Normalising hate speech – on John Berger, the Irish Times, and the recontextualisation of meanings

I watched the first episode of Ways of Seeing, the BBC John Berger mini-series from 1972, last night. Explaining how images are given new meanings in different contexts, carrying ideological biases depending on their presentation and contextualisation, Berger ends the episode with a warning: “But remember that I am controlling, and using for my own purposes, the means of reproduction needed for these programmes. The images may be like words – but there is no dialogue yet. You cannot reply to me. […] You receive images and meanings, which are arranged. I hope you will consider what I arrange – but be sceptical of it.”

The alt-right article and glossary* by Nicholas Pell published yesterday in the Irish Times has been called many things – propaganda, a shit storm, an utter disgrace. It is safe to say that readers were sceptical of it, and indeed, when the opinion editor justified the decision to publish the piece by arguing** that the stance of the paper itself has previously been made abundantly clear on its leader pages, Berger’s theses appear highly relevant. In the context of the paper, the words of an alt-right advocate on the opinion pages should not be interpreted as propaganda, the editor’s argument went, but rather as democratic viewpoint airing and an opportunity to face the debate head on. Clearly, readers were not convinced.

We are often fed a hands-off interpretation of our media outlets, told that involvement and meddling equals censoring, that no-platforming is discrimination, and that a laissez faire approach is always the most democratic. After all, the public reads what the public wants; as was pointed out, readers have the ability to make their own minds up. And it’s no coincidence, of course, that a media exposed to market forces adopts the language and logic of the market. It’s perhaps got less to do with consumer satisfaction than it tries to convey – or else the so-called shit storm would have justified the taking down of the original piece and not just the creation of another one in response – but sure enough, the clickbait must have brought home impressive figures for a decent advertising revenue boost, thus justifying the piece in purely financial terms. As readers, we voted with our clicks.

Yet the Irish Times stance in relation to the debacle remains far from unambiguous. The context of the paper as known by the public extends far beyond any position on far-right extremism expressed on the leader pages; for example, a range of articles dubbing both pro-choice and anti-abortion campaigners extreme have been published of late, boasting similar views of these campaigners as must have led to the opinion editor’s using their messages as examples of previously published material deemed just as questionable and contentious as the alt-right glossary. And perhaps this is exactly why I – while gobsmacked by the fact that said glossary was even considered for publication, and while entirely in agreement with others, including the paper’s own columnist Una Mullally, who insist that it was a terrible mistake – still struggle to back up my position with what feels like a reasonably rational argument. Because in the context of Ireland, in a highly conservative, Catholic country, what is there to say that the extreme, shrill pro-abortion brigade won’t be denied a platform next, should a paper like the Irish Times decide to turn away an extremist like Pell? While the difference is crystal clear to me, it clearly is not to the paper.

The bare minimum purpose of the controversial article, it was argued, was to decode the language of the alt-right movement. Not that the racism is ever explicitly labelled as such, and the sexism is allowed to pass by all but unnoticed; in fact, the refusal to label the so-called alt-right sympathisers as fascist, neo-Nazi, sexist, racist, misogynist, white supremacists tells a tale – they’re extreme, a bit like the abortion fanatics, and here they are explaining their funny little extreme views. Enjoy! While the Irish Times seems unwilling to go anywhere near the words describing the true ideologies behind the alt-right movement, it seems to find the expressions and worldview behind it just fine – somewhat extreme, but legitimate all the same.

I think the clue is in the fear of labelling. If the ideology you’re trying to decide whether or not to provide a platform for is one the name of which you wouldn’t touch with a barge pole, it’s probably one you shouldn’t amplify. The reason you shouldn’t publish Pell’s work is that he’s an unapologetic racist neo-Nazi – but no one’s explicitly admitting that, are they? And in failing to label him for what he is, the publishing of his glossary far from decodes the language of his movement – it normalises it. A pro-choicer, a socialist, an alt-righter – the Irish Times might be a tad uncomfortable with all of them, but each to their own, right? If the alt-right guys are everywhere – on Twitter, in the White House, in our biggest dailies – they can’t be that bad.

Lindy West expressed it very well in the Guardian earlier this week when she wrote about her decision to ditch Twitter:

The white supremacist, anti-feminist, isolationist, transphobic “alt-right” movement has been beta-testing its propaganda and intimidation machine on marginalised Twitter communities for years now – how much hate speech will bystanders ignore? When will Twitter intervene and start protecting its users? – and discovered, to its leering delight, that the limit did not exist. No one cared. Twitter abuse was a grand-scale normalisation project, disseminating libel and disinformation, muddying long-held cultural givens such as “racism is bad” and “sexual assault is bad” and “lying is bad” and “authoritarianism is bad”, and ultimately greasing the wheels for Donald Trump’s ascendance to the US presidency.

Lo and behold, our broadsheet print media is next in line.

In the context of an alt-right propaganda leaflet, the views of men like Pell are what they are: highly offensive, incredibly ignorant, but at least more-or-less clearly labelled. I wonder what Berger would have thought about the recontextualisation of these messages as presented in the Irish Times, told as part of the Irish media story, one that boasts about a commitment to provoking strong debate – even if the provocation comes in the form of something a little extreme. Perhaps a word of warning is in order: there is no dialogue yet; you receive meanings, which are arranged. Consider what they arrange – but be sceptical of it.


*I will refrain from linking to it for, I think, obvious reasons.

**As above.