wrong-think” by social media, for instance, it is not enough to withhold judgement, work things out for yourself or skip joining the stampede on this one. Everything in the way social media works encourages the opposite. Indeed its business model – as the computer philosophy writer Jaron Lanier has explained – is built on people correcting the behaviour of strangers for free, leading to this culture of shallow and incurious certainty.
The results can be awesome to behold.
When it was announced that Peter Handke had won this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, the internet and media were full of people denouncing one – undoubtedly ugly – aspect of his past (his support for Milosevic in the Balkan genocide) and insisting that the prize should be withdrawn. Aside from this furious certainty, there were also suddenly thousands of “experts” on Handke who had never read (nor felt they ever needed to read) the novels and plays for which he was being awarded the prize.
And that is the problem of the age of instant information and instant reaction. It encourages us to pretend to be certain – and to feel as if we are certain – about things we just do not know much about. Sometimes it is a person. Sometimes it is a group of people, or an idea. But in each case the algorithms lead us to the idea that withholding an opinion or failing to condemn is not just an expression of ignorance but of potential complicity.
Of course all of this needs to be addressed by any adults who are left in our culture. For an era to make good decisions, it cannot simply decide what it wants to believe and then find ways to justify that. It must look freely and carefully at difficult issues and evaluate them in a sane and reasonable light. Personally I am not remotely surprised at the NHS staff who say that they feel pressured on transgender issues. I occasionally hear from such people myself. They are also victims of an age which expects an unquestioning agreement to questionable ideas.
But if we are going to escape this age of unthinking reaction, some civic and personal fortitude is going to be needed. And what is being said in the shadows, anonymously, must start to be said politely but fearlessly out in the open.
Douglas Murray is the author of ‘The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity’ (Bloomsbury)