Dear Boris

As merely an occasional reader of your words of wisdom, it is serendipitous that I happened to spend the last few days in a household that takes the Telegraph on paper, and that I read your column commenting on the nature of certain elements of the blogosphere.  Not to put too fine a point on it, Here be rather unpleasant nutjobs (and that’s good).

Returning today to my own desk and ‘puter, I revisited your column online.  I see it has attracted (to date) 414 comments, which I confess to not having read.  Neither have I contributed thereunto: indeed, I have excluded myself from commenting on any Telegraph column since they introduced the requirement to create an account, on the grounds that I found their first data protection question too disgracefully ambiguous (do I tick the box to opt in to or out of their spamservices, products and promotions)?

So instead of commenting on your column where there might be some likelihood of at least some junior intern actually reading it and even bringing it to your attention, I’m writing on my own blog.  With a readership thousands of times smaller than yours and no visibility in the mainstream media, I am of course fully cognizant of the futility of so doing.  Outside my areas of professional interest my writing is its own reward: it seeks neither fame nor obscurity, respect nor ridicule; it’ll take what comes.  Such is indeed the human condition (if I may be so pretentious).

Of course you, unlike perhaps one or two duller-witted journalists, don’t need me to tell you that the nutjob elements of which you write represent but a small part of your readership.  Indeed, I am sure that if I were to read those 414 comments I should find among them wit and wisdom aplenty, alongside the nutjobs, and a deadweight of old, oft-repeated arguments.  I might even find among them the very point I should by now have made, had I come to this letter in the frame of mind I found myself in on first reading your column.

The point then is this.  Whereas you rightly welcome the ability of nutjobs to have their say along with everyone else, and recognise that one man’s nutjob is another’s prophet, there is a darker side that may be lost on you.  I don’t mean that the problem has never occurred to you, but rather that you might be a stranger to its full significance.  A man with the effortless self-assurance of an Eton alumnus, the thick skin of a senior politician, and the name-recognition of a major public figure is not a man to let himself be bullied, intimidated, and scared off by the baying of a lunatic fringe (correct me if I’m wrong).

However, your felicitous state is by no means universal, and in other fora it can be all too easy for the lunatics to take over the asylum (excuse my cliché).  I’m not talking about extremist fora such as islamists looking to turn the UK into a caliphate, or nationalists looking to send anyone with a pigmentation “back home”.  Better such people (insofar as they exist outside of strawman arguments) are out in the open than driven underground and given genuine grievances to nourish.  Setting aside the kind of rabble-rousing exemplified by the Daily Mail, what saddens me is to see moderate, mainstream fora taken over to the point where sensible members are driven away.

For example, in a site concerned with very legitimate economic concerns (going back long before “the credit crunch”) I have witnessed such diverse issues as anti-scientific nonsense becoming a ‘party line’ that looks mainstream, and female posters driven away by a misogynous element.  The latter is of course bound up with mainstream reaction against politically correct nonsense (exemplified by Ms Harman) that draws sensible, non-misogynistic posters (of both sexes) to react against certain wimmins issues and leads to a continuum between regular commonsense and the outrageous.

Now of course I wouldn’t for one moment suggest that you can or should seek to silence xenophobes, racists, islamists, misogynists, denialists, creationists, anti-capitalists, or any (other) kind of, shall we say, fringe.  Indeed, I welcome the current government’s efforts towards halting the rapid expansion of its predecessor’s police state.  But I would argue your piece tends towards complacency in essentially dismissing the effect nutjobs can have in excluding contrary, moderate opinion.

We are concerned when one group, whether it be drug dealers, gangs, or merely drunken youth, takes over areas of a city to the exclusion of others.  We should not dismiss similar concerns online!

Posted on January 19, 2011, in free speech, media. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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