What are the most important issues facing us, politically, today? Climate change would be up there, you’d think — the mostly slowly mounting but then every now and then suddenly flaring-up disaster gradually unfolding over everything. The rise of the far-right and anti-immigrant politics in the developed world, a phenomenon which itself can be understood as a response to climate change, might also warrant a mention. The provision of health care, which in the U.S. is done so badly, and so unfairly, that getting sick can, in the worst cases, lead to individuals being de facto murdered by the state... you’d probably say that would be one as well — especially with a global pandemic apparently now underway.
Well, you’d be wrong. Because, as the real political visionaries, people like former New York City Mayor and current presidential hopeful Michael Bloomberg, realize, all of these issues pale in comparison to the true great emergency the human species is currently being forced to confront: people being rude online. Every day when they log on to social media, the prominent and the powerful risk being confronted by what were once placid, voiceless members of the general public, sheep really — now braying disrespectful harangues like “your ideas are bad and are part of a process which helps perpetuate the great and terrible system which makes my life a barely tolerable hell!” It is a wonder that anyone holding elected office, or in the top one percent or so of earners, can cope.
It has thus been heartening to see Bloomberg make the need to tackle online rudeness the central pillar of his presidential campaign, particularly when his rivals appear to be maintaining vicious online attack mobs as a sort of standing army, determined to attack both establishment journalists and fellow Democrats alike with savage tweeted “dunks” and mean cartoons. Bloomberg has even had his campaign offices in Flint, Michigan vandalized, with (alleged) “Bernie Bros” scrawling anti-rich slurs like “oligarch” on its walls. There are worrying reports that the rude and online may even have infiltrated the upper echelons of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s campaign.
Each year, the Civility in Politics awards will honor politicians, “bridge builders,” and campaigners, with the kindest and politest nominees receiving a £3,000 prize.
And it was also wonderful to hear, a few months back, over on the other side of the Atlantic, that the Labour peer Lord Wood, a former advisor to former Labour leader Ed Miliband, in collaboration with Alison Goldworthy, founder and CEO of the Depolarization Project, which attempts to combat the perhaps equally pressing evil of people who vote for left-wing parties not wanting to be friends with people who vote for the far right, were launching the “Civility in Politics” awards to help combat the present “crisis of trust” (wonder how a guy called “Lord Wood” got into civility campaigning, huh). Each year, the Civility in Politics awards will honor politicians, “bridge builders,” and campaigners, with the kindest and politest nominees receiving a £3,000 prize.
Last Wednesday, the inaugural shortlist was announced, with an impressive range of nominees running the gamut from deranged Tory Brexiteers, to the Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament Norman Lamb — who personally I think seems like a good bet to win since he is also one of the judges. But by far the most exciting name on the list was that of Simon Hedges, a journalist and activist who used to review garden furniture for the Sunday Times, whose #BeKindOnline campaign features a character called “Simon the Seagull” that advises internet users not to cyberbully, not to use rude words, and not to remind pro-austerity politicians that they have blood on their hands for forcing 120,000-plus people to an early grave because they believed it was necessary to balance the books.
It was great to see the Civility in Politics awards recognize Simon Hedges — because Simon Hedges does not really exist. Simon Hedges is a parody account created by a guy called Greg, the point of whom is precisely to send up the pretensions of the sort of establishment journalists who spend all their time complaining about people not being nice to them on social media (I wrote about Hedges as part of my article on the broader network of British left-wing parody accounts on Twitter, known as the Trevor Bastard Extended Universe).
Previous Hedges bits include running as the Labour candidate for his brother’s former parliamentary seat, Leechwood South, then laughing incredulously at any voters who said they were going to vote Labour, and setting up a writer’s retreat called “Simon’s Windmill” (based on the windmill owned by fox-murdering barrister Jolyon Maugham, of course) which had to be shut down after a J.K. Rowling impersonator died from inhaling too much flour.
So it wasn’t really at all surprising when, a few hours later, Lord Wood announced that Hedges would be removed from the Campaigner of the Year shortlist, and would instead receive the “hastily organized” “Best Parody Account” prize. But it was, to be sure, a shame. Because regardless of whether he’s a real person or not, Hedges has almost certainly done more to advance the cause of civility in politics than any of the other nominees.
The bad news is that, with a very heavy heart, we've taken @Orwell_Fan off the shortlist generated from public nominations. The good news is he is now the inaugural winner of the hastily organised "Best Parody Account" award. Fair play, Simon.— Stewart Wood (@StewartWood) February 26, 2020
There are real and pressing problems to do with a lack of “civility” in our politics and society today — it’s just that these are hardly ever the ones we’re told we ought to worry about. In the UK, the prominent left-wing columnist Owen Jones has faced literal street violence as a result of his political views and sexuality. Left-wing commentators of color face a constant barrage of racially-motivated insults whenever they go on the BBC. Overt racism has risen rapidly since the 2016 Brexit vote. The poorest, most vulnerable people in society are rarely treated as, or discussed as, human beings. Online mobs have been blamed by the tabloid press for the suicides of celebrities hounded to their deaths by... an intrusive, amoral tabloid press.
The work of Simon Hedges helps show up the problems with “civility” as typically understood.
But hardly any of this ever figures in the debate around “civility in politics” (online). When the partisans of politeness invoke the concept of “civility,” what that really seem to be demanding is a lost, pre-social media world where they could be safely isolated from anyone who wasn’t ideally deferential to them. If “civility” — defined perhaps as “politeness and courtesy in behaviour and speech” — can be understood as a sort of virtue, like charity or courage, then “civility” as it is presently constituted is really just the virtue of little people shutting up and letting the rich and powerful do whatever the fuck they like.
Another important message from Simon The Seagull and Friends™ pic.twitter.com/tpNyyB2ZpT— Simon Hedges (@Orwell_Fan) September 9, 2019
The work of Simon Hedges helps show up the problems with “civility” as typically understood. Consider for instance this other Simon the Seagull image, where internet users are told not to say “mean or unkind things” in times of political crisis, as the armed forces take over all aspects of society. The image works as any good satire does: extrapolating the logic of what we are constantly told by the people in power into an only slightly unimaginably extreme situation, to show us what we are being told really boils down to. Proof perhaps of the power of Hedges’s satire can be seen in the anti-online rudeness emojis Tory minister Penny Mordaunt launched during last year’s general election campaign — which almost creepily resembled something Hedges would have designed.
The hope, then, is that satire like that of Hedges can help affect a sort of re-alignment of our concepts, so that we can start to understand what it would really mean to practice “civility” as a virtue — and not just as something for the powerful to hide behind. If the Civility in Politics Awards were really serious about civility as such, they would retract their decision to exclude Hedges from the shortlist — and give him the £3,000 prize.