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The Normalisation of Nonsense

Five Fundamental Forces behind the Normalisation of Nonsense

Shocking News. The moon is not made of blue cheese. We know this as a fact. The Earth is not flat. Another Fact. Moon landings were not faked. The US State of Hawaii is not in Kenya, Africa. Some people, however, think otherwise. Fact — they really do dispute those facts, but their nonsensical beliefs have no evidential base.

In debating arenas where evidence — incontrovertible fact — is not fully available there is always scope for a range of opinions, theoretical explanations and explanations. Evidence-based policy making demands critical examination of facts and the way they are presented. But that rational processs will never deter Conspiracy Theorists, Deniers of the Holocaust or Climate Change, Flat-Earth Fantasists, Expert-Rejectionists or those who believe any one of the blindingly obvious nonsenses that the late great Bernard Levin would have dismissed as ‘one of the popular substitutes for five minutes thought’.

The blessed Bernard was the argumentative star of That Was The Week That Was and a columnist for The Times newspaper, and yes, he did sometimes show a streak of arrogant superiority. His condemnation of a policy clamour (calls for reintroduction of capital punishment) positioned those demands as just ‘one’ of the populist pretensions. As Wordsworth never wrote in 1802 — [Levin] ‘thou shouldst be living at this hour: England hath need of thee: she is a fen of stagnant waters . . .’.

The populace is supposedly better educated and better informed than ever before. The Internet, and the Social Media platforms it affords, has hugely benefitted communities and citizens and commerce — and massively boosted engagement in wider society. Moreover there’s no shortage of ethical concern — witness the internal ructions at Google over a rumoured Chinese deal that could, in that country, censure ‘unapproved’ content.

So why is it that 216 years on from Wordsworth the torrents of words have little worth and, over the last four decades in particular, the normalisation of nonsense seems to have gathered pace?

Only two of the five reasons can be laid at the feet of mainstream ‘news’ media — their enthusiasms for Entertainment and the pretence of Balance. The three BBC-founding Reithian principles to Educate, Inform and Entertain stood alone: he did not demand that News programmes be merged with Entertainment. And yet, with some honourable exceptions, that drive throughout the media to make factual news reporting into a soap opera seems to have taken precedence over reporting unvarnished truths.

There’s massive scope for satirical news commentary but one of the reasons for News media outlets blurring fact with fiction is a distorted interpretation of Balance. For advocates of scrupulous fairness (or backside protection) Balance demands a presentation of both sides of a debate but critics rightly dismiss ‘False Equivalence’. A recent This Morning slot on ITV ‘balanced’ a distinguished cosmologist with a Flat Earth fanatic. Giving the latter credence and equal weight was clearly nonsensical — but a nonsense that that was normalised with airtime in the race for higher viewing figures.

The normalisation of nonsense is, however, not entirely attributable to the media. Society chooses through government to set rules and standards and governbehaviours — so we should also look at the parts played by Regulators and our Leaders.

Regulators have their own take on Balance — they use the word Neutrality. For the last two decades we’ve had Ofcom sitting on the fence to avoid what they imagined to be an awkward choice. Technological Neutrality perpetuates the nonsense that symmetric fibre and asymmetric copper were in some way comparable alternatives — and in this they are aided and abetted by an Advertising Standards Authority that allowed copper connectivity to be called Fibre Broadband. Their defence? They’d protest that their remit constrains them to market regulation — a notion that defenders of the free market faith might applaud but one that falls way short of what consumers and communities need and desire.

This normalisation, this acquiescence to a perverse commercial culture that is adrift from society’s long-term interests, has condemned the UK to a mere 3% of adequate digital connectivity whereas other far-sighted countries enjoy 80–90% coverage of future-proofed two-way digital services. Meanwhile the Bank of England puzzles over low productivity and Business Ministers wonder why the UK did not invent Skype, Spotify, eBay, Amazon or any other world-leading digital platforms.

Neutrality in the face of overwhelming evidence (for example, in Climate Change) ignores obvious evidential superiority and delays any determination to sort it out. This is particularly short-sighted in the perpetuation of outdated teachings of Economics and serves only to protect the status quo (profits and privileges) of established forces.

But Regulators get their remit from Leaders — and it is only very recently that, in matters digital, we have witnessed a leader brave enough to take on the vested interests that kept the country in the slow lane. His reward? Promotion to a different department. The snag is twofold — firstly there are not enough clear-thinking Ministers and secondly there’s a severe shortage of Cabinet airtime in an era when the reality-denying Brexit nonsense dominates all other nonsenses. We have, say James Ball and Adam Greenaway, a government “run by eloquent chancers” — the bluffers they label in their recent Spectator article as ‘The Bluffocracy’- generalists with very little depth of knowledge.

And that Brexit Bluff dominance illustrates the fifth force behind the normalisation of nonsense — the Amplification, the tumult, the inadvertent openness to subversion of agendas via Social Media. The platforms have proven only too convenient for those seeking to shift agendas and have no scruples about generating falsehoods. We’d be rightly horrified if we allowed mains water to be poisoned. The understandable reluctance of governments to censor free speech need not be conflated with rational demands that platform operators conform to ethical standards. That is not an anti-democratic stance — wise heads were always needed to distil the sense of the rabble — but so often it seems that the top floor has become detached and drifted into clouds of oblivion . . . or maybe we are all just sleepwalking.

Time then to ready for the fight — a determined, patient and rational response to the normalisation of nonsense. And that will not emerge Top Down from Whitehall or from Mainstream Media or some easily corruptible digital platform. It will grow ‘bottom up’ as people and communities reassert themselves, demand something better and regulate locally to match local needs. There are massive untapped forces in Civil Society — and up with nonsense they shall not put. Everyman (or woman) may not yet be skilled in shit-shovelling, but for sure many have enthusiasm in spades.

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