Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Perhaps finally starting to grow up

Precisely 95 years ago today, Britain blundered into a world war that destroyed much of the youth and wealth of the nation to little obvious purpose.

Now we are engaged in an equally pointless conflict in Afghanistan that has already lasted almost twice as long as the Great War, while the Government seems to be devoting more energy to clawing back the compensation paid to wounded soldiers than to providing them with the helicopters and bomb-proof vehicles they need to avoid death or injury in the first place.

“Lions led by donkeys” once again. Little changes, except that individual flag-draped coffins now come home in numbers that can be counted on one’s fingers, rather than thousands of corpses being dumped in mass graves overseas. This, at least, is progress, as is the greater awareness of what is being done in our name promoted by such developments as television, the internet and, yes, social networking sites.

Which is why I was initially puzzled when I heard reports of the Archbishop of Westminster’s interview on Sunday, apparently suggesting that such sites are practically works of the devil. Closer examination revealed that he was reacting to the suicide of a 15-year-old girl, allegedly in response to hurtful remarks about her posted on Bebo.

This is undoubtedly a tragedy, though I have to confess that it moves me less than the fate of our soldiers, whether in 1914 or now. And I cannot help wondering whether 20,000 British troops would have been sent to their deaths on the first day of the Battle of the Somme if they had been able to keep in touch with home through Twitter and texts, rather than just through censored letters and postcards.

I also cannot help feeling that, sadly, some people have always been pushed over the edge through bullying. Little changes. Where the Archbishop has a point is that it is undoubtedly easier to be cruel by proxy, on a website or by text, than it is to do so face to face.

Like many shy people, I took to email with great enthusiasm and would much rather communicate with friends or clients by that means than by telephone, failing the ideal of sharing a bottle of wine with them over a good lunch. There is none of that textspeak nonsense for me, of course. It is all properly written, capitalised and punctuated, and checked before despatch.

Yet it remains impersonal and close to instantaneous. There is limited scope for second thoughts, and the recipient finds it hard to detect the sender’s mood or tone of voice. I still shudder when I think of the time I reduced a lady journalist to tears with a few pertinent observations on a piece she had written, which could have been delivered without offence over the phone. Luckily she remains a friend.

Here, too, comparatively little changes. My grandfather, an Alnwick garage proprietor, destroyed the family fortunes with an intemperate letter to the press about one of his business rivals, which led to a crippling libel action. Apparently he never forgave my aunt for typing and posting it in accordance with his instructions.

Like most things, social networking sites can be life enhancing if used in moderation and with due care and attention to the feelings of others. The crucial objections, so far as I am concerned, are that many users clearly find them as addictive as Class A drugs, and that they can be the most colossal waste of time. That is why I closed my Facebook account a couple of weeks ago. So far as I can tell, none of my “friends” has even noticed and I feel a strange sense of liberation. I would say that I finally feel as though I have grown up, but it is clearly much too early for that.


Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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