The politics of ME, ME, ME

David Hayes Keith Kahn-Harris
9 January 2009

The conflict in Gaza has dominated world headlines since the closing days of 2008. The war there is an exceptional event yet it also contains many elements of the familiar - in part because even at the “best” of times, media coverage of the middle east can be intense. In the new media age this coverage includes featuring and reflecting the intense engagement of people from around the world in the affairs of the region.

Indeed, it seems unarguable that anyone with even the slightest knowledge of world affairs knows “something” about the various middle-east disputes, and indeed is more likely than not to have an opinion on their rights and wrongs (which cannot be claimed with equal confidence for other conflict-zones, such as Kashmir or Abkhazia or the Democratic Republic of Congo). The middle east is distinguished by the way that legions of people across the globe - politicians, activists and commentators among them - are invested in its conflicts, often to a degree of passionate and partisan engagement. They may believe that the region is where the fight to defend western civilisation is being fought or that it is the place where the struggle against American imperialism needs to be won; that Israel in Gaza is justly defending itself from terrorism or that it is engaged in a brutal colonial enterprise - but in either case, many global protagonists are united in a sense of involvement in the region and even a sense of “ownership” of its issues and contested claims.Keith Kahn-Harris is a research associate at Goldsmiths College, University of London.
His website is here

Also by Keith Kahn-Harris in openDemocracy:
The attractions of denial” (13 September 2007)    
How to talk about things we know nothing about” (21 February 2008)

The elusive victory

In principle, there is nothing wrong with this. After all, one result of media or public indifference to the many “forgotten” wars in Africa and elsewhere is that they remain of interest only to those who are physically involved in it - which often contributes to their more or less indefinite perpetuation. At least in the middle east the interest of those around the world also ensures a ceaseless search for solutions and for reconciliation.

This very process of involvement has a twofold downside, however. First, it ensures that the more extreme protagonists on the ground are given moral support for their often violent struggles, their own passions fuelled rather than moderated by outsiders’ engagement. Second, those who choose or feel obliged to get involved in conflicts such as Gaza often do so in ways that are polarising, dogmatic, repetitive and damaging to the space of democratic debate they choose to enter.

A prime example is the Guardian’s Comment is Free (CiF) site, one of the most popular outlets for political commentary in Britain (and the United States). At the time of writing it is dominated by opinions on the conflict in Gaza. But even on an “ordinary” day there will normally be at least one comment piece on Israel-Palestine, Iraq or another middle-eastern issue (indeed an entire section of CiF is now devoted to the region). The articles tend to be short, easily understandable provocations - but the comments thread is where much of the real “action” takes place. The number of comments that the piece attracts is the principle measure of its popularity. In a kind of Darwinian struggle, the items that are kept on the front-page of the site for longest are those that attract the most comments. These are routinely pieces on the middle east; at the time of writing an article by Simon Tisdall on Barack Obama's response to the war in Gaza is in top slot with 1,108 comments (see “Obama is losing a battle a battle he doesn’t know he’s in”, 4 January 2009).

David Hayes is deputy editor of openDemocracy

Among his articles for openDemocracy:

"Bob Dylan's revolution in the head" (24 May 2006)

"A politics of crisis: low-energy cosmopolitanism" (22 October 2008) - with Andrew Dobson

"The world's American election: a conversation" (4 November 2008)

Comment Is Free is frequently an outlet for exciting and challenging writing (a judgment that is based on more than the fact that one of us has contributed to it). But when you peruse a typical comment-thread, the problems with it become apparent. What is striking is that few of the comments really engage with the piece they are supposedly commenting on. Instead, most commentators just engage with each other, often with a viciousness that takes your breath away. There is a kind of circularity to the threads, with similar arguments repeated time and time again and rebutted as often.

In parallel with the war in Gaza, another war is taking place in which the battlefields are comment-threads, message-boards and blog-posts. A maniacal energy is expended in the endless attempts to prove the other wrong, to find that elusive killer-blow that will ensure victory. That blow never comes, perpetuating the conflict as it migrates from website to website.

The war of attrition

This is not just a question of people with too much time on their hands beavering away at the keyboard on controversies that affect nothing – if it were “only” this, there would be little to worry about. The problem goes deeper. It is partly that so much of this activity is harmful and wasteful, in a context where intelligent citizens working in a spirit of constructive dialogue could in principle perform a useful role in clarifying issues and arguments and offering usable ideas to those seeking solutions to the conflicts concerned.

Even worse, this kind of internet politics is also engaged in by opinion-formers, major institutions and “the brightest and best” more generally. In the Jewish community - a world with which one of us is very familiar - those who are most committed and influential in what they view as the defence of Israel have, over the last few years, increasingly come to adopt the same style of politics and mode of address. They include (in the United States) high-profile intellectuals such as Alan Dershowitz and lobbying organisations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) and (in Britain) organisations such as Britain Israel Communications & Research Centre (Bicom). Pro-Palestinian activists, while usually less organised, also engage in these struggles with just as much fervid and driven commitment.

Both sides, all sides, have become tied up in intricate micropolitical struggles. At the moment these include: who exactly broke the ceasefire first; what the word “civilian” means; whether civilian casualties are simply “human shields”; what a “humanitarian crisis” consists of. In the recent past they have included long-running sagas such as whether Jimmy Carter is an anti-semite; whether settlements are illegal under international law; whether a particular BBC report is biased.

At root, these struggles can involve vital issues, but in the hothouse of the internet, they so often disintegrate into thousands of fragments - from the interpretation of an ambiguous phrase to the reliability of a single news item. The result is an internet war of attrition that produces an impenetrable fog of confusion - and must reinforce the indifference and alienation of the non-involved.

The latter point is vital, even though it may be of sublime indifference to the super-motivated partisans. The ultimate puerility of internet combat over the middle east means that the larger and most important issues - and the possibility of keeping in sight the big picture, a vision of a better future for the region - fade from view.

In this sense such internet politics is not just self-defeating but also profoundly exclusionary. Only those who are similarly versed in the minutiae of the conflict can participate fully. How telling that the supposedly democratising force of the internet should be subverted in this way! This is politics for insiders. Indeed, the ranks of the insiders may have been swelled by the internet, but the cliquishness of this new political class is no better than the more traditional political cliques. Worse, so obsessed is this clique with its endless internal arguments that the need to connect with those on the outside - both the larger citizenry, and those at the sharp end of conflicts - is largely forgotten. What remains is a mode of politics that has abandoned both persuasion and anchorage in reality outside the discursive bubble.

A medical parallel

There is evidence that the dead-end tendencies of much net-based combat over (for example) the Israel-Palestine issue is but one case of a broader trend. In many other areas of social and political controversy, or merely of public life, the way topics are discussed can over time lead to a fatal polarisation, circularity and exclusion - to the extent that the very logic of internet politics seems to push the ostensible subject-matter further and further away. The point can be illustrated by drawing attention to another form of cyberspace “ME” politics that may seem a long way from the internet war over the middle east, but which shares many of its characteristics.

The politics surrounding the illness myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME, also known as “chronic fatigue syndrome”) is unknown to most of those not affected by the condition. Yet in the experience of one of us its relentless viciousness is eerily similar to the far more high-profile middle-east conflict.

The medical controversy about what ME is, what causes it and how it can be treated has been bitter. For many years the “psychosocial” paradigm dominated research and treatment; this viewed ME as a disorder that, while possibly triggered by a virus or infection, is perpetuated by psychosomatic processes of deconditioning. This paradigm favours treatments for ME that focus on addressing “negative thought patterns” and gradually increasing exercise.

This paradigm has found itself increasingly being contested by “biomedical” approaches which argue that ME has physical causes. The proponents of this approach point to the failures of psychological and exercise therapies in many patients, while its detractors point to the continuing lack of evidence of a clear physiological cause of the illness.

Here then is a controversy that has profound consequences for ME sufferers and their families. It's understandable that as a result sufferers, patient groups, medical bodies and research funders have become embroiled in debates over how to respond to ME. What is problematic is the ways that the politics of ME have degenerated in recent years as the internet has become an important political tool.

In Britain, what might be called a largely web-based “ME opposition” has emerged that is passionately committed to the biomedical model. Its adherents are suspicious of the medical establishment, which they see as dominated by “psychs”; they also criticise most ME charities, in particular Action for ME, for being unaccountable and too willing to collaborate with the psychs. Again, in themselves, these views are not necessarily unjustifiable. The problem is that they are propounded in a way that falls into the worst traps of internet politics.

A dedicated group of activists has committed itself to the exposure of any trace of psychosocial bias. The campaign is relentless. On message-boards, blogs and other websites, any accommodation with psychs or deviation from this fight is instantly attacked. Any ambiguity or error in the statements of members of ME charities and the medical establishment is pounced on, deconstructed and treated as sinister. Lengthy, minutely detailed “dossiers” are compiled and presented with an accusatory seriousness.

An indication of where this leads is suggested by a blog such as ME Agenda. Over the last few months, many of its posts have concerned accusations of “betrayal” at the Countess of Mar, the patron of a number of ME charities who has apparently “gone over to the other side”; other posts have consisted of an impenetrable series of claims and counter-claims surrounding the actions of the chair of the Peterborough M.E. & CFS Self Help Group. To the outsider, such controversies are bewildering or irrelevant. They exist as a self-enclosed world in which the real issues surrounding ME have degenerated into a Mobius strip of controversy. Whoever might or might not be “right”, the real need to move forward in addressing a terrible condition is all but forgotten.

A politics beyond solipsism

The politics of ME - the illness - demonstrates that the insular internet-driven combat that influences so many arguments over the middle east are now replicated in other fields. People equipped with the requisite background or expertise - for example, those few who (like one of us) are both committed Jews and persons with ME - might have the knowledge necessary to understand the political contours of these two particular controversies. But in the huge number of other controversies where an individual's knowledge is more limited, the possibility of understanding, being persuaded by, or much less participating in them is much reduced if and when they descend into internet-driven cliquishness and circular backbiting. The day may be fast approaching when all politics will look like the middle east - and the only responses available will be either to join in the maelstrom of bickering or (more likely) to shrug one's shoulders and switch off.

The democratising possibilities of the internet are in the process of speeding the degeneration of the public sphere into a proliferation of insular nodes, each fighting a war that can never be won. Battles cannot be won on the net nor can they be lost. What remains is a solipsistic politics of ME, ME, ME: my views, my truths, my facts, my pain, my anger. Convincing others and changing the world is forgotten in favour of the perpetuation of one's own perspective.

It would be a mistake to look back at politics before the internet age as a prelapsarian idyll. But new realities create new problems as well as solving old ones. What is needed is a political model that can beging to redress the rise of solipsistic micropolitics; one that emphasises connection, self-critique and cool, considered analysis. What is needed is a different kind of technology that retains the internet's openness to participation but without the tendency to push activists and driven individuals towards self-righteous isolation. What is needed are tools for dialogue rather than tools for the proliferation of disconnected voices (see “How to talk about things we know nothing about”, 21 February 2008). The message-board and the comment-thread rarely encourage users to listen to each other, to share deeper (which usually means more complex) feelings rather than shouting at each other. To be sure, the possibilities for dialogue are there in the technology but the temptations of monologue usually prove too tempting.

It is hard to know how exactly this change could be brought about. Perhaps it is time for comment-threads on popular sites to be monitored more carefully or even jettisoned altogether. Perhaps the right to comment on something should be contingent on maintaining a respectful and constrained manner. The emergent trend towards “slow blogging” emphasises the production of considered, thoughtful online writing over immediate, often angry responses (and openDemocracy itself provides many good examples of this kind of writing). Blogs that feature dialogues rather than monologues are emerging (such as bloggingheads.tv). Social-networking sites can bring politically active people together in ways that develop meaningful relationships rather than antagonistic ones (see for example, the “peacemaking” network, mepeace.org).

The tools for a different kind of politics exist. What is needed is the will to turn away from self-obsessed and point-scoring politics to a politics that is actually about something. What is needed is a politics that reconnects individuals with each other, a politics that looks outwards as well as inwards, a politics that is not all about "ME".

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