I have never seen a society become so polarised and siloed…

I read Brian’s post about anger and intemperate attitudes on Slugger, and elsewhere, and it struck such a chord, I had to hit the keyboard.

I’m 52, born, bred and buttered in Belfast during The Troubles and living away from The North since 1996-ish. This month is my 20th anniversary living in New York. I remember when we would listen to the morning news headlines on Radio Ulster or Downtown Radio over breakfast to hear another person had been shot in the head / found in a ditch / critically assaulted / blown to pieces on their way to work or on their way home from a pub. Then we would head off to school or work and think nothing more of it until the next day’s atrocity. After the 90s ceasefires and the Peace Process™ , I rejoiced in the boringness of Northern Ireland’s news – “Fermanagh fire brigade rescues cat from tree!”, “Parochial football team raises money for Fermanagh cat-rescue fire brigade!”, “Nobody injured in an incendiary device that failed to detonate in retail premises on Donegall Place”.

But it does seem to me that the BBC NI News website is filled with reports of homicides, stabbings, violent assaults, and drug overdoses these days. On a trip back to Belfast in December ‘19 BC (before covid) my first-time-visitor companion from Norfolk and I helped the police drag a jumper out of the Lagan River at Queen’s Bridge. My friend was posing for a photo at Nuala with the Hoola when the fella went over and hit the water with such a bang we thought it was kids throwing rocks over the side. He survived. The cops were nonchalant about the whole incident; seemingly it’s not uncommon down there nowadays. We hit McHugh’s for a couple of stiff ones to calm our nerves afterwards. I hope the lad has recovered.

The internet is a blessing and a curse. When I was doing my masters in QUB in the early 90s, I wrote a thesis on the “Regulation of the Information Superhighway” and that was before the World Wide Web even existed! I’ve been living in The States for 20 years now, and I have never seen a society become so polarised and siloed. Not even during the President Bush / Gulf era. Gone are the days when we all watched the same 6 o’clock news broadcast and debated it over the water cooler at work the next day. Now we only watch the news channels that cater to our beliefs and prejudices without fear of being challenged (MSNBC v. Fox News). I’m a kind of left-of-centre European social democrat, I believe in a social safety net but I also believe in getting off your ass and working hard for a living. In full disclosure, I have come to resent the prevailing sense of entitlement and uber-wokeness among some of the younger “safe space / trigger warning” generations who never had to walk past armoured cars, or try to study for exams with an omnipresent helicopter hovering over your school, or deal with mass unemployment, bigotry and rampant [insert your choice here] phobia, or call the cops when they’ve been beaten to a pulp on the subway platform.

Anger is the prevailing mood in the States just now. I read the New York Times and the Washington Post (Bezos) and The Guardian, and I indulge myself by reading the tabloid New York Post (Murdoch) over coffee in the morning, mainly to see how many people have been shot dead in senseless gang-banging incidents in my ‘hood overnight. I think we’ve had “only” 10 murders on the subway so far this year (I’m open to correction) but our joke of a mayor maintains it’s only a “perception” of unsafety. Politics here has become so divided it would make a Sinn Fein & DUP mixed marriage a walk in the park. And what exacerbates everything is the widespread acceptance of untruths in the media and online platforms. It shocks me to see ordinary, decent, otherwise rational people completely beholden to conspiracy theories and easily disprovable lies. And they get so angry about it because they are 100% convinced they are right! The comments below the line in “reasonable” publications like the NY Times have been curtailed because of the vitriol and defamatory contributions.

So back to Brian & Slugger. I often only come here for the comments. If I see a headline to the effect that Wee Jeffrey or similar has thrown his toys out of the pram, again, I go straight to the comments to see the reactions. The variety and disparity of viewpoints is always refreshing, if sometimes predictable. Sandy Row warrior versus Boys from the Old Brigade in The Felons. But rarely does it seem to descend into bare-faced anger and confrontation. Let’s keep it that way, and rest assured Seaan O Neill will be around to moderate us on the historical and political context. Slug away, but keep it fair and above board!

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